Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2009)

“Music saves the world” according to a hold out record store owner keeping the doors open in the wake of coming disaster. In one way or another and most particularly at the present time, perhaps it always feels as if the world is ending but somehow we seem to carry on. Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー) is, as it says, a story of how music saves the world, but also of how personal acts of quiet integrity echo through time while art finds its audience and its purpose in the proper moment even if the message is not immediately understood. 

The film opens in the “future” of 2012 during which a fiery comet is headed directly for the Earth resulting in a deadly tsunami set to engulf Mount Fuji, drowning humanity rendered unexpectedly powerless in the face of cosmic destiny. A man in a wheelchair dressed oddly like a cult leader trundles along empty arcades strewn with rubbish, pausing to poke at some trolleys with his walking stick. Eventually he stops outside a record store which is to his surprise open for business despite the coming apocalypse and jumps up, apparently able to walk after all, and heads inside where he takes the boss (Nao Omori) to task for his strange decision to go to work on this day of all days. The shopkeeper however calmly engages in conversation with a customer, sure that “music saves the world”, “this song will save the day”, introducing him to the music of little-known ‘70s punk band Gekirin whose music was too far ahead of its time for the conservative post-war society. 

Their forgotten song, Fish Story, however as we will see does indeed change the world if in small and unexpected ways not least because it’s remembered for an unexpected pause in the middle of a guitar solo, a temporary suspension of living time in which small miracles could occur. “It has a meaning” the shopkeeper insists, though refusing to elaborate. As we discover, it does and it doesn’t, but stays true to the spirit of song, a “fish story” of its own embellished in the telling as curious listeners attempt to explain its existence. For three college students in 1982 who enjoy listening to paranormal tapes, it’s something of a let down seeing as they’d been told that the missing section contained a woman’s scream which is apparently still audible to those with a sixth sense but predictably not to them. Nevertheless, a moment of silence and a woman’s scream eventually result in a timid young man (Gaku Hamada) assuming his destiny, learning to stand up to bullies even if in eventual need of rescue himself. 

Like the young man of 1982, the shopkeeper and his customer are largely passive, sure that someone is coming to save them, idly talking of superheroes in teams of five like classic tokusatsu serial Go-rangers or else Bruce Willis saving the day by heroically sacrificing himself to blow up the asteroid. But the Americans’ “Armageddon” plan soon proves a bust, hinting perhaps at the fallacies of the disaster movie model in which the nation of production saves the world all on its own. The only possible hope now lies in cross-cultural cooperation. “Just as music knows no border, we’ve come together in this emergency” says the team of international experts boarding an Indian rocket as they pursue the only option left for the salvation of humanity no matter that there’s only a one in a million chance it works, because that’s what you do at the end of world, only what you can. 

The old man scoffs at the shopkeeper and his customer, sure the world is going to end even though he previously predicted it would do so 13 years previously in line with Nostradamus. Others concluded it would end in 2009 and took action accordingly, action which almost assures the present destruction in accidentally destroying the mind capable of preventing it. It is all connected, in a cosmic sense, but it’s also all small coincidences that lead to a greater whole. In the post-war chaos of 1953, a struggling father lies about his English skills to get a job as a “translator” only to engage in an avant-garde act of language violence bludgeoning one text into another with the aid of a dictionary. The incomprehensible novel which results is pulped, but survives as a curiosity and eventually finds its way home, inspiring another work of art and becoming a kind of fish story of its own. Gekirin chose to disband rather than compromise their artistic integrity, knowing that no one was going to hear their song. “Does that make everything we’ve done meaningless?” dejected bassist Shigeki (Atsushi Ito) asks, and perhaps it seems that way, but the word is heard in the end. It all matters, we all matter, no matter how insignificant it seems in the moment. 

Adapted from the novel by Kotaro Isaka, Nakamura’s anarchic voyage through a comfortable and nostalgic post-war Japan albeit one in the shadow of coming disaster is imbued with a quiet sense of hope even as it leaves its protagonists passive participants in a history they are unaware of making. Two teams of five do in their way save the world, and all because of a song that no one heard which was inspired by a book that no one read. Life, it’s all a big fish story, but it makes sense in the end so long as you stick around long enough. 


Fish Story is released on blu-ray & VOD in the UK on 10th August courtesy of Third Window Films. On disc extras are presented in standard definition and include: making of featurette, Gekirin live performances, Gekirin talk show, director and cast Q&A, and deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Juzo Itami, 1988)

Taxing Woman 2 posterA Taxing Woman introduced us to Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) – an oddball detective working as an insurance inspector who met her Irene Adler in a tax dodging corporate gangster with a limp. A year later she’s back, still the only woman working with the tax inspectorate and apparently still a dogged pursuer of those who would seek to defraud the Japanese government of its rightful earnings. Ryoko may have been a stickler for the rules who applied the same dog with a bone approach to a mom and pop store chowing down on its own supplies as to a dodgy yakuza led conspiracy, but she also believed in justice – something which stands her in good stead when she rubs up against a dodgy cult which, again, is a yakuza front but adds insult to injury by deliberately manipulating the vulnerable.

The action opens with some kids poking at the dead body of a “landshark” floating in a pond before flashing to a meeting of officials sucking crab meat from the shell and wondering what they’re going to do about this land they need cleared now their heavy is out of the picture. The corrupt politician from the first film, Urushibara (Takeya Nakamura), is apparently still involved in semi-legal land deals but palms the assignment off on a colleague. The big wigs need to empty a dated housing complex on some valuable land so they can build a vanity skyscraper – office space apparently being scarce in mid bubble Tokyo.

To do this they enlist the services of dodgy cult leader Onizawa (Rentaro Mikuni) and his troop of yakuza goons. Most of the tenants have already signed but they have three key holdouts – a diner owner clinging on to the family legacy, a stubborn paparazzo, and an intellectual professor who heads up the housing association. Unlike the yakuza of Taxing Woman, these guys have not reformed – they are the new/old style of lawless thugs who are perfectly prepared to threaten women and children to get their own way. Making it impossible for the tenants to stay through intimidation and noise torture, they stoop to blackmail to seal the deal.

Despite arriving only a year after A Taxing Woman, Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Marusa no Onna 2) takes place in a much darker, though more obviously comedic, world. Whereas the earlier film adopted a noticeably ambivalent attitude to the tax inspectors and the enterprising gangsters, the villains of A Taxing Woman’s Return are so heinous and morally bankrupt as to be entirely indefensible even if the inspectorate takes a turn for the bumbling to compensate. The “cult” is, of course, merely a convenient money laundering front and tax dodge for the yakuza – religious organisations are exempt from taxation in the vast majority of cases which may be why the local tax office records hundreds of registered “religious bodies” in its jurisdiction alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its loyal followers, often vulnerable people looking for spiritual fulfilment but being bled dry by the money hungry cultists while the leader’s wife swans around in sables costing more than the average annual salary. A desperate devotee in need of a loan puts his own teenage daughter up as collateral only to see her raped by Onizawa, eventually becoming pregnant by him at only 16 years of age and thereafter becoming his devoted concubine in a bizarre instance of Stockholm Syndrome.

Yet for all the background darkness of weird cultists and nasty yakuza backed up by corrupt and venial politicians, Itami ups the cartoonish sense of the absurd with our hero Ryoko clambering over rooftops to listen in to the bad guys while her boss throws himself down flights of stairs and has to battle piercing sirens to get into the villains’ secret vault. It is however a dark humour as the opening makes plain with its troupe of little children staring at the strange shape floating in the water – a motif later repeated when a yakuza is gunned down in the street only for another group of children to pour over him as he expires, a single tear rolling down his cheek. The original spongy white body gives way to the businessmen sucking spongy white crab out its shell while insensitively discussing the late land shark, and the yakuza are unafraid to deploy a maggot infested severed hand (thankfully a fake picked up from a friend who makes horror movies) to convince the tenants they mean business.

At the end of A Taxing Woman, the gangster and the inspector reached something of a truce but one which came down, broadly, on the side of right. This time things aren’t quite so simple. The conspiracy is bigger and deeper, stretching all the way into the Diet and about more than just office space in still developing Tokyo. Onizawa, regarding himself as public servant, tries to say he did it all for his country, that if someone didn’t get their hands dirty Tokyo would be eclipsed by Hong Kong or Seoul. A post-war justification for a bubble era problem, but one that takes us straight back to the first film in Onizawa’s second proposition that only through money does he truly feel “immortal”. He may be a liar and a cheat, but he’s only a symptom of rapidly spreading infection, one which Ryoko and her team are powerless to cure, trapped on the wrong side of the fence while the bad guys build monuments to economic hubris, indulging in vanity in an era of bad faith which is about to be brought to a rather abrupt close.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Juzo Itami, 1987)

A Taxing Woman posterIn bubble era Japan where the champagne flows and the neon lights sparkle all night long, even the yakuza are incorporating. Having skewered complicated social mores in The Funeral and then poked fun at his nation’s obsession with food in Tampopo, Juzo Itami turns his attention to the twin concerns of money and collective responsibility in the taxation themed procedural A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Marusa no Onna). Once again starring the director’s wife Nobuko Miyamoto, A Taxing Woman is an accidental chronicle of its age as Japanese society nears the end of a period of intense social change in which acquisition has divorced mergers, and individualism has replaced the post-war spirit of mutual cooperation.

Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto), a single mother and assistant in the tax office, has a keen eye for scammers. She demonstrates this on a stakeout with a younger female colleague in which she keeps a shrewd eye on the till at her local cafe and comes to the conclusion that they’ve been running a system where they don’t declare all of their cheques. Running her eyes over the accounts of a mom and pop grocery store, she notices some irregularities in the figures and figures out the elderly couple feed themselves from the supplies for the shop but don’t “pay” themselves for their own upkeep. That might seem “perfectly reasonable” to most people, but it’s technically a small form of “embezzlement” and Ryoko doesn’t like figures which don’t add up. Seeing as the couple probably didn’t realise what they were doing was “wrong” she lets them off, this time, as long as they go by the book in the future. A more complicated investigation of a pachinko parlour finds a more concrete form of misappropriation, but Ryoko is fooled by the owner’s sudden collapse into inconsolable grief after being caught out and leaves him in the capable hands of his confused accountant.

Nevertheless, Ryoko may have met her match in sleezy corporate yakuza Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Dressing in a series of sharp suits, Gondo walks with a pronounced limp that hints at a more violent past but as his rival from the Nakagawa gang points out, violence is a relic of a bygone era – these days gangsters go to jail for “tax evasion” as means of furthering their “business opportunities” and facilitating ongoing political corruption. Gondo’s business empire is wide ranging but mainly centres on hotels, which is how he arouses Ryoko’s interest. She looks at the numbers, does a few quick calculations, and realises either the business isn’t viable or the correct figures aren’t being reported. Ryoko doesn’t like it when the books don’t balance and so she sets her sights on the seedy Gondo, but quickly discovers she has quite a lot in common with her quarry.

Itami was apparently inspired to make A Taxing Woman after the success of Tampopo shoved him into a higher tax bracket. Given Japanese taxes (at the time) were extremely high, getting around them had become something of a national obsession even if, in contrast to the preceding 30 years or so, there was plenty of money around to begin with. More than the unexpected tendency towards civil disobedience the times seemed to cultivate, Itami homes in on the increasingly absurd desire for senseless acquisition the bubble era was engendering. Thus Gondo who owns a large family home well stocked with symbols of his rising social status, also occupies a bachelor pad where he keeps a mistress which reflects the gaudy excess of the age right down to its random stuffed hyena. Nevertheless when one of the tax clerks asks for some advice as to how to have it all, Gondo replies that that’s easy – to save money, you simply avoid spending it. Gondo lets his glass run over and delights in licking the edges. It’s all about delayed gratification, apparently, and having a secret room full of gold bars to gaze at in order to relieve some of that anxiety for the future.

Gondo, like many of his ilk, has “diversified” – yakuza are no longer thuggish gangsters but incorporated organisations operating “legitimate” businesses through “illegitimate” means. Thus we first find him using a nurse who allows herself to be molested by an elderly, terminally ill client whose identity they will steal to found a company they can quickly dissolve when he dies to shift their assets around and avoid the tax man. Later he pulls another real estate scam by pressing a desperate family but his real focus is the love hotels, whose slightly embarrassing existence ensures that not many come poking around. Ryoko, however, is unlikely to let such a large scam slide and delights as much in closing loopholes as Gondo does in finding them. Noticing a kindred spirit, Gondo quite openly asks his new tax inspector “friend” what she’d think if he married his mistress, gave her all his money, and divorced her – divorce proceeds are after all tax free. Sounds great, she tells him, as long as you trust your wife not to skip town with all the doe.

Ryoko, a modern woman of the bubble era, single and career driven, is a slightly odd figure with her officious approach to her job and unforgiving rigour. Unlike her colleague who dresses in the glamorous and gaudy fashions of the times, Ryoko wears dowdy suits and her mentor boss is always reminding her about her “bed hair”, meanwhile she stays late at the office and offers instructions to her five year old son over the phone as to how to microwave his dinner. Though there is another woman working with her at the tax office, when she’s finally promoted to full tax inspector status she finds herself in a room full of guys who apparently hardly ever go home. On her first job she’s only really brought along because she’s a woman and they want to threaten a mob boss’ mistress with a strip search to find a missing key for a safety deposit box. The mistress, however, tries to throw them off the sent by publicly stripping off and encouraging them to check her “cavity” if they’re so keen to find this key, only for Ryoko to find it under the sink while all the guys are busy being shocked. Ryoko’s methods are occasionally as underhanded as Gondo’s and, like his schemes, built on gaming the system but she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with for those considering defrauding the Japanese government.

Gondo’s schemes excel because they aren’t entirely illegal, only clever ways of manipulating the system, but they’re also a symptom of a large conspiracy which encompasses improprieties right up the chain as banks, corporations, and politicians are all part of the same dark economy managed by a corporatising yakuza. Gondo takes frequent calls from a local representative who often “helps him out”. Later the same representative tries to put pressure on the tax office to back off, but Ryoko’s boss points out that he doesn’t need to because the press are already on the story so he should probably get started on his damage control rather than bothering public servants. Gondo and Ryoko, perhaps as bad as each other, lock horns in a battle wills but discover a strange degree of respect arising between them in having discovered a worthy adversary. There’s something undeniably absurd in Ryoko’s firm determination to catch out struggling businesses and the confused elderly with the same tenacity as taking on a yakuza fronted conspiracy, and there’s something undeniably amusing in Gondo’s attempts to beat the man by playing him at his own game, but the overall winner is Itami who once again succeeds in skewering his nation’s often contradictory social codes with gentle humour and a dispassionate, forgiving eye.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Kazuki Omori, 1996)

night train to the stars posterKenji Miyazawa is one of the giants of modern Japanese literature. Studied in schools and beloved by children everywhere, Night on the Galactic Railroad has become a cultural touchstone but Miyazawa died from pneumonia at 37 years of age long before his work was widely appreciated. Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Waga Kokoro no Ginga Tetsudo: Miyazawa Kenji no Monogatari), commissioned to mark the centenary of Miyazawa’s birth, attempts to tell his story, set as it is against the backdrop of rising militarism.

An aimless if idealistic young man, Miyazawa (Naoto Ogata) is at once fiercely religious and interested in mildly left-wing, agrarian politics. Together with a close friend, Kanai, he dreams of building a village utopia in which a community of farmers works the land enjoying peace and prosperity free of the oppression of landlords. The eldest son of a money lender, Miyazawa does not approve of his father’s profession and attempts to show him up by interfering in his business but only succeeds in showing his own naivety and though he has an especially close relationship with his older sister Toshi (Maki Mizuno), Miyazawa longs for pastures new but never manages to stick at anything for very long. After failing to join a religious sect in Tokyo, he returns home to start an agrarian school which will teach ordinary famers’ sons the joys of the arts.

Miyazawa had seemingly always been a strange, ethereal presence – a drunken guest at his family home mocks the way he used to wander around town robotically banging his toy drum as a child, and it’s clear he doesn’t fit within any of the environments he attempts to carve out for himself save the solitary cabin where he later begins his personal agrarian experiment. As the eldest son of the family it would be expected that Miyazawa take over the family business but there just isn’t any way he could. Second son Seiroku (Ryuji Harada) later adopts the familial responsibilities, even if remaining committed to his brother’s legacy by collating and publishing his work following Miyazawa’s death.

Miyazawa’s strangeness extends to his diet – he’s a strict vegetarian thanks to his attachment to Nichizen Buddhism. Intense religiosity remains a central part of Miyazawa’s life but it’s often one that’s hard to integrate with his other relationships. Not content with leading by example, Miyazawa is continually trying to convert his reluctant friends and family to his own beliefs, refusing to take their polite refusals seriously. Though his father simply ignores Miyazawa’s pleas and accepts them as a part of his strangeness, other friends are not so tolerant. One even eventually decides to sever the friendship entirely, giving the young Miyazawa a painful station platform lecture on the true nature of friendship. Berating him for the fact his letters are essentially all about himself and his religious claptrap, his friend reminds him that true friendship is accepting someone for what they are, implying that he’s not a trophy to be won for the cause of Nichizen Buddhism and has his own beliefs and causes which are just as valid as Miyazawa’s.

Yet even if sometimes misguided, Miyazawa’s intensions are altruistic. His is a love of the world, of dreams, and nature and people too though something in him has never quite felt at home in conventional society. Miyazawa’s writing is more an artistic pursuit than an attempt at a literary occupation – his first published volume sold so badly he felt guilty enough to get himself in debt buying all his own books so that the publishing company wouldn’t be out of pocket after supporting him. The son of wealthy family, Miyazawa could perhaps afford to indulge his eccentric ideas but the same is not true for all as he finds out when visiting the home of a pupil who is considering giving up his studies because of an alcoholic parent. Miyazawa offers to pay his tuition for him, but the boy turns him down, studying is a frivolous affectation that he can no longer afford.

Though he talks of romance, Miyazawa prefers the one of the mind to the one of the heart. A young woman falls in love with his writings and, she thinks, with him though Miyazawa explains that her feelings are too big for him to process – just as one cannot eat all the clouds in the sky, he cannot accept the weight of her emotion. Knowing that his health is failing, Miyazawa chooses a fantasy, idealised love over a physical one he fears he will abandon, cleaving to the beauty of the landscape rather than those who people it.

On his deathbed Miyazawa asks his family to throw his notebooks away – he only kept them to try and figure things out but he feels as if he knows all he needs to know by now. Miyazawa’s constant search, as it was for the characters of Night on the Galactic Railroad, was for “true happiness” – perhaps he found it, perhaps not, but thankfully his work lived on thanks to his brother who later took up his interest in agricultural reforms. A typical prestige picture of the time, Night Train to the Stars is a straightforward biopic but one which also bears out Miyazawa’s dreamlike world view with all of its strangeness and wonder.


 

The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Shun Nakahara, 1990)

Cherry Orchard 1990 posterChekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is more about the passing of an era and the fates of those who fail to swim the tides of history than it is about transience and the ever-present tragedy of the death of every moment, but still there is a commonality in the symbolism. Shun Nakahara’s The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Sakura no Sono) is not an adaptation of Chekhov’s play but of Akimi Yoshida’s popular 1980s shojo manga which centres on a drama group at an all girls high school. Alarm bells may be ringing, but Nakahara sidesteps the usual teen angst drama for a sensitively done coming of age tale as the girls face up to their liminal status and prepare to step forward into their own new era.

The annual production of The Cherry Orchard has become a firm fixture at Oka Academy – even more so this year as it marks an important anniversary for the school. Stage manager Kaori (Miho Miyazawa) has come in extra early to prep for the performance, but also because she’s enjoying a covert assignation with her boyfriend whom she is keen to get rid of before anyone else turns up and catches them at it. Hearing the door, Kaori bundles him out the back way before the show’s director, Yuko (Hiroko Nakajima), who is also playing a maid arrives looking a little different – she’s had a giant perm.

Yuko’s hair is very much against school regulations but she figures they’ll get over it. Fortunately or unfortunately, Yuko’s hairdo is the least of their problems. Another girl who is supposed to be playing a leading role, Noriko (Miho Tsumiki), has been caught smoking and hanging out with delinquents from another school. She and her parents are currently in the headmaster’s office, and everyone is suddenly worried. The girls’ teacher, Ms. Satomi (Mai Okamoto), is going in to bat for them but it sounds like the play might be cancelled at the last-minute just because the strict school board don’t think it appropriate to associate themselves with such a disappointing student.

The drama club acts as a kind of safe space for the girls. Oka Academy is, to judge by the decor and uniforms, a fairly high-class place with strict rules and ideas about the way each of the young ladies should look, feel, and act. Their ages differ, but they’re all getting towards the age when they know whether or not those ideas are necessarily ones they wish to follow. As if to bring out the rigid nature of their school life, The Cherry Orchard is preformed every single year (classic plays get funded more easily than modern drama) but at least, as one commentator puts it, Ms. Satomi’s production is one of the most “refreshing” the school has ever seen, perhaps echoing the new-found freedoms these young women are beginning to explore.

Free they are and free they aren’t as the girls find themselves experiencing the usual teenage confusions but also finding the courage to face them. Yuko’s hair was less about self-expression than it was about catching the attention of a crush – not a boy, but a fellow student, Chiyoko (Yasuyo Shirashima). Chiyoko, by contrast is pre-occupied with her leading role in the play. Last year, in a male role, she excelled but Ranevskaya is out of her comfort zone. Tall and slim, Chiyoko has extreme hangups around her own femininity and would rather have taken any other male role than the female lead.

Yuko keeps her crush to herself but unexpectedly bonds with delinquent student Noriko who has correctly guessed the direction of Yuko’s desires. Sensitively probing the issue, using and then retreating from the “lesbian” label, Noriko draws a partial confession from her classmate but it proves a bittersweet experience. Predictably enough, Noriko’s “delinquency” is foregrounded by her own more certain sexuality. Noriko’s crush on the oblivious Yuko looks set to end in heartbreak, though Nakahara is less interested in the salaciousness of a teenage love triangle than the painfulness of unrequited, unspoken love which leaves Noriko hovering on the sidelines – wiser than the other girls, but paying heavily for it.

Chekhov’s play famously ends with the sound of falling trees, heralding the toppling of an era but with a kind of sadness for the destruction of something beautiful which could not be saved. Nakahara’s film ends with cherry blossoms blowing in through an open window in an empty room. The spectre of endings hangs heavily, neatly echoed by Ms. Satomi’s argument to the promise that the play will go ahead next year with the cry that next year these girls will be gone. This is a precious time filled with fun and friendship in which the drama club affords the opportunity to figure things out away from the otherwise strict and conformist school environment. Nakahara films with sympathetic naturalism, staying mainly within the rehearsal room with brief trips to the roof or empty school corridors capturing these late ‘80s teens for all of their natural exuberance and private sorrows.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.