The Execution Game (処刑遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1979)

Execution Game BDA year on from The Killing Game, Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) has returned to his old profession, now branded The Execution Game (処刑遊戯, Shokei yugi). Like Killing, Execution is a variation on the themes of The Most Dangerous Game – conspiracy, betrayal, double cross, and corruption, but all in all Narumi’s world hasn’t changed very much even as he seems to become ever more dead to himself as he walks the dark city streets, trench coat, sunshades, and cigarettes blocking out its remaining light and warmth.

Unlike Dangerous or Killing, Execution opens indoors as Narumi lies half awake in an empty, dark and dirty room. Coming to, he remembers a girl and a car followed by a bump on the head but not much else. His attempt to escape lands him suspended from the ceiling in another room that’s shifted from green to red, but as he will shortly find out this is all part of a weird job interview. The shady guys who kidnapped him simply wanted to test his skills and, finding them adequate, now intend to force him to take their assignment to knock off their old hitman because he’s become too “weird” and they don’t need him around anymore. Narumi’s not too happy about any of this but then he does quite like getting paid. As usual, his first job leads to a second which has some wider implications involving international espionage.

Following his previous experiences, Narumi’s personal life seems to be less of a disaster but then that might be precisely because he has no personal life. In contrast to his increasingly detached persona, Execution marks the first time in the series in which he appears to enter into an entirely consensual relationship with a woman whom he genuinely seems to care about. Unfortunately she is not all she seems and, in a sense, betrays him. Nevertheless, even if the relationship is “fake” or at least part of an ongoing operation to trap Narumi into working for people he might otherwise avoid, it does provoke a kind of opening up as far as Narumi’s past is concerned. His seaside boyhood (perhaps why he chose the riverside town for his “retirement” in Killing) and longing for the ocean provide a clue to his restless heart as the sound of waves becomes a repeated cue signalling Narumi’s hidden emotional ebb and flow.

Yet externally he’s even more silent and closed off than before. Narumi’s hitman credentials have never been stronger and he pulls of his hits with steely precision. He is fearless in the face of danger, wading into the bloody finale with barely repressed fury, making sure none of these mass manipulators will survive their attempt to turn him into a disposable tool to be destroyed after use. Once again his second job provides him with a motive to get back in shape, making space for yet another training montage, but this time the mirrors are about more than vanity. Narumi’s world has always been dark, born of night and chaos, yet he remains the only point of order despite the illicit, dangerous, and immoral nature of his occupation. 

Narumi’s interaction with the young woman who runs the watch repair shop where he tries to get his pocket watched fixed is perhaps the best indicator of his progress over the series. The girl is first very taken with his watch which is rare and expensive, but is also later captivated by his cool exterior. She flirts with him, subtly, but Narumi deflects it. His demeanour towards her becomes paternal, finally he warns her against chasing every shady guy she meets – she doesn’t see the danger. This Narumi, in contrast to his rather pathetic existence in the first two films, is of the world but not in it. He sees himself as occupying a very different space than this young girl, and is resigned to walking a lonely road. The Execution Game is an apt way to describe his life story, yet even as something of him dies something else rises in his self imposed exile and desire for both self preservation and old fashioned nobility even within the bounds of his world weary cynicism.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは, Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

close knit posterWhile studying in the US, director Naoko Ogigami encountered people from all walks of life but on her return to Japan was immediately struck by the invisibility of the LGBT community and particularly that of transgender people. Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは,  Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki wa) is her response to a still prevalent social conservatism which sometimes gives rise to fear, discrimination and prejudice. Moving away from the quirkier sides of her previous work, Ogigami nevertheless opts for a gentle, warm approach to this potentially heavy subject matter, preferring to focus on positivity rather than dwell on suffering.

11 year old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) is home alone, again. Her mother rolls in late, dead drunk, and promptly flops down onto the futon next to Tomo’s still in her work clothes. A note left the next day explains that Tomo’s mother has quit her job and won’t be coming home for a while. This is not the first time she’s done this and the money she’s left is at least enough for a train ticket to visit uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani). When Tomo slaps a collection of manga down in front of him at the bookstore where he works, Makio immediately realises what’s going on and is both infuriated with his sister and glad to take his niece in for a while until her mother comes to her senses.

There’s one potential problem. Makio now has a live-in girlfriend only she’s not quite what Tomo might be expecting. On meeting Rinko (Toma Ikuta), Tomo is indeed shocked but is soon won over by Rinko’s warm and loving nature. Rinko is a transgender woman who’s experienced her share of hardships in life but finally found fulfilment in her relationship with Makio though she has a lot of love to give and would dearly love a child of her own.

Used to being left to her own devices, Tomo is a tough and resourceful child but also one with a thick protective shell. Unused to being mothered, Tomo finds Rinko’s attempts to reach out to her difficult to bear, cycling back and forth through a pattern of affection and rejection. Where her mother left her only store bought onigiri (which she has come to hate) and cash, Rinko makes beautiful character bentos complete with octopus frankfurters and adorable panda faces. So touched is Tomo by this gesture that she can’t quite bring herself to eat it and eventually makes herself ill by finally deciding to enjoy it long after it’s past its best.

Nevertheless even if Tomo comes to bond with Rinko, there are still those who don’t approve of her existence. Tomo has a, well, not quite friend at school, Kai, who is somewhat ostracised by the other children who call him “gay” and write homophobic slurs on the classroom blackboard. Tomo, whilst sometimes hanging out with Kai who lives near to her outside of school, refuses to have anything to do with him in class lest she be rendered guilty by association. Growing closer to Rinko, Tomo also comes to an acceptance of and willingness to fight for Kai who has confided in her about his crush on another boy in their class. Kai’s mother (Eiko Koike), however, is not so understanding and so when she catches sight of Tomo in the supermarket with Rinko she offers to save her from the “weirdo” and later bans Kai from hanging out with his only friend in case he somehow catches “weirdness” from their atypical family setup. This attitude of hers eventually has potentially tragic consequences for her young son, left with nothing other than the prospect of maternal and later societal rejection eased only by Tomo’s firm insistence that there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

Unlike Kai’s mother, Rinko’s instantly understood and remained fully supportive of her child even whilst hauled into school for an explanation of why “Rintaro” has been skipping P.E.. Rinko’s mother not only goes out and buys lacy bras for her daughter, but even knits her a pair of fluffy pink breasts so she won’t feel so depressed about not developing in the same way as all the other girls. Tomo’s mother has a lot of problems of her own but many of these stem back to her own upbringing, unintentionally threatening to pass on some of these same qualities to her own daughter as she allows her to feel just as worthless and unloved as her mother did her. Yet, Ogigami’s camera remains resolutely unjudgemental in trying to understand each of these various facets of motherhood from the immense maternal love of Rinko as it finally finds an outlet in Tomo to the far less positive image of Kai’s mother who presumably thinks she’s doing the best for her son in trying to prevent him veering from the norm but only succeeds in making him feel his life is not worth living.

The title of the film, as grandly punned as it is, refers not just to the quickening family bonds among this idealised yet unusual family but also to Rinko’s favourite method of stress relief – knitting. Like the cooking she is often seen providing for the family, Rinko’s knitting is also largely about warmth in making something for a particular person which is tailor made to keep them warm in the cold, but it also works as a multilayered metaphor as she brings people together, binding them tightly with her own wamth and generosity of spirit. Rather than fighting back with angry words (or well aimed dish soap as a provoked Tomo eventually does), Rinko channels her frustrations into her knitting, using them to create something positive rather allowing negativity to overwhelm her. Ogigami’s film seems to want to do the same, arguing for tolerance, understanding, and acceptance as a pathway to a better world even if it’s clear the road is long and we’re not so far along it as we should be.


Close-Knit was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

There’s also an interesting interview with director Naoko Ogigami and producer Kumi Kobata in the Nikkei Asian Review in which they discuss the casting of actor Toma Ikuta.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

April Fools (エイプリルフールズ, Junichi Ishikawa, 2015)

april-foolsIn this brand new, post truth world where spin rules all, it’s important to look on the bright side and recognise the enormous positive power of the lie. 2015’s April Fools (エイプリルフールズ) is suddenly seeming just as prophetic as the machinations of the weird old woman buried at its centre seeing as its central message is “who cares about the truth so long as everyone (pretends) to be happy in the end?”. A dangerous message to be sure though perhaps there is something to be said about forgiving those who’ve misled you after understanding their reasoning. Or, then again, maybe not.

Juggling seven stories April Fools is never as successful at weaving them into a coherent whole as other similarly structured efforts but begins with an intriguing Star Wars style scroll regarding alien sleeper agents who can apparently go home now because they’ve accomplished everything they came for. Changing track, pregnant snack addict Ayumi (Erika Toda) decides to ring the still unknowing father of her child after witnessing an improbable reunion on TV only he’s in bed with someone else and assumes her call is a weird practical joke. Overhearing that he’s just arrived at a restaurant for a lunch date, Ayumi takes matters into her own hands and marches over there, eventually taking the entire place hostage. Meanwhile an older couple are having a harmless holiday pretending to be royalty and a grizzled gangster has “kidnapped” a teenage girl only to give her a nice day out at the fun fair. Oh, and the hikkikomori from the beginning who’s fallen for the whole alien thing has made a total fool of himself at school by taking out his bully, kissing his crush goodbye and racing up to the roof to try and hitch a lift from the mothership.

Importing this weird European tradition to Japan, the creative team have only incorporated parts of it in that they don’t call time on jokes at noon and it’s less about practical shenanigans and elaborate set ups than it is about wholesale lying which is frustrated by this famous non-holiday apparently created in celebration of it. All of the protagonists are lying about something quite fundamental and usually to themselves more than anyone else but at least their April Fools adventures will help them to realise these basic inner truths.

Then again some of these revelations backfire, such as in the slightly misjudged minor segment concerning two college friends who are repeatedly kicked out of restaurants before they can get anything to eat. One decides to “prank” his friend with an April Fools confession of love, only to find that his friend really is gay and is in love with him. Awkward is not the word, but then an April Fools declaration of love is about the worst kind of cruel there is and is never funny anyway, nor is the casual homophobia involved in this entire skit but that’s another story.

In fact, most of the other people are aware they’re being lied to, but are going along with it for various reasons, some hoping that the liars will spontaneously reform and apologise or explain their actions. Ayumi, who is shy and isolated by nature, always knew her handsome doctor suitor was probably not all he seemed to be but is still disappointed to be proved right, only be perhaps be proved wrong again in the end. Convinced to take a chance on an unwise romance by an older colleague who explains to her that many miracles begin with lies, Ayumi is angry with herself as much as with her lying Casanova of a baby daddy, and also feels guilty about an incredibly sight deception of her own. As in many of the other stories, now that everyone has figured out the real, important, truths about themselves and about the situation, they can excuse all of the lying. Sensible or not? The choice is yours.

Despite coming from the team who created some very funny TV dramas including Legal High, the comedy of April Fools never quite hits its stride. Weak jokes backed up with slapstick humour giving way to sentimentality as the “good reasons” for the avoidance of truth are revealed don’t exactly whip up the farcical frenzy which the premiss implies. The point may very well be that we’re the April Fools going along with this, but even so its difficult to admire a film which pushes the “lying is good” mantra right to the end rather than neatly undercutting it. Still, there is enough zany humour to make April Fools not a complete waste of time, even if it doesn’t make as much of its original inspiration as might be hoped.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Shunji Iwai, 2016)

the_bride_of_rip_van_winkle“Being naked in front of people is embarrassing” says the drunken mother of a recently deceased major character in a bizarre yet pivotal scene towards the end of Shunji Iwai’s aptly titled A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Rip Van Winkle no Hanayome) in which the director himself wakes up from an extended cinematic slumber to discover that much is changed. This sequence, in a sense, makes plain one of the film’s essential themes – truth, and the appearance of truth, as mediated by human connection. The film’s timid heroine, Nanami (Haru Kuroki), bares all of herself online, recording each ugly thought and despairing notion before an audience of anonymous strangers, yet can barely look even those she knows well in the eye. Though Namami’s fear and insecurity are painfully obvious to all, not least to herself, she’s not alone in her fear of emotional nakedness as she discovers throughout her strange odyssey in which nothing is quite as it seems.

We first meet Nanami on an internet blind date with the man who will later become her husband. Looking lost and alone, she passively waits for her online suitor to find her in the busy city streets. Tetsuya (Go Jibiki) does indeed turn up and assume control of the situation, to which Nanami submits just as she has to everything else. Bonding over little more than their shared vocation of teaching the pair drift into a relationship and then later into a marriage, as is the natural order of things.

Though she seems happy enough, Nanami vents her frustrations in her caustic online blog. Isn’t this all just too easy? She asks herself. It’s almost like online shopping, she simply added a boyfriend to her basket and now she’s about to check out. A failure to win over Tetsuya’s mother adds to her sense of unease as does the fact she has no close friends or relatives (aside from her soon to be divorced parents) to invite to the wedding. Her decision to take the advice of an online friend and employ the shady fixer Amuro (Go Ayano) to hire a selection of professional party goers to bulk out her side of the hall will prove to be a disastrous one (though perhaps more in the short term), turning her entire life inside out.

Nanami’s essential personality trait is her passivity. Like Rip Van Winkle, she is largely asleep while things happen all around her. Though she dreamed of being a teacher, Nanami has only been able to find temporary supply roles with an agency but even this seems unlikely to last thanks to her softly spoken nature which makes classroom teaching a poor fit for her shy, attention avoidant personality. Discovered at her part time combini job by an old university friend, Nanami is embarrassed and has even been wearing a (useless but endearing) disguise in case any of her students come by despite the fact she chose a store far away from the school. Her friend now works at a hostess bar which Nanami finds a little bit shocking. That kind of unconventional way of living is not something she would contemplate, and so when offered the extremely dull but comfortable life alongside the dull but comforting Tetsuya, Nanami settles.

After Amuro spectacularly derails her non-happiness, Nanami is cast adrift which eventually leads her straight back into Amuro’s web of morally dubious activities. Taking a job as a maid at the cheap hotel she ends up in after leaving Tetsuya, Nanami also works part time as another of Amuro’s professional guests which is where she meets motivator no. 2 – Mashiro (Cocco), “actress” and all round live wire. Bonding over sad karaoke, Nanami and Mashiro later wind up working together as live in maids in a creepy, isolated mansion filled with poisonous animals. Enforced proximity leads to genuine friendship and then to more than that, but, ironically enough, Mashiro has not been entirely honest about her intentions and Nanami is soon adrift once again.

Undergoing a “fake” wedding that’s sort of real (in contrast with the “real” wedding which was sort of “fake”), at least in sentiment, Nanami looks much happier than in the extremely bizarre ceremony which bound her to Tetsuya. Nanami and Mashiro’s union was “engineered” yet mutually beneficial and ultimately genuine despite its artificial genesis. Making a last, heartbreaking speech, Mashiro attempts to explain herself and her life philosophy in a final act of nakedness. She prefers to pay for connection because, she says, the world is too full of kindness. There is so much happiness out there that it’s completely overwhelming. Sometimes there’s more truth in the lie than there is in the reality.

The resurfaced Iwai is both more cynical and more romantic than he has ever been before. He has serious things to say about constructed identities and disconnectedness, that the increasingly open nature of the anonymous online world only makes the real one seem less reliable and harder to navigate. We’ve all been wearing masks but we turned them round when we went online, and now perhaps we’re forgetting that we made them in the first place. Nanami may be adrift again at the film’s conclusion but she finds herself in a world of infinite possibilities. Emerging with more certainty and firmer sense of self, Nanami has retaken control and even if she doesn’t know where she’s going, the choice is entirely her own. Another beautifully nuanced, endlessly affecting character study from Iwai, A Bride for Rip van Winkle is a gloriously rich experience, filled with both hope and despair, but told with all the ethereal warmth and strangeness of the best of dreams.


This review refers to the 180 minute director’s cut, rather than the shorter international or four hour TV version.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2012)

ninkyo helperIn old yakuza lore, the “ninkyo” way, the outlaw stands as guardian to the people. Defend the weak, crush the strong. Of course, these are just words and in truth most yakuza’s aims are focussed in quite a different direction and no longer extend to protecting the peasantry from bandits or overbearing feudal lords (quite the reverse, in fact). However, some idealistic young men nevertheless end up joining the yakuza ranks in the mistaken belief that they’re somehow going to be able to help people, however wrongheaded and naive that might be.

The hero of Hiroshi Nishitani’s Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Ninkyo Helper) is just one of these world weary idealists turned cynics. We find him working a low rent convenience store job where he fills the shop with the kind of intensity that only a disappointed former yakuza can generate. Hikoichi (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) was trying to make a go of things in the regular world, but when a sad little old man comes in with armed robbery on his to do list, Hikoichi shows his yakuza stripes by easily beating him down in front of his stunned colleague.

This might have earned him some brownie points at work, but overcome by pity for this pathetic old man reduced to robbing corner shops for petty change, he gives him the cash and tells him to run. The police soon turn up and arrest them both – during the robbery Hikochi’s colourful tattoos were caught on security camera and no one wants a yakuza working here, even if he did volunteer to pay back the tiny sum of money the old guy got from his own wages.

Meeting up in prison, Hikoichi and the armed robber eventually become friends and after his release, Hikoichi ends up in the old guy’s home town where he joins his former clan as an enforcer. Extremely bitter by this point, Hikoichi has decided to play the modern yakuza game to the max so when he finds out his assignment is running a dodgy “care” home which gets its residents by extorting old people through outrageous loans which send them bankrupt, he only briefly pauses.

The idea of a yakuza running a care home is a strange one. The Uminoneko residential care facility is far from what one would want from a old people’s home – there are no doctors, or even carers, the entire home is run by one nurse, herself an elderly woman who got her nurse’s certification and eldercare qualifications back in 1943!

With a rapidly ageing population, eldercare is a big topic in Japan as the birth rate has progressively fallen while lifespans have increased leaving many older people without family to look after them. With the nature of the family unit also changing, it’s become much harder to care for elderly relatives at home especially if they need around the clock attention. There are simply not enough facilities available to cope with the increasing needs of the older generation leaving families struggling to cope and social services overwhelmed. It’s not surprising that the yakuza have picked up on this as a growth area.

When Hikoichi arrives at the Uminoneko facility, which is just really a prefab shed with some futons in it, he finds a hellish place filled with unstimulated old people left on their beds to die. The place is filthy, and about the only attention the guests receive is the occasional offering of food to keep them alive so that the clan can keep claiming their pensions and welfare payments. Though Hikoichi goes along with this to begin with, it’s not long before his idealism rears its ugly head and he hits on the idea of reforming Uminoneko by turning it into a kind of old person’s commune in which the residents themselves will help out with the running of the place. What was a sad and gloomy prison of exploitation suddenly transforms as the older generation rediscover a place that they can belong, working together to build their own community. However, this of course means less money for the clan and more trouble for Hikoichi.

The clan aren’t his only problems as the town also has a progressive mayor who made a commitment to wipe out organised crime and turn the area into a tourist hotspot with a special focus on caring for the older generation. Teruo (Teruyuki Kagawa) has is own stuff going on which again causes a problem for Hikioichi as he also has a long standing crush on the older yakuza’s daughter, now a single mother with two young children and a mother of her own with senile dementia who needs expensive medical care. Yoko (Narumi Yasuda) has a grudge against yakuza after enduring decades of stigma and eventual abandonment by her father but is willing to deal with them if it will enable her to help her mother. Predictably she begins to develop a better understanding of her father as she bonds with Hikochi and warms to his noble tough guy ways.

Directed by Hiroshi Nishitani and inspired by a TV show (though functioning as a standalone movie), Beautiful World is a finely plotted drama which explores both the roles of the ageing population and eldercare explosion in Japan, and the conflicting role of the yakuza who seek to exploit those who are arguably the weakest in society. Hikoichi makes for a very Takakura-like, brooding presence as his innate idealism and desire to help those around him conflict with his experiences as a yakuza which teach him to distrust everyone and expect betrayal and exploitation at every turn. Resolving in an unconventional and unexpected way, this otherwise mainstream, if  beautifully photographed, drama develops into one of the more interesting character driven pieces of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: