Noise (Yusaku Matsumoto, 2017)

noise posterWhat makes someone take off on a homicidal rampage? First time director Yusaku Matsumoto attempts to find out by examining the down and dirty backstreets of Akihabara eight years after a mass killing shook the nation. Dealing with trauma, the death of the family, the precarious position of vulnerable young women pulled into an industry they don’t quite understand, economic insecurity, underground idols, and general nihilistic hopelessness Matsumoto has certainly conjured enough noise to drive even the most level of heads to distraction but once again, it is the city itself which eats its young in the indifferent frenzy of modern life.

Eight years ago, Misa’s mother was one of several people murdered by a lone assailant who drove a truck into a busy pedestrian intersection in Akihabara before getting out and stabbing random passersby. Misa is now making a go of it as an “underground idol” – young girls who sing and dance in clubs in Akihabara but don’t have recording contracts or big studios behind them. When not performing on stage she makes ends meet by working in the “massage parlour’ attached to the studio where she provides sexualised services but not actual sex to met who pay a flat rate on the door and then pick their particular activities off the menu inside.

Meanwhile, delivery driver Ken lives a lonely and miserable existence with his hedonistic mother who rolls in drunk early in the morning and constantly badgers her son for money. Ken would like to better himself and escape his dreadful living conditions, but his mother disagrees and disapproves of him spending his money on online courses rather than giving it all to her. Ken’s mother is also in trouble with the same loanshark gangsters which (secretly) run Misa’s club.

The third plot strand follows high school girl Rie and her lonely father who looks after grandpa at home and tries to reconnect with his daughter but can’t seem to get through to her. Rie chases a delinquent boyfriend she fantasises about trapping through pregnancy before getting herself mixed up with gangsters and embroiled in the same world as Misa but with no one looking out for her.

The strongest theme which runs through the film is that of familial breakdown. All of the protagonists come from one parent families in which the remaining parent has largely failed in their responsibilities. Though this seemingly deliberate approach is unfortunate in playing into the stigma surrounding atypical families, it is certainly true that none of the young people has any access to support from the older generation. Misa’s father had long been abusive even before her mother died, gambling the family money away betting on the horses and spending his life at home drinking. Now seemingly reformed (though not perhaps free of gambling), he wants to try again but it may already be too late.

Similarly, Rie’s father does his best – coming home from work on time, cooking proper meals, and trying to take an interest but he can’t get through to his angry teenage daughter and is also preoccupied by the need to care for his aged, bedridden father. In a strange coincidence he ends up visiting Misa’s underground idol bar where he takes a liking to Misa precisely because she looks a little bit like Rie. Nicknamed Yama-chan by the girls, Rie’s father’s attempts to forge a connection with a look-a-like of his own daughter take on a painfully tender quality of muddled, misdirected affection but a quick look around the rest of the club makes plain it’s not so far removed from the massage parlour as one might think. One of the other regular patrons is a colleague of Ken’s who seems to have little else in his life apart from underground idols, spending his life in the club buying false connection through Polaroid photos and handshakes. What the girls are selling isn’t sex but (false) kindness, providing a facsimile of the love each of these disconnected men is seeking but either thinks themselves unworthy of or is unable to find out in the “real” world.

Ken looks down on these men, he doesn’t understand why they waste their lives in vacuous pursuits of empty pleasure, but his own life, which has been more or less ruined by his irresponsible mother, holds little pleasure of its own. Reading books about mass killings and inspired by the 2008 mass murder, Ken repeatedly makes nuisance phone calls to the police station which arrested the killer threatening to commit a similar crime himself. Flat broke, abandoned, evicted, and with no future possibilities it’s little wonder he feels as backed into a corner as he does but Ken’s final, raw phone call in which the policeman on the other end tries to reassure him that hope does exist proves the last straw in his ever fracturing mental state.

In trying to answer the question why someone might want to kill others, Matsumoto does indeed blame noise. Misa, in giving a painful to camera interview looking back on the massacre reveals that she took all of her anger and internalised it, hurting herself rather than others. Ken, by contrast, seems to burn with rage permanently on the brink of explosion. Rie tries to find the peace she couldn’t find in her own family by starting a new one but is extremely deluded by her choice of mate and then deluded once again by a man faking kindness but thinking only of commerce. All of this desperation – the exploitation, the gangsters, the dire economic prospects of neglected children, conspire to push the already strained closer to the edge, believing that harming others will make them feel better through a strange kind of social revenge. Matsumoto’s Akihabara pulses to beat of synth strings and idol pop, though its soundscape is not one of freedom and joy but anxiety and depression as the city’s disenfranchised youth marches towards its dead end future with no hope in sight.

Screened at Raindance 2017

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sower (種をまく人, Yosuke Takeuchi, 2016)

the sower stillWhen tragedy strikes the one thing you ought to be able to rely on is your family, but when the tragedy occurs within that sacred space which exits between you what is to be done? Yosuke Takeuchi’s The Sower (種をまく人, Tane wo Maku Hito) attempts to provide an answer whilst putting one very ordinary, loving and forgiving family through a series of tests and tragedies. Lies, regret, and despair conspire to ruin the lives of four once happy people but even in the midst of such a shocking, unexpected event there is still time to turn towards the sun rather than continuing in the darkness.

Mitsuo has just been released from a mental hospital where he received treatment for a nervous breakdown suffered as a direct result of his time as a relief worker after the Tohoku earthquake. Returned to the home of his brother Yuta and his wife Yoko, Mitsuo’s family welcome him with open arms and he is delighted to become reacquainted with his niece Chie as well as meet her younger sister, Itsuki, for the first time. Yoko’s mother was supposed to be coming to help out with the children but has let them down once again. Uncle Mitsuo seems like the perfect solution but tragedy strikes when he leaves the girls on their own to use the bathroom and comes back to discover that Chie has dropped her sister causing her to hit her head on a curb stone surrounding the play area. Mitsuo rushes to the hospital but Itsuki sadly passes away. Chie, overcome with guilt and fear hastily blurts out that her uncle dropped her sister while Mitsuo remains silent.

Chie’s claim sparks a series of consequences, the most serious being the intervention of the police investigating the case who are very keen to poke into each and every dark corner of this ordinary family. Despite the fact that Mitsuo has only been staying with them a few days, the police almost push Chie into accusing Mitsuo of abuse of herself or her sister, trying to paint him as some kind of deranged threat to children everywhere. Feeling guilty about her lie and fearing discovery Chie wisely says nothing, refusing to further incriminate her uncle save for a brief indication that he dropped Itsuki on purpose.

The police are confused, there is no evidence to support the idea of Mitsuo having behaved suspiciously towards either of the girls or anyone else for that matter. There would seem to be no motive for him to intentionally harm his niece, though they don’t want to accuse a grieving little girl of making things up, either. Conscious that making Chie give evidence in court, especially if she is going to lie, may have terrible consequences for her future the police urge Yuta to talk seriously with his daughter and try to get to the truth through more gentle means.

The swarm of tragedy has, however, already begun to drive a wedge between husband and wife. Even at the funeral, Yoko’s mother, forgetting that much of this is her fault for letting the family down in the first place, overtly criticises their decision to take in someone just released from a mental hospital and then leave him in charge of small children. Yuta loves his brother unconditionally, knows he is a good person and does not blame him for his daughter’s death. Yoko cannot bring herself to understand her husband’s reaction, accusing him of choosing his brother over their little girl. Mitsuo’s mental state is repeatedly offered as an explanation for what happened despite the fact that his condition is down to an excess of compassion rather than any violent or destructive impulses.

This same kindness means that he never speaks out or tries to appeal to Chie to tell the truth, shouldering the burden of her guilt and perhaps feeling responsible for having left her alone with her sister even if it was only for a few short minutes. Chie, terrified and remorseful, deeply regrets her original lie but is too afraid to tell the truth. When she finally does decide to confide in someone she is instantly told to keep quiet about it, placing an additional burden on this already fragile little girl in asking her to keep two terrible secrets perhaps for the rest of her life.

As the family falls apart, Mitsuo retreats to the woods, planting sunflowers which Itsuki loved in every conceivable place. Literally trying to plant the seeds of hope, Mitsuo spreads his sunflowers far and wide bringing colour and life to a landscape of desolation but it may take more than flowers to light the way out of this hellish, inescapable tragedy.

The Sower was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)