Hard-Core (ハード・コア, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2018)

Hard-Core retro poster“The world will always be corrupt”, the cynical brother of the angry young man at the centre of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Hard-Core (ハード・コア) advises him, “you just have to work around it”. Unfortunately, Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) just wants to do “the right thing”, but it is constantly unsure of the best way to do it while remaining resentful and conflicted in his conviction that the world has already rejected him. Yamashita has made a career out of chronicling the struggles of disenfranchised young men but Ukon and his pals are less genial slackers than potentially dangerous idealists looking for a way back to a simpler time in which the world was not quite so rotten.

An opening bar scene in which Ukon gets slowly drunk and then lays into a rowdy bunch of guys bothering a middle-aged woman (Takako Matsu) just trying to enjoy a drink showcases his propensity to abruptly lose his temper and fall into a self destructive cycle while also subtly pointing out his entitlement issues in his taking the guy to task by praising himself for leaving the lady alone while he presumably had exactly the same desire not to. In any case, after getting banned from the bar, he ends up joining an ultranationalist political cell, the Crimson Hearts, which aims to teach the youth of Japan to re-embrace its traditional culture. In order to facilitate his goals, the elderly and eccentric leader, Kaneshiro (Kubikukuri Takuzo), has enlisted Ukon, along with a friend, Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) who is almost entirely mute, to dig out a mysterious cavern where he is convinced there is buried Edo-era treasure.

It’s easy to see why Ukon might fall for the rather insane ramblings of Kaneshiro. They reinforce his sense of moral decline while giving him a banner to follow and a place to belong. His loyalty to Kaneshiro is as absolute as a retainer’s to his lord, though he is perhaps conflicted in his commitment to the core ideology even as he sees obvious merit in wanting to reclaim something of the old Japan. Meanwhile, his relationship with his family appears strained. His younger brother Sakon (Takeru Satoh) has become a cynical salaryman out for nothing other than greed and self interest, staring into his own empty eyes in the reflection of the full glass panelling of his high rise office as he has meaningless sex with anonymous office ladies. Ukon just wants to do the right thing, but Sakon wants to make the smart choice and doesn’t particularly care about the wider implications of his choices.

Meanwhile, Ukon is fiercely loyal to his friends and fellow outsiders in solidarity with all those who feel the world will never be willing to accept them. Ushiyama, a man laid low by familial expectation and societal pressure, lives in an abandoned factory where he has made “friends” with a broken robot that Ukon manages to repair and names “Robo-o”. Believing that Robo-o is just like them in that he would be ostracised if people discovered his true nature, Ukon and Ushiyama set about disguising him and even get him in on their gold hunting gig (where he gets paid!) at which he proves adept considering his considerable technical superiority. Ukon’s first instinct is to protect his friend, while Sakon’s is how best to exploit him.

Nevertheless, events at the Crimson Hearts begin to escalate as unpleasant underling Mizunuma (Suon Kan) considers taking the battle to the next stage to “overthrow the corrupt totalitarianism masquerading as democracy” through actions others will regard as terrorist. Meanwhile, Ukon has also begun to fall for Mizunuma’s damaged daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi) whom he met by chance after being inappropriately charged with spying on Mizunuma’s new girlfriend to make sure she wasn’t sleeping around (as women do, according to Mizunuma). Ukon, as the first scene implied, is not in favour of all this obvious misogyny but can only find the strength for passive resistance. What he chooses, in the end, is his friends and his precious group of outsiders, albeit with his hopes pinned on his cynical brother and the illusionary lustre of historical treasure. The power of friendship eventually enables even Robo-o to break his programming, though it’s Sakon’s cynicism that, in one sense at least, seems to triumph. Yamashita takes his troubled young heroes on a rocky, noirish path through the “rotten” world which they are increasingly convinced holds no place for them but finally finds hope in human compassion even if that compassion may be the long buried treasure of an archaic civilisation.


Hard-Core was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival on 31st May at 22.30pm and 1st June, 22.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

Dare to stop us posterUntil his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 2012, Koji Wakamatsu had been the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. An irascible but somehow much loved figure, Wakamatsu is most closely associated with a series of provocative sex films which mixed politically radical avant-garde aesthetics with pink film exploitation. Kazuya Shiraishi, himself a former Wakamatsu apprentice, takes a look back at the heady years of Japanese indie cinema in the aptly titled Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Tomerareruka, Oretachi wo) which explores the backstage environment at Wakamatsu Production from 1969 to 1972 (or, right before everything changed with the death of the student movement in Japan following the Asama-sanso incident).

Rather than follow Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) directly, Shiraishi frames his tale around aspiring director Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki) – the only female presence (besides the actresses) at the otherwise extremely masculine studio which focusses mainly on artistic soft-core pornography. A Shinjuku hippie and self-confessed fan of Wakamatsu, Megumi finds herself joining the team after being recruited to scout potential starlets who could pass for high schoolers. On arrival at the studio, Megumi is quickly mistaken for an actress or mistress but finally manages to win the guys round and is taken on as an assistant director with the possibility of stepping up to the director’s chair if she lasts three years working under Wakamatsu.

As the gruff director warns her, most don’t even last the month. Megumi is however determined, despite Wakamatsu’s continued show of forgetting her name and harsh on-set demeanour. Commiserating with her, another veteran affirms that the big studios wilfully exploit their ADs, at least with Wakamatsu his heart is in the right place even if he’s only a different sort of difficult. He also, however, hands her a bottle of hooch which serves an unfortunate harbinger of things to come as Megumi finds herself playing along with the hard drinking boys club but becoming ever more confused about her role in the organisation and the further direction of her life.

Wakamatsu and his partner Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) vow to make films to shake the world, but are not above commercial concerns which is why they find themselves making pure sex films under pseudonyms to balance the books, much to the chagrin of some of the studio’s more politically engaged members. These are particularly politically engaged times in which the student movement is at its zenith, protesting not only the renewal of the ANPO treaty, but the Vietnam War, and the fiercely contested building of Narita airport. Mostly thanks to Adachi, Wakamatsu Production gradually shifts from indie film company to activist organisation in which political concerns are beginning to take precedence over the business of filmmaking.

The shift leaves those like Megumi who were not so interested in the political dimension floundering along behind and increasingly disillusioned with the world of Wakamatsu Pro. Megumi may admit that she had other problems that probably should have been better addressed, but remains conflicted as to her involvement with the studio. Feeling as if she has nothing in particular to say, she questions her desire to make films at all while clinging fiercely to the surrogate family that has grown up around the strangely fatherly director and continuing to feel insecure in her atypical femininity in a world which more or less requires her to act like a man but doesn’t quite accept her for doing so.

Wakamatsu said he wanted to hold the masses at knifepoint and create a film to blow up the world, but Megumi increasingly feels as if it’s she who will eventually face Wakamatsu with only one of them surviving. Megumi is, in a sense, a victim and encapsulation of her age in which she wanted a little more than it had to give her and found herself increasingly disillusioned with its various betrayals and disappointments. Given the chance to direct a 30-minute short for love hotels, Megumi spins a tale of Urashima Taro which is, as Adachi puts it, all about how she can’t go back to being a hippie after getting mixed up with Wakamatsu and has lost sight of her true self in her quest for acceptance. Both nostalgic look back to a heady era and a tragic tale of that era’s costs, Dare to Stop Us is a fitting tribute to the Wakamatsu legacy which portrays the irascible director as neither saint nor demon but painfully human and infinitely flawed.


Dare to Stop Us was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

initiation loveMost romantic comedies don’t come with warnings about twist endings and a plea not to give them way, but Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ) is not your average romantic comedy. Set in the early bubble era, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s double sided feature is itself a wry look at the problematic nature of nostalgia. Harking back to a perhaps more innocent era in which lack of political and economic turmoil left plenty of time for romantic confusion coupled with the corruption of the consumerist dream, Initiation Love pits innocent romance against cynical success but subtly suggests that grown up love is a kind of compromise in itself.

Side A: In the summer of 1987, Yuki Suzuki (Kanro Morita) – a geeky, overweight young man who is shy but has a kind heart, is unexpectedly invited to a college drinking party where he earns some major white knight points for interrupting the increasingly inappropriate grilling of new invitee Mayuko (Atsuko Maeda). Mayuko is pretty, sweet, and cute if in a slightly affected way. She is way out of Suzuki’s league, but later confesses that she’s looking for someone a bit different, like Suzuki, an awkward-type who won’t lie to her or play around. Bonding over a shared love of reading, the pair grow closer, Mayuko rechristens Suzuki “Takkun”, and he vows to spruce himself up to become “worthy” of her.

Side B: Takkun (Shota Matsuda), now slim and handsome, is given a surprise promotion to Tokyo. Rather than suggest marriage or that Mayuko come with him, he settles on long distance and promises to come back to Shizuoka at weekends while waiting to be approved for a transfer back home. In Tokyo, however, Takkun’s personality begins to shift. Seduced by city sophistication and the promises of an elite salaryman lifestyle, Takkun draws closer to upper-class career woman Miyako (Fumino Kimura) whose jaded straightforward confidence he regards as “grown up” in contrast to the innocent charms of Mayuko waiting patiently at home.

The overarching narrative is provided to us via a melancholy voice over and accompanied, in the manner of a classic mix-tape, by a song from the era which is deliberately on the nose in terms of its aptness – a song about giving up on summer just as the couple are stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the beach and about to have a gigantic row, or a song about lucky chances coming up on TV just as our hero is plucking up the courage to allow himself to be bamboozled into going on a date with the girl of his dreams. The carefully placed positioning of the songs reminds us that we are inside someone’s carefully curated memories. Just as Takkun’s vision of Mayu-chan is one surrounded by flowers and light, the early days of romance are a condensed and romanticised version of real events seen entirely from one perspective and coloured with the gradual fading of time. Nostalgia is an unreliable narrator, recasting real life as Hollywood fiction.

The warm and fuzzy glow of Side A is undercut by the subtly questionable actions of Mayuko and our own prejudices about why she might be with a guy like Takkun. Self-consciously cute, Mayuko makes needling suggestions – dress better, get contacts, learn to drive, which, objectively speaking, might all help Takkun to gain some much needed confidence if only he were not doing all of them solely because he fears losing a woman like Mayuko. If Mayuko wanted a guy she could remake and boss around, she might have come to the right place but she does, at least, also try to insist that she likes Takkun anyway and so any changes he makes to himself will make no difference to her.

Side B, by contrast, turns the dynamic on its head as Takkun’s Tokyo persona becomes increasingly violent, resentful, and cruel while Mayuko seems genuine, innocent, and hurt by the increasing distance between herself and the man she loves. Seduced by city sophistications, Takkun leans ever closer to dumping the innocent country bumpkin, a love he has now outgrown, for a leg up into the middle-classes by marrying the elegant daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman. He is, however, torn – between the nostalgic glow of first love’s innocence, and the realities of adult life, the certain past and the uncertain future.

This is the philosophy ascribed by Miyako (apparently given to her by her own first love) that the first failed romance is a crucial part of growing up, an “Initiation Love” that breaks your heart by revealing the idea of true love as a romantic fallacy, allowing you move into the adult world with a degree of emotional clarity. A sound idea, but also sad and cruel in its own way. The final twist, offered as a cynical punchline, can’t help but feel cheap, carrying mildly misogynistic undertones dressed up as a kind of joke aimed at cowardly men who are incapable making clear choices and refuse to see their romantic partners as real people rather than the self created images of them they maintain. Takkun remains torn, between past and future, town and country, old love and new but nostalgia is always a trap – a false impression of a true emotion that impedes forward motion with a promise of a return to something which can never be delivered.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 2 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 9 March 2018

Playlist: Side A

Yureru Manazashi (Kei Ogura)

Kimi wa 1000% (1986 Omega Tribe)

Yes-No (Of Course)

Lucky Chance wo Mo Ichido (C-C-B)

Ai no Memory (Shigeru Matsuzaki)

Kimi Dake ni (Shonentai)

Side B:

Momen no Handkerchief (Hiromi Ota)

Dance (Shogo Hamada)

Natsu wo Akiramete (Naoko Ken)

Kokoro no Iro (Masatoshi Nakamura)

Ruby no Yubiwa (Akira Teruo)

Show Me (Yukari Morikawa)

 

N@NIMONO (何者, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

Nanimono posterGrowing up is a series of battles in Japan. Exam hell soon gives way to the freedom and liberation of university but students know that their carefree days of youth and discovery will be short lived. Job hunting is done en masse and takes place in the final year of study (or even before). The process of securing a work placement is much the same as deciding on which school to apply to – attending job fairs to meet with representatives, getting hold of brochures, talking to anyone and everyone you know about the various reputations of the big firms, and then figuring out what your best bets are. Many companies run written exams which are then followed by group interviews in which the applicants are made to answer humiliating questions in front of their fellow candidates. What this all amounts to is a gradual erasure of the self in order to become the perfect hire, making the same tired phrases sound interesting in an effort to say all the right things whilst trying not too seem calculating or too bland.

The group at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize winning novel by Ryo Asai, N@NIMONO (何者, Nanimono, AKA Somebody / Someone), know this better than most. Protagonist Takuto (Takeru Satoh) used to be interested in theatre but has abandoned his dreams of the stage for the mainstream route into company life while his friend Kotaro (Masaki Suda) has played his last gig as the lead singer of a rock band, died his hair black again, and got a smart haircut in preparation for interviews. The boys are still good friends and roommates despite the fact that Takuto has long been carrying a torch for Kotaro’s former girlfriend, Mizuki (Kasumi Arimura), who has just returned from studying abroad. Mizuki is good friends with another girl, Rica (Fumi Nikaido), who happens to live upstairs from the boys and suggests that the four of them all get together to compare notes on the job hunting process. Rica lives with her boyfriend (still somewhat unusual in Japan), Takayoshi (Masaki Okada), who is working as a freelance journalist and is disdainful of the others’ passage into the regular workaday world but later tries to get into it himself.

There is a kind of sadness involved in this process, even if no one seriously thinks about fighting back. Everyone wants to get their foot onto that corporate ladder to become “someone”, at least in the eyes of society. There are a lot of rungs on the ladder to success, and if you miss your footing it’s near impossible to get it back – you’ll wind up one of the many crowded round the bottom staring up at the top even if you don’t want to admit it. University is the last time time there is real scope for indulging one’s personality before the corporate life takes hold – thus Takuto and Kotaro both accept that their artistic pursuits have to go in their quest for a regular middle-class life even if they inwardly struggle with their decisions to “sell-out”.

Takayoshi thinks of himself as above all this. He asks himself what all of this is for, why people put themselves through this humiliating ritual just to be locked into a nine to five that makes them miserable and turns them into soulless drones. There’s an obvious answer to that, and Takayoshi’s refusal to take it into account borders on the offensive, as does his often patronising attitude to those actively engaged in the job hunting process, but his hypocrisy is eventually brought home to him when he turns down a project to work with another artist because he thinks their work isn’t good enough. Maybe there’s courage in just putting something of yourself out there, even if it isn’t very good, rather than sitting at home looking down on everything and critiquing everyone else’s life choices whilst getting nothing done yourself.

It’s this conflict between interior and exterior life in which N@NIMONO is most interested. Main character Takuto begins as the everyman, depressed and stressed by his job hunting odyssey but aloof isolationism soon reveals itself as a kind of cowardice and self-involvement born of insecurity as he takes to a “secret” Twitter account for acerbic comments on his friends’ lives, sarcastically taking cruel potshots safe in the knowledge of his anonymity. Takuto’s entire concept of himself is a construction as his eventual descent into abstraction shows us in recasting his interaction with his friends as an avant-garde theatre show in which he finally begins to see the various ways his resentment of others is really just a way of expressing dissatisfaction with himself. This inability to fully integrate his own personality is offered as the final reason he hasn’t managed to find employment – his insincerity marks him out as a poor prospect. Takuto’s final realisation that he is unable to successfully answer the standard interview question “define your own personality in under one minute” for the perfectly sensible reason that the task is impossible kickstarts his own journey to a more complete life, even if it doesn’t do much to help the countless other “someones” out there hammered into a standard sized holes as mere cogs in the great social machine.


N@NIMONO seems to have been screened under the English titles of both “Somebody” and “Someone” but “N@NIMONO” is the one that features on the title card of the English subtitled Hong Kong blu-ray.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン, Sion Sono, 2015)

Shinjuku SwanEnfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Sion Sono has always been prolific but recent times have seen him pushing the limits of the possible and giving even Takashi Miike a run for his money in the release stakes. Indeed, Takashi Miike is a handy reference point for Sono’s take on Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン) – an adaptation of a manga which has previously been brought to the small screen and is also scripted by an independent screenwriter rather than self penned in keeping with the majority of Sono’s directing credits. Oddly, the film shares several cast members with Miike’s Crows Zero movies and even lifts a key aesthetic directly from them. In fact, there are times when Shinjuku Swan feels like an unofficial spin-off to the Crows Zero world with its macho high school era tussling relocated to the seedy underbelly of Kabukicho. Unfortunately, this is somewhat  symptomatic of Sono’s failure, or lack of will, to add anything particularly original to this, it has to be said, unpleasant tale.

Our “hero” is down on his luck loser Tatsuhiko (Go Ayano) who’s come to Shinjuku to make it big. He’s here because it’s the sort of place you can make it happen with no plan and no resources. “Luckily” for him, he runs into low-level gangster Mako (Yusuke Iseya) who spots some kind of potential in him and recruits him as a “scout” for his organisation, Burst. Now dressed in a fancy suit, Tatsuhiko’s new job is stopping pretty girls in the street and trying to talk them into working in the sex industry….

Tatsuhiko is not the brightest and doesn’t quite understand what the implications of his work are. When he finally gets it, he feels conflicted but Mako convinces him that’s it’s OK really with a set of flimsy moral justifications. Before long, Tatsuhiko comes into conflict with a lieutenant, Hideyoshi (Takayuki Yamada), from the rival gang in town, Harlem, and a yakuza style territorial dispute begins to unfold destabilising the entire area.

Sono has often been criticised for latent misogyny and an exploitative approach to his material and Shinjuku Swan is yet more evidence for those who find his output “problematic”. Though based on a manga and scripted by a third party, Shinjuku Swan has an extremely ill-defined take on the sex industry and the people involved with it. After figuring out what happens to the girls he takes to Mako, Tatsuhiko has second thoughts but Mako tells him that the girls are happy and are in this line of work because they enjoy it (leaving out all the stuff about debts, drugs, and violence). So Tatsuhiko vows to make even more girls live happy lives inside the “massage parlours” of Kabukicho.

Noble heart or not, Tatsuhiko is a pimp. Not even that, he’s a middle man pimp. He’s earning his money from the suffering of the women that’s he conned, coerced, and finally exploited. Leaving aside the idea that, yes, some of these women may be perfectly happy with the arrangement, at least one of Tatsuhiko’s recruits displays evidence of previous self harm and is unable to cope with the demands of her new way of life. Another woman, Ageha (Erika Sawajiri), who becomes Tatsuhiko’s primary damsel in distress, escapes into a children’s fairytale picture book in which a prince with crazy hair just like Tatsuhiko’s comes to rescue the heroine from her life of slavery and takes her to a place of love and safety. Tatsuhiko “rescues” her by taking her to a “nicer” brothel…

Tatsuhiko may have convinced himself that he’s somehow a force for good, “helping” these women into employment and providing “protection” for them unlike the other guys from rival gangs who use drugs and violence to keep their girls in line, but his continued belief in his own goodness becomes increasingly hard to swallow as he learns more about how this industry really works. It’s difficult to believe in a “hero” who is so deluded about his own place in the grand scheme of things – he’s not stupid enough to be this oblivious, but not clever enough to be continually unseeing all of the darkness that surrounds the way he makes his living.

All of this is merely background to the central yakuza gang war which later ensues. Tatsuhiko ends up as a pawn in the tussle for territory between Burst and Harlem as double crosses become triple crosses and no one is to be trusted. Predictably, Tatsuhiko and Hideyoshi turn out to have a long standing connection though this revelation never achieves the dramatic weight it’s looking for and the gang war itself is, at best, underwhelming. Notable scenes including a classic battle in the rain could have been spliced in from Crows Zero and no one would have noticed. The main dramatic thread remains Tatsuhiko’s journey as he travels from clueless loser to, admittedly still clueless, assured petty gangster and smooth talking lady killer.

If there’s an overall feeling which imbues Shinjuku Swan, it’s lack of commitment. Though often beautifully photographed and featuring some interestingly composed sequences (including a few Carax-esque musical set pieces) the final effect is one of workman-like competence. Not bad by any means, but this feels like the work of a director for hire and lacks the sense of the personal that a would-be-auteur would usually seek to provide. Moral ambiguity can often be a film’s strong point, inviting comment and debate rather than pushing a pre-defined agenda but Shinjuku Swan takes too many incompatible approaches to the already unpalatable series of questions that it stops short of asking. Distinctly uneven, Shinjuku Swan ends on a note of anti-climax and though a perfectly serviceable, mainstream, commercial effort proves something of a disappointment from a director who has often managed to bring out a sense of mischievous irony in similarly themed work to date.


Unsubtitled trailer: