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

Fukushima 50 (フクシマ50, Setsuro Wakamatsu, 2020)

The “Fukushima 50” (フクシマ50), as the film points out, was a term coined by the international media to refer to the men and women who stayed behind to deal with the unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Loosely inspired by Ryusho Kadota’s non-fiction book On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi which featured extensive interviews with those connected to the incident, Setsuro Wakamatsu’s high production value film adaptation arrived to mark the ninth anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami which occurred on 11th March, 2011 and closes with a poignant callback to the plant’s role in Japan’s post-war reconstruction as the nation once again prepares to host the (now postponed) Olympics with a torch relay beginning at Fukushima as a beacon of hope as the country continues to rebuild in the wake of the disaster. 

Though inspired by real events Wakamatsu’s dramatisation is heavily fictionalised and while surprisingly frank for a mainstream film in its criticism of the official reaction to the disaster, is also quietly nationalistic while doing its best to pay tribute to the selfless sacrifice of the plant workers who stayed behind to do what they could many of whom had little expectation of surviving. Chief among them would be Izaki (Koichi Sato), an imperfect family man and veteran section chief, and the plant’s superintendent Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) who are both local men and old friends. Local, it seems, is later key with multiple appeals to the furusato spirit as each is at pains to point out that they stay not only to prevent a catastrophic meltdown that would leave most of central Honshu including Tokyo uninhabitable, but because they feel a greater duty to protect their hometown and the people in it. 

Meanwhile, they find themselves burdened rather than assisted by official support as government bodies’ political decision making undermines their attempts to avert disaster while the boardroom of TEPCO who operate the plant reacts with business concerns in mind. A few hours in the prime minister (Shiro Sano) decides to make a visit, in political terms he can’t not national leaders who don’t visit sites of crisis are never forgiven, but his presence actively hinders the recovery efforts. Referred to only as the PM, Wakamatsu’s film presents the man leading the nation as an ignorant bully overly obsessed with his personal image. He has little understanding of nuclear matters or the implications of the disaster, refuses to abide by the regular safety procedures required at the plant, and mostly governs through shouting. Beginning to lose his temper, Yoshida does his best to remain calm but resents the constant interference from those sitting in their offices far away from immediate danger while he does his best to contend with the increasingly adverse conditions on the ground, mindful of his responsibilities firstly to his employees and secondly to those living in the immediate vicinity of the plant who will be most at risk when measures taken to prevent meltdown will lead to an inevitable radiation leak. 

Yoshida’s hero moment comes when he ignores a direct order from the government to stop using seawater to cool the reactors, knowing that he has no other remaining options. Meanwhile, the government refuse offers of help from the Americans, who eventually make a strangely heroic arrival with Operation Tomodachi, discussing plans to move their families to safety while their commander reflects on his post-war childhood on a military base near the site of the nuclear plant. Japan’s SDF also gets an especial nod, granted permission to leave by Yoshida who is beginning to think he’s running out of time but vowing to stay and do their duty in protecting civilians in need. 

In essence, the drama lies in how they coped rather than the various ways in which they didn’t. The conclusion is that the existence of the plant was in itself hubristic, they are paying the price for “underestimating the power of nature” in failing to calculate that such a devastating tsunami was possible. They thought they were safe, but they weren’t. Perhaps uncomfortably, Wakamatsu mimics the imagery of the atomic bomb to imagine a nuclear fallout in Tokyo, harking back to ironic signage which simultaneously declares that the energy of the future is atomic while the plant workers reflect on the sense of wonder they felt as young people blinded by science back in the more hopeful ‘70s as the nation pushed its way towards economic prosperity. Frank for a mainstream film but then again perhaps not frank enough, Fukushima 50 is both an urgent anti-nuclear plea and an earnest thank you letter to those who stayed when all looked hopeless, suggesting that if the sakura still bloom in Fukushima it is because of the sacrifices they made.


Fukushima 50 is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Ishiro Honda, 1960)

The Human Vapour poster“The world is full of hysteria towards things they don’t understand” admits the strangely chatty “villain” at the centre of Ishiro Honda’s The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Gas Ningen dai Ichi-go). Third in a loose trilogy of “mutant” films put out by Toho beginning with The H-Man and followed by The Secret of the Telegian, The Human Vapor is at once the most futuristic and the most traditional in that it’s no longer wartime guilt or nuclear anxiety which has corrupted our increasingly amoral hero but unwise ambition in which desperation to win the space race has produced a new and dangerous threat we may not be able to contain.

Honda opens with an exciting bank heist which on later consideration might not make much sense, filled as it is with shots of a faceless man pointing a gun at terrified staff while the vault doors open seemingly on their own. Earnest policeman Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) is on the case, chasing a suspect car down a narrow country road only for it to crash and be discovered empty with no trace of the driver to be found. Okamoto’s feisty reporter girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata) is dismayed to find out he has no leads, but later picks up on his mention of a buyo dancer, Fujichiyo (Kaoru Yachigusa), who lives near the scene and might have something to do with the case. 

Chasing Fujichiyo takes Okamoto to a library, where he becomes further convinced she is in contact with the mysterious bank robber. A strange and isolated woman, Fujichiyo is apparently from a noble, wealthy family but lives alone in a small cottage with only a single male servant where she devotes herself entirely to perfecting the art of traditional Japanese dance. We discover that Fujichiyo has been in poor health, which is why she hasn’t given a public performance in some time. Okamoto posits that the bank robber is bankrolling her comeback, though he never seems to have much of an explanation why she would need him when she has access to her own resources.

He is however correct, though it seems Fujichiyo was not aware that the money was stolen otherwise she might have been more careful in using it. In a contrast with genre norms, honest cop Okamoto never falls for Fujichiyo but does become oddly invested in her sad love story while sparking with his cheerful reporter girlfriend who ends up doing much the same. In fact, Kyoko is the only one doing much investigating but largely finds herself having to do it in spite of the (generally useless) men around her, including an unpleasant younger colleague who mocks all her ideas but does nothing much of anything on his own.

In any case, smirking villain Mizuno (Yoshio Tsuchiya) later makes himself known to the police in a selfless gesture of love in order to clear Fujichiyo’s name and get her released from police custody. He does this by taking the police to a bank and demonstrating how he was able to get in the vault without a key which involves his curious ability to turn himself into a gas. When Fujichiyo is not released, he takes matters into his own hands and frees all the prisoners in the cells, but Fujichiyo refuses to leave, insisting that she has no intention of running away and prefers to stay until the police affirm her innocence by releasing her.

Mizuno’s intention to bypass the law is one of the many signifiers of his increasing danger, that now believes himself “above” the rest of humanity and therefore no longer subject to their laws. He later tells the police exactly that, sitting them down for a mini audience to explain himself during which he recounts his history as an SDF pilot discharged on a diagnosis of lung cancer after which he took the boring job in the library and fell in love with Fujichiyo. A shady doctor, Sano (Fuyuki Murakami), later approached him claiming to be working for Japan’s space programme and suggested that his fighter pilot background made him a perfect fit for becoming an astronaut. Mizuno agreed to participate in his research to “change the existence of the human body” in preparation for life in space, but when Sano’s weird experiments turned him into a “gas man”, the doctor committed suicide in horror leaving Mizuno just another lonely victim of a mad scientist.

Like many other “mutant” heroes, the change in Mizuno’s body has also changed his soul though his love for Fujichiyo remains unchanged. It seems he’s only committing these crimes to fund her ambition of performing traditional buyo dance on the contemporary stage, while she though obviously devoted to her art finds it difficult to accept the man that he’s become. He promises to give her the world, sacrificing anyone that gets in his way. She remains conflicted, not wanting to accept his offer if it involves that kind of cost, and defending him to her colleagues only with the rationale that he is “different from what they are accustomed to”. While some advise caution, that perhaps Mizuno is not as dangerous as they think despite already having killed and should be given the chance to reform, others take a harder line eventually opting to use a different kind of gas to counter him.

Kyoko pleads with Fujichiyo as one woman in love to another, trying to protect Okamoto while advising her to pull Mizuno back from the brink by cancelling her performance, but precisely because of the understanding that exists between them she cannot. Sadly, as many point out, no one is really interested in buyo dance – the only audience members in attendance are there for the drama and the possibility of seeing the gas man in action. “You and I have finally won” Mizuno tells Fujichiyo on completion of her dance, as if this performance was all that ever mattered to either of them. But their victory leaves them with nowhere else to go, and the world unready to accept the latent threat a gas man represents. Fujichiyo makes her choice, one perhaps informed by her art and her love, while the authorities can only wait outside for the vapours to disperse.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Yojiro Takita, 2018)

Sakura Guardian in the North posterStill a major marquee star and one of the few golden age actresses regularly playing leading roles in box office hits, Sayuri Yoshinaga has for one reason or another become somewhat synonymous with a brand of quietly patriotic tales of wartime endurance and maternal suffering. Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Kita no Sakuramori), apparently the conclusion of a loose trilogy of “Northern” films which began with Year One in the North in 2005 and led on to Junji Sakamoto’s A Chorus of Angels in 2012, sees her once again engage with post-war trauma as a mother eventually driven out of her mind by the inability to come to terms with the weight of tragedy.

The tale begins on Sakhalin in spring 1945. Despite the intense cold of the frozen North, Tetsu (Sayuri Yoshinaga) – mother to two young sons, Seitaro and Shujiro, has carefully nurtured cherry trees grown from seeds brought from the mainland ensuring that they blossom even here. The family’s happiness will however be short lived. Dad Tokujiro (Hiroshi Abe) is sent off to the war while Tetsu and the children are eventually forced to evacuate to escape the Russian invasion, planning to wait for Tokujiro in Abashiri on the north coast of Hokkaido.

Flashing forward to 1971, we find ourselves in Tokyo with Shujiro (Masato Sakai), now a grown man married to the Japanese-American daughter of an LA hot dog entrepreneur, Mari (Ryoko Shinohara). Having made something of himself in the New World, Shujiro has returned to Japan to open the first branch of his father-in-law’s convenience stores. His plans are disrupted when he gets an unexpected call from Abashiri about his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since she told him to leave her behind and seek his fortune 15 years previously. The public housing shanty town where Tetsu ran her restaurant is being torn down but she’s showing no signs of leaving, and not only that, she’s begun to act strangely.

This Shujiro finds out for himself by visiting her and witnessing Tetsu talk to her own reflection as if it were a long lost friend. His sudden decision to bring his mother back with him to Tokyo without talking to his wife, who has never even met her mother-in-law, places a strain on his marriage on top of the already heavy burden of the store but Shujiro is determined to make it work. Tetsu, however, finds its hard to adjust. Used to living in small country towns where everyone knows everyone, she doesn’t realise you can’t just walk off from stores shouting “put it on my tab”, and annoys the neighbours by starting a smoky fire outside trying to cook rice the old fashioned way. With Shujiro busy with work, the burden falls disproportionately on the patient but exasperated Mari who is forced to apologise when Tetsu walks off in someone else’s shoes after trying on city-style outfits at a department store, and looks on in horror as her new mother-in-law starts an intense conversation with a cherry blossom tree.

Tetsu’s down home charm does, however, begin to give Shujiro some business inspiration as he ponders why his top American hotdogs aren’t selling now the novelty’s worn off. As his staff tell him, maybe they need to think a little more “Japanese” – more fresh veggies and innovative toppings, less ketchup and mustard. Shujiro has another idea – the original Japanese “convenience” food, onigiri, made with rice cooked in a pot and roughly shaped by a loving mother’s hands.

Rice, however, despite its ubiquity in the comparatively comfortable world of 1971 brings with it traumatic memories. Starving after the war, white rice was something Shujiro and Tetsu could only dream of, getting their first taste of it in many moons only when cooked to place on a funeral altar. Meanwhile, rice was also the only reason they survived after running into a slightly dodgy young man who gave them “jobs” helping him to smuggle it for sale on the black market. Shinji (Koichi Sato) helped them in other ways too, eventually putting up the money for Tetsu’s homely eatery, and would have married her if she were not on the one hand loyal to the memory of her absent husband, and so troubled by survivor’s guilt as to believe that she is “a person who does not deserve happiness”.

To punish herself for perceived failures, Tetsu has lived a life of austerity – working hard in the restaurant, dressing in simple ragged clothes, and eating only enough not to starve. She forced Shujiro away to make something of himself, but never spent any of the money he sent home to her nor answered any of his letters. Shujiro, by contrast, has swung the opposite way – determined to live a life of luxury and becoming unforgiving with it. Mari sees an ugly side to him when he’s visited by one of the boys who used to bully him (Ken Yasuda) for being a refugee and a black-marketeer back in Abashiri now fallen on hard times. Superficially polite, Shujiro humiliates him with undignified zeal while wilfully planning to exploit his workforce, quickly silencing an employee who tries to point out violations to the labour code.

Yet like Tetsu, who is somewhat unstuck in time, he begins to find a softer side of himself as the pair of them journey back into the past and revisit the sites of their shared traumas. Yojiro Takita stages Tetsu’s internal confusion somewhat incongruously as an avant-garde stage play offering occasional background info on the exodus from Sakhalin, an experience Shujiro is seemingly shut out from as he tries to reconnect with his mother only to lose her again but rediscovering a better version of himself before he was hardened by the burden of his memories and the hardships of the post-war era. Tetsu keeps the cherry blossoms in bloom in the North, cultivating beauty as a means to connect with her loss, and eventually finding a kind of resolution in the returned ghosts of her past given life once again by the strength of her devotion.


Singapore trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Red Snow (赤い雪, Sayaka Kai, 2019)

Red Snow poster 2“We’re just pieces of a puzzle” a temporarily deranged woman exclaims to a gloomy seeker after truth in Sayaka Kai’s eerie debut Red Snow (赤い雪, Akai Yuki). Truth, as it turns out is an elusive concept for these variously troubled souls trapped in a purgatorial tailspin on their gloomy island home. When a stranger comes to town intent on unearthing the long buried past, he stirs up deeply repressed emotion and barely concealed anger but finds himself floundering in the maddening snows of a possibly imaginary coastal village. 

30 years previously, a young boy, Takumi, went missing on the way to a friend’s house accompanied by his brother Kazuki who claims he simply disappeared from view in the heavy snow. Sometime later, a child’s remains were found in a burned out building. The prime suspect was a strange woman with a young daughter who escaped the fire in the middle of the night in a suspiciously elegant outfit. Nevertheless, the woman was later exonerated and the truth behind Takumi’s disappearance remained shrouded in mystery.

In the present day, a reporter, Kodachi (Arata Iura), arrives in town with the intention of writing some kind of exposé on the case. He interviews the detective involved and makes contact with Kazuki (Masatoshi Nagase), now a broken middle-aged man who has dedicated his life to perfecting the art of lacquerware. A secondary lead takes him to Sayuri (Nahana) – the daughter of the prime suspect now, in a tragic piece of circularity, an outcast herself and possibly a sex worker in a violent relationship with an older man (Koichi Sato) who may or may not be her pimp.

Each of them has tried to move on from the unresolved tragedy of Takumi’s disappearance, but all appear to have failed. Kazuki dreams of the day his brother vanished right in front of his eyes, seeing a little red jumper lost in the snow but unable to remember anything more. He fears he will never know what happened unless his memory somehow returns, though as his mentor tells him what actually happened and the way you remember it are often different. Waxing philosophical, Kodachi muses that memory is what links the past and future but memory, and therefore life itself, is ambiguous. The “truth” may be unknowable and known at the same time to those who refuse to confront its various contradictions. 

Like the young Sayuri watching through a tiny crack in the wardrobe door where her abusive mother has placed her out of the way of all her “fun”, nobody sees the whole of anything. The young Sayuri morphs into the adult Sayuri and into her mother whom she fears she has become. The only witness to the incident, Sayuri refuses to speak of it though perhaps there’s more kindness in her silence than it first seems even if her unwillingness to remember may also be a kind of self preservation. She too is a victim, but is blamed all the same despite being only a small child powerless to intervene or be held complicit in whatever it is her mother might have done or not done in her quest for survival.

Sayuri remains trapped within the orbit of her now absent mother, herself an outcast in another abusive relationship this time with a sociopathic old man, while Kazuki struggles to accommodate his sense of guilt for something he can’t quite remember. Emotions briefly bubble to the surface, petty resentments and jealousies that pass between all small children but might perhaps have had terrible consequences one snowy night. Sayuri may be right when she insists that they are pieces of a puzzle, each holding tiny fragments of truth that might be assembled into a coherent whole, but also aware that if they did so they may not like the picture that they see.

Eerie and ethereal, the snowy coastal town almost may not exist at all haunted as it is by traumatised souls trapped in a purgatorial cycle of guilt and confusion as they try to piece together the past. Sayaka Kai’s dreamlike, poetic debut is a visually impressive existential mystery in which past and present intertwine leaving our troubled heroes lost in a fog of falling snow unable to access the future through the corrupted pathways of memory.


Red Snow was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Yuya Ishii, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

MNS_MAIN_B1_0311_ol“Being nice to everyone means hurting someone” the wounded heroine tries to explain to the perpetually confused hero of Yuya Ishii’s Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Machida-kun no Sekai). After adapting a book of poetry and topping the Kinema Junpo list with the melancholy romance of urban ennui The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Ishii returns to the lighter fare which inspired his earliest work with a whimsical adaptation of the manga by Yuki Ando in which a goodly young man begins to realise that sometimes being nice to everyone can create additional complications.

The titular Machida (Kanata Hosoda) is one of those people who seem to be exclusively composed of goodness. He truly believes that each and every person in the world is precious and loves them equally, so when he sees someone, anyone, who seems unhappy or in need of help he comes running (literally). Everything begins to change for him, however, when he injures himself during an art lesson and is sent to the infirmary where he meets sullen delinquent Inohara (Nagisa Sekimizu) who bandages his hand in the absence of the nurse. Entirely unused to people doing nice things for him, Machida is struck by this unexpected act of kindness and resolves to make a friend of Inohara who seems lonely and claims to hate people – something Machida is incapable of understanding.

Indeed, nicknamed “Christ” by some of his more cynical classmates, Machida sees only the world’s beauty and just wants people to be happy. He assumes that’s the way everyone else feels too and so it doesn’t really occur to him that some people are just mean. Even when he meets someone acting badly he has a knack for spotting the unhappiness that lies behind it and the desire to help them heal. Thus he alone sees the accidental self-loathing and pathological need for acceptance that have led pretty boy model and popular kid Himuro (Takanori Iwata) to become a self-centred jerk who thinks sincerity is for babies and that “taking things seriously only makes everything harder”. He may have a sort of point in that it’s much easier to keep pretending nothing, especially other people’s feelings, is very important but it’s Machida alone who is perspicacious enough to remark on how sad it is that all of his “friends” have forgotten something he told them just a few minutes ago and instructs him that he needs to be kinder to himself rather than hanging out with vacuous people who don’t care about him at all just for the kudos of superficial acceptance. 

In fact, much of Machida’s laidback superpower is geared towards getting people to be more comfortable in themselves so that they can in turn accept others. Ironically, that’s mostly because he hasn’t yet quite accepted himself and thinks he’s the worst human of them all which is part of the reason he’s so nice to everyone as a means of repaying the kindnesses he’s been shown in the past.

Where Machida sees only the world’s beauty, cynical failed writer Yoshitaka (Sosuke Ikematsu) sees only its ugliness. His lofty literary ambitions having fallen by the wayside, Yoshitaka has become a tabloid hack and occasional paparazzo whose wife is beginning to lose faith in him as he sinks deeper into the morass of scandal rag “journalism”. Yoshitaka justifies his actions with the rationale that the world is rotten, filled with “evil” and home to only self-interested people who revel in the suffering of others. Several random encounters with Machida, however, force him to revise his opinion – if someone that good and that pure really exists then what does it say about the rest of us?

Then again, Machida’s guileless goodness can often make him accidentally insensitive as he tries to balance one person’s expectation of happiness against another’s. Thus he gets himself mixed up in an odd kind of love triangle with Himuro’s old girlfriend Sakura (Mitsuki Takahata) and the lovelorn Inohara who is becoming increasingly exasperated by Machida’s mixed signals, unable to figure out if he’s just being “kind” or actually might like her. Unfortunately, Machida doesn’t quite know himself as, ironically seeing as he’s so keen on emotional honesty in others, he is remarkably out of touch with his own feelings. In any case, his desire for “sincerity” in all things sees him steer clear of saying something which isn’t true to make someone happy even if he finds himself unable to express the truth plainly when it really counts.

Machida’s superpower, however, blows through the world like a gentle breeze spreading goodness wherever it goes. Proving it really does come back around, all the people that he’s helped eventually come running to help him so he can achieve his romantic destiny on the most romantic of days. A whimsical celebration of the infectious power of unguarded goodness, Almost a Miracle is a beautifully pitched counter to nihilistic cynicism in which kindness becomes a kind of superpower, saving the world one lost balloon at a time.


Almost a Miracle was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fable (ザ・ファブル, Kan Eguchi, 2019)

The Fable poster 2It’s easy to become a victim of your own success when you’re a top assassin. Being the best only makes you target, and over exposure can prove fatal. If you’ve lived by taking the lives of others, can you ever really go back to being just like everyone else? The hero of Kan Eguchi’s The Fable (ザ・ファブル) tries to do just that, but then “back” might not quite be the best way to think about it in his case. Silly slapstick humour meets fast and furious gun fu but always with a soulful heart as our heroes try to figure out how to live “normally” while inhabiting a very abnormal world.

“The Fable” (Junichi Okada) is Tokyo’s top assassin, as he proves effortlessly taking out a room full of yakuza at a wedding reception. He is not, however, heartless, letting the gangster’s pregnant wife alone unlike the next bunch of goons to turn up. In any case, Fable has been far too successful, which is why his handler (Koichi Sato) hands him an unusual new mission – to live as a “normal” person in Osaka for a whole year without killing anyone at all. Along with his assistant posing as his sister under the cover ID “Yuko” (Fumino Kimura), and a pet parrot, Fable becomes “Akira Sato” and begins his new life as a “normal” man nominally under the aegis of the local mob.

The problem is “Sato” never had much of a “normal” life. As a child, he was abandoned in the mountains with only a pocket knife to toughen him up for a life of killing. He didn’t go to school, has never had a job, and struggles with social situations. He is however extremely dedicated and committed to fulfilling his mission which means he is very keen to figure out what “normal” people do so he can do that too, quickly noting that “normal” people don’t usually eat the skin on edamame beans or the rind on watermelon so doing either of those things in public will instantly arouse suspicion. Meanwhile, he takes a minimum wage job at small printshop working alongside the lovely Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) who was nice enough to offer him some tissues when he let himself get beaten up by thugs to prove how “professional” he could be in maintaining his cover.

That’s something that might be easier said than done given the rapidly unfolding yakuza drama all around him. Recently released thug Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is stirring up trouble everywhere he goes, exacerbating a growing division between the big boss (Ken Mitsuishi) and ambitious underling Sunagawa (Osamu Mukai) who is already fed up with Kojima’s antics while two crazed admirers are also hot on Sato’s trail hoping to knock him off the top spot.

Meticulous and efficient, Sato is still in many ways a child trying to learn to live in the “normal” world. Somewhat arrested in having missed out on a normal childhood, his “childish” drawings of zoo animals become an unexpected hit with the print shop crew, while his justice loving heart also has him subtly undermining the office pervert who has a habit of installing illicit spy cams targeting female employees. Despite his icy profession, Sato is a goodnatured guy and deep down just wants to help and protect people. Thus he is very invested in his mission and actively tries to become “normal” while bonding with Misaki and taking care of his pet parrot (a Le Samouraï reference and ironic mentor in mimicry) as he navigates the difficult waters of interpersonal interaction.

Frustrated male relationships are indeed key from Sato’s with his boss who orders him not to die but then says he’ll kill him if he fails his mission, to the homoerotic tension between Sato’s contact Ebihara (Ken Yasuda) and the relentlessly psychotic Kojima. Sato’s boss and Ebihara acknowledge they will have to accept responsibility for their respective charges and if necessary take preventative measures in order to ensure they don’t cause trouble, but they do so with heavy hearts in service of their codes. Silly slapstick humour quickly gives way to slick action set pieces as Sato steps back into his element, ably assisted by his sake-loving “sister” who has committed to her cover ID almost as deeply as Sato. Sweet and affecting, Kan Eguchi’s adaptation of the much loved manga is a charmingly surreal one in which his fish out of water hero figures out how to live in a new pond thanks to unexpected kindnesses and honourable yakuza ethics.


The Fable screens on 2nd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)