Every Day a Good Day (日日是好日, Tatsushi Omori, 2018)

Everyday a good day posterTatsushi Omori burst onto the scene in 2005 with the extremely hard-hitting and infinitely controversial The Whispering of the Gods before going on to build a career on chronicling the unpalatable facets of human nature. He does have his lighter sides as the delightfully whimsical Seto and Utsumi proves, but even so he might be thought an odd fit for directing an adaptation of a series of autobiographical essays detailing one woman’s personal growth over a 20 year period spent perfecting the art of the Japanese tea ceremony. Every Day a Good Day (日日是好日, Nichinichi Kore Kojitsu) is, however, like much of his previous work, a story of youthful ennui and existential despair only one in which it turns out that the world is basically good once you agree to embrace it for what it is.

The film opens in 1993 with the heroine, Noriko (Haru Kuroki), a confused college student unsure of the forward direction of her life. Often ridiculed by her family for being clumsy and neurotic, Noriko compares herself unfavourably with her glamorous cousin Michiko (Mikako Tabe) who has come to the city from the country to study and appears to have her whole life already mapped out with a confidence Noriko could only dream of. A turning point arrives when she’s talked into accompanying Michiko to learn tea ceremony from a kindly old lady, Mrs. Takeda (Kirin Kiki), who lives nearby. Despite regarding tea ceremony as something fussy and old fashioned that only conservative housewives aspire to learn, Noriko begins to develop a fondness for its formalist rigour and continues dutifully attending classes for the next 24 years.

“Carry light things as if they were heavy, and heavy things as if they were light” Noriko is told as she clumsily tries to carry an urn from one room to another, though like much of Takeda-sensei’s advice it serves as a general lesson on life itself. Mystified by the entire process, Noriko and Michiko make the mistake of trying to ask practical questions about why something must be done in a particular way only for Takeda-sensei to admit she doesn’t know, it simply is and must be so. To look for that kind of literal meaning would be a waste of time.

Of course, she doesn’t quite put it that way. As Noriko later realises, some things are easy to understand and need only be done once. Other things take longer and can only be understood through a weight of experience. Just as she was bored out her mind by La Strada at 10 but moved to tears at 20, the discrete pleasures of the tea ceremony are something only fully comprehended when the right moment arrives. What was once empty formalism becomes a framework for appreciating the world in all its complexity, embracing each of the seasons as they pass and learning to live exactly in the moment in the knowledge that a moment is both eternal and transient.

Noriko continues to feel herself out of place as she witnesses those around her progress in their careers, get married, or go abroad while she remains stuck, unable to find a direction in which to move. Even tea ceremony occasionally betrays her as new pupils arrive, depart, and sometimes wound her newfound sense of confidence by quickly eclipsing her. Nevertheless, the calm and serenity of ritualised motion become a place of refuge from the confusing outside world while also offering a warmth and friendship perhaps unexpected in such an otherwise ordered existence.

Over almost a quarter of a century, Noriko’s life goes through a series of changes from career worries to romantic heartbreak, learning to love again, and bereavement, while tea ceremony remains her only constant. She may not yet have discovered the path to happiness, but perhaps has begun to reach an understanding of it and believe that it might exist in some future moment – as Takeda-sensei says, there are flowers which bloom only in winter. In any case, what she’s learned is that sometimes it’s better not to overthink things and simply experience them to the best of your ability while you’re both still around. Every day really is a good day when you learn to slow down and truly appreciate it, living in the moment while the moment lasts in acknowledgement that it will never come again.


Every Day a Good Day was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shoplifters (万引き家族, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)

Shoplifters poster 2Tolstoy once said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The family drama is the mainstay of Japanese cinema, though to be fair it rarely features families which are noticeably “unhappy” so much as struggling under the weight of social expectations. Nevertheless, since consumerism arrived in force, the concept of “the family” has come in for regular interrogation. That at the centre of Shoplifters (万引き家族, Manbiki Kazoku), Hirokazu Koreeda’s return to the genre with which he is most closely associated, are on one level among the happiest of families ever captured on film, but then again they are not quite like all the others.

The Shibatas live in a small Japanese-style house owned by “grandma” Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) whose pension (or, to be more precise, that of her late husband) makes up a significant portion of the family income. Patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky) has a casual job as a day labourer while his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works in a laundry. Her “sister” Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) tells people she works as a kind of hostess but actually dresses up as a schoolgirl and performs sex services behind a two-way mirror in a sleazy club. Meanwhile, Osamu and Nobuyo’s “son”, Shota (Jyo Kairi), alternates his time between homeschooling himself and helping out with the family’s only other source of income – thievery. It’s after one partially successful foray to the local supermarket that Osamu and Shota come across a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), stuck out on a balcony alone in the freezing cold and decide to take her home for something warm to eat.

Of course, this family itself is the very definition of makeshift. Osamu and Nobuyo may be a “real” couple, but no one else is actually related. The Family Game may have attempted to take the family apart and expose it as an artificial mechanism devoid of real feeling in which each is simply playing the role expected of them, but Shoplifters asks the opposite – if a found family can actually be more “real” that the real thing because it has been chosen, is wanted, and continues to function because of an organic bond between individuals which exists in the absence of blood.

In a sense, the family itself has been “shoplifted”. Later, under questioning, Nobuyo is accused of “throwing away” Hatsue but she corrects them – she didn’t and she wouldn’t. Someone else “threw away” Hatsue and she found her. Hatsue was abandoned by her husband who fathered a family with another woman, but seemingly not with her. Alone she longed for a family of her own and most of all to avoid the looming threat of a “lonely death”. Whatever else they might have gained from the “arrangement”, Osamu and Nobuyo are at least able to offer her the thing that would make her life complete as she prepares to meet its end. By the logic of the family drama, one family must be broken in order to forge another and it’s true enough to say that each member of the Shibata clan has been pilfered from somewhere else but in the end perhaps it’s better this way, free of the cold obligation of a blood or legal tie.

Then again, there are cracks in the foundation. Little Shota, growing fast into a young man, is increasingly conflicted about the way the family makes ends meet. Trapped in low paid, casual employment, Osamu and Nobuyo are working but poor, unable to support their family on their wages alone. Injured at work, Osamu is left without compensation because he’s only a day labourer and therefore not entitled to workplace protections while Nobuyo is eventually forced into a “workshare” arrangement and then to resign when her boss cruelly tells her and a friend that they can decide between themselves which of them gets to keep their job. They steal because they’re hungry, but also perhaps because they enjoy this small way of rebelling against the system. Osamu tells Shota that stealing from stores is OK because no one really “owns” anything while it’s still on the shelf, but Shota begins to doubt his logic. It’s not just “taking”, it’s taking “from” and Shota is increasingly worried about who it is their way of life may be harming. He worries that in taking in Yuri the family is corrupting her, indoctrinating her into their morally dubious universe.

Morally dubious it may be, but life with the Shibatas is warm and safe which is a lot more than can be said for Yuri’s life with her birth parents who don’t even bother to report her missing – social services eventually figure out she isn’t around two months later and come to the conclusion that the parents may have got rid of her in some unspecified way. Which sort of “corruption” is worse – an upbringing filled with abuse and neglect, or one filled with love and habitual criminality? Yet it’s an act of love that finally breaks the family apart and leaves them at the mercy of cold and official forces too obsessed with their own sense of narrative to bother listening to the “truth”. Shoplifters wants to ask if the “natural” laws of society still serve us when little girls fall through the cracks and our definition of “family” is so narrow and rigid that it denies us a way of saving them. Sometimes the found family is stronger than the inherited one, but society is primed to crush it all the same in its relentless and indifferent quest to preserve the social order.


Shoplifters opens in UK cinemas on 23rd November courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mori, The Artist’s Habitat (モリのいる場所, Shuichi Okita, 2018)

Mori an Artist's Habitat PosterThe world is vast and incomprehensible, but a lifetime’s study may begin to illuminate its hidden depths. At least it’s been that way for the hero of Shuichi Okita’s latest attempt at painting the joys and perils of a bubble existence. Mori, The Artist’s Habitat (モリのいる場所, Mori no Iru Basho) revolves around the real life figure of Morikazu Kumagai (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a well respected Japanese artist best known for his avant-garde depictions of the natural world, as well as for his eccentric personality. When we first meet him the early 1970s, Mori (a neat pun on his given name which uses the character for “protect” but also means “forest”), is 94 years old and has rarely left his beloved garden for the last 30 years. A man out of time, Mori’s world is however threatened by encroaching modernity – a gang of mobbed up property developers is after his land and is already in the process of constructing an apartment block that will rob Mori’s wonderful garden of its rightful sunlight.

Okita introduces us to Mori through an amusing scene which finds the Japanese emperor “admiring” one of his artworks only to turn around in confusion and ask how old the child was that made this painting. Spanning the Meiji and the Showa eras, Mori’s artwork is defined by its bold use of colour and minimalist aesthetic which outlines only the most essential elements of his subjects. As his wife of 52 years, Hideko (Kirin Kiki), explains to the various visitors who turn up at Mori’s studio/home hoping to commission him, Mori only paints what he feels like painting when he feels like painting it. Getting him to do anything else is a losing battle.

Painting mainly at night, Mori spends his days observing the natural world. Wandering around his garden he stops to sit in various places, gazing at the ants, and playing with the fish he put into a small pond dug way down into the earth over a period of 30 years. Despite his distaste for “visitors”, Mori has consented to be the subject of a documentary, followed around by a photojournalist (Ryo Kase) and his assistant (Kaito Yoshimura) keen to capture him in his “natural habitat”. The photographers, natural “shutterbugs”, gaze at Mori in the same way he gazes at his trees and insects. An irony which is not lost on the reticent artist.

Okita neatly symbolises Mori’s world as a place out of time by hovering over his desk on which lies a disassembled pocket watch. Eventually the watch will be repaired and time set back in motion but until now Mori’s garden has been a refuge of natural pleasures which itself contains the world entire. Receiving a surprise visitation from a supernatural being (Hiroshi Mikami), Mori is given an opportunity to explore the universe but turns it down. Firstly he doesn’t want to leave his wife on her own or see her “tired” by his absence, but secondly his garden has always been big enough for him and given thousands of years he fears he may never be able to explore it fully.

The garden, however, may not survive its owner. The 1970s, marked by early turmoil, later became a calm period of rising economic prosperity in which society began to move away from post-war privation towards economic prosperity. Hence our big bad is a property developer set on building apartment blocks – a symbol and symptom of the move away from large multi-generational homes to cramped nuclear family modernity. Unbeknownst to Mori, his garden has become a focal point for the environmental protest movement who have begun to set up signs and slogans around his home attacking the property developers for ruining a national landmark which has important cultural value in appreciating the work of one of Japan’s best known working artists.

Having lived through so much turmoil, Mori takes this in his stride. He knows his garden won’t last forever, and is resigned to the nature of the times. Mori may prefer to spend his days in quiet contemplation resenting the constant interruptions from all his “visitors” but makes time to talk seriously with those who seek his guidance such one of the developers (Munetaka Aoki) who’s brought along one of his son’s drawings, convinced that he must be a “genius”. Mori takes one look and tells him frankly that it’s awful, but adds that that’s a good thing – those with “talent” rarely do anything of note and even if it’s “bad” art is still art. Nevertheless there are those who try to profit from his work for less than altruistic purposes – the  hand-painted nameplate from outside the house is forever being stolen and he’s constantly petitioned to provide his services in service of someone else’s business.

Okita’s characterisation of the later life of a famous artist is another study of genial eccentricity as its hero commits himself fully to living in a way which pleases him, only bristling at those who describe his gnome-like garden presence as resembling a “Chinese Hermit Sage”. Mori himself is, of course, another living thing enjoying the natural world to its fullest and if it’s true that his time is ending there is something inescapably sad in looking up from the shadows of apartment blocks and finding nothing but lifeless concrete.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival. Mori, The Artist’s Habitat will also be screened as the opening gala of the 2018 Nippon Connection Japanese film festival, and will receive its North American premiere at Japan Cuts in July where Kirin Kiki will also receive the 2018 Cut Above Award.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

After the Storm (海よりもまだ深く, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2016)

after-the-stormIt’s never too late to be what you might have been – a statement attributed to George Eliot which may be as fake as one of the promises offered by the protagonist of Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest attempt to chart the course of his nation through its basic social unit, After the Storm (海よりもまだ深く, Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku). Reuniting Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe as mother and son following their star turns in Still Walking, After the Storm is, in many ways, a story of decline and lost potential though it leaves room for a new beginning if only the past can finally be left behind.

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a one time prize winning novelist now working at a sleazy detective agency. He’s also a divorced father and well meaning deadbeat dad who never pays his child support but turns up every Sunday to hang out with his 11 year old son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), much to the consternation of his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki). Ryota hasn’t quite accepted that the marriage is over and has been using his detective skills to spy on Kyoko, discovering that she has a new man in her life who’s the exact opposite of him – successful, wealthy, and part of the elegant set.

Like father, like son (to echo another of Koreeda’s films), Ryota has inherited some of his worst qualities from his recently deceased dad. When we first meet him, Ryota has surreptitiously returned to his childhood home and let himself in with the spare key only to start rifling through draws, pocketing old lottery tickets and appraising the value of every object in sight. His mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), is actually a little bit relieved at her husband’s passing as she’s finally free of his unpleasant behaviour. Remembered as a liar and a cheat, an untrustworthy man whom everyone avoided, Ryota’s father is not the best role model leaving both of his children determined not to follow in his footsteps. This is Ryota’s first failure, and the one he’s most reluctant to acknowledge.

Desperately wanting to reclaim his place within his own family, Ryota goes to great lengths to get the money for his child support payments, somehow still hoping to be forgiven. Ryota’s eyes are always on the prize, but always on the unattainable rather than the real possibilities right in front of him. After double dealing on his clients by effectively blackmailing them, not to mention pressuring his colleague to lend him money, Ryota fritters it away on gambling trying to win it all, rather than settling for making the best of what he has. His quick fix approach to life has already cost him his wife’s faith as she is far less obliged to put up with the kind of nonsense Yoshiko was expected to grin and bear.

Yet Ryota seems to have the desire to be better, only lacking the faith to accept the possibility. When Ryota tries to blackmail a high school boy over an affair with a teacher, the boy declares that he’ll never grow up to be the kind of man Ryota is. Ryota, wounded, replies that it isn’t easy to grow up and be the man you wanted to be. As a child, Ryota wanted to be a civil servant because it was the exact opposite of his father, but he’s ended up becoming his father anyway. Shingo also claims to want to be a civil servant rather than something flashier like a professional baseball player but perhaps his desires are born more out of a sense of self realisation than an active opposition. When someone later asks Ryota if he’s the man he always wanted to be, he truthfully replies that he isn’t, but he’s working on it.

Events come to a head when Kyoko, Shingo, and Ryota end up staying over at Yoshiko’s apartment because of the oncoming typhoon. Played out with a quiet kind of restraint, old grievances are aired, understandings are reached, and each arrives at the next morning with a new sense of clarity.  After the storm has broken, there’s nothing left to do but assess the damage and then begin trying to rebuild as best you can.

Ryota’s epiphany comes to him as he’s wearing his father’s shirt and about to sign his own name with his father’s prized brush and ink stone. There’s something to be said for owning yourself, even if you can’t exactly be proud of it. Yoshiko asks why men can’t learn to love the present – if all you ever do is obsess over what you’ve lost or what you could gain, life will pass you by. Ryota may not have changed very much after coming through the storm, but he’s working on it. Who knows, he might even mean it, this time.


Reviewed at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The original Japanese title for the film, Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku, is taken from the lyrics to the Teresa Teng song Wakare no Yokan.

Miss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985)

Miss LonelyMiss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Sabishinbou, AKA Lonelyheart) is the final film in Obayashi’s Onomichi Trilogy all of which are set in his own hometown of Onomichi. This time Obayashi casts up and coming idol of the time, Yasuko Tomita, in a dual role of a reserved high school student and a mysterious spirit known as Miss Lonely. In typical idol film fashion, Tomita also sings the theme tune though this is a much more male lead effort than many an idol themed teen movie.

Obayashi begins with an intertitle-like tribute to a “brusied, brilliant boyhood” before giving way to a wistful voiceover from the film’s protagonist Hiroki Inoue (played by frequent Obayashi collaborator, Toshinori Omi). His life is a fairly ordinary one of high school days spent with his two good friends, getting up to energetic mischief as teenage boys are want to do. The only thing that’s a little different about Hiroki is that his father is a Buddhist priest so he lives in the temple with his feisty mother who is always urging him to study more, and he’ll one day be expected to start training to take over the temple from his father (he has no particular aversion to this idea).

Hiroki’s big hobby is photography and he’s recently splashed out on a zoom lens but rarely has money for film to put in the camera so he’s mostly just playing around, accidentally spying on people. The main object of his interest is a sad looking high school girl who spends her days playing the piano. Hiroki, as an observer of human nature, has decided that she must be just as lonely as he is and has given her the name of “Miss Lonely”. It comes as a shock to him then that a very similar looking sprite appears, also called “Miss Lonely” and proceeds to cause havoc in his very ordinary life.

Although the film is filled with Obayashi’s trademark melancholy nostalgia, there is also ample room for quirky teen comedy as the central trio of boys amuse them selves with practical jokes. The best of these involves a lengthly sequence with the headmaster’s prized parrot which he has painstakingly taught to recite poetry. On being sent to clean up the headmaster’s office after misbehaving in class, the boys quickly set about teaching it a bawdy song instead causing the poor bird to hopelessly mangle both speeches into one very strange recitation. This comes to light when the headmaster attempts to show off his prowess with the parrot to an important visitor but when the mothers of the three boys are called in to account for their sons’ behaviour, they cannot control their laughter. That’s in addition to a repeated motif of the boys’ teacher’s loose skirt always falling off at impromptu moments, and a tendency to head off into surreal set pieces such as the anarchic musical number which erupts at the stall where one of the boys works part time.

Miss Lonely herself appears in a classic mime inspired clown outfit, dressed as if she’d just walked out of an audition for a Fellini film. To begin with, Hiroki can only see Miss Lonely through his camera lens, but she quickly incarnates and eventually even becomes visible to others as well as Hiroki himself. Past and present overlap as Miss Lonely takes on a ghostly quality, perhaps reliving a former romance of memory which may be easily destroyed by water and is sure to be short lived. Love makes you lonely, Hiroki tells us, revelling in the failure to launch of his first love story. Though, if the epilogue he offers us is to be believed, perhaps he is over romanticising his teenage heartbreak and is heading for a happy ending after all.

Chopin also becomes a repeated motif in the film, bringing our trio of lovesick teens together with his music and adding to their romantic malaise with his own history of a difficult yet intense relationship with French novelist George Sand. There’s a necessarily sad quality to Hiroki’s tale, an acceptance of lost love and lost opportunities leaving their scars across otherwise not unhappy lifetimes. Set in Obayashi’s own hometown Miss Lonely takes on a very heartfelt quality, marking a final farewell to youth whilst also acknowledging the traces of sadness left behind when it’s time to say goodbye.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s idol star Yasuko Tomita singing the title song on a variety show from way back in 1985

Still Walking (歩いても歩いても, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)

still walkingLife is full of choices, but the one thing you can’t choose is your family. Like it or not you’re stuck with them for life and even if you decide you want nothing to do with them ever again, they’ll still be hanging round in the back of your mind for evermore. Koreeda swings the camera back around the fulcrum of Japanese society for this dissection of the fault lines and earthquake zones rubbing up against this very ordinary family.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that some kind of celebration is about to take place at the beginning of Still Walking (歩いても歩いても, Aruitemo Aruitemo) yet the event that is about to bring scattered friends and family members back home is of a more somber nature. As the matriarch Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) peels vegetables with her daughter Chinami (YOU) she seems excited at the prospect of getting the family back together again yet melancholic and perhaps a little nervous.

Younger son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is taking the train in with his new wife and stepson. He urges Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) that they should make their excuses and leave in time for the last train but she feels obliged to stay over. It’s clear Ryota is not looking forward to a reunion with his family and also has some current worries over his working situation which are weighing on his mind and which he definitely does not want anyone in the family to find out about.

Ryota has a particularly strained relationship with his difficult doctor father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) who doted on his oldest son, Junpei, drowned at sea whilst saving the life of a little boy. Increasingly grumpy that he has no heir for his medical practice, Kyohei refuses to recognise Ryota as a grown man or accept his work as an art restorer as a “real” occupation. Tensions in the family are further brought out by the mild disapproval over Ryota’s choice of wife who was previously married and then widowed and has a young son by her first husband. Toshiko for one still harbours an old fashioned stigma towards second marriages and thinks Ryota could have done better than “buying second hand”. Though seemingly accepting of her new daughter-in-law and grandson, she perhaps treats them a little more like guests than fully fledged members of the family.

Set over the course of two days, Still Walking takes on a sense of Chekovian wit and melancholy as it paints a naturalistic picture of an ordinary family with all of the petty cruelties and indignation that involves. The deceased son, Junpei, has become a virtual saint, forever bathed in golden light by his grieving parents while Ryota remains very much alive yet pushed into the shadows. Feeling himself to raise only feelings of disappointment in his family, he adopts a truculent, defensive air which sees him unwilling to engage leaving the bulk of the work for his new wife who is eager to please her in-laws despite their frequent tactlessness in dealing with herself and her son.

Of course, Ryota and his father aren’t so different at all – both gruff, defensive, grumpy. Kyohei is a difficult man sinking into a miserable old age where he can no longer busy himself with the role which has given his life meaning, that of a respected small town doctor. When bubbly younger sister Chinami mentions having seen a newspaper report which referred to painting restorers as “art doctors”, neither man is very happy with being linked with the other yet there is a certain commonality between them that oddly forces them apart rather than ties them together.

Toshiko by contrast is the long suffering yet largely silent housewife whose maternal grief is the force which now defines her. Seemingly sweet and kind on the outside, there’s a tough core in the middle which gives way to some decidedly biting remarks lightly peppering the atmosphere with ancient resentments. Perhaps feeling a strange sort of kinship with the mystery guest-cum-kicking-boy-of-the-day – Yoshio, the boy who Junpei saved but has not made good on his investment as he’s turned into a slobbish and overweight 25 year old child who can’t seem to settle on one proper career, Ryota asks why his mother insists on inviting him every year knowing how painful it must be for him to come. Toshiko coldly replies that that’s exactly the reason she intends to keep making him visit, she feels wretched inside 24/7 so for one day every year she makes someone else feel dreadful too – will anyone blame her for that?

Grief and loss play a heavy part here, not only of the literal kind, but in the feeling of time wasted and the disappearing moments which can never be recaptured. Chinami’s son and daughter team up with Ryota’s stepson Atsushi to provide a melancholic mirror of the the three Yokoyama children playing in the same fields and staring at the same fleeting flowers as their forebears did years before. Time is always passing, you think there will always be another opportunity for saying something or other, forging a connection or new memory but soon enough the sand in the glass runs through. As Ryota notes, it’s always a little later than you think but you can’t see it until it’s already too late.

Dense with naturalistic detail, Still Walking is a warm if sad look at one ordinary family dealing with the aftermath of tragedy yet offers its own comments on the nature of human connection between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and between the living and the dead. A timely reminder of the transience of all things, Koreeda’s most straightforward take on the family drama proves a both profound and moving experience which only deepens with repeated viewing.


I rewatched this recently at an ICA members’ screening where it screened on 35mm but the print actually had an intermission built into it even though the film isn’t all that long – strange experience!

Still Walking is available on DVD and VOD in the UK from New Wave Films and was also released on blu-ray in the US as part of the Criterion Collection.

The film’s Japanese title Aruitemo Aruitemo is taken from the song made famous by Ayumi Ishida – Blue Light Yokohama which turns out to have a surprising significance within the film:

 

Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1999)

keihoArticle 39 of Japan’s Penal Code states that a person cannot be held responsible for a crime if they are found to be “insane” though a person who commits a crime during a period of “diminished responsibility” can be held accountable and will receive a reduced sentence. Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1999 courtroom drama/psychological thriller Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, 39 Keiho Dai Sanjukyu Jo) puts this very aspect of the law on trial. During this period (and still in 2016) Japan does nominally have the death penalty (though rarely practiced) and it is only right in a fair and humane society that those people whom the state deems as incapable of understanding the law should receive its protection and, if necessary, assistance. However, the law itself is also open to abuse and as it’s largely left to the discretion of the psychologists and lawyers, the judgement of sane or insane might be a matter of interpretation.

The case at the centre of the film centres around a young actor, Masaki Shibata, who has confessed to the murder of a pregnant woman and her husband after he argued with the woman at her place of work. Shibata acts strangely and makes a point of asking for the death penalty before spouting off about angels and demons and later displays evidence of a split personality. Everyone seems convinced he’s suffering from MPD and committed the murders during a dissociative episode but the assistant psychologist is convinced he’s faking. At the same time, one of the lead policemen on the case also thinks there’s more to this. On investigating further, he discovers the strange irony that the murdered man himself escaped prosecution by reason of insanity after committing a horrifying crime that lead to the death of a six year old girl.

The film may be about a murder but what’s really on trial here is the law itself. The murdered man, Hatada, committed a heinous crime but was a child himself at the time so received only a brief sentence served in a hospital. He was released, went to university, got a good job and got married – a normal life. The family of the little girl he killed, by contrast, will never be able to return to normality and will continue to live in torment for the rest of their lives knowing the man who so brutally took their child from them is still out there living just like one of us. The film does not go into why Hatada committed the original crime or the reasons he was later declared fit to return to society, but the film wants to question the idea of releasing back into the world someone who has done something as horrifying as the rape, murder and dismemberment of a child.

The case at hand is a complicated one which has so many layers coupled with twists and turns that it becomes unavoidably confusing. Playing with several literary allusions from the frequent quotations from the “mad prince” Hamlet to naming the assistant psychologist “Kafuka”, Keiho also wants to delve deep into human psychology with its questions of identity and self realisation. Both the accused and the psychologist have deeply buried memories of trauma the suppression of which has cast a shadow through the rest of their lives. Both of them are, in a sense (even if not quite in the way it originally appears), haunted by a shadow of themselves.

When it comes to the procedural aspects, the final “twist” is a step too far and perhaps undermines the groundwork which has gone before it. Something which is presented as an elaborate revenge plot against both the state and the original instigator of a crime also appears to originate with a clumsy motion of self preservation. The state’s failure to properly deal with the criminal in the first case has resulted the death of another innocent bystander, all of which might have been avoided if Article 39 had not come into play.

Kafka-esque is, in fact, a good way to describe the circularity of the narrative as the notion of an insanity plea becomes a recurrent plot device. Backstories are constructed and discarded, identities are shed and adopted at will and the past becomes a thorn in the side of the future that has to be removed so everyone can comfortably move on. Morita relies heavily on dissolves to create a floating, dreamlike atmosphere as memories (imaginary or otherwise) segue in and out like tides but he also shows us images reflected in other surfaces such as the Strangers on a Train inspired sequence which literally shows us events through someone else’s eyes as we’re watching them reflected doubly on the lenses of a pair of sunglasses.

Difficult, complicated and ultimately flawed Keiho proves an elusive and intriguing piece that is put together with some truly beautiful cinematography and interesting editing choices. Fascinating and frustrating in equal points Keiho is another characteristically probing effort from the wry pen of Morita which continues to echo in the mind long after the credits have rolled.


Keiho is available with English subtitles via HK R3 DVD as part of Panorama’s 100 Years of Japanese Cinema Collection.