Labyrinth of Dreams (ユメノ銀河, Sogo Ishii, 1997)

“If both held their courses they would collide in nine seconds, and catastrophe would be inevitable” according to the voiceover which opens Sogo Ishii’s ethereal psychodrama Labyrinth of Dreams (ユメノ銀河, Yume no Ginga) though his words might as easily apply to the protagonist and her opposing number as a bus and a train locked as they are into a fateful cycle of love and death. Ishii had made his name in the ‘80s for a series of frenetic punk films such as Burst City and The Crazy Family yet adapted from the novel by Kyusaku Yumeno, Labyrinth of Dreams adopts the language of golden age cinema to tell a punk story as a young woman searching for freedom, independence, and a more exciting life finds herself drawn towards death in her inexorable desire. 

Set sometime in the 1930s, the film opens with a taste of the gothic on a stormy night all mists and confusion as a bus heads towards and then unwisely across a level crossing in front of an oncoming train. “Double suicide or accident?” a newspaper headline asks, as we’ll discover on more than one occasion as this is not an isolated incident either bizarre cosmic coincidence or the work of a mysterious serial killer. The heroine, Tomoko (Rena Komine), had always wanted to become a bus conductress, explaining that they looked so “heroic” in their uniforms but has discovered the reality to be not quite so satisfying. “The female bus conductor only looks good on the surface. We must obey the driver’s orders, put up with all displeasure and work like a slave” she writes in a letter to a friend, Chieko (Kotomi Kyono), telling her in no uncertain terms that she must never become a bus conductress. 

To a young woman from the country in the 1930s, such a job must have seemed exciting promising a way out of stultifying small-town life and a path to an independent urban future. It’s this sense of self-possession that Tomoko seems to have been seeking hoping that wearing a uniform even that of a bus conductress would grant her a level of authority she does not really have realising that she is a mere subordinate to the male bus driver and quite literally has no real control over the direction of her life. When she receives a letter from a friend who had also become a bus conductress only to die in a tragic accident explaining that she thinks her fiancé is a bus-based bluebeard rumoured to have seduced and murdered his previous conductresses Tomoko smells not danger but excitement in realising the new handsome driver with a flashy Tokyo haircut who’s just transferred to their station is none other than her friend’s possibly sociopathic former boyfriend. 

Fully embracing a sense of the gothic, neither we nor Tomoko can ever be sure if Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano) is a coldblooded killer or merely the projection of a fantasy created by Tomoko’s repressed desires and yearning for a more exciting life. Having encountered him once before sleeping on the railway tracks as a train approached, he becomes to her something like an angel of death and though she believes him to be dangerous she cannot help falling in love with him anyway. Ishii constantly flashes back to deathly images, a pair of shoes abandoned on the rocks or a bunch of drooping lilies while a literal funeral procession eventually boards the bus just before the climactic moments on which Tomoko is in effect staking her life as she and Niitaka each refuse to deviate from their course, a set of railway points and a trapped butterfly added to the film’s rich symbolic imagery. 

A policeman at the film’s conclusion makes a point of asking Chieko if Tomoko is known to be a habitual liar having found no evidence that Niitaka deliberately caused the deaths of his previous conductresses even if it seems unlikely that he is simply the victim of unhappy coincidence. “My life was miserable and lonely,” Tomoko writes, “but remember me as the one who wrestled her fate at the end”, staking her life on a “fatal romance” and in a sense overcoming existential dread by staring it down, a deathly desire leading finally to new life. Beautifully lensed in a golden age black and white with occasional onscreen text in the ornate font of the silent movies, Ishii’s ethereal drama freewheels between dreams and reality amid gothic mists and expressionist thunderstorms as it reels towards an inevitable collision. “They haven’t a clue about the truth” Tomoko sighs, perhaps all too aware. 


What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? (大怪獣のあとしまつ, Satoshi Miki, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

The sudden appearance of a deus ex machina is usually where a story ends. After all, that’s the point. Whatever crisis is in play is suddenly ended without explanation. But what happens then? Satoshi Miki’s What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? (大怪獣のあとしまつ, Daikaiju no Atoshimatsu) steps in to wonder what it is that comes next after a giant monster has been defeated. Someone’s going to have to clean all that up, and in a surprising twist a fair few people are keen to take on the burden. Like Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla, which the film is on one level at least attempting to parody, Miki’s kaiju comedy is a government satire this time casting shade on the nation’s pandemic response, though with considerably less nuance. 

As the opening onscreen text, a nod to Shin Godzilla, and accompanying voiceover tell us Japan had been plagued by a kaiju but it suddenly died after being engulfed by a mysterious ball of light. While attempting to comedown from the constant state of anxiety under which they’d been living, the prime minister (Toshiyuki Nishida) is at a loss for what to do next especially as no-one really knows if the kaiju corpse is safe. While trying to ascertain whether or not the fallen kaiju might explode, spread dangerous radiation, or present some other kind of threat, government departments start fighting amongst themselves about whose responsibility the clean up effort must be all of them wanting the glory but not the work or expense. 

Some suggest turning the kaiju’s body into a massive tourist attraction and are therefore less keen on anything that involves destroying it while others think it should be preserved and put in a museum. The government has placed the SJF, a militarised science force set up after a terrorist incident, in charge but isn’t listening to much of what they’re saying. Meanwhile, evil moustachioed staffer Amane (Gaku Hamada) is playing his own game behind the scenes which also involves his wife, Yukino (Tao Tsuchiya), who was previously engaged to the leader of the SJF Taskforce, Arata (Ryosuke Yamada), before he abruptly disappeared after being swallowed by a mysterious ball of light three years previously. 

The political satire largely revolves around the indecisive PM, who at one point says he has no control or responsibility for what the other ministers do, and his anarchic cabinet meetings in which politicians run round in circles and insult each other like children. Not exactly subtle, much of the humour is indeed childish and scatological while one minister’s running gag is making sleazy sexist remarks even at one point accidentally playing a saucy video instead of displaying the latest kaiju data on the communal screen. The government experiences a public backlash in deciding to name the kaiju “Hope” which lends an ironic air to its rampage not to mention the necessity of its destruction, while the decision to declare the body safe for political reasons despite knowing it probably isn’t (“protecting the people’s right not to know”) casts shade on the pandemic response among other crises as do the constant refrains about getting back to normal now the crisis is over. 

Then again, there’s something a little uncomfortable going on with the film’s geopolitical perspectives, throwing up an angry politician on the screen with a mangled name who insists that the kaiju originated on their territory and must be returned to them in what seems to be an awkward allusion to Japan’s ongoing territorial disputes with Korea even while it’s suggested that the Americans wouldn’t mind getting their hands on the corpse either for purposes of experimentation and research. On the other hand it also becomes apparent that the Japanese military have deliberately destroyed civilian homes and cost lives in a reckless attempt to stop the kaiju which obviously failed. 

The closing scenes hint we may have been in a slightly different franchise than the one we thought we were dealing with, another deus ex machina suddenly arriving to save the day after the villains almost cause accidental mass destruction. The film’s problem may be that it’s the wrong kind of silly, relying on lowbrow humour while otherwise trying to conform to a blockbuster formula in which the kaiju corpse becomes the new kaiju but the battleground is bureaucracy. Ultimately the film’s prognosis is bleak. Even when the PM has achieved sufficient growth to realise he should make some kind of decision he makes the wrong call leaving everything up to a lone hero while fundamentally failing to come to any conclusion on what to do with a dead kaiju save trying to ensure it does not blow up in his face. 


What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン, Shinji Higuchi, 2022)

The classic tokusatsu hero rises again to rescue kaiju-plagued Japan from geopolitical tensions and internal bureaucracy in Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Ultraman (シン・ウルトラマン). Scripted by Hideaki Anno, Shin Ultraman shares much in common with Shin Godzilla which the pair co-directed but is also a much more obvious homage to the world of classic tokusatsu or “special effects” franchises which became cult TV hits from the 1960s onwards and have remained popular with children and adults alike throughout Asia. 

This new iteration takes place in a world in which kaiju attacks have become commonplace, so much so that there is a specialised government department, the SSSP, dedicated to dealing with them. Led by determined veteran Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the team do not engage with the giant monsters directly but are responsible for research and strategy quickly trying to work out what kind of kaiju they’re dealing with, what the dangers associated with it may be, and where it’s weaknesses lie so they can figure out a way to stop it. Just when it looks like an electricity-guzzling lizard monster is about to do some serious damage, a robot-like giant humanoid arrives and saves the day. The team are very grateful to the heroic defender they name Ultraman, but are puzzled that he seems to be aware of all their research while otherwise missing the connection that their near silent colleague Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh) always seems to be mysteriously absent every time Ultraman arrives.  

At heart, Shin Godzilla had been a satire on government bureaucracy and a mediation on the response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Shin Ultraman might not be so pointed but still has a few bones to pick with the political machine as the team’s boss at HQ moans about the need to keep buying fancy weapons from the Americans (and making sure it’s the Defence Ministry that foots the bill) while cynically suggesting that the government is keen to use the kaiju crisis as leverage to further its policy goal of nuclear re-armament. Meanwhile, it’s also clear that for some reason kaiju attacks only happen in Japan and the International community largely sees them as a Japanese issue which they have to deal with alone, but as soon as Ultraman turns up and is thought to be extraterrestrial everyone is suddenly interested. 

As it transpires these geopolitical divisions are incredibly useful to another extraterrestrial visitor, Zarab (Kenjiro Tsuda), who plans to sow discord among nations so that humanity will destroy itself thereby, ironically, preventing an intergalactic war between planets who may be tempted to fight amongst themselves over the potential enslavement of humanity as valuable bioweapons. Aware of Zarab’s power, the government is manipulated into signing an uneven treaty with him in order to be first out of the gate and gain an advantage over other nations who, for reasons of self preservation, are also keen to ensure no one has sole access to new alien technologies and emissaries. Asked why he picked Japan, all Zarab can come up with it that he happened to land there which is quite a coincidence though he also has a vested interest in taking out Ultraman, the only force capable of resisting him. 

Even so, according to Zarab, the kaiju plague is humanity’s doing in having awakened sleeping monsters through environmental destruction. Hailing from the Planet of Light which has strict rules about what he’s supposed to be doing, Ultraman longs to understand humanity having merged with a human he accidentally killed who had dedicated his life to saving others. What he gains is a sense of communal responsibility along with a desire to care for what he sees as, essentially, babies someway behind his own planet in terms of evolution and in need of guidance. What he doesn’t want to do is endanger their “autonomous progression” by solving all their problems for them, so in grand tokusatsu fashion its up to the team to engineer their own solution in addition to deciding what they will do with this new technology using it for good or ill. Being buddies is all about trust, after all. Higuchi’s composition borders on the avant-garde recalling both that of the legendary Akio Jissoji and those more often associated with anime and manga rather than live action while the effects, even those utilising CGI, are pleasantly nostalgic with retro mono explosions and the iconic ringing of laser beams. Heading in a melancholy philosophical direction in its final moments, Shin Ultraman does at least suggest that the best weapons against a kaiju attack are teamwork and mutual trust especially if one of your friends is an all powerful being from another galaxy. 


Shin Ultraman screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS CO., LTD. / TOHO CO., LTD. / khara, Inc. © TSUBURAYA PRODUCTIONS

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle, Arthur Harari, 2021)

For most people, the Pacific War ended in 1945. For Hiroo Onoda it may in a sense never have ended though he laid down his arms in 1974, 30 years after his initial dispatch, having spent the intervening three decades pursuing guerrilla warfare in the Philippine jungle the last two of them entirely alone. Arthur Harari’s three-hour existential epic, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle), explores the psychological dimensions of his quasi-religious conviction in the righteousness of a mission which is in one sense no more than to survive along with his refusal to accept that the war is over and his personal struggle has been pointless. 

Immediately in opening the film in 1974 with a young man identified only as a “tourist” (Taiga Nakano) arriving on the island in search of Onoda (Kanji Tsuda), Harari draws a direct contrast between these two arrivals and subsequent departures. As he says, the Tourist is just that in town for a specific purpose after which he will leave and though you might be able to say the same of Onoda who came to the island of Lubang in late 1944 his reality was very different. On luring him out of the jungle by playing the patriotic war song he had sung with the other soldiers who unlike him accepted the surrender, the Tourist poignantly tells Onoda that he has travelled to over 50 countries whereas Onoda in a certain sense has never left Japan. “This island belongs to us” he’s fond of insisting seeing it as a piece of the Japanese empire which others are trying to take from him but he alone must defend. 

As we discover, the young Onoda (Yuya Endo) had wanted to become a pilot but washed out of the training program because of a fear of heights and was subsequently put forward for a kamikaze squadron. The irony of his life is that he is a man who refused to die for the emperor, his will to survive bringing him to the attention of Major Taniguchi (Issey Ogata) of the notorious Nakano spy school who sells his students a line that they are the good guys helping to liberate East Asia from Western imperialism. Trained in guerrilla warfare part of Onoda’s mission is to foster an uprising in the local population whom he assumes will also oppose American influence never realising that he is in fact a part of a destructive colonising force they will also seek to repel not least because of the way they have been treated by Japanese forces. 

Onoda’s first meeting with his captain on arriving on Lubang is interrupted by the arrival of the mayor of a nearby town who has come to complain that Japanese soldiers have been stealing food supplies from local farmers. This comes as a surprise to Onoda who is obviously not fully aware of the reality on the ground. His initial orders are largely ignored by the remaining NCOs who get up and leave during his briefing knowing that what he’s proposing is impossible. These men are already battle weary, many of them are sick, and they are running low on supplies. Onoda is 22 and fresh faced, arriving full of energy and patriotic zeal assuming these men are simply lazy or lack ideological commitment. He has no grounds to wield authority and no combat experience that would permit him to understand the circumstances in which he finds himself. In an especial irony, his first kill occurs after the war has (for everyone else) ended and he will himself go on to commit acts of atrocity against the local population which he justifies as acts of war. 

The military song which he is fond of singing celebrates there being no more bandits, yet banditry is essentially what he has been reduced to calling into question any idea of heroism which might be attributed to his refusal to accept the wartime defeat. In his Nakano spy school training, Onoda had been encouraged to ignore the accepted rules of war, that all is permissible in the pursuit of victory. He is also told that the prize for the “secret war” he is conducting will be a “secret glory” that goes unrecognised by others while he alone will possess true integrity in knowing that he never wavered in his mission. Yet there is something in him which weakens when he encounters the Tourist and is told that most of Japan believes him to be dead, rendering his struggle an irrelevance. 

He begins to admit the concept of surrender but only if given new orders from Taniguchi whose contradictory teachings have informed the course of his life, yet Taniguchi like many of his generation in the Japan of 1974 does not want to face his wartime past. The bookshop he now runs sells no military books and he claims not to remember Onoda or Lubang refusing his responsibility for his role in the conflict now filled with shame and regret. Yet it’s also possible that Onoda misunderstood the nature of the mission he’d been assigned, that in saving him from the kamikaze squadron because he did not want to die, Taniguchi gave him only one order – to survive. “You do not have the right to die” he reminds the recruits while giving them the ultra-individualist mantra that they must be their own officers which is in essence the paradoxical instruction to obey no orders but their own meaning that Onoda was always free to accept defeat. 

The psychological consequences of doing so, however, may have been too great. Coming of age in a militarised society, he already feels himself emasculated and embarrassed by his failure to become a pilot essentially because he is afraid to die. An awkward meeting with his father (played by film director Nobuhiro Suwa) resembles that of a Spartan woman sending her son to war with the instruction to return with his shield or on it. To return in defeat is psychologically impossible and suicide forbidden and so the only choice is inertia. In this Onoda may be hiding in the jungle unable to face a post-war future, descending into delusional conspiracy when presented with evidence that the war is over choosing to see the attempts of others to discourage him from his mission as proof of its importance, as if he and the remaining soldier sticking with him are key players in geopolitical manoeuvring worthy of such an elaborate plot. To believe the world is wrong is easier than to accept that he’s wasted his life in service of a mistaken ideal while failing to prove himself a man by the standards of a heavily militarised society. 

He’s tempted out of his delusion only by the Tourist who confronts him with the face of a new Japan entirely unknown to him, a Japan of economic prosperity, of the Shinkansen, of democracy. Being taken off the island means he must finally leave his dreams and delusions behind to enter a new post-war reality. Harari frames the island of Lubang as a psychological realm, the topography of Onoda’s delusion, but is also mindful of the islanders living outside it whom Onoda terrorises under the justification of war no better than a bandit in his quest for survival. In Harari’s oneiric landscapes, Onoda’s vistas are forever haunted by the spectres of his latent regret in the reflections of the boy he once was who came to Lubang to prove himself a man only to leave it a ghost. 


Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle opens in UK cinemas April 15 courtesy of Third Window Films. It will also be released on blu-ray May 16 in a set which also features an interview with actor Kanji Tsuda plus an interview with director Arthur Harari, DOP Tom Harari and assistant director Benjamin Papin.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Akira Ikeda, 2021)

“Just shoot where you’re told and you’ll be fine” a veteran advises an unusually curious newbie when asked who exactly it is they’re shooting at, beginning to question for the first time everything he’s been told. Continuing in the same vein as his 2017 surrealist drama Ambiguous Places, Akira Ikeda’s Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Kimajime Gakutai no Bonyari Senso) follows a more linear though meandering path in its timely anti-war message as the brainwashed hero comes to contemplate the tenets of his society thanks to a naive young man and the healing power of music. 

The small town of Tsuhiramachi has been at war with Tawaramachi across the river for so long no one can remember why it is that they’re fighting, least of all perpetually absent-minded mayor Natsume (Renji Ishibashi) who can’t even remember his own son’s name. Soldier Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara) is woken every day by a marching band, meeting friend and colleague Fujima (Hiroki Konno) in the street and walking over to the barracks where he changes into his uniform and then spends all day firing a rifle across the river. His identical days are disrupted when former thief Mito (Hiroki Nakajima) is conscripted into their group and Fujima is injured in seemingly the only instance of returned fire. Tsuyuki is then transferred to the marching band and begins practicing his trumpet by the water only to be surprised when he begins hearing someone joining him from the other side. 

Everyone in Tsuhiramachi walks with automaton rigidity and talks with an almost ritualistic austerity in which dialogue is repeated endlessly and conversation loops are common. The townspeople dress as if they were stuck in the 1940s though the uniforms are more European than Japanese while Tsuyuki and Fujima wear identical blue suits when travelling to and from their homes. The thief, Mito, meanwhile dresses in a less formal brown shirt and trousers, apparently engaging in stealing from the local simmered food stand for reasons of poverty while his friend, mayor’s son Heiichi (Naoya Shimizu), does so because he can. When the stall owner’s wife catches them, Heiichi allows his father to think he valiantly chased a thief and is made a police officer for his pains continuing to extort food and generally abuse his authority largely conferred through feudal dynastic privilege. 

There is certainly something in Mito’s tendency to frame each of his statements as a questions, asking “Am I a soldier now?” Or “My name is Mito?” when questioned. The lady who runs the diner where Tsuyuki frequently lunches is extremely proud of her son away fighting up river and resents being questioned by Mito, shovelling extra rice into the men’s bowls when impressed by something they’ve said and then taking it back when disappointed. Mito wants to know why it is they’re fighting and who the people across the river really are. Shiroko (Hairi Katagiri) doesn’t approve of asking such taboo questions and affirms that she doesn’t need to meet the residents of Tawaramachi to know that they’re “barbaric”, “horrible” people. Even the owner of the simmered food stall who insists he knows “everything” insists he’s no interest in knowing about Tawaramachi. 

Yet they’re always being told that the “threat” from across the river is increasing even if the mayor has forgotten what the threat exactly is. Meanwhile, an elite troop will soon be arriving to take part in the trials for a brand new super weapon. A disapproving Shirako asks Tsuyuki how music is useful for the war, but he doesn’t know, he’s merely following orders. Music however, along with Mito’s awkward questions, begins to open his eyes as he contemplates whether the trumpeter from across the water can really be so different from himself. He disapproves of Heiichi’s abuse of his authority, of civil servant Kawajiri’s apparent replacing of his wife with another woman because he believes she cannot bear children, and of the army’s treatment of a friend now struggling to find employment having lost his arm for the good of the town. Shiroko insists that dying in war is better than being injured, but the young universally agree that no, it isn’t. In this strangely Kafka-esque world of crypto-militarism and the feudal mentality, Tsuyuki finds freedom and escape in his trumpet but not even these it seems are enough to call the “meaningless” and internecine violence to a halt. Filled with a strangely poignant poetry, Ikeda’s absurdist drama takes aim at lingering authoritarianism but suggests that music may be panacea for human conflict if only we’d stop a little and listen. 


The Blue Danube streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Yuya Ishii, 2020)

The broken dreams of youth and middle-aged malaise push a trio of former high school friends towards existential crisis in Yuya Ishii’s melancholy exploration of emotional distance,  All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Ikichatta). Commissioned as part of the B2B A Love Supreme project created by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and China’s Heaven Pictures which tasked six Asian filmmakers with the task of proving that high quality films can still be made on a micro-budget, Ishii’s latest finds him in the same register as his poetic take on urban angst The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue as his frustrated protagonists each pay a heavy price for the seeming inability to communicate their true feelings honestly. 

Opening with an idyllic scene of three high school friends enjoying a breezy summer day, Ishii cuts abruptly to the present, interrupting the wistful love song playing in the background mid-flow. Now in his 30s, Atsuhisa (Taiga Nakano) is a married father whose only dream is to be able to afford a nice house with a garden for his wife and daughter, maybe even get a dog. To this end, he’s been taking lessons in English and Mandarin with high school friend Takeda (Ryuya Wakaba) with the intention of one day starting their own business though they once dreamed of becoming musicians. All of that comes to nothing, however, when he begins to feel dizzy at work one day and returns home early to find his wife, Natsumi (Yuko Oshima), with another man. Unable to offer any real sound of protest, he accidentally smashes a panel on the glass door to their bedroom, apologises for interrupting, and leaves in a daze to pick up his young daughter Suzu (Yuno Ota) from school. 

Natsumi’s infidelity evidently comes as a complete surprise, though it seems obvious that their marriage is far from perfect. “My life is just stress and getting fatter” Natsumi openly complains to Takeda, her sense of inertia and impossibility seemingly more than simple dissatisfaction with her life as an ordinary housewife. For his part, Atsuhisa is as emotionally distant as they come, a near silent zombie dead eyed and permanently absent from himself. He is continually preoccupied by the absence of his late grandfather, now nothing more than an increasingly anonymous photograph on an altar as if he never existed at all. Atsuhisa asks himself if his grandfather really lived as a way of avoiding the same question in himself as he sleepwalks through a conventional life that proves infinitely unsatisfying while he chases elusive dreams of comfort and security. 

Natsumi’s revelation that she’s been completely miserable for the entirety of their married life because she’s never felt loved likewise shocks him, but if her intent was to provoke emotional honesty in her husband it fails. She pushes him to fight, to offer some kind of resistance but he simply accepts her decision to end the marriage. The sense of impotence is palpable, Natsumi turning off the TV set because she can hardly do anything about the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi so what’s the point in knowing about them. “How else can we live?” someone else later adds, other than to simply decide not to think about the things you cannot change. Atsuhisa tells himself that it’s meaningless anyway, it will all “fade away” in the end so there’s no sense in trying to resist. 

Yet he continues to struggle, wondering in a sense if he could perhaps claim agency over his life if only he could learn to communicate his true feelings honestly. He asks himself if it’s because he’s Japanese that he can’t, if his culture actively prevents him from speaking freely when it comes to desire. Of course, everyone else is Japanese too which perhaps makes his question moot, but those around him do indeed seem to suffer from the same sense of wilful repression, even Natsumi tragically withholding her real feelings and ultimately working against herself out of a mistaken sense of guilt. “You don’t love me, that’s why you can be honest” an ex of Atsuhisa’s points out during an emotional farewell, cutting to the quick in suggesting that his problem is that he fears the risks of emotional intimacy. 

Two boys and one girl is always going to be a story tinged with a degree of sadness no matter how it turns out, but on that idyllic summer day no one could ever have thought it would end like this. Takeda, manfully keeping his true desires under wraps perhaps in love with Natsumi himself but too diffident to have said anything or overly mindful of his friends’ feelings, does his best to be the emotional buffer supporting both halves of a couple rapidly spiralling away from themselves but is ultimately unable to prevent them from making decisions they may regret even as they are are made. “My love wasn’t good enough” Atsuhisa laments in his inability to make it felt, finding proof of life only in absence through the memory of those shining summer days. A little rough and ready around the edges but filled with a raw poetry Ishii’s melancholy drama puts its hero through the emotional wringer but in the end perhaps sets him free to speak his heart even if others are too ashamed to look.


All the Things We Never Said streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Shinji Hamasaki, 2020)

©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

“What’s important is purpose, to live for something. Without it you’re as good as dead” according to the hero of madcap existentialist farce Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Ichido Shinde Mita). The feature debut from ad director Shinji Hamasaki pits a rebellious student against her overly literal, authoritarian dad as the pair begin to come to a kind mutual understanding only once he “dies” after being tricked into taking an experimental drug in order to unmask conspiracy within his own organisation. 

College student Nanase (Suzu Hirose) intensely resents her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the CEO of Nobata Pharmaceuticals which he has long been pressuring her to join. She’s currently the lead singer in death metal band Soulzz only according to a record scout at one of their shows their problem is that they’re all “zz” and no soul. Meanwhile, Nobata has assigned an underling, Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa), to shadow her partly because Matsuoka too has very little presence and is in fact nicknamed “ghost” for his essential invisibility. The trouble starts with the escalation of a corporate feud as Nobata’s old buddy Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada) starts manoeuvring to get his hands on the company’s research into an anti-ageing serum codenamed “Romeo”, planting a mole inside the organisation. As a consequence of his research another of the scientists nicknamed “Gramps” has stumbled on another drug which renders someone temporarily “dead” for a period of two days, naming it “Juliet”. Watabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a consultant Nobata has brought in to streamline the business, convinces him to take the experimental drug in order to flush out the mole while secretly working with Tanabe to take over the company by forcing through a merger while Nobata is out of action. 

A typical socially awkward scientist, Nobata believes that life is about experiment and observation, a belief system which has thoroughly irritated his daughter who still lives at home but has divided the territory in half with clearly marked red tape. Nanase’s animosity towards her father apparently stems back to the death of her late mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura), angry with him that he never left his desk and didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she passed away. “Life’s not a lab experiment” she sings, recalling her childhood during which her overly literal father took away life’s magic by patiently over explaining fairytales, scoffing that Prince Charming probably didn’t revive Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but a transfer of static electricity, while continuing to order her around in fatherly fashion now she’s all grown up. Perhaps still stuck in a petulant adolescence she started the band to vent her frustrations with the world in the form of a death metal “mass”, but she’s growing up. Her bandmates are getting jobs or getting married, she’s still stuck with no real clue about what it is she actually wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want anything to do with Nobuta Pharmaceuticals.  

Once her father “dies”, however, she begins to gain a new appreciation for his life philosophy able to see but not hear his “ghost” while his body lies on a table in the office cafeteria. Nobata went into pharmaceuticals to help people, but has been led on a dark and vacuous path pursuing anti-ageing technology which is in itself a rejection of change and transience. Ending all her sentences with the word “death”, that’s not something Nanase can get behind. She believes in growing old gracefully, that they make drugs not to cheat death but to be able to spend longer with those they love. As her father had advised Matsuoka to do, she begins to find her purpose, rediscovers her soul, and figures out what it is she’s supposed to do with her life.

Matsuoka, however, seems to be permanently “invisible” despite the tentative romance that develops as he and Nanase attempt to subvert the conspiracy to stop them doing her dad in for good, brushing up against the venal Tanabe who seems set to muster all his corporate advantages against them partly because of an old grudge against Nobata. Of course, you have to wonder why the conspirators didn’t just poison him rather than having him go Juliet and then entering a race against time to cremate him before he wakes up, but as Nobata reminds us there are many things which science cannot explain. A cheerfully silly Christmas tale of rediscovering what it means to be “alive” in the presence of death, Not Quite Dead Yet is zany seasonal fun but with plenty of soul as its heroes learn to shake off cynical corporatism for a healthy respect of the values of transience.


Not Quite Dead Yet screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

Sada (SADA〜戯作・阿部定の生涯, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1998)

Sada poster“Facts can easily become fiction when recounted by someone, even by oneself. But with a bit of sincerity lies can become truth”, our genial guide explains, paradoxically telling us that the heroine, a woman he regards as a loveable kid sister, wants to tell us her story herself. Apologising in advance for her “rudeness”,  he reveals to us that the woman is none other than the “notorious” Sada Abe, a woman who, apparently now forgotten, was once a front page sensation for having killed her lover and cut off his penis to carry him with her always.

Despite the narrator’s claims that Sada’s fame has faded, her story has proved fertile cinematic ground, most famously inspiring Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses which sees her claustrophobic descent into sexual obsession as a reaction to the intense austerity of militarism. Obayashi, however, is keen to remember that that aside from the newspaper headlines, the salaciousness and peculiar romanticism of her story, Sada was a real woman who suffered in an intensely patriarchal society and was perhaps seeking something that the world was unable to give her.

As she reminds us, Sada too had a childhood. Obayashi opens the film with a young Sada innocently throwing hoops over a tall phallic object. Six years later, her life changes when a college boy drags her off the street into a nearby inn and rapes her, claiming that she is well known as a good time girl and that he is perfectly entitled to behave in the way he is behaving. Deed done, the college boy leaves but Sada (Hitomi Kuroki) is rescued by the gentlemanly figure of sickly medical student Okada (Kippei Shina) who has a patch over his eye and a romantic disposition. Okada gives her not only a lifelong and strangely erotic attachment to donuts, but a junai foundation in an eternally unrealisable longing for a pure and innocent love.

Okada, as Obayashi later tells us, is also a “real” person though he has no real evidence that he and Sada ever crossed paths. He gives her the knife she will later use to sever her lover’s penis and tells her to use it to cut out his heart, which belongs to her. Okada, claiming that he will forever watch over her, introduces a secondary theme in that he is a sufferer of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, then thought incurable and “treated” only by exile. Sada loses her pure love and never knows why, but sadly chooses not take his advice to remember that she is an honest girl and refuse to be corrupted by her trauma. Now unable to marry and it remaining a virtual impossibility to enter any other kind of profession, Sada becomes a geisha, later giving that up for the more lucrative world of casual sex work.

Perhaps ironically, it’s through her life as a sex worker that Sada begins to find a degree of freedom amidst the impassioned atmosphere of increasing militarism. While the men are caught up in destructive games of martial glory, Sada is just trying to live her many lives and dreaming her dream of love. It’s that dream of love that brings her to Tatsuzo (Tsurutaro Kataoka), a married, poetic ladies’ man with whom she eventually retreats into an isolationist kingdom of two. Yet their intensely co-dependent relationship is never quite enough for her because it fails to marry her physical need with the emotional, and the figure of Okada, the innocent, romanticised white knight of her youth, lingers in her mind. Sada kills Tatsuzo not quite by accident, attempting to take ownership of something which can never be hers in her fiercely patriarchal world where her clients coldly chide her for not being “polite” enough and despite the earning potential of her profession, she remains dependent on men to escape it.

Sada’s “crime” might not quite be revenge for all she’s suffered but it is a pointed act of rebellion towards a conformist society. She laments that her notoriety soon faded, that if being forgotten is like dying then she died long ago, but for a short time all of Japan was captivated not by the outrageous horror of her transgression but by an idea of “romance” that stood behind it as if Sada had moved beyond double suicide into new territories of eternal love through seeking to possess her lover even in death. The narrator, Sada’s sometime pimp, tells us that few remember Sada now and suggests that Japan is once again in a dark age, stopping only to remark that people were beautiful then too despite or perhaps because of the darkness. Fittingly the figure of the “real” Sada retreats and we’re left again with her legend, an imagined future for a woman who faded into pre-war tragedy as a symbol of its dangerous intensity. Even so, Obayashi is intent to show us that there was indeed a woman named Sada Abe who found herself at the mercy of her times but tried to live all the same, dreaming of impossible love in a world of corruption.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blue Hour (ブルーアワーにぶっ飛ばす, Yuko Hakota, 2019)

Blue Hour poster“I don’t like people who like me” confesses the heroine of Yuko Hakota’s first feature Blue Hour (ブルーアワーにぶっ飛ばす, Blue Hour ni Buttobasu) to her best friend, who presumably is excluded from the statement. Then again, perhaps not. Running from or running to, Sunada (Kaho) can’t seem to escape herself while chasing the ghost of small town ennui in frenetic Tokyo. An impromptu road trip with a lively partner in crime returns her to the problematic roots from which she struggles to break free, but maybe breaking free wasn’t exactly what she needed anyway.

At 30 or so, Sunada has worked her way up to directing commercials but much of her job involves negotiating workplace sexism and stroking the egos of stars. In any case, she doesn’t seem to find the work particularly fulfilling and on looking around has noticed that there don’t seem to be a lot of women over 40 working in her industry which has her wondering what’s next in her possibly dead end career. Meanwhile, she’s married to a perfectly nice, mild-mannered sort of guy (Daichi Watanabe) but is secretly having an affair with a married colleague (Yusuke Santamaria) whose wife is currently pregnant with their second child. More stressed out and confused than she’d perhaps like to admit, Sunada has been putting off visiting her sickly grandmother because she isn’t the sort of person who deals with crisis well and so she was waiting in the hope her grandmother’s health would improve. Now that it has, she’s talked into an impromptu road trip with her freewheeling mangaka friend Kiyoura (Shim Eun-kyung).

True to form, Sunada doesn’t even really bother telling her husband where she’s gone because she doesn’t want “that sort of closeness”. Returning home, however, necessarily means reengaging with her distinctly odd family which is perhaps both easier and more difficult with her crazy friend in tow. While Sunada’s dad (Denden) seems to have picked up a habit of frittering money away on antique swords and suits of armour, her weird high school teacher brother (Daisuke Kuroda) cracks distinctly unfunny jokes about molesting pupils (a theme later echoed by her mother (Kaho Minami) who warns her men can’t be trusted, not even her brother). Out in the country there’s not much to do but drink, but this is not Tokyo and the bars are full of sleazy old men feeling up the hostesses and hogging the karaoke mic in an attempt to escape the stultifying boredom of their small-town lives. This is what Sunada has been running from. Ashamed of her bumpkinish childhood, she threw herself headlong into Tokyo sophistication only to find it equally unfulfilling.

Kiyoura is in many ways a projection of her other self. Childishly giddy, willing to jump into any situation with fearless enthusiasm, Kiyoura is a middle-class girl from the city and knows no shame. Only to her does Sunada seem to express her true self. Fearing intimacy, she keeps herself aloof but resents her lover’s family while pushing back against her husband’s meek indifference. “All ghosts are lies” her grandmother told her, which may be truer in some senses than others, but Sunada continues to haunt herself as she recalls the spirit of her free and easy childhood in which she snuck out to enjoy the “blue hour”, waiting for the sun to rise in peace and tranquility.

Only by confronting her grandmother’s ill heath can she begin to move forward towards a greater emotional clarity. Gently clipping the older woman’s nails, Sunada gets to hear her life philosophy or at least her parting words, “I try to make the best of every day, but what does that even mean anyway?”. Suddenly freed of her fear of attachment, her anxieties for the imperfect future, and even perhaps of her intense self loathing, Sunada prepares to take the wheel and confidently head in a more positive direction. “Being tacky means being alive”, her other self tells her, finally accepting her small-town roots and all that goes with it only to discover they were already accepted by someone who was paying more attention than she gave them credit for. A melancholy but ultimately hopeful and warmhearted exploration of midlife ennui and urban disconnection, Blue Hour is a delayed coming of age tale in which the heroine comes to an acceptance of adulthood only by reconnecting with her childhood self and all the fantastical promise of her sleepy rural youth.


Blue Hour was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine poster 1“I see it now, we can’t change anything” a despondent would-be-revolutionary decries in a moment of despair. Almost 100 years later, you might have to concede they have a point when the world finds itself on a tipping point once again and the same old prejudices refuse to disappear. Takahisa Zeze’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine (菊とギロチン 女相撲とアナキスト, Kiku to Guillotine Onna Zumo to Anarchism) casts an unflinching eye back towards the Japan of 1923 caught in the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster which followed on from a chaotic era of rapid social change and bewildering modernisation during which a series of battles were being fought for the future direction of a nation still trying to define itself in world dominated by empires.

When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck claiming mass loss of life and extreme damage to infrastructure, the ensuing chaos gave rise to a vicious rumour that Koreans were taking advantage of the situation to foment the independence movement by poisoning wells and committing arson leading to a pogrom against anyone who failed to prove themselves Japanese enough to satisfy the mob. Meanwhile, the same forces also turned on political opponents whose influence they perceived as destructive to their own aims culminating in the murder of prominent anarchist Sanae Osugi along with his feminist wife Noe Ito and their six-year-old nephew.

We begin, however, with a different band of outsiders in the Tamaiwa itinerant female sumo wrestler troupe many of whom have taken refuge in an isolated world of female solidarity in order to escape abusive relationships. Kiku (Mai Kiryu) is one such woman who found the courage to run away from a violent husband on catching sight of the powerful female wrestlers who made her realise that she too could become strong like them. Having accepted that “weak people can’t change anything”, Kiku has vowed to become “strong” in order to claim her own agency and ensure that she can’t be pushed around ever again.

Meanwhile, an anarchist sect known as the Guillotines are fomenting a more general kind of revolution but have not been very successful and are now on the run from the authorities which is how they end up running into the female wrestlers and more or less bringing them into the struggle. Led by libertine and (as yet) unpublished poet Tetsu Nakahama (Masahiro Higashide), the Guillotines are more romantic bandits with high ideals than serious revolutionaries. They rob the rich to fund their “activism” but spend most of the money on sex and drink while plotting revenge for the murder of Osugi with various schemes which imply that at heart they aren’t so different from that which they hate.

Nevertheless, the forces of darkness are rising and history tells us that, temporally at least, they will win. The vigilante militias which carried out the massacres were largely made-up of farmer soldiers who’d served in Russia and experienced terrible hardship. Unable to bear the idea that their traumatic wartime experiences had been a senseless waste, they doubled down on militarist ideology and insisted on their nationalistic superiority. This led them to hate, to regard anything that lay outside of their code as inferior and dangerous. Though the massacres were condemned by the government and the perpetrators prosecuted for their crimes, the convictions were largely quashed a short time later which is why we see our major villains rewarded by the state and our revolutionary “heroes” imprisoned for their resistance towards state oppression and desire to create a fairer, more equal society.

Ironically enough, Nakahama’s big utopian idea is an overly idealistic vision for a future Manchuria which in hindsight proves extremely uncomfortable but is perhaps an indication of the naivety of the times. Even so, the Guillotines for all their romanticism are essentially progressive in their thinking and in full support of sexual equality, insisting on the necessity of the wrestlers to embrace their physical capabilities in order to defend themselves against an oppressive and patriarchal society fuelled by male violence. Though this in itself might be mildly problematic in implying that in order to become “equal” women must learn to be more like men, it also plays into the film’s subtle sense of irony in which the tools of militarism are being subverted in order to oppose it. The “intellectual” Guillotines find their revolutions failing, while fighting fire with fire may be the only surefire way to win even if it legitimises the problematic act of violence in the process. Then again, as another of the Guillotines puts it, the truly strong are those who have no need of killing. 

In any case, the Tamaiwa stable becomes a tiny enclave of progressive values built on female solidarity though they ultimately discover that solidarity is not quite enough and they cannot protect each other from the ravages of the times without external assistance. Even so, they attempt to hold the line, literally pushing back against the fascist incursion while insisting on their right to resist as human beings with will and agency. The prognosis seems bleak. 100 years later the same battles are still being fought and the same tensions rising in the wake of new disasters yet there are also those who will continue to resist and like the Tamaiwa wrestlers refuse to give in to those who threaten to restrict their freedom.


The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)