The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Shuichi Okita, 2009)

If there’s one thing which unites the universes present in the films of Shuichi Okita, aside from their warm and humorous atmosphere, it’s their tendency to take a generally genial, calm and laid back protagonist and throw them into an inhospitable environment which they don’t quite understand. When it comes to “inhospitable”, the hero of The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Nankyoku Ryourinin) couldn’t have it much worse, unfairly transferred to a polar research station where the air temperature is so cold nothing, not even bacteria, can survive outside. Still, like all of Okita’s laid back guys, he handles his difficult circumstances with a kind of stoical resignation until, of course, the situation can be handled no more!

Separated from his wife and children, Jun Nishimura (Masato Sakai) previously worked for the Japanese coastguard but has now been transferred (not altogether of his own volition) to a polar research station where he is responsible for all the culinary needs of the seven men who will be working together during the expedition which is intended to last one year. Each of the other men has his own part to play in the scientific endeavours but cooped up as they are, the greater issue is downtime as the guys revert to a kind of high school camp, divided into various groups and activities from the “Chinese Research Club” to a bar being run by the doctor who is also training for a triathlon. 365 days in the freezing cold does eventually begin to take its toll but all of the crazy only serves to remind people how important it is that they all get on and make it through this together.

Based on the autobiographical writings of the real Jun Nishimura, Okita’s isolation experiment has a pleasantly authentic feeling as the titular chef laments the difficulties of the conditions but continues to churn out beautifully presented culinary treats despite the hostile environment. Resources are also strictly limited as the original provisions are intended to last the entire expedition – hence why most of the foodstuffs are canned, vacuum packed or frozen but there are a few luxuries on offer including some prize shrimp apparently left behind, uneaten, by a previous team which proves an additional occasion for celebration just as despair is beginning to set it in. Seeing as the men are all here for more than a year, celebratory occasions do present themselves with regularity from birthdays to “mid winter holiday” and even a good go at the Japanese festival of Setsubun with peanuts instead of beans.

Despite these brief moments of respite, being completely cut off from the outside world for such a long time with little natural light and hardly anything to do outside of research places its own kind of pressure on the minds of these top scientists. As their hair gets shaggier and their beards progressively less kempt, sanity also begins to slip. Each of the guys has their own particular marker, something they’re missing that’s playing on their minds until they eventually break completely. For some this could be realising they’ve eaten all of the ramen which exists in their tiny world and now have nothing left to live for, missing their kids, or realising that their girlfriend might have met someone else while they’ve been busy devoting themselves to science, but this being an Okita film even if an axe is raised it rarely falls where intended and the only cure for mass hysteria is guilt ridden kindness and a willingness to work together to put everything right again.

Of course, the other thing the guys have to put up with is the attitude of the outside world as everyone is very keen to ask them about the cute penguins and seals which they are sure must be everywhere at the South Pole, only to have to explain that it’s just too cold for cuteness though it does lead them to the epiphany that they are the only living creatures in this desolate place and so share a special kind of kinship. Filled with Okita’s usual brand of off the wall humour and gentle humanity, The Chef of South Polar is another warm and friendly tale of nice people triumphing over adversity through cooperation, mutual understanding and sustained belief in the healing power of ramen.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Nobuo Mizuta, 2013)

The Apology King.jpgThere are few things in life which cannot at least be improved by a full and frank apology. Sometimes that apology will need to go beyond a simple, if heart felt, “I’m Sorry” to truly make amends but as long as there’s a genuine desire to make things right, it can be done. Some people do, however, need help in navigating this complex series of culturally defined rituals which is where the enterprising hero of Nobuo Mizuta’s The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Shazai no Ousama), Ryoro Kurojima (Sadao Abe), comes in. As head of the Tokyo Apology Centre, Kurojima is on hand to save the needy who find themselves requiring extrication from all kinds of sticky situations such as accidentally getting sold into prostitution by the yakuza or causing small diplomatic incidents with a tiny yet very angry foreign country.

Kurojima promises to know an even more powerful form of apology than the classic Japanese “dogeza” (falling to your knees and placing your head on the ground with hands either side, or OTL in internet lingo), but if you do everything he tells you to, you shouldn’t need it. His first case brings him into contact with Noriko (Mao Inoue) whose awful driving has brought her into contact with the yakuza. Not really paying attention, Noriko has signed an arcane contract in which she’s pledged herself to pay off the extreme debts they’ve placed on her by entering their “employment” at a facility in Osaka. Luckily, she’s turned to Kurojima to help her sort out this mess, which he does by an elaborate process of sucking up to the top brass guys until they forget all about Noriko and the money she owes them in damages. Impressed, Noriko ends up becoming Kurojima’s assistant in all of his subsequent cases, helping people like her settle their disputes amicably rather allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

Mizuta begins with a neat meta segment in which Kurojima appears in a cinema ad outlining various situations in which you might need to apologise including allowing your phone to go off during the movie, or attempting to illegally film inside the auditorium etc ending with a catchy jingle and dance routine pointing towards the contact details for his apology school. Kurojima’s instructions are also offered throughout the film in a series of video essays in which he outlines the basic procedures for de-escalating a conflict and eventually getting the outcome you’re looking for.

Of course, all of this might sound a little manipulative, which it is to a degree, but the important thing to Kurojima lies in mutual understanding more than “winning” or “losing” the argument. The second case which comes to him concerns a young man who has some very outdated ideas and has, therefore, been accused of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, Numata (Masaki Okada) is a classic sexist who only makes the situation worse for himself and completely fails to understand why he was at fault in the first place. Even following Kurojima’s expertly crafted instructions, Numata further insults his female boss whilst attempting to apologise meaning Kurojima has to come up with an even more elaborate plan to smooth the situation which involves pretending to be the ghost of a man who threw himself under a train after being accused of harassing a young woman at work who did not return his affections. This seems to do the trick and the relationship between Numata and his boss appears to have improved even if Numata still has a long way to go in the person stakes, though it does perhaps make light of a serious workplace problem.

Numata follows all of Kurojima’s instructions but still gets everything wrong because he refuses to understand all of the various social rules he’s broken and therefore why and how the apology process is intended to make amends for them. Understanding and sincerity are the keys to Kurojima’s ideology but Numata, after a quick fix, fails to appreciate either of these central tenets and so is unable to work things out for himself. Similarly, in another case the parents of an actor are required to make a public apology when their son is captured on CCTV getting into a street fight. Only, being actors, they find genuine sincerity hard to pull off on the public stage either resorting to chewing the scenery or overdoing the dignified act, not to mention plugging their latest appearances at the end of the speech. The public apology is an important part of the Japanese entertainment industry though it might seem odd that the famous parents of a “disgraced” celebrity would be expected to apologise to the nation as a whole, but as it turns out all that was needed to settle the matter was a quick chat between the people involved, fully explaining the situation and reaching a degree of mutual understanding.

The innovative structure of Apology King neatly weaves each of the cases together as they occur in slightly overlapping timeframes but each contribute to the final set piece in which Kurojima becomes an advisor during a diplomatic incident caused when a film director unwittingly offends the small nation of Mutan by accidentally turning their crown prince into an extra in his film. Mutan is a nation with many arcane rules including a prohibition on filming royalty as well as on drinking and eating skewered meat, all of which the crown prince is seen doing in the movie. Matters only get worse when the film crew travel to Mutan to apologise but make even more faux pas, especially when it turns out that Japanese dogeza is actually incredibly rude in Mutanese culture. Revisiting elements from each of the previous cases, Kurojima is only able to engineer a peaceful solution by convincing the Japanese authorities to utter a set phrase in Mutanese which means something quite different and very embarrassing in their own language. Apologies are, of course, always a little humiliating, but then that is a part of the process in itself – placing oneself on a lower level to those who’ve been wronged, as symbolised in the dogeza.

Full of zany, madcap humour and culminating in a gloriously unexpected pop video complete with dancing idols of both genders exhorting the benefits of a perfectly constructed (and sincere) apology, The Apology King is a warm and innocent tribute to the importance of mutual understanding and its power to ease even the deepest of wounds and most difficult of situations. Hilarious but also heartfelt, The Apology King is a timely reminder that unresolved conflicts only snowball when left to their own devices, the only path to forgiveness lies in recognising your own faults and learning to see things from another perspective. Kurojima’s powers could be misused by the unscrupulous, but the most important ingredient is sincerity – empty words win no respect.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2010)

•Žm‚̉ƌv•ë•The stories of samurai whose soul is placed not in the sword but in another tool are quickly becoming a genre all of their own. Coming from the same screen writer as A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, Abacus and Sword is a similarly structured tale of penny pinching samurai accountants and a pean to the undersung heroes of the admin department without whom everything would fall apart.

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Bushi no Kakeibo) could almost be titled “a story of my father” as it begins with a voice over by the youngest adult generation seen in the film, Nariyuki Inoyama, who is at the time of speaking a naval accountant in the new post restoration world. As good an account as he is (and he must be, given his position), he feels he pales in comparison to his father, Naoyuki, whose skills with the abacus were somewhat legendary even if his people skills were often not on the same level.

Dubbed an abacus fanatic by his colleagues, Naoyuki’s top maths abilities get him into trouble right away when he notices an extreme discrepancy in the accounts details for the imperial rice dole. Around this time there are riots from farmers who are being squeezed to deliver more grain to the authorities during a time of famine but not seeing enough returned to them as well as starving people petitioning for food in the streets, so when Naoyuki asks why around a third of the rice is disappearing from the accounts or listed as “reserved” his superiors start getting nervous. As a mini underling, Naoyuki is not in a position to stop his bosses from exploiting their authority in the most devious of ways – creating a food panic and then profiting on the side through black market trading, and is simply instructed to “ensure the final accounts balance”. Unwilling to falsify his precious calculations, Naoyuki finds himself facing the possibility of exile from the imperial centre but eventually finds his persistence rewarded when the scam is finally uncovered by a higher level.

Accountants are often not respected in this era of samurai warriors who place an almost religious faith in the power of the sword. Their pay is low, hours long and taxing, and they have little prospects of advancement. After hearing the story of Naoyuki’s career Nariyuki returns to the subject of himself a little more as the conflict between austere father and wayward son takes centre stage. Naoyuki is a pragmatic man, he sees their family debts are unsustainable and embarks of prolonged plan of austerity in which he forces the entire extended family to sell all their non essential possessions and live as cheaply as possible until the debts reach a more manageable level so they can at least keep the social position their larger family home affords them rather than being moved to something less prestigious. This is an unusual move in status driven samurai circles and proves embarrassing for the rest of the family such as in one episode where Naoyuki can’t afford to buy fish for his son’s coming of age ceremony so simply puts a painting of a fish at each place setting. Creative accounting at its finest!

Nariyuki, however, can’t quite give up on the idea of the sword and goes off to fight in the various civil wars which erupt during the Meiji Restoration causing great worry to his parents, wife and children. He too becomes an accountant and is at first disappointed that it’s his skills with an abacus that can best serve the country rather than those needed on the frontlines but later comes to understand the tactical importance of maintaining the smooth financial functioning of an army.

A late career effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Abacus and Sword is an uneven experience which is more or less devoid of the director’s usual attempts at experimentation pushing for a more general, sometimes even televisual approach to storytelling. At heart the film praises the virtues of living a thrifty, honest, and balanced life in which hard work is always fairly rewarded in the end and even when not provides its own set of rewards. However, virtuous as it is to live honestly and simply in tune with the clack of an abacus, it can prove fairly dull which is unfortunately also true of Abacus and Sword which despite brief episodes of light humour never quite engages with its twin dynamics of father son conflict which echoes that of the changing world as it emerges into the new Meiji era, and of shining a light on the forgotten admin workers who keep the world turning when everything else is falling apart. Morita’s anti-consumerist, transparency in government sympathies come to the fore and are once again timely, but like Naoyuki he fails to make his complaints sufficiently engaging to ensure his messages are received by those with the ability to take action.


English subtitled trailer:

69 (Lee Sang-il, 2004)

69Ryu Murakami is often thought of as the foremost proponent of Japanese extreme literature with his bloody psychological thriller/horrifying love story Audition adapted into a movie by Takashi Miike which itself became the cornerstone of a certain kind of cinema. However, Murakami’s output is almost as diverse as Miike’s as can be seen in his 1987 semi-autobiographical novel 69. A comic coming of age tale set in small town Japan in 1969, 69 is a forgiving, if occasionally self mocking, look back at what it was to grow up on the periphery of massive social change.

The swinging sixties may have been in full swing in other parts of the world with free love, rock and roll and revolution the buzz words of the day but if you’re 17 years old and you live in a tiny town maybe these are all just examples of exciting things that don’t have an awful lot to do with you. If there’s one thing 69 really wants you know it’s that teenage boys are always teenage boys regardless of the era and so we follow the adventures of a typical 17 year old, Ken (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whose chief interest in life is, you guessed it, girls.

Ken has amassed a little posse around himself that he likes to amuse by making up improbable fantasies about taking off to Kyoto and sleeping with super models (oddly they almost believe him). He talks a big about Godard and Rimbaud, posturing as an intellectual, but all he’s trying to do is seem “cool”. He likes rock music (but maybe only because it’s “cool” to like rock music) and becomes obsessed with the idea of starting his own Woodstock in their tiny town but mostly only because girls get wild on drugs and take their tops off at festivals! When the object of his affection states she likes rebellious guys like the student protestors in Tokyo, Ken gets the idea of barricading the school and painting incomprehensible, vaguely leftist jargon all over the walls as a way of getting her attention (and a degree of kudos for himself).

69 is a teen coming of age comedy in the classic mould but it would almost be a mistake to read it as a period piece. Neither director Lee Sang-il nor any of the creative team are children of the ‘60s so they don’t have any of the nostalgic longing for an innocent period of youth such as perhaps Murakami had when writing the novel (Murakami himself was born in 1952). The “hero”, Ken, is a posturing buffoon in the way that many teenage boys are, but the fact that he’s so openly cynical and honest about his motivations makes him a little more likeable. Ken’s “political action” is merely a means of youthful rebellion intended to boost his own profile and provide some diversion at this relatively uninteresting period of his life before the serious business of getting into university begins and then the arduous yet dell path towards a successful adulthood.

His more intellectual, bookish and handsome buddy Adama (Masanobu Ando) does undergo something of a political awakening after the boys are suspended from school and he holes up at home reading all kinds of serious literature but even this seems like it might be more a kind of stir crazy madness than a general desire to enact the revolution at a tiny high school in the middle of nowhere. Ken’s artist father seems oddly proud of his son’s actions, as if they were part of a larger performance art project rather than the idiotic, lust driven antics of a teenage boy but even if the kids pay lip service to opposing the war in Vietnam which they see on the news every night, it’s clear they don’t really care as much as about opposing a war as they do about being seen to have the “cool” opinion of the day.

Lee takes the period out of the equation a little giving it much less weight than in Murakami’s source novel which is very much about growing up in the wake of a countercultural movement that is actually happening far away from you (and consequently seems much more interesting and sophisticated). Were it not for the absence of mobile phones and a slightly more innocent atmosphere these could easily have been the teenagers of 2003 when the film was made. This isn’t to criticise 69 for a lack of aesthetic but to point out that whereas Murakami’s novel was necessarily backward looking, Lee’s film has half an eye on the future.

Indeed, there’s far less music than one would expect in the soundtrack which includes a few late ‘60s rock songs but none of the folk/protest music that the characters talk about. At one point Ken talks about Simon & Garfunkel with his crush Matsui (Rina Ohta) who reveals her love for the song At the Zoo so Ken claims to have all of the folk duo’s records and agrees to lend them to her though his immediately asking to borrow money from his parents to buy a record suggests he was just pretending to be into a band his girl likes. Here the music is just something which exists to be cool or uncool rather than an active barrier between youth and age or a talisman of a school of thought.

Lee’s emphasis is firmly with the young guys and their late adolescence growth period, even if it seems as if there’s been little progress by the end of the film. There’s no real focus on their conflict with the older generation and the movie doesn’t even try to envisage the similar transformation among the girls outside of the way the boys see them which is necessarily immature. That said, the film is trying to cast a winking, wry look back at youth in all its eager to please insincerity. It’s all so knowingly silly, posturing to enact a revolution even though there’s really no need for one in this perfectly pleasant if slightly dull backwater town. They’ll look back on all this and laugh one day that they could have cared so much about about being cool because they didn’t know who they were, and we can look back with them, and laugh at ourselves too.


Ryu Murakami’s original novel is currently available in the UK from Pushkin Press translated by Ralph McCarthy and was previously published in the US in the same translation by Kodansha USA (but seems to be out of print).

Unsubtitled trailer:

and just because I love it, Simon & Garfunkel At the Zoo

Patisserie Coin de rue (洋菓子店コアンドル, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2011)

coin de rue posterYou know how it is, when you’re from a small town perhaps you feel like a big fish but when you swim up to the great lake that is the city, you suddenly feel very small. Natsume has come to Tokyo from her rural backwater town in Kagoshima to look for her boyfriend, Umi, who’s not been in contact (even with his parents). When she arrives at the patisserie he’d been working at she discovers that he suddenly quit a while ago without telling anyone where he was going. Natsume is distressed and heartbroken but notices that the cafe is currently hiring and so asks if she may take Umi’s place – after all she grew up helping out at her family’s cake shop!

However, as you might expect, even if her cakes are perfectly nice in a “homecooking” sort of way, they won’t cut it at a top cafe like Patisserie Coin de rue. Natsume is not someone who takes criticism well and is hurt that her skills aren’t appreciated but vows to stay and become the best kind of pastry chef she can be.

At heart, Patisserie Coin de rue (洋菓子店コアンドル, Yougashiten Koandoru) is a fairly generic apprentice story as Natsume starts off as a slightly arrogant country girl with an over inflated opinion of her abilities but gradually develops the humility to help her learn from others around her. Natsume, played by the very talented Yu Aoi, is not an easy woman herself and often rides a rollercoaster of emotions in just a single sentence. She’s loud but passionate and she does work hard even if her over confidence and slapdash approach sometimes cause problems for her fellow workers.

Patisserie Coin de Rue is also refreshing in that it’s one of the few films of this nature that do not attempt to pack in a romantic element. Natsume may have come to Tokyo to look for her boyfriend but no attention is paid to the possibility of winning him back or finding someone else, after calling time on her quest Natsume simply buckles down to learning her craft.

This is doubly true of the film’s secondary plot strand which centres on former international pastry star Tomura (Yosuke Eguchi) who mysteriously abandoned his cooking career eight years ago and now mostly works as a critic with some teaching on the side. He cuts a fairly sad figure as a regular visitor to Patisserie Coin de rue where he’s also an old friend of the owner and Natsume’s mentor, Yuriko. Natsume finally manages to coax him out of his self imposed isolation but the relationship is more paternal than anything else and, thankfully, never attempts to go down any kind of romantic route.

It’s a story that’s familiar enough on its own to have become something of a cliché and Patisserie Coin de rue doesn’t even try to put much of a new spin on it but it does at least carry it off with a decent amount of sophistication. Occasionally the film falls into the televisual but its production values are strong with the tone neatly flitting between mainstream aesthetics and a slightly alienated indie perspective. Of course, being a cake based film there are plenty of enticing shots of the baked goods on offer which do at least create a feast for the eyes.

The saving grace of the film is its leading actors who each turn in naturalistic, nuanced performances even given the lacklustre nature of the script. Yu Aoi carries the film as her surprisingly feisty Natsume dominates each scene she’s in while support is offered by the silent, brooding Yosuke Eguchi and the wise and patient shop owner Yuriko played by Keiko Toda. The film really owes a lot to the talent and commitment of its leading players who help to elevate its rather ordinary nature into something that’s a little less disposable.

That said Patisserie Coin de Rue is a little like a pleasant cafe you find in an unfamiliar area – the coffee’s good and the pastries are pleasant enough, you might drop in again if you’re in this part of town but you probably won’t make a special journey. A little bit formulaic and ultimately too sweet, Patisserie Coin de Rue is a shop bought cake in a boutique box which though enjoyable enough at the time is unlikely to linger long in the memory.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Patisserie Coin de rue includes English subtitles.

(Unsubtitled trailer)

 

Rakugo Monogatari (落語物語, Shinpei Hayashiya, 2011)

program_rakugoWhen it comes to the classic Japanese art forms, kabuki, noh and maybe even bunraku are not so uncommon overseas. Rakugo, however, has not been as lucky. Famously impenetrable for non-native speakers even if their language skills are otherwise top notch, rakugo is the art of traditional comic story telling in which the “rakugo-ka” recites a standard monologue with the aim of mining it for laughs in their own individual fashion. These stories date back to the Edo-era and rely heavily on classic Japanese puns, stock characters and cultural assumptions, consequently, their appeal has been on the wane in Japan for sometime. That’s not to say the art form is quite dead yet though, as real life rakugo-ka Shinpei Hayashiya’s Rakugo Monogatari attempts to prove.

The film begins as youngster Masato catches a Rakugo act and becomes immediately smitten. Hoping to become the disciple of a top master, he parks himself outside the house of Kozaru but is too shy to actually knock on the door. Luckily, Kozaru’s wife arrives home and spots Masato waiting outside. She’s a sharp woman and immediately guesses what Masato’s after so she invites him inside to meet her husband. Kozaru is a bit of a strange man but with a fantastic sense of humour and eventually agrees to take the young hopeful on as his pupil. There will be laughter and tears along the way but Masato is well on the road to achieving his rakugo dreams.

Created by real life rakugo comedian and occasional actor Shinpei Hayashiya, Rakugo Monogatari certainly has the air of authenticity. For a film that’s about an apprentice, we don’t really see a lot of direct training scenes (though there are some) and, in fact, we don’t spend all of our time on the hopeful Masato. After he starts to make some headway, the canvas widens a little to look at the arcane institution of the rakugo association and in particular its reaction to the decision of one of its female members to pursue a career in television which is taking her away from her rakugo roots. The position of female rakugo performers is briefly touched on as, though there are at least two highly proficient female rakugo-ka active on these stages, one of the other association members proclaims that he feels “uncomfortable” with a woman reciting this material at an important event. He says this right in front of an apparently high ranking female member of the association who looks rightfully non-plussed (and in general she is not a woman to be crossed lightly) before trying to back track. The younger female rakugo-ka eventually gets to perform but then has her profile immediately undermined by a personal scandal that would probably not have much effect on a male star’s career.

Hayashiya does give in to melodrama in the third quarter though he largely even manages to work a few laughs into a tragic situation. The other thread of the film is the warm and solid relationship between Kozaru and his wife Aoi, which is filled with a sort of bickering, reciprocal humour as the two become surrogate parents to the nervous Masato. In an odd sort of way it’s Aoi who lends the heart to the film and though her role is purely supportive, she provides the firm foundations which allow her husband and his new apprentice to flourish in their own careers.

A perfect tribute to the art of rakugo, Rakugo Monogatari is an affectionate comedy celebrating all sides of its famously complicated world. Though it runs a little long and has a tendency to run off the point for a while (perhaps an intentional complication), Rakugo Monogatari nevertheless proves an enjoyable foray into the world of this declining art form and finds plenty left to enjoy while it’s there.