The Floating Castle (のぼうの城, Isshin Inudo & Shinji Higuchi, 2012)

What happens if you call the bluff of those who thought they could take your complicity for granted? As it turns out, at least in the case of a small provincial outpost in Isshin Inudo & Shinji Higuchi’s lighthearted historical drama The Floating Castle (のぼうの城, Nobo no Shiro), something and nothing. Inspired by a real life incident which took place in 1590, 10 years prior to the era defining battle of Sekigahara, the film asks how far standing up to corrupt authority will get you but as history tells us this this is the twilight of the Sengoku warring states period and in the end any victory can at best be only partial and temporary. 

With Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Masachika Ichimura) poised to unify all of Japan under his rule he turns his gaze towards Hojo, the last remaining hold out in the East of Japan. The small castle of Oshi is asked to commit its forces to protecting the main castle at Odawara where lord Ujinaga (Masahiko Nishimura) is to meet with the head of the clan which has decided to resist the Toyotomi invasion. Ujinaga meanwhile is privately doubtful. He knows they do not have the manpower to protect themselves and the only viable course of action is immediate surrender though he cannot of course say this openly even if buffoonish lord in waiting Nagachika (Mansai Nomura) is brave enough to raise the idea of neutrality in front of the messengers. Preparing to head to Odawara, Ujinaga tells his closest retainers to strengthen defences but to open the castle should the enemy approach while revealing that he plans to write to Hideyoshi, whom he apparently knows personally, and privately pledge allegiance in order to avoid destruction. 

Nagachika, however, eventually makes the decision to resist following the arrogant entreaty from Natsuka (Takehiro Hira), the right-hand man of the Toyotomi retainer leading the assault, Mitsunari Ishida (Yusuke Kamiji). He does this largely because Natsuka makes the unreasonable demand that they surrender their princess, Kai (Nana Eikura), herself a fearsome warrior though somewhat sidelined here relegated to the role of contested love interest, to be sent to Hideyoshi as a concubine but also correctly reads that Natsuka and Ishida are overreaching and actually have little more than their bluster to leverage other than the 20,000 men standing behind them which they may not know how to use. Nagachika may play the clown, but he’s not stupid and knows that the 20,000 men are there for the purposes of intimidation and are not expecting a force of a mere 500 to tell them where to go so it stands to reason to think they are not entirely prepared for battle. 

In this he’s mostly correct. Hideyoshi has essentially given Ishida, previously in finance, an easy ride to improve his reputation among the other lords instructing the more experienced Yoshitsugu Otani (Takayuki Yamada) to ensure he comes back painted in glory. Otani had said that others admired Ishida for his “childlike sense of fair play”, but his sense of fair play is often childish as in his gradual realisation that everyone is surrendering to him because of the 20,000 men rather than his prowess as a general annoyed with his enemies for backing down from a challenge which is why he sends Natsuka to alienate Nagachika hoping to provoke a battle which no rational person could ever describe as “fair”. Having assumed that Nagachika would back down or that the castle would be easy to take with only 500 country bumpkin soldiers defending it, the Toyotomi are in for a rude awakening discovering the extent of the counterstrategies in place to protect the small provincial outpost, forced into a humiliating defeat licking their wounds from a nearby hill. 

But then, as Ishida manically proclaims power comes from one thing, gold, using his vast resources to dam two nearby rivers and then burst them to drown the town as Hideyoshi had done once before. Designed by effects specialist Higuchi the flooding of the town is indeed terrifying, a spectacle which delayed the film’s release as the eerie similarities with the catastrophic tsunami of the year before may have been too traumatic for audiences, and speaks to nothing if not Ishida’s intense cruelty in which he is willing to go to any lengths in order to win even destroying the lives of innocent farmers far removed from these petty samurai games. As the film would have it, his arrogance and entitlement eventually come for him, his trap turned back on himself after an ill-advised potshot at Nagachika, a natural leader beloved by all because rather than in spite of his deceptive clownishness, causes disillusionment with his leadership. 

In any case, we already know how this story ends, Ishida is defeated at Sekigahara and beheaded in Kyoto. Nagachika’s victory can be only partial and in fact does not even win him the thing he went into battle for even if he strikes a blow at corrupt government in refusing to simply give in to intimidation, calling their bluff and showing them they cannot continue to push smaller clans around solely with the threat of extinction. In the end they are all at the mercy of their superiors, a truce imposed and imperfect to each side in an act of compromise which spells the end of an era many of those surviving the battles voluntarily renouncing samurai status as if realising their age is drawing to a close, Nagachika proved on the right of history in cultivating links with the Tokugawa soon to take the Toyotomi’s place as rulers of a unified Japan. His resistance was then not foolhardy but justified, necessary, and principled in standing up to injustice even if it could not in the end be fully stopped. 


The Floating Castle streamed as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Pickles and Komian Club (丸八やたら漬け, Koichi Sato, 2021)

For years the Komian Club had been a familial haunt for visitors to the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival becoming almost an artificial hub where filmmakers and spectators could meet on equal terms. However, the 135-year-old family-run pickle store was left with little choice other than to close given the decline in demand for pickles among younger consumers and the additional strains placed on their business by the conoravirus pandemic. 

Pickles and Komian Club (丸八やたら漬け, Maruhachi yatarazuke Komian) is as much about the film festival and the wider Yamagata community as it about the building at its centre. The loss of the store leaves many feeling quite literally displaced, not only lacking a new place to gather and mourning the atmosphere of the traditional building, but reflecting on the absence of these kinds of structures in the urban environment which places value only in the land on which new structures more profitable to the modern economy may be built. We’re told that the pickle store had been approved as an intangible cultural asset because of its luxurious interior, but this does not apparently provide much protection under Japanese property laws. The store’s owner Yoshinori mentions the possibilities of someone buying his storehouse and moving it to a new location preserving all of its period features but is eventually forced to sell to developers who plan to knock it down to build build yet another generic apartment block. 

As he explains, in Japan property depreciates over time and the value that it has is essentially sentimental rather than financial. Few people are interested in preserving these traditional buildings along with their classical architectural styles because there is no real financial incentive to do so. The best that can be done is to salvage what one can that could be re-used or incorporated in another structure such as the heavy wooden beams and ornate friezes. Yoshinori sells one of his giant wooden pickling vats to an old friend who runs a traditional Japanese inn which is then repurposed as a bath. His friend worries what the decline of traditional culture might mean for his business, inns largely being the repository of the traditional in the modern society. But the repurposing of the vat which in essence turns something used for industry into something used for leisure is an example of one way to bring something of the past into the present finding new uses for old technology. 

While the pickle store could not be saved, other owners of similar properties have been able to breathe new life into old spaces, turning a small outside guesthouse into a cinema which the local community can enjoy or renting out part of the premises for local events taking full advantage of the calming atmosphere such traditional buildings can offer. Though as an architecture student later makes plain what’s needed is further action at the legislative level to ensure that older buildings are better protected and less likely to be torn down because of an economic imperative that has no interest in tangible history. Seeing the buildings stripped of their assets then roughly broken apart is a heartrending sight as is the giant empty space they leave behind robbing the area of its unique atmosphere in favour of the generically urban. 

One interviewee makes the point that in choosing to focus on documentary film the festival in a sense made an investment in its future by choosing the unique over the flashy, building a friendly atmosphere of openness and equality rather than the red carpets and VIP areas which can often define some other events. In a sense it’s this loss of traditional spaces which damages the fabric of the community in further distancing one person from another while robbing it of the architectural history that gives it its sense of place.  Even so the presence of the festival providing a place in which filmmakers and film lovers from all over the world can gather is a potent symbol of alternative community bolstering the local, while the young are also busying themselves finding new ways to incorporate the traditional into their modern lives or breathing life back into that which had been thought old-fashioned but might now be reappreciated for its quality of serenity in an ever changing society.


Pickles and Komian Club Storytellers streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)

Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Kinji Fukasaku, 1994)

“I was trying to reform our times!” cries a man about to abandon his revolution at the moment of its inception. “The times have reformed us” his friend retorts, rejecting him for his self-interested cowardice before seconds later deciding to follow his example. Largely remembered for his contemporary jitsuroku gangster pictures, Kinji Fukasaku’s tale of rising individualism amid political turbulence and economic instability Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan) hints at a perceived moral collapse in contemporary post-Bubble Japan defined by a sense of nihilistic impossibility in marrying the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan with the noble tragedy of the 47 Ronin. 

The action opens the very concrete date of 14th March 1702 which as an early title card reminds us is at the close of the Genroku era which had been regarded as a “golden age” but its appearance of affluence had in fact been semi-engineered by the shogunate’s unwise decision to continue debasing the currency which later led to an inflation crisis (sounding familiar?). Meanwhile, in the samurai world Tsunayoshi, the fifth Tokugawa shogun, has deposed 38 Daimyo creating 40,000 masterless samurai each vying either for new positions as retainers in other clans or some other way to survive in a manner which befits their station. 

The 14th March, 1702 is a significant date in terms of the narrative in that it marks the first anniversary of the death of Lord Asano who was ordered to commit seppuku after offending another lord, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka (Takahiro Tamura), leaving his house ruined and his retainers masterless. Samurai code dictates they seek revenge, but leader Oishi (Masahiko Tsugawa) suggests they bide their time leaving him and the clan open to accusations of cowardice or betrayal, mocked by peasants at the memorial service while Oishi decries their appetite for samurai drama. Enter Iemon Tamiya (Koichi Sato), antihero of the classic Yotsuya Kaidan, who had apparently joined the clan only two months before it was dissolved after years as a wandering ronin biwa player and alone has the courage to ask him if he truly has no appetite for vengeance moments after Oishi has scandalised his men by pointing out that it was Asano’s “short-temperedness” which destroyed their clan. His only answer is that it cannot be now, they must wait a year in order to prove their internal resolve. 

In marrying the two classic tales, Fukasaku directly contrasts the sublimation of the individual self into the samurai code as in the internecine nobility of the 47 ronin avenging the death of their lord knowing their own must shortly follow, and the self-serving individualism of (in this case) conflicted opportunist Iemon. Iemon has indeed been reformed by his times, becoming a thieving murderer out of desperation and misplaced filial piety after he and his father were forced into a life as itinerant biwa players on the dissolution of their clan. In most versions of the classic tale, Iemon is an ambitious sociopath who tricks his way into marrying up but loses interest in new wife Oiwa after she bears his child, later doing them both in to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant who took a liking to him in a market square. Here, Oume (Keiko Oginome) is taken with him after he hacks the sword-bearing hand off an aggressor but unbeknownst to Iemon her father is a retainer of his sworn enemy leaving him with a double conflict, while Oiwa is a lowly bath house sex worker pregnant with a child he does not truly believe is his. 

The radical samurai had wanted to “reform our corrupt times”, but Iemon like his friend who drops out of the movement after being taken on as a successor to a hatamoto and becoming a direct retainer to the shogunate, comes to the conclusion that the times cannot be reformed and he must conform to them. If he chooses Oume, he betrays his loyalty to his lord by uniting with his rival to further his own prospects, a decision many will understand it is perhaps little more than leaving one firm for a better job at another, but it’s also an unforgivable subversion of the samurai code which drives him deeper even than the class conflict which sometimes informs his choices in Yotsuya Kaidan into a hellish spiral of greed and immorality. “The world hates your type” Oishi reminds him, “they’ll kill you, like a snake. Can you live fighting with the world for the rest of your life?” He asks, pitying Iemon for his self-destructive decision to turn away from “justice” for personal gain knowing that he will never reconcile himself to his choices nor will the world approve them. 

Yet as in Yotsuya Kaidan it’s not so much his latent sense of guilt that does for him as Oiwa’s curse, her ghost with its face ruined by his transgression taking its otherworldly revenge though interestingly only indirectly against him even as she provokes Iemon into destroying his chances for the secure, comfortable life he’d chosen for himself. The 47 ronin, meanwhile, continue with their righteous mission even if it’s a stretch to insist that their vengeance serves the cause of justice or is even intended to “reform these corrupt times”. Those corrupt times, Fukasaku seems to argue, forged a man like Iemon rather than the toxic masculinity, personal insecurity, or innate sociopathy which are generally ascribed to him to explain his dark deeds, and so these corrupt times of post-Bubble insecurity might create more like him. Finding the director in a noticeably expressionistic mood, opening with an ominous storm and climaxing in an unexpected, supernatural blizzard, Crest of Betrayal adopts a register of high theatricality and an etherial air of mystery culminating in a beautifully executed series of ghost effects overlaid with a watery filter but ends on a note of hopeful ambiguity in which Oiwa’s curse has perhaps been healed even if Iemon finds himself condemned, a wandering samurai for all eternity. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Silent Tokyo (サイレント・トーキョー, Takafumi Hatano, 2020)

Traditionally speaking, Christmas is a time of joy and hope, peace to all men. It is then a particular cruelty to plan a terrorist event at the very time people have been conditioned to feel safe, even if in Japan Christmas is less about familial love than the romantic. Christmas Eve will be far from a silent night in Takafumi Hatano’s holiday thriller Silent Tokyo (サイレント・トーキョー) adapted from the novel by Takehiko Hata, the sound of explosions disrupting the peaceful atmosphere as a mysterious bomber threatens to blow up Tokyo Tower if they are not granted a personal audience with the prime minister on live TV. 

Thankfully Japan does not have an extensive history of terrorist action at least of this nature, that’s one reason why a when a pair of TV journalists report a tip off they’ve received about a bomb in a shopping centre the police take little notice. The shopping centre bomb is real but of low power leaving only a single person with light injuries after most shoppers are evacuated following a smaller warning explosion in a bin near the Christmas display. It’s enough for the police to take notice, especially as grizzled veteran Seta (Hidetoshi Nishijima) becomes convinced it’s likely a dry run for something more serious, but still no one really believes a bomb could go off in the middle of Tokyo even when a message from the bomber threatening to blow up the Christmas tree in Shibuya if they are not granted an audience with the prime minister is played on large screens around the city. For whatever reason, the police choose not to evacuate the area which is quickly filled by the morbidly curious along with holiday revellers in Santa suits live-streaming the event via social media as if it were the countdown on New Year’s Eve. When the bomb doesn’t go off, they content themselves with a rousing chorus of “congratulations” as if it were all some kind of Christmas prank only to be hit by the delayed explosion a few minutes later in an elaborately staged scene of urban carnage. 

Hatano shifts suspicion between a number of suspects before finally bringing it all together while continually hinting at the bomber’s, and the film’s, true message. Early on we see a mass protest against the prime minister who appears on a large screen insisting that Japan abandon its pacifist constitution and become militarised nation capable of going to war should the necessity arise. The irony is, of course, that the PM evidently chooses not to mount much of a defence against this immediate internal threat, never mind the external, while the bomber’s message turns out to be that war is morally wrong and not something a civilised nation should be pursuing. The bombs are intended as a wakeup call to the prime minister and the “apathetic” citizens of Japan who elected him, urging them that if they truly understood the nature of war they would want no part of it. That the message is delivered through violence which includes loss of life and serious injury is another irony and one likely to prove counterproductive especially considering the bullishness of the PM who repeatedly appears on TV screens insisting that the government does not negotiate with terrorists while simultaneously playing the strongman and not appearing to do very much else. 

In any case, the film briefly touches on other kinds of secondary violence such as the affects of post-traumatic stress in soldiers returning from peacekeeping missions overseas, police dealing with major incidents, victims of crime, and that of a young man having witnessed his father violently abusing his mother. But in keeping with the Christmas theme, the motive turns out to be romantic in addition to political delivered with a kind of misplaced love and desire for vengeance which goes someway to explaining the various target locations which are all obvious stop offs on a stereotypical Tokyo day trip culminating with the iconic Tokyo Tower. The irony of this anti-violence bombing campaign is fully brought home by the assertions of the police that they are technically at war with the bomber, who perhaps hopes that being directly subjected to the reality of military violence will help bolster support for the pacifist constitution while their hope of being able to change the prime minister’s nationalistic mindset through chatting with him on TV seems rather naive. In any case, the messages of peace to all men are perfectly suited to the festive season even if they come in slightly counterintuitive packaging. 


Original trailer (English subtitles available from CC button)

I Never Shot Anyone (一度も撃ってません, Junji Sakamoto, 2020)

“You don’t know the pain of being forgotten” laments an ageing actress attempting to move the heart of a heartless conman in Junji Sakamoto’s comedy noir I Never Shot Anyone (一度も撃ってません, Ichido mo Uttemasen), more as it turns out a melancholy meditation on age and disappointment than hardboiled farce. Sakamoto’s elderly heroes live in a world of night in which their dreams of youth never died, but are confronted with the realities of their lonely existences when the sun rises and exposes the shallowness of their escapist fantasy.

74-year-old Susumu Ichikawa (Renji Ishibashi) was once a promising novelist but veered away from the realms of literary fiction towards the allure of hardboiled noir, no longer permitting his wife Yayoi (Michiyo Okusu) to read his drafts claiming that she would find them too distressing. His publisher (Koichi Sato) meanwhile is more distressed by the quality of the prose than the content, partly because his novels are simply dull but also because they are far too detailed to be mere imagination and as each one seems to be based on a recent ripped from the headlines case he’s staring to worry that Susumu is the real life legendary hitman said to be responsible for a series of unsolved suspicious deaths. 

On the surface, it might be hard to believe. At home, Susumu is a regular old gent who reads the paper after breakfast and locks himself away in his study to write for the rest of the day but his wife complains that he stays out too late at night little knowing that he leads something like a double life, dressing like a shady character from a post-war noir and even at one point likening himself to Yves Montand in Police Python 357. He speaks with an affected huskiness and is fond of offering pithy epithets such as “women come alive at night” while reuniting with two similarly aged friends in a bar run by a former hitman nicknamed “Popeye” (pro wrestler Jinsei Shinzaki) who seems to have some kind of nerve damage in his hands he’s trying to stave off through obsessive knitting. 

What Susumu seems to be afraid of, however, is the sense of eclipse in his impending obsolescence. The guy who ran the local gun shop whom he’d known for 30 years recently passed away, while the guy from the Chinese herbalist apparently went home to die. His publisher’s retiring, and Popeye’s going to close the bar because his mother’s ill so he’s going back to his hometown. Susumu and his wife didn’t have any children and he perhaps feels a little untethered in his soon-to-be legally “elderly” existence while the now retired Yayoi is also lonely with her husband always off in another world he won’t let her share. His friend Ishida (Ittoku Kishibe) once a prosecutor and now a disgraced former mob lawyer working as a security consultant/fixer is estranged from his only daughter, while former cabaret star Hikaru (Kaori Momoi) never married and spends her days working in a noodle bar. They are all scared of being forgotten and fear their world is shrinking, living by night in order to forget the day. 

Perhaps you can’t get much more noir than that, but there’s a definite hollowness in Susumu’s constructed hardboiled persona that leaves him looking less like Alain Delon than a sad man in an ally with only a cigarette for a friend. Even his new editor is quick to tell him that no reads noir anymore, Susumu is quite literally living in the past battling a “hopeless struggle” as someone puts it against the futility of life by living in a hardboiled fantasy. We see him looking at target profiles for an investigative reporter proving a thorn in the side of yakuza and big business, and threaten a heartless conman (Yosuke Eguchi) whose investment frauds have caused untold misery, yet he’s not really a part of the story and his life is smaller than it seems or than he would like it to be. Perhaps in the end everyone’s is even if Susumu is as his new editor describes him “one step away from being insane”. Never quite igniting, Sakamoto’s lowkey tale of elderly ennui is less rage against the dying of the light than a tiny elegy for lives unlived as its dejected hero steps back into the shadows unwilling to welcome an unforgiving dawn.


I Never Shot Anyone screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Daihachi Yoshida, 2020)

“Landscapes don’t stay the same” laments a young woman in Daihachi Yoshida’s slick corporate drama, Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Damashie No Kiba), though the more things change the more they stay the same and the push and pull of traditionalists and modernisers seems set to be an unending battle. If someone were brave enough to think of it, there may be a third way, but one thing is clear – it’s adapt or die for the printed word and the real war is over who makes it onto the page and how they do it. 

When the CEO of a major family-owned publishing house dies of a heart attack while walking his dog, it throws the entire industry into disarray and even makes it onto the national news where pundits discuss who might be most likely to succeed while pointing out that publishing is already in crisis seeing as most novels are serialised in literary journals and magazine readership is on its way out. Earnest editor Megumi (Mayu Matsuoka) is forever told that old and new is a false dichotomy and in some ways it may be, but century-old literary journal Kunpu Review is quite clearly mired in a traditionalist past woefully out of touch with contemporary society. 

This Megumi learns to her cost when pulled straight from the CEO’s funeral to a 40th anniversary event marking the debut of their best-selling author Daisaku Nikaido (Jun Kunimura). Encouraged by rival editor Hayami (Yo Oizumi), she gives her honest opinion on Nikaido’s work pulling him up on the latent sexism in his novels by suggesting his sexual politics are at best old-fashioned. This is of course a huge faux pas and a moment of minor embarrassment for all concerned, though it will also become a repeated motif Megumi again trying to bring up a younger author on his subpar portrayal of women but finding her concerns falling on deaf ears. 

Part of the problem is that authors, and particularly well-established ones, rarely undergo a rigorous editing process such as they might outside of Japan. Kunpu is so desperate to keep Nikaido on side that they treat him as a mini god, wasting vast amounts of their budget expensing him for “research” holidays and a healthy interest in fine wines. They simply wouldn’t have the courage to tell him that his drafts are improvable or that elements of his writing may cause offence. 

Hayami, the tricky editor of rival culture mag Trinity, is by contrast deliberately looking for the modern but in other ways is not so different from Kunpu. Poaching an up and coming author Megumi had pitched but was rejected, Hayami embarks on an elaborate PR campaign casting the young and handsome Yajiro (Hio Miyazawa) as a literary idol star. But Yajiro seems to be uncomfortable with the attention, unprepared to deal with demands of being a prominent writer and resenting Hayami’s attempts to manipulate his image by forcing him into photoshoots dressed in outfits he would never wear. Hayami also engineers a publicity stunt implying Yajiro is in a relationship with his other protege, a young model and unexpected firearms enthusiast (Elaiza Ikeda) who is later arrested after shooting a stalker with a homemade pistol. 

What happens to Saki Jojima is either an unintended consequence or direct result of Hayami’s inability to fully control the situation, but it also creates both crisis and opportunity for Trininty when Hayami breaks protocol and decides to run Saki’s issue rather than pulling it entirely with an apology as is usual in Japan when a celebrity is the subject of scandal. This places him in direct opposition to the traditionalist Kunpu, horrified and insistent that his decision stains the integrity of the publishing house. Like Hayami, however, new CEO Tomatsu (Koichi Sato) is determined to do things differently and prepared to take a gamble, secretly working on his own plan to streamline the business and build their own production/distribution facility in Yokohama. 

Everyone is so absorbed in their own plotting that they fail to notice others plotting around them. Megumi, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the survival of her father’s old-fashioned book shop which itself badly needs another literary hit because half the customers are kids who come in to browse the manga and then download the good ones when they get home. One young woman looking for a particular novel even explains that she only wants to read it because there’s no movie or drama adaptation. With all this finagling, it’s easy to think everyone’s forgotten about the books while Megumi desperately tries to get someone to let her do some actual editing because they’re all too busy mollycoddling their authors. Nevertheless there’s more to the Kunpu vs Trinity battle than it first seems as they vie for the future of Japan’s publishing industry little suspecting that there may be another contender with a less acrimonious solution. “If something could be updated it should be” Megumi insists, a sentiment which apparently goes both for dinosaur writers unwilling to reckon with their latent misogyny and the book business itself. 

Once again adapting a literary source, Yoshida’s gentle farce quietly builds the tension with courtly intrigue as the wider society remains rapt over the succession crisis at a publishing firm while its ambitious courtiers plot amongst themselves in order to steal the throne. Casting Yo Oizumi in the role he apparently inspired in the book is another masterstroke of meta commentary as his thrill-seeking manipulator plays the long game but even if the prognosis for Japan’s publishing industry may be bleak there is unexpected glee to be had in the eventual triumph of a righteous underdog over a thoroughbred plotter. 


Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction screens on Aug. 26 and 28 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋, Kan Eguchi, 2021)

Appearances can be deceptive. A case could be made that everyone is in a sense living undercover, pretending to be something they’re not in order to survive in a conformist society and most do indeed have their secrets even if they’re relatively benign. Others, meanwhile, are on a kind of sabbatical from a life of meticulous violence such as the hero of Kan Eguchi’s sequel to smash hit action comedy The Fable, The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋, The Fable: Korosanai Koroshiya) or like his antagonist living a double life with his apparently genuine concern for the lives of disabled and disadvantaged children balanced by his business of targeting wayward youngsters for the purposes of extortion. 

Some months on from the previous action, “Sato” (Junichi Okada), formerly a top Tokyo assassin known as The Fable, is successfully maintaining his cover hiding out in Osaka as an “ordinary” person with a part-time job in a print and design shop. His cover is almost blown, however, when his colleague Etsuji (Masao Yoshii) is targeted by Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi), ostensibly the leader of a local organisation advocating for the rights of children but also a shady gangster who finances his “philanthropy” by extorting the parents of young people who’ve in someway gone off the rails. Etsuji’s crime is, as was exposed in the previous film, his spy cam habit and in particular his planting of hidden cameras in the home of colleague Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) with whom he has an unhealthy obsession stemming from her time as an aspiring idol star. Blaming Misaki for his misfortune, Etsuji turns to violence but is shut down by Sato who risks blowing his cover in order to protect her. Realising he has a previous connection with Utsubo, Sato makes the gang an offer they can’t refuse in order to get Etsuji back but quickly finds himself drawn into another deadly battle with bad guys endangering his still in progress no kill mission. 

Focussed this time much more on action than the fish out of water comedy of Sato’s attempts learn the rules of polite society having been raised in the mountains as a super efficient killing machine, The Fable 2 nevertheless wastes no time in exposing the murkiness of the “normal” world Sato is intended to inhabit. Utsubo is a hit with the local mothers, taken with his smart suit and professionalism as he gives “inspirational” speeches about park safety while making time to converse in sign language with a deaf little girl explaining to another mother that it’s important to “listen to every voice”. As part of his patter he implies his assistant, Hinako (Yurina Hirate), who uses a wheelchair, was injured in a freak park-related accident as a child when in reality she sustained the injury while trapped in the back of a car which veered off a roof after The Fable took out its driver. Vaguely recognising her in the local park, Sato takes an interest out of guilt as the young woman attempts to rebuild her strength in the hope of walking again though that might in itself be contrary to Utsubo’s desires. 

As in the first film, Sato may be a ruthlessly efficient killing machine but at heart he’s still childishly innocent, hoping to help the young woman he unwittingly hurt but also keen not interfere with her ability to help herself. Misunderstanding the situation, Hinako asks Utsubo to lay off Sato, explaining that he gives her confidence as she begins to realise that she can stand alone, as the sometimes uncomfortably ablest metaphor would have it, and no longer needs to be complicit in Utsubo’s nefarious schemes nor need she continue to punish herself in guilt over her traumatic past. While Sato and his handler Yoko (Fumino Kimura) pose as a pair of siblings watched over by their benevolent if absent boss (Koichi Sato), Hinako and underling Suzuki (Masanobu Ando) similarly pose as brother and sister only with the comparatively dubious guidance of Utsubo who affects kindness and generosity while burying problematic youngsters alive in the forest in order to extort money from their “protective” parents. “It’s always the villain who tells the truth” Utsubo explains, insisting that it’s shame and humiliation which build self-esteem in direct contrast to the gently invisible support which seems to have re-activated Hinako’s desire for life.

Sato has at least discovered the benefits of a well functioning and supportive “family” network thanks to the, as we discover, equally handy Yoko, and his still largely oblivious workplace friends. Amping up the action value, Eguchi careers from set piece to set piece culminating in a high octane chase through an apartment block and its eventually unstable scaffolding while making space for slapstick comedy such as two guys trying to move a piano at a very inconvenient moment. A gently wholesome tale of a pure-hearted hitman kicking back against societal hypocrisy while figuring out how to be “normal” in a confusing society, The Fable 2 more than builds on the promise of its predecessor while allowing its hero the space to grow as he begins to adjust to his new and very “ordinary” life.


The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill screens on July 7 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

Original trailer (English subtitles)

BOLT (Kaizo Hayashi, 2019)

“We have to trust the bonds that tie us” intones a voice from the control room, “if you can’t tighten that bolt the water will pollute the future”. A series of post-Fukushima tales, Kaizo Hayashi’s tripartite portmanteau movie BOLT is less about the radiating effects of a nuclear disaster than their legacy, insisting that if you can’t pull together you can’t move forward but then in the end the bolt cannot be tightened or the deluge stemmed. It is perhaps too late, but still you have to live. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the first of the three tales follows a series of selfless engineers sent in to tighten a bolt on a leaking tank. They are informed their suits will protect them but not completely, they have only half an hour of oxygen, and should work in pairs for no longer than a minute before changing over. The older men tell the younger to wait behind, hoping to spare them from harm while the young men bristle wanting to do their bit. In any case, one of the young men later freezes, his feet rooted to the spot as if under some kind of spell while his friend begins to go quietly mad when a second bolt works it way out seconds after he’s fixed the first. The unnamed chief (Masatoshi Nagase) refuses to return with his team, staying to ensure he’s done all that can be done but in the end they cannot stop what is already in motion. 

A few years later the chief has apparently moved on, now working as a house clearer in the exclusion zone. His job is to tidy up and sanitise the home of a man who refused the evacuation order and has since passed away alone. As he’s been told, he carefully saves important documents and personal items such as photo albums for the family only to be told there is no family to take them, they were all taken by the tsunami. His cynical partner asks him why he got into this kind of work. He doesn’t have much of an answer for him save that someone’s got to do it and can offer only the declaration that he has to go on living for further direction of his life. 

On Christmas Eve 2014 however he’s still alone, living in an auto garage making some kind of metal device while a pair of children outside set the scene for a ghost story claiming there’s a mermaid living in the tank inside. Like the deceased man, the chief also seems to have lost someone, a black and white photograph sitting on the desk behind him, while apparently attempting to return to his former life as a nuclear technician only to be told he’s taken too much radiation already though the plant is short staffed seeing as many prefer to work on the Olympics, forging the future while neglecting the past. His Christmas gets off to a strange start when a beautiful woman in a red convertible bedecked with festive lights literally crashes into his life. An echo of someone else her arrival and subsequent departure hint at the strange and ethereal impermanence of post-disaster life in the continuing impossibility of moving on from irresolvable trauma. 

Beginning in science fiction with the high concept opener and its cyber punk design, Hayashi posits the nuclear threat as a kind of supernatural curse which can perhaps never be undone. Crackles of electricity take on a spiritual air while the permanent pinking of the sky seems to hint at a world forever changed as if something has been unleashed and can never again be caged. Tormented by cosmological unease, the chief chooses action, trying to his best to live even when action fails. The bolt can’t be tightened, the water pollutes the future, and all he can do is continue to stem the tide, tightening the bolts wherever they fray. With occasional flashes of psychedelic surrealism, Hayashi’s three tales offer a bleak and melancholy vision of life in the shadow of an almost supernatural disaster, but find finally a determination to live no matter how futile it may turn out to be. 


BOLT streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©L’espace Vision, Dream Kid, Kaizo Production

Hit Me Anyone One More Time (記憶にございません!, Koki Mitani, 2019)

Imagine if you woke up one day and found out you’re actually the national leader of your country and not only that absolutely everyone, including your wife and son, hates you with furious intensity. The hapless protagonist of Koki Mitani’s lowkey political satire Hit Me Anyone One More Time (記憶にございません!, Kioku ni Gozaimasen!) finds himself in just this stressful situation having lost all of his memories since he made the fateful decision to enter politics, rendered infinitely naive as he tries to keep up appearances while internally conflicted by the direction both his life and his country under his stewardship seem to have taken. 

Regarded as the “all-time worst prime minister” in Japanese history, Keisuke Kuroda (Kiichi Nakai) is known as a venal bore, a ghastly misogynist and all-round arsehole. To put it bluntly the very fact that a man like Kuroda could ever have become prime minster in the first place hints at a deep-seated rot in the political order. Aside from his gaffe-prone personality, the chief complaints against his administration are a sales tax hike and welfare cuts both of which target those with the least means, not that Kuroda cares very much about them. His big legacy idea is to build a second Diet building right next to the first Diet building only with spa facilities, illicitly teaming up with a childhood friend turned construction magnate who has been supplying him with hefty “donations”. 

After insulting the electorate during an outdoor balcony speech, Kuroda is hit on the head by a rock thrown by a disgruntled voter. Having lost his memory he regresses to a state of innocence from before he was corrupted by the cutthroat world of Japanese politics, now a nice, polite, slightly mild-mannered man who stuns his staff with his newfound consideration for others including a widely televised moment in which he stops to help up a female reporter who trips while chasing him in the lobby. Few believe he’s really changed, assuming this is some sort of bit intended to help rehabilitate his reputation. His new attitude, however, eventually fosters a new sense of hope for political change among his previously jaded, cynical staff who had long since given up hope of building a better Japan. 

Unsurprisingly, Mitani mostly avoids direct allusions to real world politics but adopts a mildly progressive stance as he sends a virtual innocent into the lion’s den of contemporary politics. It’s not long before Kuroda’s asking sensible questions about policy that wouldn’t go down so well with his (presumably) centre-right party including lowering the sales tax and raising the corporate, taking the time to greet constituents including a contingent of cherry farmers which contributes to his later decision to turn down a tariff-free trade deal for American cherries endangering diplomatic relations with the Japanese-American US President. No longer a ruthless political animal but a rueful middle-aged man who actually cares about ordinary people, Kuroda attempts to change the course Japanese politics largely by taking on the king maker, Tsurumaru (Masao Kusakari), his Chief Cabinet Secretary and the true holder of power in this infinitely corrupt political system. 

All sorts of sordid politics is on display from Kuroda’s womanising and a potential blackmail plot involving his wife’s affair to Tsurumaru’s yakuza ties and an even worse secret he would find personally ruinous should it get out. The ironic Japanese title of the film takes its name from that most universal of political get out of jail free cards, “I do not recall”, Kuroda’s standard response when questioned in the Diet about any of his extremely dodgy dealings. Instructing Kuroda that he should drop this “shallow humanism”, Tsurumaru can offer only the motivation that he wants to “remain in politics for as long as possible” while discovering that his old-school methods of political manipulation may no longer work when those around him find the courage to shed their cynicism and embrace a cleaner, kinder politics. 

Throwing in random gags such as a foreign minister who can’t speak English and has large ears with a pot belly that give him the appearance of Buddha while taking minor potshots as the usually toothless TV media through his series of acerbic anchors only too keen to criticise the PM live on air, Mitani’s comedy is characteristically inoffensive with its mix of slapstick and goodnatured farce but nevertheless makes a subtle plea for decent, compassionate politics which puts the interests of the people first rather than those of the governing elite. 


Hit Me Anyone One More Time streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

Small-town Japan is no Promised Land in Takahisa Zeze’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by mystery writer Shuichi Yoshida. Japanese cinema has often had an ambivalent relationship with the rapidly depopulating countryside, split between a sickly furusato idealisation of rural life as somehow purer than its urban counterpart and lampooning city slickers tired of that same sense of urban ennui but discovering that the traditional way of life is often hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and have no friends in communities which can often seem hostile to newcomers. 

What newcomers to the small town at the centre of The Promised Land (楽園, Rakuen) discover is latent racism, mutual suspicion, and toxic local politics which bends towards the feudal as those now old go to great lengths to cling on to their power. Hardly a rural idyll but a space of atavistic decay. The rot begins 12 years prior to the main action when a little girl, Aika, doesn’t come home for tea after playing with a friend. A search of the local area is organised, but only her little red school bag is found. 12 years later the other girl, Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki), is consumed by a sense of survivor’s guilt feeling as if she is underserving of happiness in the knowledge that if she had only taken a different path that day Aika might not have disappeared. When another girl goes missing, suspicion falls on a wounded young man, Takeshi (Go Ayano), who speaks little and is intensely traumatised by his childhood experiences of xenophobic bullying having come to Japan with his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) at seven years old. 

Bystanders in the crowd preparing a search for the second missing girl are quick to blame the other, one loudly casting suspicion on “Africans” living nearby while another brings up a man who sells second-hand cars she feels is a little odd. Takeshi gets the blame because he exists to the side of the community but also because he is meek and vulnerable, unable to defend himself until pushed into a corner and provoked into an explosive act of self-destructive violence. “Suicide brings redemption” Aika’s grief crazed grandfather (Akira Emoto) shrieks as if urging a young man on towards his death based on nothing other than prejudice and bloodlust. Later he admits that he just wanted someone to blame as if that would bring an end to the matter but of course it didn’t, it only added to the burden. 

Meanwhile, middle-aged beekeeper Zenjiro (Koichi Sato) who returned to the village to look after his parents following the death of his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) from leukaemia also finds himself under suspicion but mostly as part of a concerted harassment campaign conducted by two local elderly men who have appointed themselves village elders and resent his attempt to go directly to city hall in order to fund a new business venture without going through them. Zenjiro is originally from the village, this is his hometown, but he was also away a long time and is in a sense other as a new returnee at first courted as a potential suitor for the similarly returned widowed daughter of the local bigwig, Hisako (Reiko Kataoka), and then aggressively shunned to the point he begins to lose his mind leading to another shocking act of irrepressible violence. 

“No one trusts anyone” Tsugumi laments, angrily tearing away an annoying sign asking residents to report any “suspicious behaviour”. She insists they need to face the past in order to move on, something Zenjiro was ultimately in capable of doing, but later claims that she doesn’t need to know what happened to Aika, she’s going to live her own life. The path leads towards an acceptance that she wasn’t responsible for what happened to her friend and has no need to live her life in the shadow of guilt, yet she still falls victim to small-town attitudes more or less bullied into a romantic friendship with a distinctly creepy young man (Nijiro Murakami) who admits to slashing her bike tires so she’d be more likely to accept a lift from him. 

According to Takeshi, there’s no such thing as the “promised land”, a sentiment also expressed by Hisako who agrees that all places are the same save your hometown something which Takeshi seemingly never had. Tsugumi’s problematic suitor tells her she ought to create the promised land for all of them, which might be as close as the film comes to a mission statement in suggesting that the individual has agency to craft the world in which they live while subtly undercutting it in the melancholy stories of Takeshi and Zenjiro each hounded towards acts of self-inflicted violence by an intransigent community mired in a primitive us and them mentality. Far from paradise, small-town Japan is a land of fear and suspicion where outsiders are unwelcome and the old hold sway, complaining that their kids all end up in the city while secretly perhaps satisfied in the knowledge their authority will not be challenged. If there is a promised land, you won’t find it here. 


The Promised Land streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners