March Comes in Like a Lion (三月のライオン, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1992)

March comes in like a lionIce in the heart of summer pins its hopes on spring in the second feature from Hitoshi Yazaki. Afternoon Breezes, Yazaki’s debut, chronicled forbidden love becoming dangerous obsession as a naive young woman falls for her straight roommate but has no mechanism by which to expresses herself in a society that deems her feelings so taboo as to not quite have the words to describe them. March Comes in Like a Lion (三月のライオン, Sangatsu no Lion) again focusses on an illicit connection but this time an incestuous one in which a strange young woman realises a life long crush on her older brother by telling him that she is his girlfriend after he wakes up from a coma with amnesia.

Natsuko (lit. summer’s child) told her brother, Haruo (lit. boy of spring), that she would one day be his wife when she was just seven and he eight. Years later, Haruo (Cho Bang-ho) has been involved in a motorcycle accident and lost his memory. Natsuko (Yoshiko Yura) seizes her chance. Taking the name of “Ice”, she tells her brother that she is his lover and they live together in a barely furnished apartment on the upper floor of a tenement building. Maintaining the ruse, Ice nurses Haruo back to health, watching his progression day by day and dreading the moment he might finally remember who she really is.

Ice has rented the apartment for two months only – putting an expiry date on her true love dream. She’s done this mostly to avoid taking her brother back to their childhood home, fearing it might jog his memory and wanting avoid the prying eyes of friendly neighbours they’ve known all their lives. Her love is, by the common values of her society, against nature yet Ice surrenders to it anyway, fully expecting the “storm” of March between the seasons of ice and flowers. Flowers here may be warmth or death, but Ice is prepared to wait for her heart to melt and become the summer once again.

The early ‘90s was a time of walls falling, for good or ill, though the Tokyo Ice inhabits is a cold and frozen place. One of loneliness and confusion where busyness has given way to ennui and listless lethargy. Natsuko (and Ice too) has been surviving on casual prostitution, swiping the fashionable clothes of a client to give to Haruo and bestowing on him his curiously mad hatter-like appearance, as if he’d just stepped out of a silent movie. Ice walks around with all her worldly goods stored inside a giant cool box which emits dry ice every time she opens it. She has a compulsion for eating ice lollies and fondling the fridge freezer that is the only appliance in the sparse apartment apart from a circus-like ceiling lamp which rests on its top. Ice does not really want to melt, she tries to keep herself cool, resisting the heat of passion which may reduce her frozen paradise to watery tears, but knows that her present life is but a dream, a lingering state of limbo which must one day end.

While Ice keeps things cool, Haruo gets a job in demolition. Post-bubble the city is failing, crumbling ominously to the ground. Where once there was life and creation, now there is only death and decay. Mirroring his sister, Haruo takes things apart and throws them away but becomes oddly fascinated by the looking glass. Looking at himself, through himself, Haruo searches for the keys to his existence. As his relationship with Ice becomes physical, his mind begins to turn. Haruo regains the power of speech, remembers there was someone he loved, and awakens to the coming spring.

Ice wants to know her love can last – she looks for proof everywhere. An elderly couple – she cutting his hair while he remains less steady, still in love forty years later. The housewife next-door sending her husband off to work in the middle of the night and talking of children. Polaroids and fairy tales, white rabbits and magic girls – her world is fantasy, she is Alice adrift in Wonderland. Natsuko dares to dream a dream of love in a world which is collapsing before her eyes yet she does for a time at least win it. Filled with whimsical poetry and beautifully composed images and set to a nostalgic folk score by Bolivian Rockers, March Comes in Like a Lion is a tender, touching romance made all the stranger and sadder for its unusual genesis.


Short scene from the film (English subtitles)

Goodbye for Tomorrow (あした, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1995)

goodbye for tomorrowAfter completing his first “Onomichi Trilogy” in the 1980s, Obayashi returned a decade later for round two with another three films using his picturesque home town as a backdrop. Goodbye For Tomorrow (あした, Ashita) is the second of these, but unlike Chizuko’s Younger Sister or One Summer’s Day which both return to Obayashi’s concern with youth, Goodbye For Tomorrow casts its net a little wider as it explores the grief stricken inertia of a group of people from all ages and backgrounds left behind when a routine ferry journey turns into an unexpected tragedy.

Three months after nine people were drowned when a local ferry sank in the harbour, friends and relatives of the dead begin to receive messages signed by their loved ones instructing them to be at a small island at midnight. Cruel joke or not, each of the still grieving recipients makes their way to the boathouse, clutching the desperate hope that the dead will really return to them. Sure enough, on the stroke of midnight the ghostly boat rises from the ocean floor bringing a collection of lost souls with it, but its stay is a temporary one – just long enough to say goodbye.

Obayashi once again begins the film with an intertile-style message to the effect that sometimes meetings are arranged just to say goodbye. He then includes two brief “prequel” sequences to the contemporary set main narrative. The first of these takes place ten years previously in which a boy called Mitsugu throws a message wrapped around a rock into a school room where his friend Noriko is studying. We then flash forward to three months before the main action, around the time of the boat accident, where an assassination attempt is made on the life of a local gangster in a barber shop. At first the connection between these events is unclear as messages begin to arrive in innovative ways in the film’s “present”. After a while we begin to realise that the recipients of the messages are so shocked to receive them because they believe the senders to be dead.

At three months since the sinking, the grief is still raw and each of our protagonists has found themselves trapped in a kind of inertia, left alone so suddenly without the chance to say goodbye. The left behind range from a teenager whose young love story has been severed by tragedy, a middle aged man who lost a wife and daughter and now regrets spending so much time on something as trivial as work, a middle aged trophy wife and the colleague who both loved a successful businessman, two swimmers with unresolved romances, and the yakuza boss who lost his wife and grandson. For some the desire is to join their loved ones wherever it is that they’re going, others feel they need to live on with double the passion in the name of the dead but they are all brought together by a need to meet the past head on and come to terms with it so that they can emerge from a living limbo and decide which side of the divide they need to be on.

Aside from the temporary transparency of the border between the mortal world and that of the dead, the living make an intrusion in the form of the ongoing yakuza gang war. The Noriko (Kaori Takahashi) from the film’s prequel sequence also ends up at the meeting point through sheer chance, as does the Mitsugu (Yasufumi Hayashi), now a gangster and charged with the unpleasant task of offing the old man despite his longstanding debt of loyalty to him. These are the only two still living souls brought together by an unresolved message bringing the events full circle as they achieve a kind of closure (with the hope of a new beginning) on their frustrated childhood romance.

The other two hangers on, an ambitious yakuza with a toothache played by frequent Obayashi collaborator Ittoku Kishibe, and a lunatic wildcat sociopath played by the ubiquitous Tomorowo Taguchi, are more or less comic relief as they hide out in the forrest confused by the massing group of unexpected visitors who’ve completely ruined their plot to assassinate the old yakuza boss and assume control of the clan. However, they too are also forced to face the relationship problems which bought them to this point and receive unexpected support from the boss’ retuned spouse who points out that this situation is partly his own fault for failing to appreciate the skills of each of his men individually. The boss decides to make a sacrifice in favour of the younger generation but his final acts are those of forgiveness and a plea for those staying behind to forget their differences and work together.

Revisiting Obayashi’s frequent themes of loss and the need to keep living after tragedy strikes, Goodbye For Tomorrow is a melancholy character study of the effects of grief when loved ones are taken without the chance for goodbyes. Aside from the earliest sepia tinged sequence, Obayashi plays with colour less than in his other films but manages to make the improbable sight of the sunken boat rising from the bottom of the sea genuinely unsettling. The supernatural mixes with the natural in unexplained ways and Obayashi even makes room for The Little Girl Who Conquered Time’s Tomoyo Harada as a mysterious spirit of loneliness, as well as a cameo for ‘80s leading man Toshinori Omi. The Japanese title of the film simply means “tomorrow” which gives a hint as to the broadly positive sense of forward motion in the film though the importance “goodbye” is also paramount. The slight awkwardness of the English title is therefore explained – saying goodbye to yesterday is a painful act but necessary for tomorrow’s sake.


 

Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース, Eiichi Kudo, 1981)

Yokohama bj bluesYusaku Matsuda may have been the coolest action star of the ‘70s but by the end of the decade he was getting bored with his tough guy persona and looked to diversify his range a little further than his recent vehicles had allowed him. Matsuda had already embarked on a singing career some years before but in Eiichi Kudo’s Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース), he was finally allowed to display some of his musical talents on screen as a blues singer and ex-cop who makes ends meet through his work as a detective for hire.

After his set at a rundown jazz bar, BJ’s first job is tracking down a missing son. When he finds the guy, Akira, he seems to have become the employee (and possible sex slave?) of a gay gangster. Akira says he’s fine with his new life and wants his mother to leave him alone so BJ gets the hell out of there to give her the message but the unpleasantness of the situation lingers with him a little.

Shortly after, BJ receives a telephone call from an old police buddy, Ryo, who needs his help. Ryo got in too deep with the same gang BJ just came up against and is thinking of quitting the force in a bid to make the “Family” lose interest in him. However, Ryo is gunned down in broad daylight leaving his partner, Beniya, convinced that BJ is somehow responsible. BJ now doubly has it in for Family and starts working on his own behalf to try and find some answers and possibly a little vengeance too.

You see, back when Ryo and BJ were partners, they both liked the same girl, Tamiko, who eventually married Ryo. Beniya thinks BJ killed his friend to steal his wife and is much more interested in giving BJ a good kicking rather than investigating this very strange gang set up which seems to have some kind of drug smuggling gig going with the triads in Hong Kong.

BJ forms an odd sort of friendship with Akira in the hopes of tracking down the four gay, leather clad punk henchmen of Ali who probably gunned down his friend. However, the conspiracy only deepens and BJ finds himself suspecting even his closest of friends.

With its jazz soundtrack and melancholy tone, Yokohama BJ Blues is channelling hard boiled in a big way though does so in a distinctly modern fashion. BJ sings the blues whilst walking around this strange noir world which seems to endlessly disappoint him. Unfortunately for him, BJ is quite a good detective and quickly gets himself in way over his head only to end up finding out a few things it might be better not to know.

One of the film’s most notable components is its use of homoerotic themes with its gangs of gay gangsters, rent boys and punks. Indeed, though the wife of his former partner is floated as a possible motive, the love interest angle is never fully explored and all of BJ’s significant interactions in the film are with other men. Firstly his relationship with his former police partner Ryo which kick starts the entire adventure and then his strange almost date-like experience with Akira about half way through. BJ remains otherwise alone, a solo voice seeking justice for his fallen friends.

Of course, the film’s selling point is Matsuda’s singing so he’s allowed to play his own chorus in a sense by narrating the events from the stage in the form of the blues. Not quite “The Singing Detective”, but almost – BJ tries to bring some kind of order to his world by turning it into a song. In addition to adding to the noir tone, the bluesy soundtrack even allows for a New Orleans-esque musical funeral which oddly fits right in with the film’s weird, macabre atmosphere.

A surreal, noir inspired crime drama with musical elements, Yokohama BJ Blues is quite a hard film to categorise. Unusual for its homosexual milieu and overt homoerotic plotting the film occupies something of a unique place given its obvious marketing potential and star’s profile coupled with its decidedly murky noir tone. Difficult, yet interesting, Yokohama BJ Blues ultimately succeeds both as an intriguing crime drama and as a star vehicle for its versatile leading man.


This is a really, deeply, strange film.

Unsubtitled trailer:

I actually quite like Matsuda’s foray into the world of jazz, the title song from Yokohama BJ Blues which is heard in the trailer is called Brother’s Song and is included on Matsuda’s 1981 album Hardest Day. Here he is on a talk show singing Yokohama Honky Tonk Blues: