Extro (エキストロ, Naoki Murahashi, 2019)

Extras are the unsung heroes of the movies. Getting up in the middle of the night, prepared to spend hours in makeup, and enduring not only the discomfort but also the boredom of standing around all day waiting for something to happen. Naoki Murahashi’s affectionate mockmentary Extro (エキストロ) is dedicated to those whose names do not appear in the credits and are, according to the characteristically warm onscreen interview from the late Nobuhiko Obayashi, the very force that brings life to the otherwise artificial world of the film set. 

The set in this case being “Warp Station Edo”, an artificial replica of a historically accurate samurai-era town used for the production of jidaigeki TV serials. Murahashi’s first subject is a retired dental technician, Haginoya (Kozo Haginoya), fulfilling a lifelong dream as a background performer, but as we quickly see the life of an extra is not an especially glamorous one. Having got up at the crack of dawn to be there at the time listed on his call sheet, he’s nearly sent away because he doesn’t want to shave his beard and back in old Edo facial hair was prohibited for civilised people. The only solution is to switch his role from townsman to farmer, which causes a costuming delay and gets the AD into trouble. Haginoya then goes on to cause yet more problems by bigging up his part before being taken ill, complaining that his intestines hurt right in the middle of a take. Unsurprisingly, he sits the rest of the day out. 

Meanwhile, the other extras are mostly forced to stand around in the cold waiting for the cameras to start rolling. The agency which provides the background actors laments that extra work is only suitable for flexible people with a lot of free time, i.e. pensioners like Haginoya, but that it also requires physical stamina which they often lack. It also transpires most of the agency’s employees are working on a volunteer basis and earning their money through a separate main job, which really begs the question why they bother especially when the agency itself becomes liable for the extras’ mistakes such as those repeatedly made by one “problem child” including making sneaky peace signs, smiling at the camera, and posting strange on-set photos to social media. 

Not quite content with satirising the production environment and its tendencies towards exploitative employment practices, Murahashi adds a second surreal plot strand introducing two bumbling policemen who are seconded to go undercover as extras after a suspected drug dealer is spotted on camera, somewhat incomprehensibly stepping out of hiding and into living rooms across the country. Predictably, the policemen aren’t very good at the acting business and quickly forget all about the case while becoming overly invested in their cover identities, even attending an acting workshop in an effort to blend in with the background stars. 

While the hero of the jidaigeki TV drama earnestly insists that the extras are what give the fake town “life” and it is in a sense he who is being allowed to perform in their world, not everyone is so forgiving. A pro-wrestler brought in to star in a low budget movie titled Dragon Samurai gets so fed up with the antics of the two policeman that he eventually quits, presumably costing another production company somewhere a lot more money, while a repeated gag sees most of the projects go unreleased because someone involved with the production had too much to drink and engaged in acts of public indecency. One such project is the amazingly titled “Prehistoric Space Monster Gamogedorah”, apparently inspired by a local legend about a giant evil duck.

From the self-obsessed stars who turn up when the money’s right to the embattled agency staff and the stressed out ADs, Murahashi doesn’t quite so much sing the praises of the extras as satirise the low level production industry, but does eventually cycle back to the unironic intro from Obayashi who affirms that the extras, or “extros” as he likes to call them short for “extraneous maestros”, are a part of what gives film its beauty and power. As if to prove that sometimes dreams really do come true, even Haginoya gets his moment in the spotlight mimicking his screen hero Steve McQueen as an Edo-era fireman but disrupting the filming once again by laughing maniacally in joy as he rings his bell while Gamogedorah looms ominously on the horizon.


Extro was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. Viewers in the US will also be able to catch it streaming as part of this year’s Japan Cuts!

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Harmony (ハーモニー, Michael Arias & Takashi Nakamura, 2015)

Harmony PosterHarmony – the word itself sounds peaceful. A coalescence of sympathetic sounds, the feeling of wholeness and happiness. However, if given the choice, would you like to live in a world of peace and plenty in which your body is almost government property and your personal freedom is limited in favour of ensuring the survival of the species, or would you rather take your chances with the world as it is complete with its violence, sadness and pain if it meant you could be free to live in which ever way you see fit? Michael Arias’ adaptation of the Project Itoh novel addresses just this question in all its complexity as utopia turns out to have a heavy entrance fee.

Fifty years after a devastating nuclear war humanity has recovered itself and the elite now live in spotlessly clean, futuristic cities. A healthcare monitoring system administered through nanotechnology ensures proper adherence to health guidelines including sending alerts about unhealthy food and heart rate fluctuations making it almost impossible to cheat the system even if you wanted to. Everyone also has “augmentations” including a heads up display in the eyes which flags all the aforementioned info as well as a break down on your fellow humans which also includes their “social aptitude quotient” based on how well they treat others and how good they are at following the rules.

For some, all of this nannying is nothing other than an infringement on their personal freedom. After all, shouldn’t you have the right to eat what you want, drink, smoke, take risks, if that is your personal choice? Camus said that the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence becomes an act of rebellion. Our heroine, Tuan, has opted for a similar solution as she finds herself working for enemy as a Helix Inspector allowed to life on the margins of society where the the rules are more easily breached. She flaunts the regulations and cares little for anything or anyone. Once, long ago, she cared deeply for a girl in high school who was so opposed to the constant invasions of the modern world that she chose the only way out that was available to her – suicide. The pair intended to die together but Tuan alone survived.

Tuan is then recalled to Tokyo following an incident of mass suicides only for another high school friend to kill herself in a violent and bloody way right in front of her. Tuan is about to discover that she herself is at the centre a complicated conspiracy which intends either to save or to destroy humanity depending on your point of view.

Harmony is an extremely complex dissection of the human need for self protection from threats real or imagined. Following a large scale humanitarian disaster, fear rules the day and humans must be protected from their bad decisions by gentle reinforcement but isn’t the right to slowly destroy yourself, should you choose to do so, exactly what wars are fought for? Is it worth surrendering such basic rights to live in a world without disease or hunger (for the wealthy nations, at least) or does this level of being looked after rob humanity of the thing that defines it? The “Harmony” of the title is a medical treatment designed to spread peace and love throughout the land, yet it eventually robs the patient of a self-aware soul leaving them without the individual desires and emotions which cause human conflict. What should the future look like – cold, sterile but long and peaceful or shorter but filled with all the richness of human passions?

Arias had been working on a live action adaptation of Harmony which apparently fell though and though asked to helm Genocidal Organ managed to get them to allow him to switch back to the anime version instead. Here he’s billed as a co-director along side Takashi Nakamura and it seems there was more than a little conflict involved in the process. In any case, the finished product is vastly different in approach from Arias’ original concept though sticks fairly close to Itoh’s novel.

Made on a very tight budget and in an extremely short time, Harmony makes the best of its difficult production circumstances with a complex mix of CG and hand drawn animation styles. The production design is prescient and interesting as it presents its utopic city as a serene place of muted colours and stress free round buildings. Even the monolith presented in the framing sequence looks exactly like what a traditional Japanese tombstone would look like if it was designed by Apple. However, the natural pops right out of the screen with its vibrant colours such as in an early scene where a field of sunflowers looks almost like stop motion in its highly textured 3D CGI. Though occasionally falling back on static conversations, the composition and directing style is also interesting with unsettling circular shots, frequent dissolves and montages, and even a light jazzy soundtrack which definitely lends to the Lynchian atmosphere.

Harmony is certainly a complex film and arguably succeeds much more because of its nuanced source material than the production itself, yet like the best sci-fi it does offer an in-depth philosophical discussion along side exciting acting scenes and moving character drama. Unfortunately, the film does fall into the trap of ponderous monologuing at times and is sometimes guilty of stilted, expository dialogue but largely manages to maintain goodwill even as it does so. In many ways imperfect, Harmony is an undoubtedly ambitious project and one of the better science fiction themed anime movies to emerge in recent years.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Harmony has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US). Project Itoh’s original Harmony novel is also available in English translation (by Alexander O. Smith) published by Haikasoru.

Unsubbed trailer:

The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.