“What are you doing now?” asks a very zeitgeisty set of onscreen titles at the beginning of Katsuyuki Motohiro’s millennial heist comedy, Space Travelers (スペーストラベラーズ). Both hopeful and not, Motoyuki’s cosmic farce takes the sense of anxiety and despair which colour other similarly themed turn of the century movies and turns them into a source of possibility while simultaneously implying that for some paradise may always be out of reach or else relegated to a state of mind. After all, “reality is different from animation”.
The idea of a far off paradise is what drives a trio of orphans (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Masanobu Ando, and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) to consider armed robbery, planning the slick kind of heist they’ve seen in the movies in which they run into off into the sunset with a bag full of cash after holding a bank to ransom. Of course, it doesn’t quite go to plan leaving the three essentially good-hearted guys with a problem because they weren’t really prepared to harm anyone (two of their three weapons are duds) and they don’t have a plan B. What happens then is somewhat unexpected as a degree of camaraderie begins to arise between the would-be-thieves and the small number of customers and employees trapped in the foyer who then become something of an artificial team trying to overcome the rapidly escalating situation as the police surround the building in the incorrect assumption that the robbery is connected to terrorist action.
What soon becomes apparent is that for the trio the heist is part wish fulfilment fantasy and a last ditch attempt to catapult themselves out of a sense of impossible despair. As they are all orphans, they feel a deeper sense of disconnection from a society which has in itself abandoned them, partly as it turns out hoping to find their long-lost parents in a tropical island paradise known to them only from a faded postcard. For the customers and employees, the robbery is the most exciting thing to happen to them in their entire lives and the proximity to mortal danger soon forces them to wrestle with their personal dissatisfaction. Before the heist took place, bank clerk Midori (Eri Fukatsu) had been planning to attend a party to celebrate her engagement to another employee branded a sleazy creep by most of the other female members of staff with whom he had apparently tried it on on previous occasions. She had agreed to marry him despite her reservations because he had sworn to lay down his life for her if she were ever in danger only to spot him trying to escape on his own via the air conditioning ducts. Being caught up in this bizarre situation forces her to accept she had been leading a “conveyor belt life” out of fear, always picking the safe option rather than take a risk chasing personal happiness even picking a husband solely because he promised her protection.
In the Japan of the 2000s, chasing personal happiness might have seemed like a fools errand trapped in a stagnant economy with no prospect of improvement and only increased risk if you fall from one particular rung on the ladder. Yet the conclusion Midori seems to come to is that the only way of rebelling against this sense of nihilistic frustration is to take the risk and look for the paradise that is waiting for her rather than settle for a disappointing status quo. She learns this partly through her connection with one of the bank robbers who casts each of the hostages as members of his favourite, now cancelled, anime “Space Travelers” created according to an onscreen interview to offer a sense of something tangible to an increasingly disconnected youth that would allow them to experience a full range of emotions (the animated sequences created for the film were later spun off into an OVA of their own). Through their accidental role playing, the hostages each discover the sides of themselves they’d been missing to claim their true identities, Midori learning that she can protect herself, nerdy clerk Shimizu (Masahiro Komoto) overcoming his crippling shyness, a middle-aged electrician flummoxed by modern technology proving that his skills aren’t obsolete, and a feuding couple on the brink of divorce reflecting that they actually do work well as a team.
Even so, not everyone comes out of the situation with new hope for the future with the implication being that some gambles are simply too big or that for some paradise will always lie just out of reach even if Midori remains committed to seeking it out on her own whether she eventually finds it or not. Meanwhile, Motohiro takes potshots at the media reality of the day as a cynical boyband publicity stunt to announce their breakup tour to rake in more cash before announcing a comeback is derailed by the press tripping over themselves to get to the unfolding bank hostage crisis with the police also doing their bit to hog the media spotlight while mistakenly believing a suspicious-looking man who actually is a fugitive terrorist is responsible for the heist. With the world as messed up as it clearly is, the film seems to say, chasing paradise is the least risky thing of all.
Selected via a talent competition held in conjunction with the search for a new actress to play the leading role in Kosei Saito’s Ninja Wars, Noriko Watanabe became the second of the new “Sannin Musume” alongside the future star of The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Tomoyo Harada, and Kadokawa’s top idol Hiroko Yakushimaru. Her career with the studio was however comparatively short-lived affording her only three leading roles before she eventually left the agency and went independent after turning down a lead in Koibitotachi no Jikoku because of its explicit nude scenes. Again adapted from a novel by Jiro Akagawa, Kekkon Annai Mystery (結婚案内ミステリー) was her final leading performance as a Kadokawa idol (though she would also play a supporting role in Obayashi’s His Motorbike, Her Island) and saw her playing a slightly more mature role as a young woman working for a matchmaking agency who finds herself mixed up in a country house mystery after accepting an unusual proposal from a client.
At 19, Hiroko (Noriko Watanabe) is the sole employee at the Fukada Marriage Consultation Agency owned and operated by her boss Mr. Fukada (Bengal). As we first meet her she’s deep undercover at a rival firm which has already shifted into a new era of computer-assisted matchmaking whereas Mr Fukada prefers to do things the old-fashioned way which is presumably why he has no business. It comes as something of a shock therefore when he receives a call from Mrs. Sekine (Aiko Nagayama), the temporary CEO of a major company who apparently wants to find a match for her son Masakazu (Ken Watanabe) who is shortly to return after graduating from Harvard in order to take over the family business following the death of his father six months previously. At the initial consultation, however, Mrs Sekine scandalises Mr Fukada by immediately selecting Hiroko as a potential bride. Seeing as it’s only an initial meeting, which would earn them a bonus payment, Hiroko agrees but when they drive out to the Sekines’ creepy gothic mansion in the middle of nowhere they discover all is not quite as it seems. Masakazu has a fiancée already, but unfortunately she was involved in a traffic accident and is currently in hospital which is a problem because for undisclosed reasons they need to hold the wedding right away. Hiroko is to act as a proxy seeing as no-one who’ll be coming to the ceremony has met Masakazu’s girlfriend and so will be none the wiser.
Perhaps somewhat naively, Hiroko agrees and ends up staying in the house posing as Masakazu’s intended which includes sharing a room. Briefly shifting genres, a training montage sees Hiroko undertaking a crash course in how to be posh, adopting the correct deportment, using cutlery elegantly, and learning to walk downstairs in massive heals or up while wearing an inconveniently long dress. Which is all to say, the fabulously wealthy inhabit a different world of which Hiroko was hitherto ignorant. This is further brought home by the apparent cracks in the foundations of the Sekine family which is also a corporate entity with the other board members largely favouring other candidates more closely connected to the themselves to take over as chairman while apparent liability uncle Masao (Tamio Kawaji), whose creepy crossbow-carrying young son Mamoru is for some reason being raised by Mrs Sekine, is in some kind of trouble with yakuza loansharks. The other main issue is that Mrs Sekine is a second wife and longtime mistress of the late CEO. Masakazu was born out of wedlock and Mrs Sekine will do anything and everything she can to ensure he assumes his birthright.
Counter-intuitively succession intrigue has little to do with the central mystery which begins to unravel when Hiroko is attacked on the eve of her wedding by a strange woman who had previously tried to warn her off Masakazu and kills her in self-defence. The body, which we can identify as that seen buried in the snow in the solarised green-tinted opening sequence, is taken care of by Mrs Sekine’s right hand man Kinoshita (Hayato Tani), but Hiroko begins to have her doubts after catching sight of a woman who looks exactly like the one she killed at the local ski resort.
“Rich people are like that. They’d lie about anything in order to keep their wealth” Hiroko is told, realising she may be at the centre of an infinitely complex plot and becoming aware of Mrs Sekine’s tendency to throw money at people to get them to play along with her plans. Like any good gothic mystery, however, the house holds a dark secret in a hidden room which perhaps hints at the corruptions of the Bubble era along with those of the super rich elite and the undue pressure it puts on its young while uncomfortably suggesting that Mrs Sekine herself is the source of the corruption in her attempt to integrate into a higher social class into which she was not born. Atmospheric in its chilling vistas of the freezing snow, Kekkon Annai Mystery’s twisting tale of greed and manipulation may end in tragedy but ironically lives up to its name as its heroine finds a potential match in her accidental co-conspirator.
The “Fukushima 50” (フクシマ50), as the film points out, was a term coined by the international media to refer to the men and women who stayed behind to deal with the unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Loosely inspired by Ryusho Kadota’s non-fiction book On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi which featured extensive interviews with those connected to the incident, Setsuro Wakamatsu’s high production value film adaptation arrived to mark the ninth anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami which occurred on 11th March, 2011 and closes with a poignant callback to the plant’s role in Japan’s post-war reconstruction as the nation once again prepares to host the (now postponed) Olympics with a torch relay beginning at Fukushima as a beacon of hope as the country continues to rebuild in the wake of the disaster.
Though inspired by real events Wakamatsu’s dramatisation is heavily fictionalised and while surprisingly frank for a mainstream film in its criticism of the official reaction to the disaster, is also quietly nationalistic while doing its best to pay tribute to the selfless sacrifice of the plant workers who stayed behind to do what they could many of whom had little expectation of surviving. Chief among them would be Izaki (Koichi Sato), an imperfect family man and veteran section chief, and the plant’s superintendent Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) who are both local men and old friends. Local, it seems, is later key with multiple appeals to the furusato spirit as each is at pains to point out that they stay not only to prevent a catastrophic meltdown that would leave most of central Honshu including Tokyo uninhabitable, but because they feel a greater duty to protect their hometown and the people in it.
Meanwhile, they find themselves burdened rather than assisted by official support as government bodies’ political decision making undermines their attempts to avert disaster while the boardroom of TEPCO who operate the plant reacts with business concerns in mind. A few hours in the prime minister (Shiro Sano) decides to make a visit, in political terms he can’t not national leaders who don’t visit sites of crisis are never forgiven, but his presence actively hinders the recovery efforts. Referred to only as the PM, Wakamatsu’s film presents the man leading the nation as an ignorant bully overly obsessed with his personal image. He has little understanding of nuclear matters or the implications of the disaster, refuses to abide by the regular safety procedures required at the plant, and mostly governs through shouting. Beginning to lose his temper, Yoshida does his best to remain calm but resents the constant interference from those sitting in their offices far away from immediate danger while he does his best to contend with the increasingly adverse conditions on the ground, mindful of his responsibilities firstly to his employees and secondly to those living in the immediate vicinity of the plant who will be most at risk when measures taken to prevent meltdown will lead to an inevitable radiation leak.
Yoshida’s hero moment comes when he ignores a direct order from the government to stop using seawater to cool the reactors, knowing that he has no other remaining options. Meanwhile, the government refuse offers of help from the Americans, who eventually make a strangely heroic arrival with Operation Tomodachi, discussing plans to move their families to safety while their commander reflects on his post-war childhood on a military base near the site of the nuclear plant. Japan’s SDF also gets an especial nod, granted permission to leave by Yoshida who is beginning to think he’s running out of time but vowing to stay and do their duty in protecting civilians in need.
In essence, the drama lies in how they coped rather than the various ways in which they didn’t. The conclusion is that the existence of the plant was in itself hubristic, they are paying the price for “underestimating the power of nature” in failing to calculate that such a devastating tsunami was possible. They thought they were safe, but they weren’t. Perhaps uncomfortably, Wakamatsu mimics the imagery of the atomic bomb to imagine a nuclear fallout in Tokyo, harking back to ironic signage which simultaneously declares that the energy of the future is atomic while the plant workers reflect on the sense of wonder they felt as young people blinded by science back in the more hopeful ‘70s as the nation pushed its way towards economic prosperity. Frank for a mainstream film but then again perhaps not frank enough, Fukushima 50 is both an urgent anti-nuclear plea and an earnest thank you letter to those who stayed when all looked hopeless, suggesting that if the sakura still bloom in Fukushima it is because of the sacrifices they made.
When thinking of wartime atrocity, it’s easy enough to ascribe the actions of the perpetrators to a kind of madness, to think that they have in some way moved away from us to become some kind of “other”. In thinking of those who transgress our notions of humanity as inhuman or “evil” we can absolve ourselves of their crimes, believing that they are not like us and we are not like them. The truth is never so simple and as long as we continue to other these dark parts of ourselves, we will not be able to overcome them. The Sea and Poison (海と毒薬, Umi to Dokuyaku), adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, shows this delusion of inhumanity for what it is in taking as its central concern the real life case of the doctors at a Kyushu university who committed heinous acts of experimentation on eight American prisoners of war in late 1945. Rather than focus of on those who took the decision that the experiments should take place, Endo and Kumai examine the motives of those on the fringes who merely went along with them finding that they did so for petty, essentially human motives.
Shot in a crisp black and white, the film opens in a caged cell where an American officer is interrogating a young man still in a student’s uniform. Suguro (Eiji Okuda) is the first of several witnesses to the deaths of eight American servicemen during alleged vivisection at the hospital at which Suguro had worked. Young and naive, Suguro is the most sympathetic of three witnesses we will encounter but his essentially compassionate nature puts him at odds with his colleagues who abhor “sentimentality” and regard his emotionality as a childish weakness. It is through Suguro that we discover that the hardness that has apparently led to these horrific betrayals of the physicians’ code are not born of the war, or of militarism, or of adherence to some ideal like god or country but are a natural extension of the hyper-rational attitude of the medical profession.
Suguro’s colleague, Toda (Ken Watanabe), is his polar opposite, viewing Suguro’s sense of compassion as a ridiculous but somewhat endearing character trait. A textbook nihilist, Toda takes the view that as death comes to us all, the when and why are essentially unimportant. When so many are dying in air raids or on the battlefields, what does it matter that some also die in hospitals. Yet Toda is, in someways, the most ruminative among the hospital staff. In the diary he keeps, Toda attempts to dissect himself and his ongoing lack of feeling. Telling the interrogators that he began the diary because he had begun to find himself “creepy”, Toda asks why it is he feels nothing in relation to his fellow men. Surely it must be right that one should feel some degree of empathy? Toda volunteers for the experiments in part to test his own hypothesis but discovering that he still feels no pity for these men, he wonders if these ideas of morality are a kind of affectation seeing as others too can commit such acts of extreme cruelty and think nothing of it.
In this, Toda earns our sympathy, seeming at least to want to feel something even if he does not. Nurse Ueda (Toshie Negishi), by contrast, is the most human and also the most repugnant of our three witnesses. Her concerns are petty and ordinary, born of jealousy and resentment. Returning again to the scene of a botched surgery, Kumai shows us Ueda calling the operating theatre and being told to give a patient a dose of morphine by a harried doctor still panicked by the ongoing OR drama. Following her instructions, Ueda fills a syringe but the vial is knocked out of her hand by the German wife of the head doctor, Hilda, who was once a nurse herself and likes to help out on the wards. Hilda is a severe woman but not a cold one, she cares for the patients but perhaps with a more rigorous adherence to the nurses’ code than the less experienced team at the hospital. Hilda tries to get Ueda fired for her “mistake”, scolding her by asking (in German) if she is not afraid of God, and expressing concern that she thought so little of giving a fatal dose of morphine to a suffering patient.
Ueda’s decision to attend the experiments is a form of backhanded revenge – Hilda, whom everyone regards as some kind of annoyingly saintly figure, has no idea her husband would be involved in something so against her deeply held ideals, but Ueda also offers another reason when she says that the doctors exist in another, more rarefied world to the rank and file ward staff. This idea is echoed again by the head nurse, Ohba (Kyoko Kishida), who states that nurses must do as the doctors tell them without asking questions. Ohba rounds out the just following orders contingent but the first half of the film has already shown us that the medical profession is corrupt and cannot be trusted.
The old Dean has had a stroke and there is a mini war of succession in play between the heads of surgery divisions one and two. Dr. Hashimoto (Takahiro Tamura) had been the favourite but his star is fading. In an effort to improve his chances, he decides to move up an operation on a friend of the Dean – a young woman with advanced TB. Meanwhile, Suguro’s patient, an old woman who also has TB has been earmarked for “experimental surgery”. The old woman has not been properly briefed on the risks of the operation in which she has only a five percent chance of survival and has only agreed to it because the doctor, whom she trusts implicitly, has told her it’s her only chance. The Dean’s friend is “Mrs. Tabe”, and she is “important”. The old woman is only “the welfare patient” and therefore not important at all.
Suguro, anxious to save the old woman to whom he has developed an attachment, wants the operation to be postponed, at least until she’s potentially strong enough to survive but Dr. Shibata (Mikio Narita) is only interested in using her as a potential candidate for experimentation which he claims will help future treatment of TB but also, of course, improve his career prospects. Mrs. Tabe’s mother asks the doctor if her operation carries any risk but the assistant laughs in her face, claiming the operation is so simple even a monkey could do it and pretending to be insulted that she has so little faith in her physicians. The operation goes wrong and Mrs. Tabe dies which is bad news for Dr. Hashimoto but rather than offer his apologies to the relatives, he tries to cover it up. So that it won’t look like she died on the table, they take the body back to her room and hook it up to a drip, insisting to Mrs. Tabe’s mother and sister that all is well while planning to announce that Mrs. Tabe died of complications from the operation early the following morning.
This level of callousness and self interest is echoed in Dr. Shibata’s justification that the old woman is going to die anyway and therefore the operation is worth a shot even though he believes it will kill her and is not in any way attempting to save her life (though it would be a nice bonus). Unlike Toda’s nihilism, Shibata’s practicality has no human dimension, he thinks in numbers and statistics, deciding who is a “real patient” and who is not. This same justification is used when recruiting doctors for the experiments. The US servicemen are downed aircrew from the bombers which have been making raids overhead for months. A court in Tokyo has ruled the random bombing contravenes international law and has sentenced the airmen to death. Seeing as the airmen will die anyway, might it not be “better” for their deaths to “benefit” medical science? The operations will be conducted under anaesthetic and so the men will not be in pain or know their fates which might, perhaps, be better than a firing squad.
The reality is not so convenient. Asked if his agreement was partly revenge, Suguro replies that, no, he felt no hate, he was just too mentally and physically exhausted to resist. Threatened by soldiers with guns he capitulates but refuses to assist in the room on the day, remaining a passive witness cowering at the edges. Before the operation, Dr. Gondo (Shigeru Koyama) makes small talk with the subject in English, asking about his hometown to which the airman, poignantly, says he’d like to return. The surgery is not like that conducted on Mrs. Tabe. The airman gets only ether and he struggles as the cloth is placed over his mouth, requiring four people – two doctors and two nurses, to hold him down until he stops kicking. This is no gentle death, this is murder.
A possible “justification” lies in the fact that the operating room is also filled with soldiers who laugh and jeer, snapping away on their brand new German-made camera. Tanaka, the officer in charge, asks for the airman’s liver after the operation, joking that he’d like to feed it to his men. The liver is indeed delivered to the horrified faces of the soldiers waiting for the party they’ve organised to begin, though it is not clear whether Tanaka really intends to feast on it or keep it as some sort of grim souvenir. Gondo, looking at the liver, remarks that they’ve all grown used to corpses but that “sentimentality” is never far away. Nevertheless, he appears to feel no real remorse for the heinous act of killing in which he has just been involved.
Adopting Endo’s Christianising viewpoint, the interrogations take place in a ruined church, a statue of the Virgin Mary directly above Ueda as she gives vent to her impure thoughts. The trio are being judged, not only by God but by us – or “society” as Suguro later puts it. The central proposition is that prolonged exposure to death on a mass scale – firstly as members of the medical profession, and later as victims of war, has led to an inhuman, nihilistic viewpoint in which we are all already dead and that, therefore, nothing really matters anymore. It isn’t clear who suggested this be done or why, but it is clear that Hashimoto collaborated in an effort to save his career by allying himself with the military – something he misses out on anyway when Shibata steals his thunder. Suguro is powerless to resist, Toda a melancholy sociopath, Ueda a vengeful woman, and Ohba a willing disciple of a beloved doctor, but none is a zealot to a regime or true believer in militarism. This is the dark heart of humanity – selfishness and cowardice, petty jealousies and ambitions. Kumai paints this scene of desolation with intense beauty, which only makes it all the more painful.
Villain, Lee Sang-il’s 2011 adaptation of a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, used a crime story to investigate the wider effects of social stigma and emotional repression – themes which are recurrent in the author’s work. Rage (怒り, Ikari) attempts to do something similar but its aims are larger, reflexively tacking the vicious cycle of social oppression and emotional repression in a society which actively suppresses the desire for expression in the aim of maintaining an illusion of harmony. A brutal, senseless killing has occurred and three suspects present themselves. The killer could be any one or none of them, but the fact of the matter is that when you cannot speak the truth, you cannot truly believe in anything or anyone.
In the blazing summer heat with its noisy cicadas and uncomfortable humidity, a young couple has been brutally murdered in their Hachioji home. There are few clues to be found save that the killer has painted the kanji for “rage” in blood on the wall. The police do, however, come up with a suspect and circulate a photofit which is anonymous enough to look like any youngish man who might make you feel uncomfortable for a reason you can’t articulate.
Meanwhile, a middle-aged man from Chiba, Maki (Ken Watanabe), anxiously wanders around Kabukicho until someone finds him and takes him to a brothel where his runaway daughter, Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki), has been working and has been very badly injured through her “eagerness to please her clients”. The father, trying to comfort his daughter who seems cheerful enough despite her ordeal, inwardly seethes with rage and is both relieved and worried when she begins a relationship with a secretive drifter, Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama).
Back in Tokyo, Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) visits a gay bathhouse and roughly forces himself on a nervous man hunched in a corner. Despite the slight unpleasantness of their meeting, the two men eat dinner together and Yuma invites his new friend, Naoto (Go Ayano), to live with him in his well appointed apartment despite knowing nothing more about him.
Further south, a teenage couple enjoy a day out on what they think is a deserted island but the girl, Izumi (Suzu Hirose), discovers a backpacker, Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama), living in some local ruins. Strangely drawn to him, Izumi keeps meeting up with Tanaka but an encounter in the city turns sour when her friend, Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto), works himself into a jealous rage. Trying to get the drunken Tatsuya to the ferry, Izumi is raped by GIs from the local military base.
The Okinawan episode is, in many ways the key. Tetsuya invites Izumi to see a movie in Naha but they’re really going to observe a protest about the continued presence of the US military bases. Tatsuya wanted to be there to see it but pressed for an answer he doubts protest will achieve anything. Izumi, after her brutal encounter, says the same thing. She doesn’t want anyone to know. “Protesting won’t change anything”. No matter what she says, nothing will be done, no one would listen, nobody really cares.
Or, perhaps they simply care about the wrong things. Aiko gets home from her horrible ordeal in the city but everyone knows what she did there; her “sordid” past is the talk of the town. Her father says nothing, because like Izumi he knows it will do no good, but still he berates himself for it and his internalised anger grows.
Izumi does not want the stigma of being a rape victim, and Aiko does not want the stigma of being a “fallen woman”, their secrets are already out, but Yuma is jealously guarding his – living as a cautious gay man with his life strictly divided, his true nature walled off from his professional persona. Too afraid to be open about his sexuality, he projects his sense of unease and discomfort onto Naoto – first going overboard by inviting someone he just met and knows nothing about to live with him and then refusing to let him in all the way. Yuma asks Naoto not to attend his mother’s funeral despite the fact they had been friends because he doesn’t want the awkwardness of deciding how to introduce his boyfriend to a set of relatives he doesn’t really know. What he doesn’t do is ask any questions about Naoto’s past, jumping to conclusions and angrily slinging accusations when he thinks he’s caught Naoto out in a lie but his reaction and subsequent behaviour only bear out his own insecurities in his inability to trust the man the loves.
Each of the trio begins to doubt their friends or lovers with little more to go on than a police photofit which only superficially resembles them. The suspicion, however, is reflexive. It’s born of a society in which one is obliged to keep secrets and emotional honesty is frowned upon. No one speaks the truth because no one wants to hear it – it will only bring more suffering with additional social stigma. Sooner or later, when all of these unexpressed emotions reach a critical mass, they will explode. Such crimes could so easily be avoided were it easier to live a more open, less fearful life, but as long as it is impossible to trust oneself, there can be no unguarded trust between people.
Neatly in line with the self-centred narrative viewpoints, Izumi’s rape is relegated to a plot device as she herself disappears from the screen only to return briefly in the final coda. The effects of the rape are then explored as they impact on Tetsuya and Tanaka whose self images of masculinity are (seemingly) damaged by their failures to protect her. Izumi’s rape is viewed as something that happened to the men, as if she were a car that was scratched or a jacket torn. Self-involved as this is, it plays into the central theme – no one cares very much about anybody else’s feelings until those feelings are visited upon them by means of violence.
The murder occurs essentially because of a betrayal followed by unbearable, unexpected kindness. A woman felt sorry for a man, and so she trusted him and was betrayed. Two parties fail to trust the one they love because of a failing in themselves, their own sense of personal inadequacy will not allow them to believe in the other person’s faith in them, while another misplaces his trust in his need to find an ally and confidant to feel less alone and powerless. Prevailing social stigmas, selfishness, and a need to maintain the status quo have left all running scared, craving connection but too afraid to engage. When the system won’t let you be, violence, of one sort or another, is an inevitable consequence.
Some people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.
Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.
Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.
This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her. From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.
Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.
While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.
Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!
Koki Mitani is one of the most bankable mainstream directors in Japan though his work has rarely travelled outside of his native land. Beginning his career in the theatre, Mitani is the master of modern comedic farce and has the rare talent of being able to ground often absurd scenarios in the humour that is very much a part of everyday life. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Radio no Jikan) is Mitani’s debut feature in the director’s chair though he previously adapted his own stage plays as screenplays for other directors. This time he sets his scene in the high pressure environment of the production booth of a live radio drama broadcast as the debut script of a shy competition winner is about to get torn to bits by egotistical actors and marred by technical hitches.
Mild-mannered housewife Miyako Suzuki (Kyoka Suzuki ) has won a competition to get her radio play, titled “Woman of Destiny”, on air. A romantic tale of a bored housewife unexpectedly finding love at the pachinko parlour, her story may have a thin layer of autobiography or at least wish fulfilment but at any rate she is very close to her material. Unfortunately, “difficult” actress Nokko (Keiko Toda) has been foisted on the production crew due to entertainment world politics and objects to her character’s name because she once dated a married guy whose wife shared it. Eventually Nokko demands to be called something more interesting like “Mary Jane” (the irony!). At this point, all the other actors start wanting changes too and before you know it Miyako’s gentle tale of forbidden romance has become a gangster crime thriller set in Chicago filled with mobsters and tommy guns!
The writer is god, in one sense. Only, god has been locked out of the room leading to total chaos. Each small change necessitates a series of other changes and seeing as this is all being done live and on the hoof, no one is quite thinking through the implications of each decision. When the actor playing “Mary Jane’s” love interest suddenly goes off book and declares his name is “Donald McDonald” (inspired by left over fast food cartons) and he’s a pilot not a fisherman as agreed (though why would a fisherman be in the mountains of Chicago anyway?), everything goes completely haywire eventually ending up in an outer space based love crisis!
If all this wasn’t enough, someone has also wandered off with the key to the sound effects machine which would be fine if they hadn’t added all the gangster shenanigans in the first place. The show’s producer, Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura), explains to Miyako at one point that radio has a very important advantage over visual media as you really can do anything even on no budget because your biggest resource is your audience’s imaginations. He has a very real point, though the completely bizarre saga of “sexy female lawyer” Mary Jane, her “Nasa Pilot” (a quick save after “Donald’s” plane is reported missing and someone remembers this slot is sponsored by an airline) true love, and her husband who for some reason is a random German named Heinrich is going to require a significant suspension of disbelief from the confused listeners at home.
As a theatre practitioner Mitani is an expert at creating ensemble comedy and even though he is playing with a large cast and a fast moving environment each of his characters is extremely well drawn. We see the shy writer beginning to lose heart after her story is shredded by the unforgiving production environment whilst also trying to persuade her husband who has turned up unexpectedly to go home before he figures out her script is suspiciously close to their real lives. We also see the production team frantically trying to fulfil their obligations so they can avoid getting into trouble with the higher ups and finally go home for the day. Ushijima is caught in the middle, surrounded by nonchalant yes men and lazy bosses, he’s desperately trying to compromise to keep everything on schedule whereas the jaded director just wants to do his job as written. However, it’s the director who is ultimately most moved by Miyako’s script and eventually decides it does deserve the happy ending that Miyako has been longing for.
By the end of the recording, something of the old magic has returned to the otherwise work-a-day world of the radio studio. They’ve even brought back old fashioned foley effects and retrieved the old school sound guy who’d been relegated to playing his gameboy in the security booth because no one needed his expertise anymore. Nothing went as planned, but everything worked out in the end and it’s happy endings all round both in the real world and in the completely surreal radio play. They might even do a sequel!
Mitani breaks the action every now and then to take us outside of the studio environment and into the cab of a petrol tanker being driven by a strangely dressed trucker (in a brief cameo from Ken Watanabe, no less!) who keeps trying to change the channel for more country influenced Enka but finds himself enthralled by the strange tale of the true love between Mary Jane and Donald mcDonald. We might not be quite as moved as he is, having been party to all the backstage goings on, but we have perhaps laughed more than cried through the almost screwball comedy and farcical set up of Mitani’s spot on depiction of the less than glamorous workings of the fast paced live production environment.