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)

Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow (聖の青春, Yoshitaka Mori, 2016)

satoshiThere’s a slight irony in the English title of Yoshitaka Mori’s tragic shogi star biopic, Satoshi: A Move For Tomorrow (聖の青春, Satoshi no Seishun). The Japanese title does something similar with the simple “Satoshi’s Youth” but both undercut the fact that Satoshi (Kenichi Matsuyama) was a man who only ever had his youth and knew there was no future for him to consider. The fact that he devoted his short life to a game that’s all about thinking ahead is another wry irony but one it seems the man himself may have enjoyed. Satoshi Murayama, a household name in Japan, died at only 29 years old after denying chemotherapy treatment for bladder cancer in fear that it would interfere with his thought process and set him back on his quest to conquer the world of shogi. Less a story of triumph over adversity than of noble perseverance, Satoshi lacks the classic underdog beats the odds narrative so central to the sports drama but never quite manages to replace it with something deeper.

Diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome as a child, the young Satoshi spent a lot of time alone in hospitals. To ease his boredom his father gave him a shogi set and the boy was hooked. Immersing himself in the world of the game, Satoshi read everything he could about tactics, practiced till his fingers bled and came up with his own unorthodox technique for playing that would eventually take him from his Osaka home to the bright lights of Tokyo. Determined to become the “Meijin”, beat top shogi player Habu (Masahiro Higashide), and get into the coveted 9th Dan ranking Satoshi cares for nothing other than the game, his only other hobbies being drink, junk food, and shojo manga.

Undoubtedly brilliant yet difficult, Satoshi is not an easy man to get along with. Years of medical treatment for nephrosis have left him pudgy and bloated, and an aversion to cutting his hair and nails (poignantly insisting that they have a right to live and grow) already makes him an unusual presence at the edge of a shogi board. He’s not exactly charming either with his overwhelming intensity, aloofness, and fits of angry frustration. Yet the shogi world fell in love with him for his encyclopaedic yet totally original approach to the game. His friends, of which there many, were willing to overlook his eccentricities because of his immense skill and because they knew that his anger and impatience came from forever knowing that his time was limited and much of life was already denied to him.

This insistent devotion to the game and desire to scale its heights before it’s too late is what gives Satoshi its essential drive even if the road does not take us along the usual route. Reckless with his health despite, or perhaps because of, his knowledge of his weakness, Satoshi operates on a self destructive level of excessive drink and poor diet though when he starts experiencing more serious problems which require urgent medical intervention, it’s easy to see why he would be reluctant to get involved with even more doctors. Eventually diagnosed with bladder cancer, Satoshi at first refuses and then delays treatment in fear that it will muddy his mind but the doctors tell him something worse – he should stay away from shogi and the inevitable stress and strain it places both on body and mind. For Satoshi, life without shogi is not so different from death.

Satoshi has his sights set on taking down popular rival Habu whose fame has catapulted him into the Japanese celebrity pantheon, even marrying a one of the most beloved idols of the day. Habu is the exact opposite of Satoshi – well groomed, nervous, and introverted but the two eventually develop a touching friendship based on mutual admiration and love of the game. On realising he may be about to beat Satoshi and crush his lifelong dreams, Habu is visibly pained but it would be a disservice both to the game and to Satoshi not to follow through. Outside of shogi the pair have nothing in common as an attempt to bond over dinner makes clear but Habu becomes the one person Satoshi can really talk to about his sadness in the knowledge that he’ll never marry or have children. As different as they are, Satoshi and Habu are two men who see the world in a similar way and each have an instinctual recognition of the other which gives their rivalry a poignant, affectionate quality.

Despite the game’s stateliness, Mori manages to keep the tension high as elegantly dressed men face each other across tiny tables slapping down little pieces of wood featuring unfamiliar symbols. Japanese viewers will of course be familiar with the game though overseas audiences may struggle with some its nuances even if not strictly necessary to enjoy the ongoing action. Matsuyama gives a standout performance as the tortured, tragic lead even gaining a huge amount of weight to reflect Satoshi’s famously pudgy appearance. Rather than the story of a man beating the odds, Satoshi’s is one of a man who fought a hard battle with improbable chances of success but never gave up, sacrificing all of himself in service of his goal. Genuinely affecting yet perhaps gently melancholy, Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow is a tribute to those who are prepared to give all of themselves yet also a reminder that there is always a price for such reckless disregard of self.


Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Flying Colors (ビリギャル, Nobuhiro Doi, 2015)

flying-colorsBelow average student buckles down and makes it into a top university? You’ve heard this story before and Nobuhiro Doi’s Flying Colors (ビリギャル, Biri Gyaru) doesn’t offer a new spin on the idea or additional angles on educational policy but it does have heart. Heart, it argues is what you need to get ahead (if you’ll forgive the multilevel punning) as the highest barriers to academic success are the ones which are self imposed. Arguing for a more inclusive, tailor made approach to education which doesn’t instil false hope but does help young people develop self confidence alongside standardised skills, Flying Colors is the story of one popular girl’s journey from anti-intellectual teenage snobbery to the very top of the academic tree whilst healing her divided family in the process.

Little Sayaka Kudo (Kasumi Arimura) got off to a bad start in her academic life, bullied and friendless at primary school. After the teachers refuse to help, Sayaka’s doting mother, Akari (Yo Yoshida), manages to get her into a more exclusive middle school which is affiliated with both a high school and a university which means that Sayaka’s academic destiny is fairly secure. However, though she does manage to make friends at her new school, she falls in with the “popular” crowd and begins dying her hair, rolling her skirt up, and wearing an inadvisable amount of makeup. Knowing that their entrance to high school and university is assured, the girls slack off completely and are at the very bottom of the class.

However, it all comes crashing down when Sayaka is caught smoking and threatened with expulsion. Bravely refusing to give up her friends and have them suffer the same fate, Sayaka is the only one who gets suspended but still risks missing graduation and losing her secured place at university. One of the few people to really believe in her, her mother Akari, arranges for Sayaka to attend an unconventional cram school where the well meaning teacher, Tsubota (Atsushi Ito), encourages her to have a goal, and it’s a lofty one – Keio University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Japan.

Despite her dismal academic prognosis, Sayaka is not lacking in ability, just the will and belief to see it through. After being so unhappy in primary school, Sayaka values her friendships and status as one of the popular girls and maintaining that side of her life is much more important than getting good grades. Written off by her teachers, no one is prepared to give her the permission to succeed and so she assumes she’s as dim as everyone says she is.

The situation isn’t helped by her home life in which her embittered father (Tetsushi Tanaka) ignores his two daughters in favour of devoting all his attention to his son, Ryuta (Yuhei Ouchida), whom he wants to become a professional baseball player. Vicariously thrusting his own dream on his unsuspecting son, Sayaka’s father is unprepared for the moment Ryuta realises he’s been denied the right to choose for himself and rebels against him as all young men are apt to do. In fact, many of the cram school students are there because of a grudge against an unfeeling father who has had quite an adverse affect on his child’s sense of self worth.

Tsubota is the first person other than her mother to show faith in Sayaka’s abilities and is able to convince her that she might be able to achieve something if she started to apply herself. Speaking to her in terms she can understand, Tsubota hunts down different kinds of study materials to help her along the way gradually raising her scores as she builds belief in her ability to reach her goal. Tsubota is the only teacher at the school and is able to take the time to get to know each of his pupils individually so he can tailor the course to bring out the potential in each of his charges. While the kids are studying to pass exams, Tsubota is studying pop culture so that he can talk to them on their own level and find out the best ways to keep them motivated.

As much as it’s the story of a persistent underdog finally discovering a well of self belief that will sustain them on a difficult path, Flying Colors is also an indictment on the modern educational system which only caters for the group rather than the individual and is so concentrated around rote learning and standardised tests that it fails to teach young people the critical thinking skills they need to succeed in life. Flying Colors probably is not going to influence public educational policy but it does offer an amiable and inspirational story that might give hope to those struggling under its often unreasonable demands.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン, Sion Sono, 2015)

Shinjuku SwanEnfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Sion Sono has always been prolific but recent times have seen him pushing the limits of the possible and giving even Takashi Miike a run for his money in the release stakes. Indeed, Takashi Miike is a handy reference point for Sono’s take on Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン) – an adaptation of a manga which has previously been brought to the small screen and is also scripted by an independent screenwriter rather than self penned in keeping with the majority of Sono’s directing credits. Oddly, the film shares several cast members with Miike’s Crows Zero movies and even lifts a key aesthetic directly from them. In fact, there are times when Shinjuku Swan feels like an unofficial spin-off to the Crows Zero world with its macho high school era tussling relocated to the seedy underbelly of Kabukicho. Unfortunately, this is somewhat  symptomatic of Sono’s failure, or lack of will, to add anything particularly original to this, it has to be said, unpleasant tale.

Our “hero” is down on his luck loser Tatsuhiko (Go Ayano) who’s come to Shinjuku to make it big. He’s here because it’s the sort of place you can make it happen with no plan and no resources. “Luckily” for him, he runs into low-level gangster Mako (Yusuke Iseya) who spots some kind of potential in him and recruits him as a “scout” for his organisation, Burst. Now dressed in a fancy suit, Tatsuhiko’s new job is stopping pretty girls in the street and trying to talk them into working in the sex industry….

Tatsuhiko is not the brightest and doesn’t quite understand what the implications of his work are. When he finally gets it, he feels conflicted but Mako convinces him that’s it’s OK really with a set of flimsy moral justifications. Before long, Tatsuhiko comes into conflict with a lieutenant, Hideyoshi (Takayuki Yamada), from the rival gang in town, Harlem, and a yakuza style territorial dispute begins to unfold destabilising the entire area.

Sono has often been criticised for latent misogyny and an exploitative approach to his material and Shinjuku Swan is yet more evidence for those who find his output “problematic”. Though based on a manga and scripted by a third party, Shinjuku Swan has an extremely ill-defined take on the sex industry and the people involved with it. After figuring out what happens to the girls he takes to Mako, Tatsuhiko has second thoughts but Mako tells him that the girls are happy and are in this line of work because they enjoy it (leaving out all the stuff about debts, drugs, and violence). So Tatsuhiko vows to make even more girls live happy lives inside the “massage parlours” of Kabukicho.

Noble heart or not, Tatsuhiko is a pimp. Not even that, he’s a middle man pimp. He’s earning his money from the suffering of the women that’s he conned, coerced, and finally exploited. Leaving aside the idea that, yes, some of these women may be perfectly happy with the arrangement, at least one of Tatsuhiko’s recruits displays evidence of previous self harm and is unable to cope with the demands of her new way of life. Another woman, Ageha (Erika Sawajiri), who becomes Tatsuhiko’s primary damsel in distress, escapes into a children’s fairytale picture book in which a prince with crazy hair just like Tatsuhiko’s comes to rescue the heroine from her life of slavery and takes her to a place of love and safety. Tatsuhiko “rescues” her by taking her to a “nicer” brothel…

Tatsuhiko may have convinced himself that he’s somehow a force for good, “helping” these women into employment and providing “protection” for them unlike the other guys from rival gangs who use drugs and violence to keep their girls in line, but his continued belief in his own goodness becomes increasingly hard to swallow as he learns more about how this industry really works. It’s difficult to believe in a “hero” who is so deluded about his own place in the grand scheme of things – he’s not stupid enough to be this oblivious, but not clever enough to be continually unseeing all of the darkness that surrounds the way he makes his living.

All of this is merely background to the central yakuza gang war which later ensues. Tatsuhiko ends up as a pawn in the tussle for territory between Burst and Harlem as double crosses become triple crosses and no one is to be trusted. Predictably, Tatsuhiko and Hideyoshi turn out to have a long standing connection though this revelation never achieves the dramatic weight it’s looking for and the gang war itself is, at best, underwhelming. Notable scenes including a classic battle in the rain could have been spliced in from Crows Zero and no one would have noticed. The main dramatic thread remains Tatsuhiko’s journey as he travels from clueless loser to, admittedly still clueless, assured petty gangster and smooth talking lady killer.

If there’s an overall feeling which imbues Shinjuku Swan, it’s lack of commitment. Though often beautifully photographed and featuring some interestingly composed sequences (including a few Carax-esque musical set pieces) the final effect is one of workman-like competence. Not bad by any means, but this feels like the work of a director for hire and lacks the sense of the personal that a would-be-auteur would usually seek to provide. Moral ambiguity can often be a film’s strong point, inviting comment and debate rather than pushing a pre-defined agenda but Shinjuku Swan takes too many incompatible approaches to the already unpalatable series of questions that it stops short of asking. Distinctly uneven, Shinjuku Swan ends on a note of anti-climax and though a perfectly serviceable, mainstream, commercial effort proves something of a disappointment from a director who has often managed to bring out a sense of mischievous irony in similarly themed work to date.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen (龍三と七人の子分たち, Takeshi Kitano, 2015)

142984037484393493178_ryuzo-7nin-kobuntachi-g4First published on UK Anime Network – review of Takeshi Kitano’s Ryuzo and the Seven Henchman (龍三と七人の子分たち Ryuzo to Shichinin no Kobuntachi) from LFF 2015.


Most people probably know Takeshi Kitano best for his series of ultra violent ’90s gangster movies, his role as the sadistic teacher in the controversial Battle Royale or as the host of bizarre Japanese endurance game show Takeshi’s Castle. However, in Japan he’s probably best known as a comedian though few of his comedy films have ever made it overseas. This may change with his latest effort, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen, which both takes him back to his yakuza roots and celebrates his comedic talents.

Ryuzo “the demon” was once a yakuza more feared the than respected whose very name alone made women swoon and struck fear into the hearts of men. Now though, he’s a grumpy grandpa living with his ultra conservative son who’d rather the neighbours didn’t know he had a gangster living in his house. After some punks make the mistake of trying an “ore ore” scam on him, Ryuzo gets back into the spirit of his gangster days and takes the guy down in a classic intimidation play. However, some of his other yakuza buddies also seem to be getting into trouble with upstart youngsters and once again it’s up to Ryuzo and his seven old timer yakuza buddies to set the town to rights.

The world has changed since Ryuzo and his guys were ruling the streets. In the old days the yakuza were a family, they had rules and ethics and they stuck to them. They saw themselves both as heroic outlaws and as defenders of the rights of ordinary people (even if they made their money through extorting those very people they claimed to protect). This new brand of crooks doesn’t care about honour, or morality or human kindness – they aren’t above conning the vulnerable into falling for obvious telephone scams or loaning large amounts of money to desperate people at ridiculously high interest just to make a buck. These guys are “business men” running a “legitimate enterprise” where the only rules are that you get rich and stay rich.

Ryuzo and co may be old, but they still have their honour and their pride. Watching the old guys trying to relive their former glory days is often funny, if a little sad as their grand schemes take on the absurd quality of little boys playing cops and robbers. It goes without saying that the film is hilarious though perhaps takes certain instances of low humour a too little far. Each of the main eight old timer yakuza has his own particular strength which endures despite their advanced ages though perhaps in slightly different forms and even if they’re coasting on former glory none of them has forgotten their former status.

Though not quite a return to the artistic highs of Sonatine or Hana-bi, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is nevertheless an entertaining mix of Kitano’s tough guy yakuza and absurd comedian personas. Unlikely to walk away with any awards or lasting praise, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is sure to be remembered fondly for its expertly timed and often gleefully absurd humour.


Reviewed at LFF 2015.