The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Saiji Yakumo, 2017)

dark maidens posterThe world of teenage girls is often arcane and impenetrable to those outside of its extremely exclusive bubble, but The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Ankoku Joshi), Saiji Yakumo’s adaptation of the Rikako Akiyoshi novel, takes duplicity to new heights. When the school darling dies by falling (oh so beautifully) off a roof, speculation is rife and a rumour quickly spreads through the otherwise repressive educational environment that her very best friends are somehow to blame. Each implicates the others in turn, indulging their petty grudges and jealousies seemingly falling over themselves to express their closeness to the departed “sun”, but all is not quite as it seems and these collective acts of fantasy perhaps expose a little more than they were first intended to.

Itsumi Shiraishi (Marie Iitoyo) is dead. The daughter of the chairman at the elite all girls Catholic high school, Virgin Mary Academy, Itsumi was loved by all as the radiant sun whose innate goodness was the very embodiment of the school’s Christian aims. Immediately before the school holidays, the literature club – the most prestigious and exclusive of school associations of which Itsumi had been founder and president, are to meet one last time presided over by Itsumi’s best friend Sayuri (Fumika Shimizu). The girls will each read a story they have written “inspired” by Itsumi’s death, each of which attempts to tell her story from their perspective but ultimately paints themselves in a favourable light whilst casting doubt on the others. 

The sole clue to the mystery is the lily of the valley Itsumi clutched to her breast, Snow White-like, as she lay pale and wan amid the flowers, elegantly arranged as always despite an apparently violent death. Quickly the girls run through a series of possible motives each with a degree of internal consistency but veering off in their own particular directions. Three of the girls awkwardly hint at their (unrequited?) love for their dead friend, insisting on a kind of ownership of her memory and of their rightful place at her side while the fourth descends into a xenophobic horror story casting the half-Bulgarian girl as a “vampire” come to suck the life out of the previously warm and vivacious Itsumi.

Yakumo delights in sending up the ever present girls school trope of repressed lesbianism and passionate friendships, but it remains true enough that the love card was apparently not one which Itsumi was afraid to play. The stories are all, in part at least, fabrications intended to cover up the various skeletons each of the girls has in their closets, but what they reveal is the series of manipulative machinations which underpins this seemingly sweet and elegant collection of conservative young ladies indulging a love for literature and the Christian virtues. Affairs, blackmail, inappropriate sexual relationships, forced abortions (at a Catholic school!), arson, all of these precede the presumed murder of Itsumi in a vast web of deception and illicit activity.

Teenage girls are often desperate to fit in, to be accepted by the “elite”, at the best of times but especially in an environment as otherwise repressive and exacting as an all girls Catholic high school. Adolescence is a time for trying on different personalities, but there can be something inherently plastic about the identity of a high school girl wanting in to the popular club. Hiding their true feelings, their fears and jealousies, the girls play the parts of they’ve been assigned – supporting cast in the tragic history of Itsumi, a girl betrayed who remained beautiful even in death. Then again, there might be some push back from those growing to resent their peripheral status and beginning to wonder if the spotlight was not theirs for the taking all along. A sun, however, will always need its lesser stars to demonstrate how much brighter it can shine.

Adapted from the novel by Rikako Akiyoshi, The Dark Maidens is a perfect mix of European drawing room mystery and gothic melodrama. Yakumo ups the camp fantastically with the girls sitting round a mysterious pot of stew in a room lit only by candlelight while a storm rages outside and each revelation is accompanied by crashing thunder and flashes of light. The setting is oppressive and sinister, but the only horror in the room is entirely human as each of these young women eagerly submits themselves to someone else’s control in fear of being, in some way, exposed, while those who seek to play the lead have to stoop to underhanded methods just to make “friends” who are really just minions rather than true believers. A sad and sorry state of affairs – who knew teenage cliques could be so, well, dark?


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

Screening again:

  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 February 2018
  • Macrobert Arts Centre – 19 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 1 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sing My Life (あやしい彼女, Nobuo Mizuta, 2016)

Sing my life posterWhen Miss Granny was released in Korea back in 2014, it became an instant smash hit with remake rights quickly bought by a host of Asian countries and Chinese (20 Once Again), and Vietnamese (Sweet 20) versions already proving popular in their respective nations. Sing My Life (あやしい彼女, Ayashii Kanojo) shifts away from the Korean film’s pervasive misery for a more typically Japanese determination to grin and bear one’s troubles. Structured like a classic musical, Sing My Life may only hint at the hardships of life in post-war Japan, but co-opts the classic “hahamono” for a musical tribute to motherhood in all of its complexities and complications.

Katsu Seyama (Mitsuko Baisho) is a 73-year-old woman who likes to sing and dance her way through life while making a point of haggling over her purchases and boasting loudly about how proud she is of her daughter who is the editor-in-chief of a famous fashion magazine. Her daughter Yukie (Satomi Kobayashi) has, however, unbeknownst to her been demoted in favour of a flashy, younger candidate. After getting caught by an ore ore scam and blaming Yukie for preventing her from doing all the things she wanted to do in life, Katsu runs away from home and finds herself at a strange photo studio from which she emerges as her 20-year-old self (Mikako Tabe). Suddenly given the chance to experience the youth she never knew, Katsu ends up joining her grandson’s punk band as the lead vocalist singing a number of her favourite retro hits in new, modern versions.

Unlike the Korean version, Katsu’s story is less one of resentment at a fall in social status than an ongoing struggle born of constant hardships. A war orphan with childhood friend Jiro (Kotaro Shiga) her only “familial” connection, Katsu has had to fight all her life just to survive. A shotgun wedding was followed immediately by widowhood and a serious illness for her child who she was told would not survive past infancy. Yet unlike the granny of Miss Granny, Katsu is not actively mean as much as she is irritating and occasionally petulant. Loving to boast of the successful career woman daughter she managed to raise alone, Katsu is not above playing the martyr in reminding those around her of everything she sacrificed to make it happen.

A single mother in the ‘60s, Katsu had to work day and night to support herself and her daughter leaving her with a lifelong love of thriftiness and a kind of no-nonsense bluntness that is occasionally (if accidentally) hurtful. In the original Korean version, a widowed mother pours all of her ambition and desires into her son who she hopes will become a successful member of society able to return the favour by supporting her in her old age. Katsu’s child is a girl but has also become a successful career woman and later a single mother herself following a brief marriage followed by divorce. There may be tension in the relationship between the two women, but Katsu’s returned youth provides the opportunity for greater intimacy and a return to the less complicated mother-child relationship of early childhood brokered by greater mutual understanding.

Though Katsu had not revealed any great dream of being a singer, her beautiful voice soon gets her noticed by the music biz and producer Takuto Kobayashi (Jun Kaname) who is sick to the back teeth of soulless teenage idols who lack the life experience to truly connect with the material they’ve been given. Encompassing a host of Showa era hits from the Kyu Sakamoto tune Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi wo, to Hibari Misora’s Makkana Taiyo, and the central performance of the depression themed Kanashikute Yarikirenai originated by Folk Crusaders, Sing My Life takes a (slightly) more cheerful run through ‘60s Japan emphasising the fortitude and determination of struggle rather than the misery and hardship of difficult times. Fun and touching, Nobuo Mizuta’s adaptation improves on the Korean version in adding a subtle commentary on the ironic invisibility of the elderly in ageing Japan whilst also refocusing the tale onto a deliberately female perspective, examining how two women from different generations have dealt with a similar problem, and allowing them the opportunity to repair their fractured relationship through a process of mutual understanding.


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

Screening again:

  • ICA – 8 February 2018
  • QUAD – 11 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 20 February 2018
  • Firstsite – 25 February 2018
  • Depot – 27 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 10 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 13 March 2018
  • Broadway – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kyu Sakamoto’s Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi wo

Hibari Misora & The Blue Comets – Makkana Taiyo

Folk Crusaders – Kanashikute Yarikirenai

The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Nobuo Mizuta, 2013)

The Apology King.jpgThere are few things in life which cannot at least be improved by a full and frank apology. Sometimes that apology will need to go beyond a simple, if heart felt, “I’m Sorry” to truly make amends but as long as there’s a genuine desire to make things right, it can be done. Some people do, however, need help in navigating this complex series of culturally defined rituals which is where the enterprising hero of Nobuo Mizuta’s The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Shazai no Ousama), Ryoro Kurojima (Sadao Abe), comes in. As head of the Tokyo Apology Centre, Kurojima is on hand to save the needy who find themselves requiring extrication from all kinds of sticky situations such as accidentally getting sold into prostitution by the yakuza or causing small diplomatic incidents with a tiny yet very angry foreign country.

Kurojima promises to know an even more powerful form of apology than the classic Japanese “dogeza” (falling to your knees and placing your head on the ground with hands either side, or OTL in internet lingo), but if you do everything he tells you to, you shouldn’t need it. His first case brings him into contact with Noriko (Mao Inoue) whose awful driving has brought her into contact with the yakuza. Not really paying attention, Noriko has signed an arcane contract in which she’s pledged herself to pay off the extreme debts they’ve placed on her by entering their “employment” at a facility in Osaka. Luckily, she’s turned to Kurojima to help her sort out this mess, which he does by an elaborate process of sucking up to the top brass guys until they forget all about Noriko and the money she owes them in damages. Impressed, Noriko ends up becoming Kurojima’s assistant in all of his subsequent cases, helping people like her settle their disputes amicably rather allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

Mizuta begins with a neat meta segment in which Kurojima appears in a cinema ad outlining various situations in which you might need to apologise including allowing your phone to go off during the movie, or attempting to illegally film inside the auditorium etc ending with a catchy jingle and dance routine pointing towards the contact details for his apology school. Kurojima’s instructions are also offered throughout the film in a series of video essays in which he outlines the basic procedures for de-escalating a conflict and eventually getting the outcome you’re looking for.

Of course, all of this might sound a little manipulative, which it is to a degree, but the important thing to Kurojima lies in mutual understanding more than “winning” or “losing” the argument. The second case which comes to him concerns a young man who has some very outdated ideas and has, therefore, been accused of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, Numata (Masaki Okada) is a classic sexist who only makes the situation worse for himself and completely fails to understand why he was at fault in the first place. Even following Kurojima’s expertly crafted instructions, Numata further insults his female boss whilst attempting to apologise meaning Kurojima has to come up with an even more elaborate plan to smooth the situation which involves pretending to be the ghost of a man who threw himself under a train after being accused of harassing a young woman at work who did not return his affections. This seems to do the trick and the relationship between Numata and his boss appears to have improved even if Numata still has a long way to go in the person stakes, though it does perhaps make light of a serious workplace problem.

Numata follows all of Kurojima’s instructions but still gets everything wrong because he refuses to understand all of the various social rules he’s broken and therefore why and how the apology process is intended to make amends for them. Understanding and sincerity are the keys to Kurojima’s ideology but Numata, after a quick fix, fails to appreciate either of these central tenets and so is unable to work things out for himself. Similarly, in another case the parents of an actor are required to make a public apology when their son is captured on CCTV getting into a street fight. Only, being actors, they find genuine sincerity hard to pull off on the public stage either resorting to chewing the scenery or overdoing the dignified act, not to mention plugging their latest appearances at the end of the speech. The public apology is an important part of the Japanese entertainment industry though it might seem odd that the famous parents of a “disgraced” celebrity would be expected to apologise to the nation as a whole, but as it turns out all that was needed to settle the matter was a quick chat between the people involved, fully explaining the situation and reaching a degree of mutual understanding.

The innovative structure of Apology King neatly weaves each of the cases together as they occur in slightly overlapping timeframes but each contribute to the final set piece in which Kurojima becomes an advisor during a diplomatic incident caused when a film director unwittingly offends the small nation of Mutan by accidentally turning their crown prince into an extra in his film. Mutan is a nation with many arcane rules including a prohibition on filming royalty as well as on drinking and eating skewered meat, all of which the crown prince is seen doing in the movie. Matters only get worse when the film crew travel to Mutan to apologise but make even more faux pas, especially when it turns out that Japanese dogeza is actually incredibly rude in Mutanese culture. Revisiting elements from each of the previous cases, Kurojima is only able to engineer a peaceful solution by convincing the Japanese authorities to utter a set phrase in Mutanese which means something quite different and very embarrassing in their own language. Apologies are, of course, always a little humiliating, but then that is a part of the process in itself – placing oneself on a lower level to those who’ve been wronged, as symbolised in the dogeza.

Full of zany, madcap humour and culminating in a gloriously unexpected pop video complete with dancing idols of both genders exhorting the benefits of a perfectly constructed (and sincere) apology, The Apology King is a warm and innocent tribute to the importance of mutual understanding and its power to ease even the deepest of wounds and most difficult of situations. Hilarious but also heartfelt, The Apology King is a timely reminder that unresolved conflicts only snowball when left to their own devices, the only path to forgiveness lies in recognising your own faults and learning to see things from another perspective. Kurojima’s powers could be misused by the unscrupulous, but the most important ingredient is sincerity – empty words win no respect.


Original trailer (no subtitles)