Yakuza Taxi (893 タクシー , Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1994)

Like many fillmakers of his generation, Kiyoshi Kurosawa began directing commercially in the 1980s working in the pink genre but it was the early ‘90s straight to video boom which provided a career breakthrough. This relatively short lived movement was built on speed where the reliability of the familiar could be harnessed to produce and market low budget genre films with a necessarily high turnover. Kurosawa made his first foray into the V-cinema world in 1994 with the unlikely comedy vehicle Yakuza Taxi (893 タクシー, 893 Taxi). Although Kurosawa had originally accepted the project in the hope of being able to direct a large scale action film, his distaste for the company’s insistence on “jingi” (the yakuza code of honour and humanity) proved something of a barrier but it did, at least, lend free rein to the director’s rather ironic sense of humour.

The Tanaka taxi firm has hit on some hard times and is in trouble over a series of promissory notes owned by a former yakuza loanshark. Luckily, Tanaka is lifelong friends with a local yakuza boss who is angry about the dishonourable way his friend has been treated and is determined to help him. He also sees this as a rare opportunity to prove the yakuza can still be of help in an “honest” way and therefore instructs three of his guys to get some fake driving/taxi licenses and set about making enough money to fend off the loansharks. The guys are soon joined by the recently released Seiji who wasn’t really planning on a secondary career as a taxi driver after sacrificing precious time in service of his clan and is not happy with his current career track.

The set-up is, of course, primed for comedy as the yakuza, who are known for being rough, rowdy and rude, suddenly have to adapt to a job which requires absolute politeness and courtesy. The original trio do their best learning from the company’s only remaining professional driver, Kimura, and come to view radio girl and boss’ daughter Kanako as a kind of big sister figure. Once Seiji arrives things begin to become more complicated as he maintains a number of yakuza habits incompatible with taxi driving – namely all day drinking, hostess bars, and beating up the passengers.

Seiji and Kanako spit fire at each other in place of courtship though Kanako’s often surly attitude is later revealed as.partly driven by resentment at being forced to labour in a boring job at her father’s company. The guys are supposed to be earning the money back legally but Seiji has always been one for a short cut. His ill gotten gains are ultimately rejected by Kanako, but not before they’ve caused a lot more trouble. The situation becomes even more challenging when a corrupt policeman teams up with the loansharks to harass the guys, even going to far as to make them drive to remote places where they can be beaten up by motorcycle thugs. Finally the game appears to be up when Kanako attempts to renegotiate and is offered “alternative employment” with the threat of enslavement hanging over her head.

Despite the comedic tone, sleaze is never far from the screen with two quite odd and extremely gratuitous sequences of strange boob fondling, not to mention one set of passengers who are delighted that they’re “alone now” and decide to make the most of it with some distinctly kinky action (Seiji makes a point of giving the male customer a few lessons in taxi etiquette before they reach their destination). Comedy is the main draw, there are no gun battles and relatively few actual fights aside from failed jump kicks and the distant thud of crowbars. Remaining more or less straightforward in terms of style, Kurosawa nevertheless embraces his taste for the absurd as this gang of low level bad guys come together to help a friend and discover an unexpected affinity for the service industry in the process.


 

The Eel (うなぎ, Shohei Imamura, 1997)

The EelDirector Shohei Imamura once stated that he liked “messy” films. Interested in the lower half of the body and in the lower half of society, Imamura continued to point his camera into the awkward creases of human nature well into his 70s when his 16th feature, The Eel (うなぎ, Unagi), earned him his second Palme d’Or. Based on a novel by Akira Yoshimura, The Eel is about as messy as they come.

Mild-mannered salary man Yamashita (Kouji Yakusho) receives a handwritten letter filled with beautiful calligraphy delivering the ugly message that his wife has been entertaining another man whilst he enjoys his weekly all night fishing trips. Confused at first, the note begins to work its way into Yamashita’s psyche and so he decides to leave his next fishing trip a little earlier than usual. Peeping through the keyhole, he finds his beloved wife enjoying energetic, passion filled sex with another man. Drawing a knife from a nearby shelf, he enters the room and attacks the pair killing the woman but letting the lover get away.

Yamashita immediately and with perfect calmness turns himself in at the local police station, still covered in his wife’s blood and carrying the murder weapon. Released on a two year probationary period after eight years in jail, there is no one to meet Yamashita when he comes out and so he remains under the guardianship of a Buddhist priest in a nearby town. Accompanied by his only friend, a pet eel, Yamashita takes possession of a local disused barbershop and sets about trying to rebuild his life.

Things change when Yamashita comes across an unconscious woman lying in the grass while he’s out looking for things to feed his eel. The strange thing is, this woman looks exactly like his wife. Eventually, Keiko (Misa Shimizu) recovers and comes to work with Yamashita in his new enterprise but as the pair grow closer the spectres of both of their troubled pasts begin to intrude.

As the small town residents of Yamashita’s new home often remark, Yamashita is a strange man. His deepest relationship is with his eel which the prison guards, who seem quite well disposed towards him, allowed him to keep in the prison pond even though pets are not generally allowed. When asked why he likes his eel so much, Yamshita replies that the eel listens to him and doesn’t tell him the things he does not wish to hear. Like Yamashita, the eel is isolated inside his tank, content to absent himself from interacting with other creatures, both protected and constrained by transparent walls.

After his release from prison, Yamashita begins to reflect on his crime which he doesn’t so much regret but has no desire to repeat. His other double arrives in the form of fellow inmate and double murderer Tamasaki (Akira Emoto) who keeps trying to convince Yamashita that he is living dishonestly by not having visited his wife’s grave or read sutras for her. Though Yamashita pays no heed to most of his advice which is more self-pity and anger than any real concern for Yamashita’s soul, some things begin to get to him, most notably that perhaps the fateful letter never existed at all and is nothing more than the manifestation of Yamashita’s jealous rage.

Though the film presents everything that happens to Yamashita as “real”, his state of mind is continually uncertain. Not only is the provenance of the letter doubted, he doubts the existence of Keiko because she looks (to him at least) like the returned ghost of the woman he killed, and even the final confrontational arguments with Tamasaki take on an unreal quality, as if Yamashita were arguing with himself rather than another man who also represents his own worst qualities – impulsivity, violence, self doubt and insecurity. The film is so deeply embedded in Yamashita’s subjective viewpoint that almost nothing can be taken at face value.

Yamashita is, in a sense, trapped in a hall of mirrors as his own faults are reflected back at him through the people that he meets. Keiko, rather than being physically murdered by a jealous lover, attempted to take her own life after being misused by a faithless (married) man. Her past troubles are, in some ways, the inverse of Yamashita’s as she finds herself at the mercy of dark forces but internalises rather than externalises her own anger. Cheerful and outgoing, she quickly turns Yamshita’s barbershop into a warm and welcoming place which the local community takes to its heart.

Yamashita, however, remains as closed off as ever though he does strike up something of a relationship with a lonely young man who wants to use his barber’s pole to try and call aliens. When Yamashita asks him what he’s going to do if the aliens actually come, the young man replies that he wants to make friends with them. Yamashita astutely remarks that the young man’s desire to meet aliens is down to a failure to connect with people from his own planet – an idea which the young man equally fairly throws back at him. Perhaps out of fear rather than atonement, Yamashita exiles himself from the world at large though gradually through continued exposure to the genial townsfolk and Keiko’s deep seated faith in him, he does begin to swim towards the surface.

Imamura adopts his usual, slightly ironic tone to lighten this otherwise heavy tale allowing the occasional comic set piece to shine through. Yakusho delivers another characteristically nuanced performance as this entirely unformed man, unsure of reality and trapped in a spiral of self doubt and confusion. His original crime of passion is at once chilling in its calmness but also messy and violent as he gives in to animalistic rage. After showing us a street lamp glowing an ominous red, Imamura steeps us in blood as his camera becomes progressively more stained making it impossible to forget the shocking betrayal of this unexpected violence.

Yamashita remarks at one point that he died that day alongside his wife. The Eel is a story of rebirth as its protagonists begin to swim towards the shore in support of each other, though like the titular marine creature there is no guarantee that they will make there alive. Yamashita is a cold blooded murderer and creature of suppressed rage yet Imamura is not interested in moral judgements as much as he is in the messier sides of human nature. A chance offering of redemption for the unredeemable, The Eel offers hope for the hopeless in a world filled with goodhearted eccentrics where all faults are forgivable once they are understood.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Summer Holiday Everyday (毎日が夏休み, Shusuke Kaneko, 1994)

Summer Holiday EverydaySummer Holiday Everyday – It’s certainly an upbeat way to describe unemployment but then everything is improbably upbeat and cheerful in the always sunny world of Shusuke Kaneko’s adaptation of Yumiko Oshima’s shoujo manga. Published in the mid-bubble era of 1988, Oshima’s world is one in which anything is possible but by the time of the live action movie release in 1994 perhaps this was not so much the case. Nevertheless, Kaneko’s film retains the happy-go-lucky tone and offers note of celebration for the unconventional as a path to success and individual happiness.

Told from the point of view of 14 year old Sugina (Hinako Saeki) who offers us a voiceover guide to her everyday life, Summer Holiday Everyday (毎日が夏休み, Mainichi ga Natsuyasumi) follows the adventures of the slightly unusual Rinkaiji family. Sugina’s mother is divorced from her father and has remarried a successful salary man, himself a divorcee, ten years ago. The family lives in fairly peaceful domesticity and Sugina’s mother, Yoshiko (Jun Fubuki), even remarks how glad she is that her daughter gets on so well with her step-father, Nariyuki (Shiro Sano), though Sugina claims this is largely because she can’t remember actually speaking to him very much over the last ten years.

The pair are about become closer though it risks tearing their perfectly normal family apart. Sugina has been skipping school due to bullying and spends her days in the local park where, unbeknownst to her, her step-father has also been wasting his days after quitting a job he could no longer stand. After getting over the embarrassment of this accidental encounter, Sugina and Nariyuki confess everything to each other and Nariyuki makes a bold decision. Sugina can quit school (seeing as her grades were terrible anyway) and come work with him in his new enterprise – the Rinakaiji Heart Service, helping the community 24/7 with assistance in those difficult to handle odd jobs everyone needs doing.

Quitting a lucrative and secure job for the risk associated with staring a new business is a difficult decision in any society but is more or less unthinkable in Japan. Yoshiko is beyond stunned by her husband’s decision, not to mention the fact that her daughter has been deceiving her by skipping school and faking her report cards to make it look like her grades were much better than they are. Immediately worrying about what the neighbours will think, Yoshiko finds it hard to deal with the embarrassment of her husband and teenage daughter going door-to-door and doing menial work in the community, especially when she overhears the snickers of gossipy housewives in the local supermarket. For Yoshiko, whose sense of self worth was bound up with having a successful husband employed at a top tier company, Nariyuki’s sudden lurch towards individual freedom has destabilised her entire existence. Her world ceases to make sense.

Yoshiko’s sense of displacement is deepened when the fledgling company’s second job offer comes from Nariyuki’s ex-wife. Beniko (Hitomi Takahashi) left Nariyuki for another man because she failed to appreciate Nariyuki’s gentle charms and he was too mild mannered to fight for his wife even if he loved her deeply. What’s more, Nariyuki’s unconventional approach to life has earned him a spot in the papers and brought the family back to the attention of Sugina’s father, Ejima (Akira Onodera).

Early on Nariyuki states that life’s true radiance is only visible through suffering and later says that pain and suffering are essential parts of human existence. Nariyuki, now making a stand for himself for the first time in his life, remains philosophical in the face of hardship though perhaps has more faith in Yoshiko’s ability to follow him down this untrodden path than was wise. As a son and then a husband, Nariyuki may be a methodical sort but he’s unused to the idea of caring for himself as his comical attempts at doing the housework show. After almost burning the house down several times, Nariyuki does indeed figure out an efficient way of managing the household chores and seeing to Sugina’s education whilst also allowing his wife become the family breadwinner. However, Yoshiko’s new line of work is one she finds both unpleasant and degrading and she probably hoped that Nariyuki would strenuously try to stop her doing it so it’s not quite as much of a progressive approach as might be hoped.

After countless setbacks, humorous adventures, and a major fire Nariyuki’s enterprise begins to catch on. Brought together in shared crisis, the family unit only becomes stronger and more committed to their shared destinies. In fact, the family expands as Sugina rebuilds her relationship with birth father and even gains a new aunt figure in the form of her step-father’s youthful ex-wife. When you love what you do everyday is a holiday, and Sugina’s path, unconventional as it is, is one that leads her into the sunlight guided by Nariyuki’s oddly philosophical wisdom.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Panic High School (高校大パニック, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

Panic High SchoolSogo (now Gakyruu) Ishii was only 20 years old when Nikkatsu commissioned him to turn his smash hit 8mm short into a full scale studio picture. Perhaps that’s why they partnered him with one of their steadiest hands in Yukihiro Sawada as a co-director though the youthful punk attitude that would become Ishii’s signature is very much in evidence here despite the otherwise mainstream studio production. That said, Nikkatsu in this period was a far less sophisticated operation than it had been a decade before and, surprisingly, Panic High School (高校大パニック, Koukou Dai Panic) neatly avoids the kind of exploitative schlock that its title might suggest.

Back in 1977, though sadly little has changed in the intervening 40 years, schools are little more than pressure cookers slowly squeezing out every inch of individuality from the young people trapped within them as they cram for tests in subjects they might not actually understand. When a pupil commits suicide, the head master offers a few words of condolence over the tannoy system which the form tutor later backs up by emphasising that no one knows why the boy did this and that it probably has nothing at all to do with the school, exam pressure, or his performance in the recent mock exams. The school expect a line to be drawn here and for everyone to forget about it and get back to work.

However, when the teacher, Ihara, starts going on about the league tables suffering if the kids don’t buckle down some of them have had enough. One young man, Jono, looses it completely and takes a swing at the teacher only to miss and run out of the school in a panic. Whilst wandering around town he passes a gun shop and swipes a rifle before returning to the classroom and assassinating the maths tyrant. Not knowing what to do next, Jono hides out in the school building taking some of his friends hostage and then all hell breaks loose.

At its core, Panic High School is satire laying bare the crisis in Japan’s educational system which places undue emphasis on one particular set of exams which will determine the entirety of a person’s life. The teachers are cruel and heartless, little more than cogs in a machine. They don’t care about the kids, they only care about the statistics and the prestige associated with being the top high school in the area. All of these kids are bright, they already passed the stressful middle school entrance exams to get here, and the school just expects them to succeed but offers no support if they can’t.

Indeed, Ihara isn’t even teaching them anything. At the beginning of the film he asks a female student to solve an equation on the board. When she can’t, not only does he not explain the solution to her, he sends her outside adding to her original humiliation in front of the entire class and preventing her from actually learning how to solve the problem. When the next boy can’t solve it either he simply berates him for not studying, saying a “student at this high school should be able to solve this problem”. When the boy points out he did study but just doesn’t understand all he gets is abuse, no actual teaching at all.

Even when the police have been called, all anyone cares about is the reputation of the school. The headmaster keeps harping on about their status as the top school in the area and how “unfortunate” it would be if a student is killed inside the school – which is completely ignoring the fact that a teacher has already been murdered by a shotgun toting teenager right in the classroom. The police bungle the entire affair, starting by tearing apart Jono’s desk for clues including going right through his lunchbox and pointlessly cutting a hole in the bottom of his schoolbag. Bringing even more guns and riot police into the school to deal with one frightened boy who doesn’t want to shoot anyone else but is only trying to effect his escape (so he can take his entrance exams next year) is far from a good idea.

The kids are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take this anymore. The pressure is extreme and in the face of adult hypocrisy, it’s unsurprising that Jono and the other young people like him find themselves lashing out in extreme ways. Their teachers see them only as products, or even as components in the building of a “future” but never as people. Even if some of them start out wanting to help Jono, by the end even a teacher is trying to grab a gun screaming “That kid! I hate him now – I’ll kill him, he’s abandoned the most important thing – his education! He should never have come here in the first place!” putting the blame firmly on the boy and not on the system. In fact, the other teachers are busy in a huddle talking about how this is going to raise questions about the educational establishment and how they intend to mitigate that (they do not intend to address the “problems” in themselves).

While not as loud or as dynamic as some of Ishii’s later work, Panic High School displays much of his punkish sensibility even if it takes a form closer to ‘70s youth drama complete with all the zooms, whips and pans associated with the exploitation era. However, perhaps because Ishii’s own age is so close that of his protagonists the film is firmly on the side of youth. Far from a “youth in crisis” film, Panic High School places the blame firmly at the feet of the system which forces its young people into extreme and absurd situations. Notably different from Ishii’s later work in terms of tone and style, Panic High School is nevertheless an impressive studio debut feature and a strong indicator of the director’s continuing preoccupations.


Climatic scene from towards the beginning of the film (unsubtitled)

 

Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Akira Ogata, 2009)

noribenIt used to be that movies about marital discord typically ended in a tearful reconciliation and the promise of greater love and understanding between two people who’ve taken a vow to spend their lives together. These endings reinforce the importance of the traditional family which is, after all, what a lot of Japanese cinema is based on. However, times have changed and now there’s more room for different narratives – stories of women who’ve had enough with their useless, deadbeat man children and decide to make a go of things on their own.

So it is for the heroine of Noriben: The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Nonchan Noriben). Inspired by Kiwa Irie’s popular manga, Noriben follows the adventures of Komaki – a woman in her early 30s who gets her daughter dressed for school one morning but secretly takes her to the train station instead where they board a train headed for Komaki’s hometown. Having left her husband who has literary aspirations and consequently no job (the couple were living off, and with, his parents), Komaki has no firm plans other than moving back in with mother. Used to living off scraps and leftovers, she knows how to make her food go further and is also an excellent cook so the unusual layered bento boxes she makes for her little girl, Noriko, prove a big hit with the kids, and later the staff, at the local school.

Hooking back up with a former crush and now local photographer, Komaki ends up tasting the best meal of her life at a tiny eatery and suddenly hatches on the idea of opening a mini bento shop of her own. Of course, it’s a steep learning curve especially for a woman in her thirties with almost no work experience and no real knowledge of how to set up and run a business which is completely leaving aside the need to hone her cookery skills. If there’s one thing you can say about Komaki, it’s that once she’s set her mind on something she will make it happen and so her new life in her old town is just beginning.

Noriben addresses a lot of themes which are becoming fairly common at the moment including the “boomerang daughter” who suddenly arrives home following the breakdown of a marriage. Komaki’s soon to be ex-husband is not an enticing proposition and it seems that most, if not all, of what she says about him is true. He’s a layabout whose dreams of becoming an author are very unlikely to come true and, as his parents seem content to go on supporting him, his promises of getting a real job are most likely hollow too. There’s no real idea of the couple reconciling and when the husband suddenly turns up and starts behaving in an irresponsible way the situation ends in a bizarre marital street fight which does at least seem to clarify for the pair that their marriage really is well and truly over.

Komaki begins a tentative romance with her high school crush Takeo who took over his family’s photography studio though with the advent of digital technology and home printing the shop’s days are numbered. However, Komaki’s uncertain marriage status and Takeo’s diffidence both prove stumbling blocks to the path of romantic bliss and the film seems to imply that Komaki’s own headstrong character is also a problem when it comes to building relationships. Here, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Perhaps wanting to emphasise Komaki’s strides towards becoming a truly independent woman, it has her side step romantic entanglements but it also seems to declare the need for choice where there isn’t one.

In essence Noriben is a perfectly pleasant, if slightly bland, film that meanders its ways towards a bittersweet ending. Presumably intended to be a celebration of female empowerment as this ordinary woman makes a break from an unrewarding relationship to prove that she can do better on her own, the film only partly fulfils this message as it also comes with an air of sadness and sacrifice where Komaki also has to give up on various other parts of life in order to pursue her dream. That said, Noriben does offer a degree of playful comedy and down home style wisdom that make it a fairly enjoyable, if forgettable, experience.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Shun Nakahara, 1991)

161_img_1_oAs you might be able to tell from its title, Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin) is a loose Japanese parody of the stage play 12 Angry Men notably filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1957. The Japanese title literally translates as “12 Kindly Japanese Guys” and the film takes the same premise of twelve jurors debating the verdict in a murder case which was previously thought fairly straightforward. This time our jury is a little more balanced as it’s not just guys in the room and even the men are of a more diverse background.

In contrast to the American version, each of our twelve jurors is immediately inclined to acquit and some of them are even walking out the door before one juror, Juror no. 2, raises an objection. He thinks the defendant may be guilty and they should at least talk about it a little more. Irritated, the jurors walk back into the room and enquire why he’s had this sudden change of heart. They will, of course, be entitled to some refreshments now, so what’s the harm in hanging round to talk things through. Eventually people start to switch sides, some in confusion or just wanting to get it over with, but gradually each is exposed as having a personal reason for feeling the way they do that has relatively little to do with the facts of the case.

In contrast to the original stage play, the first instinct of the Japanese jurors is to acquit. No one wants to believe the defendant, who is the mother of a young child accused of pushing her violent ex-husband into the path of an oncoming truck, could have wilfully planned such an outrageous crime in advance. Whatever the facts are, she has clearly suffered enough and her child certainly doesn’t deserve to be orphaned through having its mother taken away by over zealous seekers of “justice”. Nevertheless Juror no.2 doesn’t believe her story and thinks there’s at least the possibility that she pushed him deliberately if not having engineered the entire situation in someway.

As in the American version, they proceed to debate the facts of the case in detail but while some change sides after thinking over the arguments, others are rigidly committed to their positions. Of those in the not guilty camp, some of them can’t quite articulate their reasoning beyond “it’s just a feeling” which proves particularly infuriating to Juror No. 2. The US version placed more emphasis on societal prejudices with personal ones largely backing them up – i.e. they took against the defendant in that case because he was a poor boy from the slums so in their middle class, majority culture minds it was natural that he was guilty. Here, there’s a great deal of sympathy for the defendant who seems to have experienced a lot of misfortune but continues to try and do the best for her young son.

Even so, some take against her because she reminds them of past misfortune of their own, or take against the victim because even as a thoroughly unpleasant man he’d managed to attract himself a pretty wife and son only to misuse and abandon them. Some believe themselves to be excellent judges of character or to be good at spotting a liar only to have their opinions about themselves undermined when scrutinised. The revelations here are personal rather than societal, but the central fact remains that you can’t really ever know or prove what happened and even having witnessed something with your own eyes doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve totally understood the situation fully. Much of the juror’s deliberations consist of creating a narrative out of scattered facts and exercises in supposition. In the end, it more or less comes down to gut feeling anyway.

Originating as a stage play and scripted by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani, Gentle 12 has its moments of humour and never really takes itself too seriously. What else could you say about a case which seems to hinge on the smallest size of pizza available from a delivery company and how someone might say the words “ginger ale” when really, really angry. The “kindly” jurors also have a wonderful tendency towards tolerance or towards restrained anger that sees them getting quite annoyed whilst trying not to lose their tempers in exasperation or just calmly restating their arguments (or lack thereof) and infuriating everyone else in the process. Neatly filmed by Shun Nakahara, Gentle 12 might not have the same level of cultural bite as its original work suggests but it does prove an enjoyably absurd confined space drama which offers a few cultural revelations of its own.