Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1991)

Shinya Tsukamoto burst onto the scene with indie cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, an avant-garde body horror exploration of dehumanising industrialisation. After performing as a virtual one man band, however, Tsukamoto’s second film, Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Hiruko / Yokai Hunter), was his studio first accepting the opportunity to direct a feature adaptation of Daijiro Morohoshi’s Yokai Hunter manga. Some have seen this as a huge stylistic departure, shifting from the punk aesthetics of Tetsuo towards warmly nostalgic summer adventure, but it is in fact perfectly in keeping with Tsukamoto’s earlier 8mm work such as Adventures of Electric Rodboy while also reminiscent of the kind of wistful teen adventures Nobuhiko Obayashi among others had been making throughout the Bubble era. 

Nevertheless, Hiruko’s main lessons seem to relate to the dangers of buried history and its corrupted parental legacy. The franchise protagonist, Reijiro Hieda (Kenji Sawada), is a once promising archeologist ostracised by his peers for his determination to prove the existence of yokai or “goblins”. Still grieving the death of his wife Akane (Chika Asamoto), Reijiro is summoned to her hometown by his brother-in-law, high school teacher Mr. Yabe (Naoto Takenaka), who informs him that he’s found something in a burial mound which he believes was built “by the ancients to appease evil spirts”. Yabe insists that he doesn’t believe in yokai, but thinks it might be a good opportunity for Reijiro to further investigate his theory. By the time Reijiro arrives, however, Yabe has already disappeared along with high school girl Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno) after exploring the tomb alone. 

Though set in the present day, Tsukamoto plays with horror serial gothic motifs such as the creepy tombs, suspicious janitor, and the continually befuddled Reijiro dressed in his old-fashioned white suit while armed with an arsenal of yokai fighting gadgets all contained in the Mary Poppins-like suitcase he continually carries around though at one point he seems to try catching escaped yokai with fly paper and is generally found wielding bug spray. Despite constantly working with dirt, an early joke sees him undone by spotting a creepy crawly in his room. This does not bode well for him, because Hiruko’s end game is convincing its victims to decapitate themselves before attaching their severed heads to weird, spider-like bodies. 

It does this seemingly by locating a pleasant, poignant memory and promising to prolong it forever. Reijiro’s nephew Masao (Masaki Kudou) is almost seduced on seeing an idyllic scene of missing high school girl Tsukishima dressed in white and enjoying a picnic on a summer’s day only to be suddenly brought back by his uncle. The inheritor of a curse, Masao is often struck by fits of furious burning in which his clothes seem to steam while he later displays strange scars on his back which take on the appearance of human faces. His predicament is largely his grandfather’s fault in having kept from his father the truth about the mound, leading him towards an over curious investigation during which it appears he accidentally released a bunch of demons from their eternal imprisonment. Now all Hiruko wants is to find the spell to open the door so they can all escape for good. 

Having been in a sense betrayed by a corrupted parental legacy, Masao nevertheless finds salvation in his history by way of his uncle who has of course memorised the entirety of the “Kojiki”, an ancient chronicle of myth and folklore, and recognises the two passages necessary for opening and closing the stone enclosure one found on a broken stele and the other hidden inside an ancient helmet appropriated by Yabe. Masao can only save himself and lift the curse by learning the truth which had been hidden from him, ironically putting on the helmet while others lose their heads. 

Yet Hiruko itself is also perhaps a manifestation of grief, something which cannot be eliminated but must in a sense be contained. Reijiro is almost tricked by Hiruko on being shown a vision of his late wife, unwittingly revealing the opening spell in return for being able to remain within the memory. Masao is similarly seduced by his vision of Tsukishima, but must then deal with the loss of his father who sacrificed himself trying to save others having realised his mistake in unearthing truths intended to stay buried. The fault lies however with Yabe’s own father whose attempt to keep him safe only endangered him. 

In keeping with much of Tsukamoto’s work, Hiruko’s threat lies in the loss of bodily autonomy and corporeal destruction forcing the victim into an act of mortal self-harm and thereafter repurposing and remaking the physical form in its own image. Tsukamoto’s characteristically elaborate practical effects and use of creepy stop motion add to the sense of the uncanny, horror lurking in dark corners everywhere waiting for the opportunity to strike. Even so, Hiruko is not without its sense of silliness, Tsukamoto playing gleefully with genre archetypes while conforming fully to the summer adventure movie necessarily filled with a sense of wistful nostalgia. Having contained their demons, Masao and Reijiro emerge at summer’s end, but are greeted with another hazy goodbye if each a little more secure in having learned to accommodate their corrupted legacies. 


Hiruko the Goblin streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yujiro Harumoto, 2020)

“What’s moral isn’t always what’s best” according to the morally compromised heroine at the centre of Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance (由宇子の天秤, Yuko no Tenbin). To Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a balance is what a documentarian should strike, not taking one side or another but shining a light on hidden truths. The irony is that in seeking to expose one truth she accidentally stumbles on another uncomfortably close to home and although her job is to highlight injustice finds herself making the decision to do the opposite concluding that in this case, and perhaps many others, keeping quiet may actually be what’s best for victims, victimisers, and everyone in-between. 

As the film opens, Yuko is shooting a potentially manipulative interview with the grieving father of a young woman, Hiromi, who took her own life after becoming the subject of scandal and rumour when it was revealed she may have been involved in an inappropriate “relationship” with a teacher. The teacher, Mr. Yano, eventually took his own life too leaving behind him a note proclaiming his innocence and explaining that death is the manner he has chosen for his resistance. Yuko is sympathetic to Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), but also perhaps verging on the unethical in the depth of the questions she asks him of his daughter’s death. Soon enough a conflict emerges between the nature of the documentary Yuko would like to make which is more contemplative than polemical and the “routine piece on bullying” the TV studio think they’ve commissioned. Consequently, we see the suits redacting problematic lines in Yuko’s scripts in editorial meetings, misrepresenting Mr. Hasebe’s words in removing his criticism of mass media which he blames for hounding Mr. Yano to his death and thereby depriving him of answers. 

Yuko remains determined to provide “a balance” in interviewing Yano’s surviving family members including his mother Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka) and sister Shiho (Misa Wada), but discovers them tyrannised by the treatment they’ve received at the hands of the media and a vindictive society. Toshiko near collapses towards the end of the interview when asked if there was anything the family could have done to prevent this tragedy happening, inviting Yuko to visit her at home whereupon she discovers her living in near total darkness, afraid to go out lest she be recognised and explaining that she has few possessions in case she has to move again in a hurry because someone has exposed her address online. This little old lady is living in terror because of something her son was accused of which later caused him to take his own life and even that did not end the torment for his family. 

Meanwhile, in an ironic touch, Yuko discovers that a young woman, Mei (Yumi Kawai), attending the cram school owned by her father where she also teaches part-time has become pregnant and claims her father, Mr. Kinoshita (Ken Mitsuishi), is responsible having accepted sex in lieu of her overdue fees. Yuko does not want to disbelieve her and confronts her father, holding up her iPhone as a record, who admits that what Mei has said is true. Yuko tells herself she’s doing what’s best for Mei, bonding with her as two women who lost their mothers young (as did Hiromi), understanding that she may not want to go to the authorities because of the lingering stigma of being involved such a scandal. But she also can’t deny that her actions are self-interested in that she doesn’t want her doc pulled or her career messed up by her father’s transgression, something which gets harder to ignore when she discovers Mei’s pregnancy may be high risk and requires immediate medical treatment from a proper hospital to ensure her safety. 

The lines become ever more blurred, Yuko developing a quasi-maternal relationship with the motherless Mei which is in its way perfectly genuine even as she pays their overdue gas bill and worries about her potentially abusive father (Masahiro Umeda), but is nevertheless coloured by her desire both to cover up this harmful secret and to atone for her father’s wrongdoing. For his part, Mr. Kinoshita wants to confess but as Yuko points out he’d be doing it to unburden himself which in effect would merely shift the burden onto others including Mei but also herself, her documentary team, the other students at the cram school, and in effect everyone else they’ve known. 

Yet can Yuko be an effective arbiter of the truth especially when, as it turns out, neither she nor anyone else is being entirely honest? Her job is to present information in such a way that conclusions can be drawn, but she is herself making decisions in selecting the information she presents and the manner in which she presents it. She may resent the interference of the studio, but in reality they aren’t doing anything she hasn’t already done even if they are acting less out of a sense of integrity than commercial concern. “Whatever we put together is the truth” as her exasperated producer (Yota Kawase) finally insists. It’s in this same conflict that she begins to lose her sense of balance, trying to help those victimised by an unforgiving society while attempting to protect herself from unwelcome consequences of social scandal aided and abetted by the industry in which she herself works. “Ask them who is the real victimiser” Toshiko asks of Yuko taking aim at the mass media who have shamed her into a life of total darkness, but all Yuko can in the end do is turn her camera back on herself in contemplation of her shattered integrity.  


A Balance screens Aug. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Shunsuke Kariyama, 2020)

“If I became the person I wanted to be, would the world have changed?” the conflicted hero of Shunsuke Kariyama’s Blue, Painful, Fragile (青くて痛くて脆い, Aokute Itakute Moroi) eventually asks having undergone a kind of awakening but still perhaps struggling with himself caught between the desire to be better and the fear of the vulnerability that may entail. As the title implies, this is a tale of painful youth and bitter revelations but also of the fragile male ego, the damage that can be done by a young man who feels himself scorned, and the various ways an embittered, self-absorbed mind can reorder the world to accommodate its sense of righteousness. 

The hero, Kaede (Ryo Yoshizawa), opens with a voiceover revealing his life philosophy of social isolation afraid both of upsetting others and of getting hurt. Despite himself, however, he finds himself drawn into a friendship with the bright and friendly idealist, Hisano (Hana Sugisaki), whom he first noticed in one of his political science classes when she challenged the teacher advancing her life philosophy that peace is born only of mutual surrender and allows no role for violence. A true cynic, Kaede mocks her internally for her “naivety” but is moved on leaving the room to notice that she looks hurt not to have been taken seriously. Noticing him too, she tracks him down and makes a point of sitting next to him in the cafeteria, badgering him into a friendship he doesn’t resist because of his tenet of not challenging the views of others. Together they found the “Moai’ club which is dedicated to building a better world by helping people to become the people they want to be. 

Or at least, that’s what he tells us. As we slowly discover, Kaede is not a completely reliable narrator. Three years later he recruits a friend, Tosuke (Amane Okayama), to help him take down Moai, which has since become some kind of creepy cult corrupted by corporate interests that many seem to be using as a path towards employment, so that he can rebuild it to reflect the values he and Hisano intended when they founded the organisation she apparently having passed on. Yet the more he tells us, the more we start to wonder if there isn’t something else to it, especially when social welfare grad student Wakisaka (Tasuku Emoto) enters the scene. Is this really about the better world, or petty male romantic jealousy? Shy and introverted, it seems that Kaede never had the courage to tell Hisano how he felt and perhaps took it for granted that she understood, unfairly feeling betrayed when she showed interest in someone else despite her near constant prompts for him to speak up whether it be about her or their movement. Kaede says nothing, then blames Hisano for “rejecting” him as if the only reason she could have had for befriending him in the first place was the eventual breaking of his heart. 

In true “nice guy” fashion, Kaede can’t help but see himself as the wounded party. In the flip book he’s been idly drawing which opens the film, a man runs smack into a rock and bangs his head much in the way he seems to feel he has done in his abortive attempts to enter society. Yet later he begins to gain another understanding, his stick figure getting back up and climbing on top of the head of Moai to behold a new world below him. He starts to realise that to change the world you really do need to start with yourself and that in this he has resolutely failed. His petty act of revenge may in a sense be morally justifiable, exposing Moai for the questionable force it has become, but it’s also sordid and unpleasant intended solely to wound in order to avenge his sense of male pride. Only too late does he realise the consequences of his actions and what they say about the kind of person he is and wanted to be. Consumed by a sense of inadequacy, he is defeated by life, too afraid to become the person he should be lest the world reject him but his brief moment of fantasy of what could have been if only he’d been less cynical and cold is bathed in a kind of golden light he perhaps realises he could feel again if only he change himself in order to change the world in which he lives. A masterclass in male gaslighting, Kariyama’s duplicitous drama refuses to let its hero off the hook but reserves for him the right to start again, become the person he wants to be and lay down his arms in willing vulnerability in the hope that others may do the same. 


Blue, Painful, Fragile is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Beloved Wife (喜劇 愛妻物語, Shin Adachi, 2019)

Adapting his own autobiographical novel, screenwriter and director Shin Adachi claims that the events and characters of A Beloved Wife (喜劇 愛妻物語, Kigeki Aisai Monogatari) are exactly as they are in real life, only the film makes it all look better. Even if true, Adachi can’t be faulted for his honesty. His protagonist stand-in, Gota (Gaku Hamada), has almost no redeeming qualities, while his long-suffering wife receives little sympathy even while giving as good as she gets as a sake-guzzling harridan apparently ready to run her husband down at every opportunity, of which there are many, but Gota is quite simply useless. The Japanese title is careful to include the word “comedy” as a prefix, but this is humour of an extremely cruel variety. 

Married for 10 years with a small daughter, Gota’s chief preoccupation in his life seems to be that his wife, Chika (Asami Mizukawa), no longer finds him sexually desirable and they are rarely intimate. Rather than lament the distance in their marriage, all Gota does is go on a long, misogynistic rant about how he’d get a mistress or visit a sex worker only he has no money while complaining that he has to humiliate himself by helping out with the housework and childcare which he only does to curry favour in the hope that he will eventually be able to have sex with his wife. After some minor success as a screenwriter, his career is on the slide and he’s had no work in months, something which seems to damage his sense of masculinity and in his mind contributes to his wife’s animosity towards him.

He is right in one regard in that Chika is thoroughly fed up being forced to pick up the slack while he sits around watching VR porn, not writing or looking for a job but insisting that the next movie is always just round the corner. She’s tired and overworked, sick of penny pinching and resentful that she has to do everything herself, but it’s not so much the money that bothers her as Gota’s fecklessness while all he seems to care about is sex, meeting his own needs and no one else’s. Even when he takes his daughter, Aki (Chise Niitsu), to the park he ignores her to ogle other women, becoming embarrassed on running into a neighbour we later learn he slept with and then ghosted. He does the same thing again later on a beach, so busy sexting that he doesn’t see her wander off and is roundly chewed out by the lifeguard (an amusing cameo from director Hirobumi Watanabe, giving him the hard stare) who eventually finds her and brings her back. Not content with that, he rounds out the bad dad card by frequently bribing Aki with treats so she won’t spill the beans to her mum about his many questionable parental decisions. 

Really, we have to ask ourselves, why does Chika not leave him? The perspective we’re given is Gota’s and he appears not to understand that any of his behaviour is problematic, which might be why he seems genuinely shocked when Chika reaches the end of her tether and once again suggests divorce. He seems to think some of this at least is performative, part of the act of “marriage”, and she does indeed make a show of her frugality – insisting on sharing a 200 yen bowl of udon with her daughter to save money and climbing up a utility pole to sneak into a hotel after booking only a single occupancy room for the three of them, but is there more in her decision not to leave than habit? Gota seems to think so, especially on noticing her wearing the lucky red pants she bought back when they were young and in love and she believed in his potential. But then perhaps she really is just being economical.  

Nevertheless, she appears to keep supporting him, once again typing up his latest screenplay because he claims not to be able to use a word processor, and laughing off the rather more serious incident in which he is arrested after being discovered by a policeman molesting a drunk woman in the street. Adachi doesn’t appear to have very much to say in favour of the modern marriage, as if this one is no worse than any other (even a friend who married well (Kaho) badmouths her husband and giggles about a young lover), but Gota seems to have learned absolutely nothing even while declaring his love to his sleeping family and vowing to make a success of himself at last. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. 


A Beloved Wife is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

Blockbuster cinema wades into the anti-nuclear debate in a characteristically ambivalent take from prolific author Keigo Higashino adapted from his 1995 novel. Brought to the screen by blockbuster master Yukihiko Tsutsumi, The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Tenku no Hachi) is less wedded to its anti-nuclear message than it might at first seem, eventually sliding into a more comfortable tale of failed fathers redeemed with a potentially ambiguous coda that perhaps undercuts much of what has gone before . 

The main action takes place on 8th August, 1995 which falls between the 50th anniversaries of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is also a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe. Engineer Yuhara (Yosuke Eguchi) is about to unveil the “Big Bee”, Japan’s largest ever helicopter built with state of the art technology. He’s brought along his wife and son, but it’s clear there is discord in the family and neither of them are very impressed that the security guard didn’t even seem to know who he was so perhaps he’s not such a big shot after all. While his wife Atsuko (Kei Ishibashi) takes their son Takahiko (Shota Taguchi) and another boy to get a drink from the vending machine, Yuhara talks things over with a colleague and reveals that his workaholic lifestyle has destroyed his family life. He’s about to be divorced and doesn’t seem particularly cut up about it. Asked what’s going to happen to Takahiko, Yuhara cooly explains that it’s best he stays with his mum because he isn’t capable of being a good father to him. Unfortunately, Takahiko overhears him say that he’s essentially planning to abandon him and runs off to explore on his own, eventually sneaking aboard the helicopter which is then hijacked by a mysterious villain via remote control who flies it over a nuclear power plant and gives the Japanese government the eight hours before the fuel runs out to agree to shut down all the nuclear power plants in Japan. 

Yuhara’s failure as a father is immediately brought home to him when his son manages to throw the other boy, who climbed in with him but got injured, to safety, but doesn’t trust his dad enough to jump himself after hearing him say he was going to abandon him to his mother. Yuhara, meanwhile, was able to jump and grab the ramp of the helicopter but not to climb up and reach his son. He has to accept that his failure as a father and in consequence as a man is complete and total. His quest to save Takahiko is also a quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his society and avoid being branded as a man who sacrificed his family for a career and was finally unable to protect them.

Yet, at the present time, he’s also trying to save a nation while in the place of a father. To his mind, he built the Big Bee as a rescue craft, but its usage is most obviously military. He and his former colleague Mishima (Masahiro Motoki) see themselves as neutral engineers interested in technology but not particularly in its application. The government is reluctant to shut the plants down not only because cutting the power is extremely inconvenient and damaging to the economy, but because they do not wish to reopen the nuclear debate and risk the general populace realising that nuclear power is not entirely “safe”. Of course, this has extreme resonance in light of the Fukushima disaster, the government wilfully putting lives at risk in order to safeguard its own ends in refusing to issue an evacuation order for a potential disaster area covering all of the nation’s major cities right across the centre of the Japanese mainland.

This cavalier approach to human life extends to those working in the plants. We’re quickly introduced to a middle-aged woman whose son died of leukaemia she believes caused by lax safety procedures while the prime suspect is a friend of his (Go Ayano) who may also be suffering from a terminal illness caused by exposure to radiation after working as a cleaner at the power station. He vows revenge on a society which has rendered him “disposable”, thrown away like used tissue and left to fend for himself only because he was born into socio-economic circumstances which left him with no other choice than to take a “dangerous” job for employers that failed to protect him in much the same way Yuhara has failed to protect his son. 

The farmers in the town where the plant has become the major source of employment complain that no one wanted it but everyone needed the money. One leans into the mild message that perhaps we take our electric lives for granted, plugging in our toothbrushes without really thinking of the costs incurred in how we generate our power. Hotels dim their lights and switch off elevators while guests complain of the heat in the absence of aircon, but didn’t we manage OK before the power grid? Perhaps so, but our lives have changed. It might be as well to think again if those changes are really as good for us as we think they are, but you can’t turn back the clock. 

Not even the villain really wants the clock turning back, just better accountability and proper governance that puts the lives of citizens ahead of economic gain. Then again, a lot of this is personal, an act of self harm rebranded as revenge taken in atonement for the failures of a father. In this respect Yuhara may redeem himself, but there’s a note of discomfort in the jump to 2011 and the Fukushima disaster which doesn’t so much shout “I told you so” as over rely on the heroic efforts of the Self Defence Force as they battle a disaster which the powers that be from the government to the power company have failed to prevent. Yuhara wonders if the country is worth dying for and is comforted only in a trick he taught his son to calm his anxiety in the wake of the Kobe earthquake, tapping out “I am here” in morse code as an affirmation of survival which might also serve to say the work goes on even while “fathers” continue to fail in their responsibilities. 


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

The Chaplain (教誨師, Dai Sako, 2018)

The Chaplian posterJapan is one of the few developed nations which still maintains the death penalty, though in practice infrequently. The sentence of death is handed down almost exclusively to mass or serial murderers, child killers, or those whose crimes are judged to be of extraordinary barbarity. Unlike other nations, Japan houses those on death row not in prisons but in detention centres, denying them the rights that are afforded to regular prisoners such as visitation, exercise, and entertainment. Execution must be carried out within five days of the judgement being handed down. The prisoner themselves is informed on the morning of their death and given a choice of last meal, but their family members, legal team, and the general public are only informed once it has taken place preventing any last minute attempts for a stay.

In what would be his final screen role (and his first as a producer), Ren Osugi stars as a prison chaplain, Saeki, attempting to guide a series of Death Row prisoners towards spiritual peace as they prepare to accept their judgement. Though none of the prisoners he visits protests their innocence, some are more repentant than others and not all of them have fully internalised the fact they will never leave the facility even when no further legal attempts to commute their sentences seem to be underway. Some might say there is an element of exploitation in sending a chaplain in at all seeing as this is literally a captive audience. The crimes which lead to being on Death Row are necessarily extreme, many prisoners either have no remaining family members or have been abandoned by them out of shame, leaving them intensely lonely and devoid of human contact (not even televisions or radios are permitted). They are therefore much more interested in conversation than they are in The Bible or accepting Jesus into their hearts.

Then again, Saeki’s first visit is to a man who says nothing at all, allowing him to fill the silence with some of his own backstory which hints at a personal trauma possibly informing his desire to save the souls of these unfortunate people. Another prisoner, by contrast, is all too eager to convert but, as Saeki soon realises, is almost entirely illiterate and therefore struggling to hear the word of God through being unable to read. Saeki does his best to help them, gently listening to their fears and worries but encounters a familiar series of social problems which made their fates inevitable stemming from entrenched poverty and social inequality.

Only six months into the job, he wonders if he’s really getting through and if his efforts are worthwhile. His most challenging prisoner is a young man convicted of a mass killing of those with learning difficulties (inspired by a real life case), whom he deemed to be a drain on national resources. A hyper-rational sociopath, Takamiya (Leo Tamaoki) baits Saeki with unassailable, coldhearted logic which asks why, if he’s happy enough to kill and eat “stupid” animals like cows and pigs, but not “clever” ones like dolphins, his application of the same logic to the human world can be wrong? If all creatures have an equal right to life, then killing for food is as wrong as any other kind of killing and the death penalty nothing more than state sanctioned murder. There is no rational answer for Takamiya’s philosophy and aside from his abhorrent, unfeeling rationality he may have a point when it comes to social hypocrisy. All Saeki can do is ask him to stand with the people that he killed, and acknowledge that God or no God, Saeki too will be with him until the very end.

If Takamiya begins to question the terrifying rationalism which led him to his truly barbaric act, he does so probably not because of Saeki’s ministrations but because of his proximity to death. Meanwhile, another prisoner, Suzuki (Kanji Furutachi), convicted of a stalker murder, seems to have picked up entirely the wrong message in coming to blame just about everyone else for his crime and absolving himself of responsibility. He might have found peace, but it is not the kind of peace he was supposed to find. Noguchi (Setsuko Karasuma), meanwhile, the only female prisoner, continues to talk about the future as if she really thinks she’s getting out. Only Shoichi (Takeo Gozu), an elderly man, seems to truly accept Saeki’s teachings though it is perhaps enough to make him feel as if he really is making a difference.

Sako opts for subtlety in pointing out the inherent hypocritical immorality of the death penalty and particularly in the context of the Japanese legal system which relies heavily on confessions often extracted under duress. Battling his own sense of guilt, Saeki tries to save himself by saving the souls of others but finds his work an uphill battle in a society which prefers not to speak of unpleasant matters and thereby renders itself absolute and unaccountable in the rigidity of its justice.


The Chaplain (教誨師, Kyoukaishi) was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fable (ザ・ファブル, Kan Eguchi, 2019)

The Fable poster 2It’s easy to become a victim of your own success when you’re a top assassin. Being the best only makes you target, and over exposure can prove fatal. If you’ve lived by taking the lives of others, can you ever really go back to being just like everyone else? The hero of Kan Eguchi’s The Fable (ザ・ファブル) tries to do just that, but then “back” might not quite be the best way to think about it in his case. Silly slapstick humour meets fast and furious gun fu but always with a soulful heart as our heroes try to figure out how to live “normally” while inhabiting a very abnormal world.

“The Fable” (Junichi Okada) is Tokyo’s top assassin, as he proves effortlessly taking out a room full of yakuza at a wedding reception. He is not, however, heartless, letting the gangster’s pregnant wife alone unlike the next bunch of goons to turn up. In any case, Fable has been far too successful, which is why his handler (Koichi Sato) hands him an unusual new mission – to live as a “normal” person in Osaka for a whole year without killing anyone at all. Along with his assistant posing as his sister under the cover ID “Yuko” (Fumino Kimura), and a pet parrot, Fable becomes “Akira Sato” and begins his new life as a “normal” man nominally under the aegis of the local mob.

The problem is “Sato” never had much of a “normal” life. As a child, he was abandoned in the mountains with only a pocket knife to toughen him up for a life of killing. He didn’t go to school, has never had a job, and struggles with social situations. He is however extremely dedicated and committed to fulfilling his mission which means he is very keen to figure out what “normal” people do so he can do that too, quickly noting that “normal” people don’t usually eat the skin on edamame beans or the rind on watermelon so doing either of those things in public will instantly arouse suspicion. Meanwhile, he takes a minimum wage job at small printshop working alongside the lovely Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) who was nice enough to offer him some tissues when he let himself get beaten up by thugs to prove how “professional” he could be in maintaining his cover.

That’s something that might be easier said than done given the rapidly unfolding yakuza drama all around him. Recently released thug Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is stirring up trouble everywhere he goes, exacerbating a growing division between the big boss (Ken Mitsuishi) and ambitious underling Sunagawa (Osamu Mukai) who is already fed up with Kojima’s antics while two crazed admirers are also hot on Sato’s trail hoping to knock him off the top spot.

Meticulous and efficient, Sato is still in many ways a child trying to learn to live in the “normal” world. Somewhat arrested in having missed out on a normal childhood, his “childish” drawings of zoo animals become an unexpected hit with the print shop crew, while his justice loving heart also has him subtly undermining the office pervert who has a habit of installing illicit spy cams targeting female employees. Despite his icy profession, Sato is a goodnatured guy and deep down just wants to help and protect people. Thus he is very invested in his mission and actively tries to become “normal” while bonding with Misaki and taking care of his pet parrot (a Le Samouraï reference and ironic mentor in mimicry) as he navigates the difficult waters of interpersonal interaction.

Frustrated male relationships are indeed key from Sato’s with his boss who orders him not to die but then says he’ll kill him if he fails his mission, to the homoerotic tension between Sato’s contact Ebihara (Ken Yasuda) and the relentlessly psychotic Kojima. Sato’s boss and Ebihara acknowledge they will have to accept responsibility for their respective charges and if necessary take preventative measures in order to ensure they don’t cause trouble, but they do so with heavy hearts in service of their codes. Silly slapstick humour quickly gives way to slick action set pieces as Sato steps back into his element, ably assisted by his sake-loving “sister” who has committed to her cover ID almost as deeply as Sato. Sweet and affecting, Kan Eguchi’s adaptation of the much loved manga is a charmingly surreal one in which his fish out of water hero figures out how to live in a new pond thanks to unexpected kindnesses and honourable yakuza ethics.


The Fable screens on 2nd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Isao Yukisada, 2001)

Luxurious Bone posterIsao Yukisada made his name with the 2004 hit Crying Out Love, in the Centre of the World, but even before becoming a “junai” pioneer his early films were far from strangers to melancholy, impossible romance. The strangely titled Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Zeitakuna Hone, AKA Torch Song) is a case in point in its early, ambiguous treatment of same sex love and emotional repression. Though in some senses very much of its time, Yukisada’s sad chamber drama is a sensitive exploration of the path towards awakening, if ultimately not to happiness.

The drama begins when Miyako (Kumiko Aso) gets the titular “luxurious bone” lodged in her throat. In this case, it’s an eel bone which is a fish too expensive for either she or her roommate Sakiko (Tsugumi) to eat very often, hence its tinge of luxury even if there’s relatively little difference when it’s tickling your trachea. “Roommate” might not be the best way to describe exactly what Sakiko is to Miyako, though their relationship seems curiously ill-defined. The two women share a bed, and seemingly a life, but perhaps platonically. Sakiko wants to look for a job, but Miyako doesn’t quite want her to because she’s happy to support the pair of them on her wages as a sex worker. Likewise, Sakiko isn’t quite happy with Miyako’s line of work, not because she’s jealous or judgmental, but because she worries the job is unpleasant. Miyako reassures her that it’s fine because she feels nothing at all during sex so mostly it’s just dull.

All that changes however when Miyako meets unusual client Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase) who goes to the trouble of buying her a hamburger bento because he heard that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to do in these situations. Shintani blows Miyako’s mind which isn’t something she was expecting or quite knows what to do with. On hearing the news Sakiko seems mildly worried, but following a strange series of events Shintani ends up becoming a minor part of their lives as the third wheel in their previously stable though somehow awkward relationship.

Miyako’s intense opening voice over makes reference to a secret she cannot bear to speak that will lie closed within her heart for all eternity. The fish bone becomes a symbol of the thing stuck in her throat, the truth she is too afraid to voice. Choking, Miyako gasps for air like a goldfish floundering in shallow water but cannot find the strength to swallow.

As we will later discover, this dark secret is bound up with her complicated feelings for Sakiko of which she seems to feel afraid and ashamed, wanting to possess her love in its entirety but also unable to access it and hating herself for her continuing need for possession and control. Her unexpected connection with Shintani is, after a manner of speaking, simply a more “acceptable” way of accepting her desire for Sakiko as she later reveals when confessing that she only ever thought of Sakiko when making love with Shintani which is presumably why only he was ever able to give her a satisfying experience.

Unable to cope with the intensity of her feelings, Miyako turns self destructive and attempts to lure Shintani into a sexual relationship with Sakiko who, apparently, is afraid of intimacy altogether having been raised in an abusive, neglectful home in which she was convinced that she was “dirty” and unloveable, an obstacle in the way of her father’s new relationship with a much younger step-mother (Makiko Watanabe).

Something of a cliché in itself, Luxurious Bone first attempts to delegitimise the feelings of the two women for each other by introducing the figure of Shintani to suggest that their problems are largely down to not having met a good man. Miyako sleeps with Shintani to feel closer to Sakiko, while Sakiko begins to move past her emotional trauma only thanks to the gentle machinations of Shintani. Their strange ménage à trois brings them together whilst driving them apart as the two women attempt to touch each other through Shintani while he remains detached and conflicted if perhaps wilfully used. Miyako’s self destructive impulses push her towards burning her world before facing what it is that frightens her. Only a strange encounter with another woman in a club shows her that her fear was not so much love as submission, while Sakiko tries to reconnect with her childhood self to move past her emotional trauma.

Despite its motion towards a positive resolution, Luxurious Bone cannot quite find the courage of its convictions and as quickly delegitimises the love as it tried to legitimise it through leaving Sakiko broadly where she started – lost, confused, and afraid, uncertain if unresolved longing is a natural condition of living. Perhaps of its time and overly simplistic in its treatment of complex issues from traumatic childhoods to shame and repressed sexuality, Luxurious Bone nevertheless has its heart (broadly) in the right place even if it leaves its lovelorn youngsters in the same position as many a Yukisada hero still looking for their place in a cruel and arbitrary world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Torch Song by The Humpbacks which features prominently throughout. The song was actually written for the film and is performed by Masatoshi Nagase.

Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2015)

Three Stories of Love posterRyosuke Hashiguchi began his career with a collection of sometimes melancholy but ultimately hopeful tales of gay life in contemporary Japan. In 2008 he branched out with the finely tuned emotional drama All Around Us which followed an ordinary couple’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of a child. Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Koibitotachi) finds him in much the same territory as he takes three very different yet equally burdened romantics and sets them on a path towards a kind of acceptance while suffering inside a system where everyone seems to be intent on exploiting other people’s unhappiness.

The first of our heroes, Atsushi (Atsushi Shinohara), is a bridge inspector whose wife was murdered in a random street attack three years previously. Ever since then he’s suffered with depression and found it difficult to hold down a job or a life and has become obsessed with getting personal revenge on the killer who pleaded the insanity defence and was committed to psychiatric care rather than to prison. Meanwhile, across town, listless housewife Toko (Toko Narushima) is trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering husband and living with her snooty mother-in-law. Toko’s only outlet is compulsively rewatching a shaky video of the time she and her friends witnessed Princess Masako briefly exit a building. The third of our heroes, Shinomiya (Ryo Ikeda), is a self involved lawyer with a longstanding crush on his straight best friend from college who has since married and had a young son.

The three strands are only loosely interconnected, occurring as they do in the same city at the same time, though they do each share a sense of defeat and impossibility as each of our heroes struggles either to escape from or come to terms with their difficult circumstances. Atsushi’s case is perhaps the most extreme as he deals not only with his grief and anger but with the persistent stigma of being involved with violent crime. Visited by his bubbly sister-in-law he idly remembers to ask after the man she was about to marry last time they met only to be told that he abruptly dumped her after her sister’s death and not only that, all her friends abandoned her too. Getting revenge has become Atsushi’s only reason for living – he stopped paying his health insurance to get money together for fancy lawyers like Shinomiya who convinced him he could lodge a civil case but were only ever stringing him along to fleece him of money he never really had.

Shinomiya is, in a sense, our villain. He listens dispassionately to his wealthy clients – including one woman seeking a divorce (Chika Uchida) because her husband forgot to tell her he was burakumin until after they were married, but privately mocks them and is so unpleasant to his colleagues that someone eventually pushes him down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg. Intensely self-involved, he cares little for other people’s feelings save for those of his forlorn love Satoshi (So Yamanaka). Satoshi’s wife Etsuko, originally friendly and understanding, eventually takes against Shinomiya either because she doesn’t like the way he fiddled with her son’s ears or resents the two men cooing over the child and accidentally making her feel like an unwelcome outsider. Introducing his much younger boyfriend only seems to make matters worse, though the relationship does seem to have its problematic dimensions even if not in the way Etsuko decides to interpret them as Shinomiya takes pains to run down his partner in public and berate him at home. It’s difficult to resist the interpretation that Shinomiya prefers younger lovers because he can boss them around and, in truth, he doesn’t even seem very attached to this one, but he’s about to get a very rude awakening when it comes to learning that he’s not as permanent a part of everyone else’s lives as he seems to think.

Atsushi is fleeced by the Shinomiyas of the world and his heartless health insurers, but he’s wily enough to spot the obvious scam in the lovelorn office boy’s sudden enthusiasm for magical beautifying water which turns out to be part of a bar lady’s (Tamae Ando) nefarious scheme to resell the tapped variety with some of her own glamour shots attached to the front. Toko is wily enough to see it too, though she eventually succumbs when would-be-chicken-farmer Fujita (Ken Mitsuishi), whom she met at work during a difficult moment with her boss, delivers her some on spec. Lonely and insecure, Toko appreciates the unexpected interest but Fujita is not the white knight she first assumes him to be and is eventually exposed as yet another scam artist gunning for the little money she might have been able to hide away in her rabidly penny pinching home.

Shinomiya might feel himself proud to be among the fleecers rather than the fleeced, but he soon gets a comeuppance in realising he has wilfully pulled the wool over his own eyes, blinded in a sense by love. Toko, meanwhile, has learned to accept the latent feudalism of the modern society in her obsession with royalty though a brief attempt to transcend her feelings of innate inferiority seems destined to end in failure if perhaps engineering a mild improvement in her familial circumstances. Atsushi alone, a man whose job it is to assess the foundations, begins to find a degree of equilibrium thanks largely to nothing more than a good friend willing to listen and share his own suffering. Exploitation of others’ misfortunes and a series of social prejudices conspire against our three lovers but perhaps there is something to be said for learning to find the blue sky from whichever vantage point you happen to be occupying no matter how small and distant it may be.


Three Stories of Love was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Friend “A” (友罪, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

My Friend A posterThe Japanese justice system is founded on the idea of confession and atonement, that if you admit your crime and show remorse you will be forgiven. The truth, however, is much more complex and those whose lives have been tainted by transgression are often rejected by a still unforgiving society. Director Takahisa Zeze describes his adaptation of Gaku Yakumaru’s novel My Friend “A” (友罪, Yuzai) as a picture of the world he longs to see at the end of the Heisei era, one which is less judgemental and more compassionate where the bonds between people can perhaps overcome the traumatic past.

In the present day, two very different men – failed journalist Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and the sullen and mysterious Suzuki (Eita), are inducted as probationary workers at a small factory. Suzuki’s determination to keep himself to himself does not endear him to the other workers who become convinced that he is hiding something from them. Suzuki is indeed hiding something, though his reasons for avoiding human contact are various and complex. When a young child is found murdered nearby in a method which echoes a notorious killing from 17 years previously, Masuda is contacted by an old colleague (Mizuki Yamamoto) investigating the case and begins to wonder if the secret Suzuki seems to be burdened by might have something to do with one crime or both.

In actuality, Masuda does not seem to believe that Suzuki is involved with the recent killing even if he comes to the conclusion that he is almost certainly the teenager convicted of the earlier crime. Nevertheless, he develops an awkward “friendship” with him which is partly exploitative as he ponders writing an exposé on the injustice that allows someone who committed such heinous acts, even in childhood, to start again with a new identity. “Injustice” becomes a persistent theme as seen in the melancholy tale of taxi driver Yamauchi (Koichi Sato) who is carrying the heavy burden of being the father of a son (Hoshi Ishida) who killed three children as a joy riding delinquent. Hounded by one parent, and accidentally harassing the others through his relentless attempts to apologise for his son’s transgression, Yamauchi has ruined his family through his own need for personal atonement. Having divorced his wife and lost touch with his son, he is enraged to learn that he plans to marry and will soon be a father. Even if his wife-to-be knows of his past and accepts it, Yamauchi believes his son has lost the right to live as other people live and finds it extraordinarily offensive that a man who took the lives of children would have a child of his own.

Yamauchi seems to want to put his family back together but only succeeds in tearing it apart. Corrupted families loom large from the mysterious photograph of the smiling boy surrounded by the scratched out faces of his parents and sibling found among Suzuki’s belongings, to the reform school boy taunted with the accusation that he might not have turned to drugs if only his parents had loved him more. Suzuki fixates on his reform school teacher Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita), but she in turn has neglected her own daughter in her fierce desire to save the souls of these violent young men many of whom have become the way they are because they believe that they are worthless and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, Miyoko (Kaho) – a young woman drawn to Suzuki’s silent solidarity, struggles to escape her own traumatic past partly because she was shamed in front of her family who then were also shamed by her inescapable transgression.

Unlike Suzuki, Miyoko has committed no crime but is haunted just the same. As is Masuda though his guilt is real enough if of a more spiritual kind as he struggles to accept his role in the death of a friend who committed suicide when they were just children. Then again, Masuda’s struggle, like Yamauchi’s, is perhaps a solipsistic one in which what he is really mourning is not his friend but the vision of his idealised self. On visiting his late friend’s mother, Masuda bristles when she talks about his journalistic career and her hope that he is still “strong and just” like the teenage boy she believes stood alongside her lonely son when the truth is that he abandoned his friend when he needed him most because he was too cowardly to risk becoming a target himself. Despite his high ideals, Masuda had been working at a scandal rag and his only real piece of ethical journalism was a confessional about the destructive effects of high school bullying. He remains conflicted in his friendship with Suzuki not quite because he fears his dark past but because he fears his own moral cowardice – something he is reminded of when a housemate points out that no-one likes Suzuki and that if Masuda sides with him, no one will like him either. 

The question that is asked is whether discovering someone’s dark secret necessarily changes who they are now and if it is ever really possible for those who have in some way transgressed to return to society. As Suzuki puts it to Masuda in reflecting on their unavoidable commonality, they’re each men who rarely unpack their suitcases, always on the run from an unforgiving present. Yet there is perhaps hope despite Masuda’s ongoing diffidence in his eventual (self) confession and belated solidarity with a man he later recognises as a “friend” in acknowledgement of the unconditional bonds of genuine friendship.


My Friend “A” was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)