River’s Edge (リバーズ・エッジ, Isao Yukisada, 2018)

River's Edge poster 2The ‘90s were a strange time to be a teenager, but then what age isn’t? Isao Yukisada, surprisingly making his first manga adaptation, brings Kyoko Okazaki’s cult hit River’s Edge (リバーズ・エッジ) to the big screen, recreating those days of nihilistic despair in which ordinary teens spiralled out of control in the wake the bubble bursting, watching all their possibilities disappear in a cloud of smoke. Set in 1994, River’s Edge is a post-bubble story but it also takes place in the period immediately before everything started to go wrong. In 1995 there was a devastating earthquake followed by terror in Tokyo and somehow it all seemed so dark – something the kids at the centre of River’s Edge already seem to see as they watch time flow, knowing all that awaits them is yet more emptiness.

Haruna (Fumi Nikaido), a spirited tomboy and latchkey kid living with her busy single-mother, is in a lazy relationship with violent popular boy Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi) though in truth she doesn’t seem to like him very much. One of her major problems with Kannonzaki is that he keeps picking on one particular guy, Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), who is rumoured to be gay. Warned by one of Kannonzaki’s minions, Haruna races off to an abandoned storeroom where she finds Yamada trussed up and naked hidden inside a locker. The pair become friends and he offers to show her his “special treasure” which turns out to be a dead body hidden among the reeds near the edge of the river. Yamada, with another friend, Kozue (Sumire) – a model with an eating disorder, likes to come to the river to gaze at the body in an effort to feel alive.

The ‘90s were full of tales of cruel, emotionless youth torturing itself without mercy and there is something of the era’s insensitivity in the detachment of the central trio. Unable to feel alive, the teens of River’s Edge chase sensation and oblivion through indiscriminate sex, drugs, violence, and self harm but rarely find the kind of fulfilment they so desperately crave. Kannonzaki, the rowdy delinquent, blames his broken home for his lack of connection, making a fierce resentment of a perceived rejection his excuse for his dangerously violent proclivities which run not only to venting his rage on the figure of the gay outsider Yamada but also to drug fuelled rough sex with one of Haruna’s classmates, Rumi (Shiori Doi), who is also chasing agency through sexuality but eventually finds herself cornered in the most terrible of ways.

Yamada is indeed gay, but can hardly say so in the environment in which he lives and so has turned in on himself with a near sociopathic detachment. Having given up on the idea of romantic fulfilment he has resigned himself to loving the object of his affection from afar, happy enough that he exists in the world even if he can never declare himself let alone dare to hope his feelings may be returned. Yamada works as a rent boy in the evenings, going to hotels with middle-aged men for money, but has a fake girlfriend at school, Kanna (Aoi Morikawa), whom he uses as a beard. Kanna, seemingly sweet and oblivious, soon becomes jealous of her boyfriend’s friendship with Haruna and is driven into her own kind of despair by Yamada’s continued coldness.

There’s an especial irony in Yamada’s use of Kanna which is almost certainly not lost on him. These kids, like many before them, abhor the fakery of the adult world but are also unable to embrace their own painful truths. Yamada covers up his sexuality through misleading Kanna, while Kannonzaki is resentful towards his parents who put on a front of marital harmony even after his father ran off with his mistress only to come back a week later with his tail between his legs, and Kozue laments the superficiality of her industry in which everyone falls over themselves to declare something ugly beautiful in order to make themselves feel better. There are no responsible adults here, having ruined the future for their kids they no longer have any kind of moral authority that can offer guidance or support to a jaded generation.

Shooting in the classic 4:3 of a ‘90s TV, Yukisada recreates the narrowness of an era in which the kids struggle to see past themselves, blinkered by their own solipsistic perspective and trapped by the shallowness of their perceptions. Permanently dark, gloomy, and lonely their world is one nihilistic despair in which they feel themselves already dead, living in the half-dug grave of a moribund city giving off its last few puffs of toxic industrial smoke before the whole thing collapses in on itself. In one sense nothing changes, there are no answers or cures for adolescent malaise, but something does eventually seem to shift in the genuine connection formed between two detached outsiders standing on the brink, watching the decay of their era flow past them with melancholy resignation.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2017)

mukoku posterThe way of the sword is fraught with contradictions. Like many martial arts, kendo is not primarily intended for practical usage but for self improvement, emotional centring, and fostering a big hearted love of country designed to ensure lasting peace between men. Nevertheless, it tends to attract people who struggle with just those issues, hoping to find the peace within themselves though mastery of the sword. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s long and varied career has often focussed on outsiders dealing with extreme emotions and Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU) is no different in this regard as the two men at its centre lock swords at cross purposes, each fighting something or someone else within themselves rather than the flesh and blood opponent standing before them.

Kengo Yatabe’s (Go Ayano) life has been defined by the sword. As a young boy his father, Shozo (Kaoru Kobayashi), began training Kengo intensively but his standards were high, too high for a small boy who only wanted to please his dad but found himself beaten with the weapon he was failing to master. Twenty years later Kengo is a broken man after a long deferred violent confrontation between father and son has left Shozo in a vegetative state, neither dead nor alive, no longer a figure of fear and hate but of guilt and ambivalence. Kengo has given up kendo partly out of guilt but also as a kind of rebellion mixed with self harm and is currently working as a security guard. He spends his days lost in an alcoholic fog, trailing an equally drunken casual girlfriend (Atsuko Maeda) behind him.

Meanwhile, high school boy Toru (Nijiro Murakami) is a classic angry young man working out his frustrations through a hip-hop infused punk band for which he writes the angst ridden poetry that serves as their lyrics. Toru has no interest in something as stuffy as Kendo but when he’s set upon by a bunch of Kendo jocks he decides he’s not going down without a fight. Winning through underhanded street punk moves would normally be frowned upon but the ageing monk who runs the high school kendo club, Mitsumura (Akira Emoto), is struck by his nifty footwork and decides to convince the troubled young man that the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in mastery over the self through mastery of the sword.

The wise old monk pits the self-destructive older man against the scrappy young one, hoping to bring them both to some kind of peaceful equilibrium, with near tragic results. Kengo’s ongoing troubles are born of a terrible sense of guilt, but also from intense self-loathing in refusing to accept that he’s become the man he hated, as broken and embittered as the father who made him that way. Shozo was a kendo master, but as the monk points out, in technique only – his heart was forever unquiet and he never achieved the the true peace necessary to master his art. Knowing this to be the truth only made it worse yet Shozo also knew the burden he’d placed on his son. They say every man must kill his father, but Kengo can’t let the ghost of his go – clinging on to a mix of filial piety and resentful loathing which is slowly turning him into everything he hates.

Toru’s problem’s are pushed into the background but seeing as his enemy is not the flesh and blood threat of an overbearing father but the elements and more particularly water, it will be much harder to overcome. Water becomes a constant symbol for each man – for Toru it’s an inescapable symbol of death and powerlessness, but for Kengo it represents happiness and harmony in rediscovering the good memories he has of his father from joyful family outings to less abusive summer training sessions. Mukoku is the story of three ages of man – the scrappy rebellious teen, the struggling middle-aged man, and the elderly veteran whose own heart is settled enough to see the battles others are waging. The “warrior’s song” as “mukoku” seems to mean changes with each passing season, nudged into tune by the graceful art of kendo.

Kumakiri embraces his expressionist impulses as a young boy finds himself suddenly underwater, vomiting mud and fish while Kengo has constant visions of his father, mother, and younger self ensuring the past is forever present. The ominous score and strange occurrences including ghostly graveyard old women who appear from nowhere in order to offer a lecture on the five buddhist sins lend a more urgent quality to Kengo’s disintegration, though interesting subplots involving a possibly alcoholic girlfriend and a mamasan (Jun Fubuki) at a local bar who might have been Shozo’s mistress are left underdeveloped. Two men face each other to face themselves, trying to beat their demons into submission with wooden swords, but even if the battle is far from over the tide has turned and something at least has begun to shift.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Yoichi Higashi, 2016)

someones-xylophoneYoichi Higashi has had a long and varied career, deliberately rejecting a particular style or home genre which is one reason he’s never become quite as well known internationally as some of his contemporaries. This slightly anonymous quality serves the veteran director well in his adaptation of Arane Inoue’s novel which takes a long hard look at those living lives of quiet desperation in modern Japan. Though sometimes filled with a strange sense of dread, the world of Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Dareka no Mokkin) is a gentle and forgiving one in which people are basically good though driven to the brink by loneliness and disconnection.

Middle aged housewife Sayoko (Takako Tokiwa) has just moved into a new area with her security alarm salesman husband, Kotaro (Masanobu Katsumura), and teenage daughter, Kanna (Mikoto Kimura). By all appearances the home seems to be a happy one, and the atmosphere is pleasant, if ordinary. Even so, stopping into an upscale salon one day Sayoko gets a haircut from the very good looking and warm hearted hairdresser Kaito (Sosuke Ikematsu). Hoping for repeat business Kaito gives her a business card and she reciprocates with one of her own so that she can be added to the mailing list. After some awkward chitchat, she leaves but when she gets a typical “thank you for visiting, please come again” text message, Sayoko makes the unusual decision to reply. Not wanting to seem rude, Kaito continues the strange text correspondence but Sayoko’s growing interest in the good looking young man, and later even in his girlfriend, soon crosses the line from harmless fixation to inappropriate obsession, threatening to derail her otherwise “normal” happy family life.

Higashi begins the film with a naturalistic sequence travelling from early morning light to bright sunshine as Kaito takes his bike out for a ride before returning to make breakfast for his still sleeping girlfriend, Yui (Aimi Satsukawa) – a model/store assistant at the upscale Lolita brand Baby the Stars Shine Bright. Accompanied by a thrumming, modern jazz funk soundtrack, these scenes reflect the film’s baseline reality. Kaito and Yui may live in the real world, to a point at least, whereas Sayoko has her head in the clouds and almost lives there too. A middle aged housewife, her life has begun to lose its purpose now that her daughter is almost grown and needs her much less than she ever has before. Though Sayoko and her husband appear to have a good relationship, she seems to want something more – bored with his caresses and long since past the point where there is nothing left to talk about.

The delivery of a new bed prompts a very particular fantasy of being fondled by both men at the same time though what exactly she wants from Kaito remains unclear. If her original decision to reply to a standard confirmation email could be dismissed as friendly innocence, sending a picture of your new bed to someone you just met is decidedly strange. Nevertheless, Kaito feels the need to keep replying even once it becomes clear that Sayoko has also tracked down his apartment and seems intent on further infiltrating his life. When she takes the decision to visit Yui at her work (the brand is not one which ordinarily caters to women of Sayoko’s age), the younger woman starts to get worried and eventually takes some direct action of her own.

Sayoko remains something of a cypher, a woman who can’t seem to figure herself out. The xylophone of the title refers to a dream or vision she has of a girl in far off window banging away at the instrument but never quite getting the tune – eventually she realises the girl is her, still trying to find her inner rhythm all these years later. Kotaro, by contrast, seems to have more worldly anxieties despite his outwardly calm and kindly manner. When his daughter asks him if they really need the security system they have at home he tells her about a long unsolved family murder before explaining that it just makes him feel safer when he can’t be there in person to protect his wife and daughter. Kanna, a bright child, points out that more threat is posed by accidents in the home than by intruders – to which Kotaro is forced to agree, lamenting that there is no alarm system to prevent a domestic accident. Thus when Kanna calls him to say that there has been an “incident” at home, the metaphor is an apt one – nobody was looking, and now everything’s falling apart.

Despite the expectation for grand scenes or bloody violence, Someone’s Xylophone consistently refuses to follow the signposted direction preferring a more adult resolution born of self reflection and mutual understanding. A subplot involving a very particular young man who comes to the salon solely for female contact hints at a darker path for unresolved loneliness and repressed emotion, but even if Sayoko and Kotaro make ill advised decisions in search of closeness their sojourns in alternate realities ultimately allow them to rediscover their mutual universe (for a time, at least). The xylophone finally plays out a recognisable tune as a more settled Sayoko fantasises about a phantom blanket rather than an illicit ménage à trois but whether this craving for warmth will provoke a similar crisis as the need for passion remains to be seen.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fish on Land (セイジ -陸の魚-, Yusuke Iseya, 2012)

fish on landYusuke Iseya is a rather unusual presence in the Japanese movie scene. After studying filmmaking in New York and finishing a Master’s in Fine Arts in Tokyo, he first worked as model before breaking into the acting world with several high profile roles for internationally renowned auteur Hirokazu Koreeda. Since then he’s gone on to work with many of Japan’s most prominent directors before making his own directorial debut with 2002’s Kakuto. Fish on Land (セイジ -陸の魚-, Seiji – Riku no Sakana), his second feature, is a more wistful effort which belongs to the cinema of memory as an older man looks back on a youthful summer which he claimed to have forgotten yet obviously left quite a deep mark on his still adolescent soul.

The unnamed narrator begins his tale as a disheartened salary man who tells us that his days simply pass monotonously. He no longer feels contentment but neither does he feel discomfort. Making an awkward phone call to a woman we assume is his wife, he reveals that a project has come up that he simply cannot ignore – one which takes him back to a particular summer he passed as a young man in which he encountered a lost soul and perhaps lost some of his own, too.

In the summer of 1990, the narrator was just about to graduate university and had already secured a job. Taking the final opportunity to indulge some wanderlust, he takes off riding his pedal bike across the country. However, after he gets knocked over and is taken to a local bar for some first aid treatment by its classically sad mama-san, he decides to stay and is given the nickname of “traveller” by the regulars at House 475. It’s here that he meets the titular Seiji – a cynical man with unusual presence which seems to inspire both admiration and exasperation in the small group of people who’ve come to regard the bar as a home from home.

Despite its genial, summery quality, the bar is home to several kinds of sorrow. Shoko, it turns out has her own reasons for her sadness and her relationship with Seiji is often a complicated one. It’s she who describes Seiji as a fish on land – completely at odds with his environment and entirely unable to live in the world or get along with his fellow humans. Carrying deep seated scars from his past, Seiji, she claims, is unable to feel joy so long he knows someone (anyone, anywhere) is suffering. Or, more to the point, he feels so intensely guilty that he will not allow himself to be happy and has, in some senses, given up living in this world in favour of his own filled with melancholy loneliness.

Indeed, the friendly grandfather from next-door remarks that Seiji sees things far too clearly and that’s why he’s given in to despair. According to him, our human defence against the powerlessness and fear inherent in being alive is simply becoming inured. Our insensitivity saves us, but men like Seiji feel too much and are unable to bear it. On the rare occasion Seiji smiles, it’s often to do with the little girl who lives next-door, Ritsuko, but tragedy is about to come crashing in, changing lives forever and shattering grandpa’s faith in the god he previously said granted us our lack of clarity to help us cope with life’s harshness. Seiji’s reaction is an extreme one, filled with a poetic weight that is difficult for those around him to understand but at the same time perfectly in keeping with his world view.

Framing sequence aside, Iseya opts for an interesting, slightly non-linear structure in which scenes jostle like memories, slightly disordered, sometimes repeated from a different angle and with greater insight. The framing sequence itself proves the least successful aspect of the film as it fails to marry itself to the implications of the central narrative and anchor its final scene to provide the necessary weight.

Mirai Moriayama imbues the unnamed narrator with an appropriate level of passivity whilst Hideyoshi Nishijima mirrors him with an equal and opposing force of presence which is by turns mysterious, intriguing, and occasionally threatening yet filled with vulnerability. Supporting roles are also well drawn notably by Hirofumi Arai’s local boy left behind and Kiyohiko Shibukawa’s up and coming businessman about to blow out of the small town for bubble era Tokyo, as well as the damaged bar owner Shoko played by Nae Yuki whose disintegration is slowed by Seiji’s presence but still very much in evidence.

If Fish on Land has a weakness, it’s that the invading dark forces it presents feel like a cruel, absurd, visitation on this otherwise idyllic place yet perhaps that’s entirely the point. Life is full of unpredictable cruelties which have to be accommodated no matter how difficult they may be to bear. Men like Seiji are carrying a heavy burden, one which was given to them when their arms were too weak to hold it, but still, you keep on living. Beautifully photographed, intricately plotted and rich with both character and philosophical detail Seiji: Fish on Land proves another interesting effort from Iseya who doubtless has even more to offer in the future.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Akira Ogata, 2009)

noribenIt used to be that movies about marital discord typically ended in a tearful reconciliation and the promise of greater love and understanding between two people who’ve taken a vow to spend their lives together. These endings reinforce the importance of the traditional family which is, after all, what a lot of Japanese cinema is based on. However, times have changed and now there’s more room for different narratives – stories of women who’ve had enough with their useless, deadbeat man children and decide to make a go of things on their own.

So it is for the heroine of Noriben: The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Nonchan Noriben). Inspired by Kiwa Irie’s popular manga, Noriben follows the adventures of Komaki – a woman in her early 30s who gets her daughter dressed for school one morning but secretly takes her to the train station instead where they board a train headed for Komaki’s hometown. Having left her husband who has literary aspirations and consequently no job (the couple were living off, and with, his parents), Komaki has no firm plans other than moving back in with mother. Used to living off scraps and leftovers, she knows how to make her food go further and is also an excellent cook so the unusual layered bento boxes she makes for her little girl, Noriko, prove a big hit with the kids, and later the staff, at the local school.

Hooking back up with a former crush and now local photographer, Komaki ends up tasting the best meal of her life at a tiny eatery and suddenly hatches on the idea of opening a mini bento shop of her own. Of course, it’s a steep learning curve especially for a woman in her thirties with almost no work experience and no real knowledge of how to set up and run a business which is completely leaving aside the need to hone her cookery skills. If there’s one thing you can say about Komaki, it’s that once she’s set her mind on something she will make it happen and so her new life in her old town is just beginning.

Noriben addresses a lot of themes which are becoming fairly common at the moment including the “boomerang daughter” who suddenly arrives home following the breakdown of a marriage. Komaki’s soon to be ex-husband is not an enticing proposition and it seems that most, if not all, of what she says about him is true. He’s a layabout whose dreams of becoming an author are very unlikely to come true and, as his parents seem content to go on supporting him, his promises of getting a real job are most likely hollow too. There’s no real idea of the couple reconciling and when the husband suddenly turns up and starts behaving in an irresponsible way the situation ends in a bizarre marital street fight which does at least seem to clarify for the pair that their marriage really is well and truly over.

Komaki begins a tentative romance with her high school crush Takeo who took over his family’s photography studio though with the advent of digital technology and home printing the shop’s days are numbered. However, Komaki’s uncertain marriage status and Takeo’s diffidence both prove stumbling blocks to the path of romantic bliss and the film seems to imply that Komaki’s own headstrong character is also a problem when it comes to building relationships. Here, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Perhaps wanting to emphasise Komaki’s strides towards becoming a truly independent woman, it has her side step romantic entanglements but it also seems to declare the need for choice where there isn’t one.

In essence Noriben is a perfectly pleasant, if slightly bland, film that meanders its ways towards a bittersweet ending. Presumably intended to be a celebration of female empowerment as this ordinary woman makes a break from an unrewarding relationship to prove that she can do better on her own, the film only partly fulfils this message as it also comes with an air of sadness and sacrifice where Komaki also has to give up on various other parts of life in order to pursue her dream. That said, Noriben does offer a degree of playful comedy and down home style wisdom that make it a fairly enjoyable, if forgettable, experience.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.