Flowers of Evil (惡の華, Noboru Iguchi, 2019)

Small-town ennui is something familiar to many who’ve found themselves feeling somewhat out of place in the place they’ve always been, but rebellions usually take less obvious forms than the nihilistic rejection of bourgeois respectability enacted by the conflicted hero at the centre of Noboru Iguchi’s Flowers of Evil (惡の華, Aku no Hana). Iguchi is best known as a director of made for export splatter exploitation, so it might come as a surprise to his fans to see him take on the admittedly dark but largely gore-fee adaptation of Shuzo Oshimi’s coming-of-age manga.

Takao (Kentaro Ito), a “regular” high school boy, likes to read “difficult” books such as the poetry collection by Charles Baudelaire from which the film takes its title. He feels himself somewhat above his surroundings, but superficially conforms to the ordinary world around him. Like many of his classmates, he’s developed an adolescent crush on the school’s prettiest girl, Nanako (Shiori Akita), but unlike his friends views her as his “muse”, a pure and untouchable figure of unspeakable desire. Nipping back to the classroom alone to retrieve a forgotten book, he spots Nanako’s gym bag lying on the floor and cannot resist opening it, burying his face in her clothes. Panicked after hearing someone nearby, he takes the bag home with him.

Everyone immediately knows that a “pervert” is responsible for the theft, they just don’t know who it is. Except for the class’ resident strange girl, Sawa (Tina Tamashiro), who apparently witnessed Takao’s descent into perversion in real time. She makes him a deal – write an essay all about what a big pervert he is and she’ll kept his secret in friendly complicity seeing as she is a kind of “pervert” too. Sawa, who is much more obviously “different” than Takao and completely unafraid of embracing it, is convinced that their town is entirely inhabited by “Shit Bugs”, and they are the only elevated beings. Uncomfortable with her own desire, Sawa’s behaviour becomes increasingly intense when Nanako unexpectedly expresses an interest in Takao, apparently impressed that he was so “upfront with his feelings” and willing to stand up for Sawa when she was accused of being a (but not the) thief.

Takao tells Sawa that he just wants to be “normal”, to be the kind of man Nanako could desire. Just another confused teenage boy, he doesn’t yet know who he is or what he feels and is, in a sense, consumed by the sense of emptiness that comes of lacking self-knowledge. He masks his sense of intellectual inferiority by feigning sophistication, spending his free time in second hand bookshops reading the accepted canon with a typically teenage obsession with death and despair. But as he is later forced to admit, he did so largely in order to feel superior. He doesn’t truly understand much of what he read and lacks the maturity to accept his confusion. Nanako challenges him in more ways than one – by calling him on his wilful repression of his desires, and by confronting him about his obsession with Flowers of Evil, a “difficult” book which try as she might she can’t understand. She doesn’t “get” Baudelaire, and she doesn’t “get” Takao because of it, but Takao doesn’t “get” Takao either because he thinks he’s a book filled with blank pages, that if you open the cover there’s really nothing interesting there, just a giant void of emptiness.

Three years after stealing the gym bag, Takao describes his new environment as infinitely grey as if devoid of any sense of life, whereas the climactic summer is coloured by a vibrant greenery he claims to be equally oppressive. Fed up with small-town life, both Takao and Sawa long for a mythical “beyond” on the other side of the mountains which trap them within the claustrophobic environment of their provincial existence. They kick back against small-town conservatism with childish shows of resistance which culminate in a very public act of self-harm dressed as societal attack, but remain unable and unwilling to address the real cause of their frustration in their adolescent inability to accept that desire itself is not “perverse” or somehow sullying some grand romantic notion of pure and innocent love.

Unable to process his desires, Takao remains unable to progress into adulthood and become, as Sawa later chides him, a “regular human”. Normality is, however, what he eventually chooses, reverting to the anxious bookworm he always was only having moved forward in learning to let something go, whereas Sawa perhaps feels that she has no other option that to accept her own “perversion” and be exiled by it. Takao discovers an internal “beyond” and tries to share it with Sawa, but she is looking for something else and cannot join him in the “regular” world to which he is always going to return. Iguchi dedicates the film to all those who are or were tormented by youth, allowing his tortured hero to find his path towards an integrated selfhood, but resists the temptation to belittle his suffering as he strips himself bare to exorcise the emptiness inside.


Flowers of Evil was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Thicker than Water (犬猿, Keisuke Yoshida, 2018)

Thicker than Water posterIn the long history of the Japanese family drama, the tensions are generally vertical rather than horizontal. Siblings are often engaged in trying to broker the peace or snatch a little bit of independent living away from an all consuming family environment. Then again, we meet most families when the kids are gown up and struggling with their approaching transition into other families or other lives. Kids fight, but grown up brothers and sisters are supposed to find a degree of civility at least even if the petty resentments of childhood never quite go away. For the parallel pairs of mismatched siblings at the centre of Thicker than Water (犬猿, Kenen), however, the reverse is true.

Older sister Yuria (Keiko Enoue) has taken over the family print shop now that her father is bedridden while her younger, prettier sister Mako (Miwako Kakei) is struggling to make it as an actress. Often resentful of her sister’s domineering, business-like attitude, Mako wilfully targets her weaknesses by making barbed comments about her weight and appearance of which she knows Yuria is insecure. Yuria, meanwhile, treats her sister as a foolish child, immediately taking over rather than let Mako do something “wrong” and thereby chipping into her insecurities about a lack of intelligence.

The spiky dynamic between the two sisters intensifies when Yuria develops a crush on a handsome young salaryman who makes regular visits to the shop to get his posters printed. Kazunari (Masataka Kubota), however, predictably falls for Mako (who is only interested in him as a way of annoying her sister). Meanwhile, he has sibling drama of his own in that his no good, thuggish older brother Takuji (Hirofumi Arai) has just been released from prison and made an unwelcome reappearance in his life.

What exists between the siblings isn’t quite “rivalry”, mostly they aren’t fighting over parental affection or esteem so much reacting against their obviously complimentary characteristics. Yuria envies Mako’s beauty, while Mako secretly envies her sister’s intellectual confidence even if she also resents her bossiness and affectation of superiority in order to mask her insecurity. Kazunari makes a show of his earnestness, that he’s doing everything “properly” – working hard, living within his means, paying off his parents’ debts and saving for his retirement, while underneath it all he envies his brother’s non-conformity even if its risks terrify him. Thus they snipe at each other. The thing about family is they know where all the buttons are and find pressing them extremely hard to resist.

That said, the familial bond is a strong one and perhaps they can snipe cruelly at each other precisely because it is unlikely to break. Nevertheless, when pettiness and cruelty intensify there can hardly be a positive outcome save perhaps to hit the reset button and send our warring siblings back to their idyllic childhoods in which they played together happily free from their adult resentments. Like children fighting over toys, each wants what the other has and seethes over the injustice of not being the one to have it. An extreme situation might seem to clear the air, repair the relationships and restore them to their original condition with each reaching an understanding of themselves and their opposite number, but old habits are hard to break and any thaw in relations is likely to be extremely temporary.

No stranger to extremes, Yoshida opens with a humorous sequence spoofing a trailer for a cheesy Japanese teen romance which is enthusiastically recommended by a series of vox pop champions, not least among them Mako who who somewhat unethically plays the part of a lovestruck young woman who over identifies with the movie’s themes. The trailer promises a “parallel love story” which, in truly Yoshida-esque irony, is more or less what we get as we witness the symmetrical tales of our two sets of warring siblings whose animosity almost tips over into co-dependency. Mirrors of each other, they love and loathe but remain unable to reconcile themselves to the various faults they see reflected in their opposing number and therefore unable to break free from the petty jealousies and resentments which define family life. There may be no escape from the intense self loathing unfairly projected onto an equally burdened sibling, but perhaps there is faint hope in the enduring continuity of their quietly simmering warfare even as it binds them in mutual misery.


Thicker than Water was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Takahiro Miki, 2017)

My Teacher posterJapanese cinema is having a mini moment of shojo crisis in its awkward obsession with student/teacher romance. While similarly themed age-gap “romances” such as After the Rain might have been better able to navigate the difficult seas of misplaced adolescent affection, Narratage and latterly My Teacher (先生!、、、好きになってもいいですか?, Sensei! …Suki ni Natte mo ii Desuka?), seem to have gone in a less palatable direction in accidentally implying that our squeamishness with these obviously inappropriate attachments might not be justified. The latest from romantic melodrama veteran Takahiro Miki, My Teacher is a perfect exemplification of the inherent problems with shojo romance and, in this case somewhat ironically, its inability to process the implications of a necessarily romantically naive perspective.

Our heroine, Hibiki Shimada (Suzu Hirose), is a shy, awkward teenager with a hopeless crush on her handsome, if somewhat aloof, history teacher, Mr. Ito (Toma Ikuta). Unlike her classmates, Hibiki has been slow to a romantic awakening and confused by her friends’ various and rapidly changing crushes. Nevertheless, like her best friend Chigusa (Aoi Morikawa), Hibiki has begun to develop feelings for a teacher – Ito whose gruff exterior hides a considerate heart. Mistaking his general kindness for an extension of personal affection, Hibiki has fallen in love and even whilst knowing that there is something not quite acceptable about her feelings decides to pursue her inappropriate crush in the manner only a naive schoolgirl can.

Ito, as expected, turns down Hibiki’s confession with weary resignation. A kind man who seems to limit his interactions with other humans in order to avoid becoming over involved, he is aware of the delicacy of the situation but also of its dangers as regards his own standing as an educator and responsible adult. He wants to protect his student, emotionally and physically, but is at a loss as to how to handle his dilemma without causing her further distress. Consequently, he fails to definitively shut down a tricky set of circumstances in good time, allowing to Hibiki to bamboozle him into an awkward bargain in which she asks him if her crush will be “OK” if she manages to score over 90% on the upcoming test. Surprised, Ito laughs and reminds her of her woeful results in the previous midterms. Understanding that she’s been turned down, Hibiki nevertheless regards Ito’s awkward laughter as a flicker of possibility and continues on in hope.

Had My Teacher continued in the same vein, with Mr. Ito valiantly attempting to guide Hibiki towards a healthier romantic consciousness while remaining mindful of the tenderness of her feelings and the delicacy of the situation as a whole, it might have entered more interesting and less problematic thematic territory. Unfortunately, it remains firmly rooted in shojo romance in which the heroine’s innocent desires must be recognised and so Mr. Ito’s nobility eventually crumbles as he begins to fall for the “earnest”, “awkward” schoolgirl and forgets his “position as a teacher”, finally giving in to “temptation” even if he then agrees that the responsibility for his transgression must rest entirely with him. Ito attempts to remove himself from the situation in recognition of the harm he may be causing, but the film won’t let him because it needs a resolution that is “romantic” rather than “realistic”.

“Realism” rears its head when the inappropriate relationship between the pair is eventually uncovered and Ito hauled before a staff committee to explain himself but the school’s understandable decision that he must be summarily fired for gross misconduct is undercut by its presentation as an act of unavoidable tragedy that fails to make a distinction between “genuine feeling” and “abuse of position”, conveniently forgetting that in these kinds of cases that is not a distinction that it is useful to make. Chigusa, trying to encourage her friend in her great romance, affirms that there is no one in the world it is not OK to love, which might have some truth in it seeing as love itself is rarely wrong, but there are instances where acting on that love would be and a teacher/student relationship is definitely one of them especially where the student is still a minor.

Indeed, the kids resent the fact that everyone treats them as children but they are, as a similarly exasperated teacher tries to explain to them, not yet adults as exemplified by their consistently self-centred perspectives which prevent them from realising the difficult position in which their decision to air their inappropriate feelings places those whom they claim to love. This dawning realisation is heralded as the pathway to adulthood in finally coming to an acceptance of the individual’s place within a community bound by ethical rules and the responsibility one has towards the feelings of others most particularly when they conflict with one’s own. It is however undercut by the irresponsible decision to push the innocent romance to its “natural” conclusion even if it has the decency to wait until after graduation until it does so. Ethically questionable as it is, Miki’s obvious talents are not in question and his beautifully composed emotionally moving aesthetics are out in force but only serve to emphasise the uncomfortably naive sensibilities of the source material.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Room Laundering (ルームロンダリング, Kenji Katagiri, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Room Laundering posterIn the olden days, when there had been a traumatic incident, holy people would be brought in to perform some kind of ritual to “purify” the air so life could go back to “normal”. These days people don’t believe in ghosts, or at least not in ghosts of that kind, but there is still a degree of discomfort involved in spending time in a place where something unpleasant has happened. Japanese rental laws state that a prospective renter/buyer should be informed if something untoward has occurred in the property, but the law only requires you to tell the next person in line. Therefore, if you can find a person willing to spend a few days in an apartment with a troubled past, they could be quite a useful asset to the unscrupulous estate agent.

Miko Yakumo (Elaiza Ikeda) is just such a woman and has therefore found herself falling into a “room laundering” career thanks to her uncle Goro (Joe Odagiri), a roguish real-estate-broker-cum-underworld-fixer with a sideline in fake IDs for undocumented migrants. Miko’s father died when she was five, and her mother disappeared without warning a few years later leaving her with her grandmother who died when Miko was 18. She’s now 20 and is nominally in her uncle’s care but having dealt with so much loss and abandonment, she prefers to keep to herself, always closed off with a pair of headphones blocking her ears, speaking to no one. The apartment “job” therefore suits her well enough with its clear stipulation to avoid mixing with the neighbours, but there’s one big drawback. Miko has recently developed the ability to see ghosts which is sometimes a problem given the circumstances her new places of residence became vacant.

A tale of learning to deal with the past, Room Laundering (ルームロンダリング) takes its heroine on some long, strange journeys but despite its death laden themes and Miko’s emotional numbness it has its essential warmths even if they’re sometimes harder to see. Miko’s travels chart a course of modern loneliness as she encounters those who’ve found themselves passing away alone, in pain and in sadness – old ladies whose bodies weren’t found until they’d almost all rotted away, neglected children who starved to death after being abandoned, businessmen who killed themselves after getting into debt, a catalogue of human misery seemingly without end. Miko doesn’t find the ghosts scary because she thinks real people are scarier. They lie, and they leave, and they let you down. At least the ghosts will stick around even if you wish they wouldn’t.

Even so, interacting with the recently deceased begins to reawaken Miko’s sense of vitality. Drinking with (or more accurately on behalf of) an insecure punk rocker (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who took his own life before sending off his demo tape proves an oddly fulfilling experience for the otherwise introverted young woman, while staying in the apartment of a murdered cosplayer (Kaoru Mitsumune) gives her a sense of purpose when she decides to help the unfortunate woman move on by unmasking the real killer. Meanwhile, she also breaks her non-fraternising rule to chat to the geeky boy next-door (Kentaro Ito) and starts to wonder if maybe not all the living are so bad after all.

In dealing with the legacy of abandonment while literally living a transient life, Miko is forced to confront the ghosts of her past and exorcise them in order to escape her self imposed limbo. Only by being on her own can she reach the realisation that she is not alone. Meanwhile, Uncle Goro’s originally shady looking services for migrants without the proper papers begin to look more altruistic than they first seemed. He, like Miko, is helping himself by helping others who are also trapped in a kind of limbo only a more prosaic earthbound one of rigid bureaucracies and xenophobic exploitation. Goro maybe a dodgy estate agent with a sideline in forcing grannies out of their homes to pave the way for “redevelopment” but at least he’s found a better system of room laundering than his colleague who generally just rents to foreigners and visa overstayers he can either evict or extort if things go wrong. It just goes to show a little bit of empathy goes a long way. After all, you’re a long time dead.


Room Laundering was screened as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)