The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2019)

Three years after Destruction Babies, Tetsuya Mariko returns with another ultra-violent though strangely humorous masculinity drama as a mild-mannered salaryman embarks on a quest to win the heart of his one true love by proving himself a man even if aware that his efforts are entirely meaningless while he strikes out where it counts. Inspired by Hideki Arai’s manga, Mariko previously adapted Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Miyamoto kara Kimi e) as a late night TV drama with the majority of the cast reprising their roles for the big screen feature.

As the film opens, the titular Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) is walking bruised and bloodied through a children’s park, staring at his unrecognisable face in the hazy mirror of a public bathroom. A regular salaryman, he’s later taken to task by his boss (Kanji Furutachi). After all, how does he expect people to do business with him when he’s lost all his front teeth and has his arm in a sling? His boss reminds him he’s about to be married and will soon be a father so perhaps a little more forward-thinking responsibility is in order. It seems that Miyamoto got into some kind of fight and improbably enough he won, the other guy apparently in hospital not to recover for months though thankfully he does not want to press charges. Nevertheless, Miyamoto seems strangely cheerful, happy in himself as he takes his bride to be, Yasuko (Yu Aoi), home to meet his parents who don’t disapprove but are extremely put out by his continued secrecy especially as Yasuko is already pregnant though something tells us there’s much more to this than your average shotgun wedding.  

Skipping back between the present day of the happily settled couple and the various stages of their courtship we begin to see a pattern developing as the hapless young salaryman falls for the pretty office lady only to discover she was technically using him to break up with an obsessive ex struggling to accept that their relationship is over. Challenged by bohemian playboy Yuji (Arata Iura), Miyamoto instinctively barks out that Yasuko is a special woman and he will protect her at all costs though the jury’s out on how exactly he plans to do that. In any case, Yuji exits and even if unconvinced, Yasuko is taken in by the idea of finding a protector. But Miyamoto is less than true to his word. When it really counts, he lets her down, passed out drunk as she’s assaulted by a friend from his rugby team (Wataru Ichinose). What ensues is partly, in his mind, a means of making amends to her by getting his revenge and a quest to reclaim his self-respect by asserting his masculinity in besting his girlfriend’s rapist in a fight. “It was me he insulted” Miyamoto somewhat problematically insists, rage shovelling rice into his mouth directly from the cooker while Yasuko can barely contain her resentment and exasperation with his continued failure to follow through while painting himself as the victim in her rape. 

Consumed by toxic masculinity, Miyamoto does indeed frame everything through the prism of his fracturing manhood, never jealous or abusive but comparing himself unfavourably to the other men in Yasuko’s life and convincing himself the way to beat them all is by proving himself the most manly through the medium of pugilism. Meanwhile, he emotionally neglects the woman he claims to love and promised to protect, temporarily distancing himself from her while he embarks on his quest, leaving her entirely alone to deal with her trauma. Yasuko makes it clear that she doesn’t care about his pointless and idiotic need to validate himself through male violence, but he does it anyway and then expects her to be impressed (which she isn’t, really). In any case he freely admits he did it all for himself, literally shredding his rival’s manhood in order to retake his own in addition to gaining an extremely ironic form of revenge.  

Absurd and ridiculous as it is, Miyamoto’s quest does at least allow him to gain the self-confidence which will eventually allow him to patch things up with Yasuko, ironically by affirming that he no longer sees the need to look for approval and will protect her and their new family forevermore. A dark satire of fragile masculinity filled with cartoonish yet surprisingly graphic violence, Mariko’s third feature nevertheless retreats from the pure nihilism of Destruction Babies towards a more positive if perhaps equally uncomfortable resolution as the no longer quite so insecure Miyamoto prepares to enter a new phase of his life as a paternal figure and protector of a family.


Miyamoto streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Saint Young Men (聖☆おにいさん, Yuichi Fukuda, 2018)

Saint young men posterWhat if Buddha and Jesus were flatmates in modern day Tokyo? Hikaru Nakamura’s much loved manga Saint Young Men (聖☆おにいさん, Saint Oniisan) attempted to find out, casting the two holy beings as conventional manga slackers on “vacation” in the mortal realm, supposedly researching modern Japanese society. A firm favourite with fans, the franchise has already been adapted into a popular anime and now receives the live action treatment from none other than Gintama’s Yuichi Fukuda.

Split into a series of short vignettes mostly featuring only Jesus (Kenichi Matsuyama) and Buddha (Shota Sometani) in their apartment, Saint Young Men first aired as a 10-part web series before being compiled into a 70-minute movie. The central conceit is that Jesus is a cheerful if slightly feckless hippy, while Buddha is the calm and the responsible one making sure he’s well looked after. Perhaps surprisingly, Saint Young Men presents its vision of contemporary Japan from the point of view of the two guys as they explore everyday life, occasionally including explanatory narration from a distant authorial voice which, presumably, contains information widely known to the target audience, such as an explanations of “White Day” – Japan’s secondary Valentines in which men given chocolates are expected to return the favour with gifts three times the cost, and spring festival “Setsubun” in which beans are thrown at people wearing ogre masks to frighten off bad luck.

For the two guys these are fascinating little anthropological details they can get quite excited about despite their thousands of years of existence. On a trip to the convenience store, Jesus is thrilled to think he’s finally “made it” after 2000 years because some high school girls said he looked like Johnny Depp. Buddha goes to see if he looks like someone too, but the girls immediately recognise him as looking “like Buddha” which is both a disappointment and somehow validating. Meanwhile, he laments that the majority of his artistic renderings have only captured him in his “fat period” rather than the handsome figure he currently cuts. 

Bickering like an old married couple, the guys fight about the usual things – money, and the irresponsible use of it. Jesus has a bad habit of buying random stuff he doesn’t need off the internet, causing Buddha to get so annoyed he starts physically glowing and only calms down when Jesus gives him a present, a manga artist’s starter kit. Sadly, Buddha is proved right when Jesus gets bored with his random electric pottery wheel after only a few minutes, but is witness to an unexpected miracle when the clay is magically transformed into bread, turning the wheel into a “bread oven” with which Jesus seems very pleased only to tire of it just as quickly.

Trying to keep their “real” identities secret, the guys are keen to keep their abilities behind closed doors – something Buddha forgets when he hatches on the great idea of levitating to save floor space. Jesus comes home and quickly closes the curtains in case someone thinks they’re some kind of weird cult. The guys consider moving somewhere with a little more room, but discover that even for holy beings it’s almost impossible to find a decent apartment in modern day Tokyo that doesn’t cost the Earth. The primary reason Jesus wanted to move, however, is not so much that the apartment’s a little poky for two full-grown guys, but that the other place was gated which means he won’t be getting bothered by cold calling newspaper sales representatives.

Jesus may be too nice to keep saying no to pushy salesmen, but Buddha has a few unexpected trust issues. Faint from hunger, the guys think about ordering a take away, but Buddha is a strict vegetarian and worries about the chain of communication involved in food preparation. He can only trust that the restaurant follows the instructions he gives them honestly and that the delivery guy won’t do anything weird with the food on his way over. In the end, you just have to have faith, but Buddha is struggling while Jesus is content to let it all hang out. Something similar occurs when earnest Buddha unwisely meditates for hours in the beautiful snow in only his ironic T-shirt and catches a cold with only Jesus to nurse him. Jesus wants to take him to the hospital, but they don’t have insurance and don’t want to risk extortionate medical bills. Jesus’ healing powers apparently don’t work on other holy beings, and so he finds himself healing a bunch of people at the hospital to earn a free visit from a doctor with whom Buddha can only communicate through possession and telepathy.

Obviously very low budget and mostly starring just the two guys with additional appearances from their middle-aged landlady and the confused doctor, Saint Young Men is very much a Fukuda production bearing his familiar hallmark of waiting slightly too long for a joke land, which it often does not. Though seeing all 10 episodes in one go necessarily flags up their essential sameness, they do provide an amusing exploration of slacker life in contemporary Japan with occasional forays into warmhearted cross-cultural exchanges between the serious Buddha and scatterbrained Jesus.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Promare (プロメア, Hiroyuki Imaishi, 2019)

Promare poster 1It’s one of life’s ironies, sometimes the best way to stop a fire is to scorch the earth. The heroes of Studio Trigger’s first theatrical feature co-produced with XFLAG, Promare (プロメア, Puromea), are embodiments of fire and ice – a “mutant” who can shoot flames from his fingertips, and a fireman with a “burning soul”. Yet what they discover is that there is a peculiar power in their innate contradictions, actively harnessing the energy of their opposition to combat a man who thinks nothing of burning the world to save his own skin.

Our hero, Galo (Kenichi Matsuyama), is a firefighter with the Burning Rescue squad who has a talent for cheesy one liners and an overinflated sense of confidence in his own abilities. 30 years previously, the world was plagued by a series of strange incidents of spontaneous combustion later attributed to the “Burnish” phenomenon in which some members of humanity developed a mutation that allowed them to manipulate fire. The danger eventually died down, but the “Burnish” as they came to be known continued to exist in society as a kind of oppressed underclass, viewed with fear and suspicion and largely unable to live “normal” lives even if they wanted to. On a supposedly “routine” job, Galo unexpectedly encounters the leader of the Mad Burnish “terrorist” organisation and determines to bring him in, eventually awarded a medal for his pains.

As might be assumed, however, all is not as it seems. The Burning Rescue squad work for Galo’s mentor, Kray Foresight (Masato Sakai), now the governor and an enormously wealthy, influential man thanks to his advances in scientific firefighting technology. Kray reveals that the Earth is sitting on a volatile layer of magma somehow connected to the existence of the Burnish which threatens to destroy the planet if it cannot be properly controlled. This is a kind of justification for Kray’s ultra hardline stance against the Burnish who are hunted down and captured by the Freeze Force (see what they did there?) simply for living their lives even if they have committed no crimes.

Despite the nature of their work, the Burning Rescue squad are a more progressive bunch. They don’t approve of the social prejudice against the Burnish many of whom are just minding their own business and pose no threat to anyone, nor do they approve of the role the Freeze Force seems to play in their society. Mostly what they care about is stopping fires and making sure people endangered by them are eventually saved. They know that the Freeze Force’s persecution of the Burnish is at best counterproductive and fuelling the kind of resentment that makes them want to burn things. Wandering into the Mad Burnish hideout, Galo sees a different side to their struggle and learns a few home truths about his own side from the dashing rebel leader Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome).

Burning Rescue and the Mad Burnish ought to be opposing poles but display a curious symmetry in their fierce loyalty to their own and emphasis on team work. Others, meanwhile, think only of themselves, coming up with nefarious plans to let the planet burn and move to a new intergalactic home with a starter stock of the most “valuable” 10,000 humans while everyone else succumbs to the flames. The Burnish become merely fuel, sacrificed for a “greater good” for a “chosen few”.

Galo and Lio think they’re “chosen ones” too, in a sense, but are flatly told that their role in events is really just fortuitous coincidence. Nevertheless, the fate of the world depends on their ability to bridge their differences, harnessing the unique capabilities of fire meeting ice against the forces of cold self-interest. Sometimes the only way to stop a fire is to let it burn out bright, which is what the guys discover in trying to find a way to quell that troublesome magma. Recreating the anarchic spirit of Kill la Kill, Studio Trigger’s first theatrical feature is a colourful riot of post-modern absurdity, but has its heart firmly in the right place with a strong progressive pro-diversity message in which we save the world only by saving each other.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)

Bright future posterThe cinema of the late ‘90s and early 2000s is one defined by alienated youth kicking back against a stagnant society in which they see no place for themselves now that the dull and conventional salaryman world of their parents can no longer offer security in place of fulfilment. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s early masterpieces had edged towards the nihilistic, embracing this sense of generational hopelessness but finding perhaps glimmers of possibility in the longing for escape no matter how far off. Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Akarui Mirai), shifting away from the genre fare which had made his name, does something much the same but perhaps even bleaker in its melancholy acceptance of intergenerational disconnection.

Our two heroes, Yuji (Joe Odagiri) and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), have workaday jobs at a factory which they find fulfilling only in their emptiness. The guys have found a fan in the factory’s ageing boss, Fujiwara (Takashi Sasano), who begins giving them special jobs and trying to hang out with them while promising a special signing bonus should they agree to become regularised employees. Bonding in their resentment towards men of Fujiwara’s age who romanticise their youth while exercising paternal authority and entitlement, the two hatch their revenge on an unforgiving society through the strange plan to acclimatise their pet jellyfish to life in modern Tokyo.

The jellyfish, closely associated with the ethereal Yuji, becomes a kind of symbol of the “bright future” the two young men fear will elude them. They, like the jellyfish, have tried to acclimatise themselves to living in the otherwise hostile environment of contemporary Tokyo but also accept that the ability to survive may not be enough and it may eventually be necessary to remove oneself from an unforgiving society until such time as it is possible to return.

This or something like it seems to be Mamoru’s key philosophy as the owner of the jellyfish and the chief architect of the “bright future” both men dream of – literally in the case of Yuji who is the idea’s unwilling prophet. Mamoru has, for reasons unknown, decided to take the strangely melancholic Yuji under his wing, eventually entrusting sole custody of the jellyfish to him in an attempt to force him to look after “himself”. In service of this ideal and perhaps of Yuji’s unwilling visions, Mamoru takes more immediate revenge against the literal Fujiwara – murdering his boss and his wife (Marumi Shiraishi) in their well appointed middle-class home (only their small daughter is spared). Yuji interprets this gesture as protective seeing as he himself had found the bodies after wandering into the Fujiwara home with violence on his mind, but misinterprets Mamoru’s intentions for him in disappointing his mentor by insisting that he is prepared to “wait” for him rather than take this cue to step up and take control of his own life’s direction. 

Yuji is indeed, like the majority of heroes in turn of the century Japanese cinema, entirely directionless. He appears to have no surviving family in the older generation, only an exasperated sister who does her best to help but doesn’t know how, attempting to straightjacket him into a salaryman world of conventional success with an office boy job at her understanding company. A strange young man, Yuji has has vivid dreams and a need for control and routine – it’s the closure of the local bowling lanes which sends him round to the Fujiwara’s in a calm yet violent rage while repeatedly losing in a video arcade to his sister’s boyfriend also sends his insecurity into overdrive. He once dreamt of a “bright future” but now sees only darkness. Stepping up onto the roof of a building in which he is learning to find a home, he is forced to admit that despite attempting to look far into the distance he can’t see much of anything at all from where he is right now.

Yet for all his resentment towards men like Fujiwara, it’s a father figure which eventually begins to push him in a more positive direction. Mamoru’s father Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji) takes his son’s vulnerable best friend under his wing, giving him a home and a purpose as he begins to teach him how to repair things that might ordinarily be thrown away. Shinichiro’s previous assistant quit because he saw no future in this line of work, but Yuji seems to delight in the repurposing of the previously useless for arcane ends even if his chief contribution is a continuation of his jellyfish experiments. Shinichiro, superficially supportive, cannot understand the obsession with the jellyfish. Attempting to reassure a thwarted Yuji, he asks him what exactly the jellyfish could achieve in a world so resistant to real change yet he also berates him with the impassioned impotence of age in decrying his contemptuous dismissal of the reality which, after all, belongs to men like Shinichiro who will demand respect while offering very little in return.

The jellyfish find they can’t live in Tokyo, but youth adopts a different solution as it runs rampant with out purpose or direction but seemingly delighting in meaningless anarchy. A group of teens Yuji runs into wear identical Che Guevara T-shirts while sporting light-up microphone headsets as they wander round the city kicking cardboard boxes and laughing as they go, like overgrown children with no clear forward path before them. Age and youth seem primed to exist in differing realities, perpetually unable to understand each other while youth struggles to find direction in the absence of parental guidance. Ironic in the extreme, the “bright future” here seems to exist only as a vague hope but, perhaps, the only guiding light in an ever darkening world.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yurigokoro (ユリゴコロ, Naoto Kumazawa, 2017)

Yurigokoro posterThose who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, as they say, but is it better to acknowledge the dark parts of yourself as part of an inherited legacy or ignore a nagging sense of incompleteness in favour of a harmonious existence? The hero at the centre of Naoto Kumazawa’s Yurigokoro (ユリゴコロ), adapted from the mystery novel by Mahokaru Numata, is about to discover a side of himself he might not like just as storm clouds seem to gather over his previously idyllic childhood home.

For Ryosuke (Tori Matsuzaka), everything had been looking up. He’d set up his own business – a charming cafe and summer lodge, with the woman he intended to marry, Chie (Nana Seino). However, no sooner has he introduced his fiancée to his father than she disappears, gone without trace. Meanwhile, his father informs him that he has stage four pancreatic cancer. Suddenly everything is falling apart and the braver the face he tries to put on it, the worse he seems to feel. Perhaps that’s why he can’t resist opening up a mysterious old box hidden in a cupboard in his father’s study that almost calls out to him to be opened. Inside the box is an old exercise book with the title “Yurigokoro” pencilled on the front. Ryosuke only reads the first few pages but they’re enough to disturb and fascinate him. The book, written in the first person, recounts the dark history of a murderess (Yuriko Yoshitaka) from silent, disconnected child to vengeful spirit.

“Yurigokoro” as the diary’s protagonist later explains is a made-up word, one she childishly misheard from the mouth of a well meaning doctor (who probably meant “yoridokoro” which means something like grounding). It could, however, almost translate as a shaking heart – something the doctor seems to imply the child does not quite have which is why she feels disconnected from the world around her and unable, or unwilling, to speak. The girl in the book travels through life looking for something that makes her heart beat and originally finds it only in the strange pleasure of watching something die, at first by accident and later by design. She drifts into an intense relationship with a damaged young woman (Aimi Satsukawa) who, like her in a fashion at least, resorts to self harm in order to feel alive. She thinks she finds her home, but it slips away from her or perhaps changes in form as it succumbs to inevitable disappointment.

Yet, in the grownup crimes at least, there is a kind of love in amongst grudging resentment. Ryosuke reads the diary and declares he does not relate to it at all but something about it gets under his skin and he can’t let it rest. He hears from an older woman (Tae Kimura) that Chie may have a past he knew nothing about, largely because he failed to ask, and that she may be in danger. He begins to feel rage surfacing within him like the dark violence of the diary’s protagonist and it both frightens and enthrals him.

The owner of the diary likens her experience of existing in the world to being prickled by hundreds of tiny thorns. She seeks relief through bloodletting and violence, as if she could shake herself free of the tiny stings that remind her of nothing other than her sense of emptiness. Later she discovers that love too can shake the heart, but the old darkness remains and even the most positive of emotions may require an act of violence in order to sustain it. The diarist remains ambivalent, knowing that there is no salvation for her except death and that any attempt to stave off the darkness with light will eventually fail, but determined to cling on to her brief moment of wholeness however inauthentic for as long as it lasts.

Ryosuke, meanwhile, who’d apparently never sensed in himself the kind of gaping emptiness that the diary’s owner describes, is forced to wonder if the diary is legacy and destiny, if he too is destined to commit random acts of inescapable violence as someone unfit for living as a human being among other human beings. Love might not have “cured” the darkness inside the diarist, but it did change it in quite a fundamental way, a way that eventually provided him with the means of his “salvation” perhaps at the cost of her own if only he is willing to accept it. Ryosuke might wish he’d never opened that particular box, but in doing so he discovers not only the path towards a fully integrated self but that his own darkness can be tempered precisely because of the sacrifice that was made on his behalf.


Yurigokoro was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Something Like, Something Like It (の・ようなもの のようなもの, Taiichi Sugiyama, 2016)

something like, something like it posterSadly passing away at the young age of 61 in 2011, Yoshimitsu Morita had been relatively prolific in his 25-year career, leaving behind him a hugely varied back catalogue that ran from zany idol movies to prestigious literary adaptations. His recurrent concerns, however, were relentlessly populist – he wanted to make films that ordinary people could enjoy which intensely reflected the time in which they were made. Five years after his death, one of his early ADs chose to pay tribute to his mentor by drawing inspiration from Morita’s 1981 feature debut, Something Like It. Something Like, Something Like It (の・ようなもの のようなもの, No Yona Mono no Yona Mono) brings the original cast back together with a few new faces from the late director’s more recent works to recreate yesterday’s pleasures for today’s audiences.

Our hero this time round is young Shinden (Kenichi Matsuyama). Well, he’s not really all that young despite being the lowest ranking rakugoka on the roster. Now 30 and beginning to lose hope, Shinden is a former salaryman well known for taking his time. Meanwhile, the 13th memorial service for the late master is fast approaching and the troupe’s patron has decreed she wants to see the return of an old friend – Shintoto (Katsunobu Ito) who abruptly disappeared right after the funeral. Seeing as Shinden is not so hot at rakugo, the other guys task him with tracking down Shintoto in the hope of convincing him to make a return to the stage so the patroness doesn’t decide to remove her patronage.

Rakugo – the traditional art of comic storytelling, is a rarefied affair. It requires extreme rigour from the performer in order to make often extremely familiar tales funny in all the right places. Shinden isn’t very good at it because he’s too stiff all over. Poor at reading social cues, he has an urge to point out tiny and embarrassing mistakes like a slightly frayed curtain or a wonky sign. He might not be best placed for finding and then convincing a sad old man to take back up the career he’d sworn to lay down. Nevertheless, once Shinden manages to find Shintoto and realises he’s made an extremely circular journey, he makes himself his disciple and commits himself to doing all Shintoho’s odd jobs in the hope he’ll finally finish the “Pop-Eyed Goldfish” routine that the patroness so wants to hear.

Taiichi Sugiyama* was an AD on Something Like It but is only making his own feature debut 25 years later. Reassembling the old cast, Sugiyama remains true to an old formula and his genial retro comedy certainly has an old fashioned quality right down to the cutesy jazz score which feels right out of the ‘80s. More modern additions come in the form of Kenichi Matsuyama (who starred in Morita’s final film, Train Brain Express) back on comedy form with a typically left of centre performance as the archetypal “cannot read the air” aspiring rakugoka whose tendency towards literalism as well as that to be distracted by minor imperfections threatens to ruin his career before it’s even really begun. That’s not to mention his nascent crush on his mentor’s daughter Yumi (Played by Keiko Kitagawa who made her feature debut in Morita’s Mamiya Brothers) and mild jealousy over the other various young and good looking men she seems to take an interest in.

Through getting closer to the now somewhat schlubby but basically good hearted Shintoto, Shinden learns to loosen up a bit and his Rakugo perhaps improves even if he also figures out when it’s best to make a sacrifice on someone else’s behalf. Shintoto too rediscovers his talent for comedy, if not the love. Morita never had much of a “signature” style – his films were in a sense tailor made to suit a particular purpose, but Sugiyama remains firmly within the world of early ‘80s comedy, allowing the everyday to brim with silliness as Shinden pursues his roundabout quest before coming quite literally full circle and then finding his feet again. A man pays tribute to his late mentor, mentors someone else, and then absents himself from the frame to let his pupil grow. One generation retreats and another rises – an age old story, but one that like a rakugo tale shines in the telling.


*IMDB and some other sites list his name as Yasukazu but according to the JFDB and Shochiku the official reading of his name is Taiichi.

Chinese release trailer (English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Chin-yu-ki: The Journey to the West with Farts (珍遊記, Yudai Yamaguchi, 2016)

Chin-yu-ki posterWhen a film tells you what it is, you should believe it the first time. Many fine films are undone by unwise titles, but if you were expecting anything more than what is promised by the title of Chin-yu-ki: Journey to the West with Farts (珍遊記), you have only yourself to blame. Director Yudai Yamaguchi is known for his distinctly lowbrow, zany humour and it seems he’s met his match in adapting the much loved Journey to the West parody manga, Chin-yu-ki – Taro to Yukaina Nakamatachi. Set in Japan in an indistinct period possibly somewhere around the Meiji restoration, Chin-yu-ki is a bawdy story of penis power, fantastic farts, romantic disappointments, and the ongoing path to enlightenment of its slightly more than cheeky hero.

Beginning as it means to go on, the film opens with a Buddhist nun, Genzo (Kana Kurashina – renamed “Shenzang” in the subtitles on this HK blu-ray to match the original Journey to the West), talking to an older couple referred to as “Old Fart” (Ryosei Tayama) and “Old Bag” (Takashi Sasano). The couple were never blessed with children of their own and so when they notice a great flash and something falling to Earth, they are delighted to find a lovely baby boy lying in the crater. Unfortunately, Taro Yamada (Kenichi Matsuyama), as the baby is called, is a wrong ‘un. Now 16 years old, Taro is a fiery demon who has robbed the entire area to build himself a giant mansion where he lives on his own and has provided his adoptive parents with a small hovel on the outskirts of town. Old Fart and Old Bag try to warn Genzo that Taro is not your average sinner – he controls people with his giant penis and stinky farts.

Genzo is undeterred and demonstrates her various skills which, strangely, centre around the ability to unping a bra at 20 paces (yes, apparently in this version of the Meiji era, people wear bras). Her other trick is magically hurling buns into people’s mouths which does at least shut them up for a bit. Against the odds she manages to tame Taro, reducing him to his basic, naked state in which she manages to shove a magic crown on his head which allows her to control him and stop him doing naughty things. Genzo determines to take Taro to Tianzhu to purify his soul and so the pair walk off together towards their joint destiny.

The road trip format provides plenty of scope for set piece gags as Genzo and Taro encounter various strange characters along the way who often make surprising returns. This is no character drama, but Taro does indeed learn a few things even as he remains as wilfully naughty as in his unreformed state. As it turns out, the major narrative event revolves around a grudge held by a man who previously encountered Taro at his most cruel. Ryusho (Junpei Mizobata), now a famous pretty boy actor, is still nursing a broken heart after Taro ruined his true love dream which had proved so difficult for him to win as a shy young schoolboy. Now backed by a series of strange companions including a dominatrix-type assistant who dresses in shiny leather and carries a whip, a woman in Cheongsam, and a man in anachronistic Chinese PLA uniform, Ryusho is still a hopeless romantic and develops an unlikely crush on Genzo, which she returns but is unable to act on because of her vows and her mission to reform Taro.

Misunderstandings abound and it has to be said, the crosstalk between Ryusho who has been abandoned by his buddies and has hired a series of Vietnam-era American mercenaries, Genzo, and Taro as they argue about an unclear subject is genuinely quite funny as is the reaction when Taro unmasks himself in a local bar full of bounty hunters who don’t believe he is who he says he is because he’s wearing a shirt with the name of a guy he just robbed on it. The rest of the humour is, however, of a lower order even if the penis and fart jokes fade out in the middle section of the film which does have a few amusing jokes of its own. Matsuyama delivers a surprisingly energetic performance which is in strong contrast with the distant, inscrutable characters he often plays but as cheerful as his Monkey King stand in is, he can’t compensate for the film’s otherwise disposable quality which seems primed to appeal to those seeking zany, lowbrow humour but offers very little else.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bare Essence of Life (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー , Satoko Yokohama, 2009)

©Little More Co.

bare essence of life posterThere might be a pun involved in the title of Bare Essence of Life – another example of a Japanese film with a katakana English title, Ultra Miracle Love Story (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー), given a completely different English language title for overseas distribution, but that would be telling. Following her feature debut German + Rain, Satoko Yokohama once again tells a tale of small town misfits only this time of an Aomori farm boy whose brain is wired a little differently to everyone else’s – “not broken, just different”. Though everyone in the village knows Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) and is familiar with his sometimes unusual behaviour, a young visitor taking a temporary job in a quaint rural backwater may need a little more time to acclimatise.

Yojin is, as he says, a little different from the others. Neatly signalling a problem with executive functioning, he lives his life to the tune of several different alarm clocks with deliberately different sound cues to help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing. Grandma also helps with that too through use of a giant whiteboard which has Yojin’s daily itinerary on it so he can keep track of where he is and record his thoughts about the day. Yojin’s grandfather has passed away but has left him some valuable horticulture tips on a cassette tape which Yojin listens to diligently every day whilst tending to his cabbages, trying to work out a good way of keeping them safe from creepy crawlies seeing as grandma doesn’t really trust him with insecticide (later events will prove this to be wise).

Everything changes when brokenhearted school teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) arrives all the way from Tokyo as temporary cover for maternity leave at the local nursery. Oddly, seeing as there are so few young people around, the school seems pretty busy with youngsters but then again perhaps they’ve come from neighbouring villages which would explain why the parents are sometimes so late coming to pick their kids up. In any case, Machiko instantly captures Yojin’s heart and he becomes fixated on the idea of making her his one and only. Machiko, however, is battling her own romantic woes and is originally quite taken aback by Yojin’s odd combination of directness and innocence.

Yojin is, undoubtedly, a lot to take in, but the villagers are all very used to his ways and mostly just shrug his various antics off even when they entail inconveniences like office paperwork suddenly scattered to the wind, or getting pelted with vegetables after taking issue with Yojin’s sales patter. Grandma bears the brunt of his rudeness not to mention self-centred attitude and otherwise difficult behaviour but she also worries how he’s going to look after himself when she’s gone. Hence the vegetable patch – a literal testing ground. Machiko makes Yojin wish he were different, and a half-baked experiment in which he buries himself up to the neck in his cabbage patch (perhaps to better understand cabbages so that he can figure out how to grow them) and a neighbourhood boy sprinkles him with pesticide shows him a way he can make it happen.

So begins Yojin’s long, strange path towards “evolution” as he discovers that exposure to various chemicals helps him slow everything down so he can be a little more like everyone else. Moving into the centre ground makes his presence more palatable to Machiko, giving them time to bond during nighttime walks as Machiko outlines her curious theories on the forward motion of the human race. Machiko wonders if humanity’s need to control the unpredictable, smooth out rough edges and tame nature is limiting its ability to change and grow, yet even as she says so Yojin is attempting to temper his own wildness expressly for Machiko. Nevertheless, getting to know him Machiko comes to the conclusion that maybe what Yojin needs is to become more Yojin, rather than dousing himself in dangerous chemicals which seem to have provoked some kind of strange metamorphosis as yet unknown to medical science.

Chemicals aside, Yojin’s world takes a turn a definite turn for the surreal as he chats with headless ghosts and then temporarily joins the ranks of the undead himself. Yokohama has a point or two to make about the use of pesticides – a neighbourhood woman warns Machiko to head indoors when she first arrives because it’s crop spraying day, but then refuses to buy Yojin’s “organic” vegetables because she’s not convinced anything grown without chemical assistance could really be “safe” or “clean” enough for consumption. This need to control nature may eventually ruin it, and us too – much as Machiko’s hypothesis posited. Maybe Yojin is the most evolved us all, defiantly in touch with his essential nature and, perhaps, finally allowing his soul to find its true home if in the strangest of ways.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)