Funky Forest: The First Contact (ナイスの森 The First Contact, Katsuhito Ishii & Hajime Ishimine & Shunichiro Miki, 2005)

“Is that normal?” someone asks watching a previously mild-mannered doctor having a right old go at a tiny man baby currently attached to a high school girl’s armpit after being pulled free of its aquatic carapace, “don’t be rude” his companion shushes him. Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki’s Funky Forest: The First Contact (ナイスの森 The First Contact, Nice Mori: The First Contact) became the best known example of the short-lived trend in surreal comedy which came to dominate a certain kind of Japanese cinema from the late ’90s to early 2000s while perhaps surviving into the present day in a more arthouse friendly form in the deadpan absurdist cinema of filmmakers such as Akira Ikeda (Ambitious Places, The Blue Danube) or Isamu Hirabayashi (Shell and Joint).  

Even so, Funky Forest is wilfully anarchic skipping between a series of interconnected skits that eventually coalesce as something like a unique universe loosely revolving around three “unpopular with women” brothers and a “delusional” high school teacher in a non-relationship with a former student who thinks he’s seen a UFO and is engaged in a battle to save the aliens from the planet Piko-Riko. Two and a half hours long, which is admittedly pushing it for a non-linear sketch comedy, the film is split into two parts, Side A and Side B, joined by a short intermission after which the surrealism intensifies, the design of the title cards changes, and the action shifts in focus from a quiet onsen to an ordinary high school where the teacher and the two adult brothers each work. 

The action begins however with a pair of manzai comedians seemingly performing on some kind of space ship and to an audience consisting of identical military personnel each like the comedians dressed in white and silver while the show is broadcast to a man sitting in a tiny pod-like dream ship. The “Mole Brothers” recur throughout, their set routinely dividing one skit from another while one, Kazushi, also turns up on his own in a couple of other sketches as part of the great connected universe, and though their act being kind of a dud is part of the joke their variety-style humour is an otherwise key indicator of the kind of comedy which is being employed and subverted even as the action becomes ever more surreal. As it happens, each of the major plot strands seems to lead us towards a dance sequence such as that which closes the first half in Takefumi’s (Ryo Kase) strange fever dream which culminates in a Mandarin-language group routine and the first appearance of the weird, shrimp-like creatures which dominate Side B. 

Side B is indeed somewhat through the looking glass as we find the high school kids literally playing these alien creatures like musical instruments some of which need to be plugged in to the human body in one way or another such as the strangely cute rat/shrimplike beings which attach directly to the tongue. Sitting right in front of the high school class which is taught by lovelorn brother Katsuichi (Susumu Terajima) is none other than the film director and Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno who later turns up again to discuss contemporary anime with guitar bother Masaru (Tadanobu Asano) in one of his many part-time jobs, though the class also includes the young primary school student who featured in the first skit in which she lamented having so much homework and escaped to the dreamscape in order to fight giant orbs with her mind. 

In an odd way perhaps that’s what our three directors are doing too, away on flights of fancy which make little literal sense but seem to have their own internal logic even though the directorial force the film presents is an adorable little scottie dog whose thoughts are translated by someone wearing a giant papier-mâché head. “Thinking is too scary, so I’ll forget about it”, someone explains which may be good advice in deciding to just accept the crazy randomness and play along. Often interrupting the action by cutting to black to mimic old-fashioned channel hopping the directors also throw in a random 20s intermission in the middle of a scene, animation of various styles, and surreal body-horror-adjacent practical effects, before winding up at the funky forest itself, a weird dreamscape somewhere in Hokkaido ruled by a dream-hopping girlband.  “What a strange dream” one character exclaims though in the great scheme of things perhaps it’s easier to make sense of a dream than a defiantly surreal reality.  


Funky Forest: The First Contact is released on blu-ray in the UK on 21st March courtesy of Third Window Films alongside quasi-sequel Warped Forest in a set which includes a feature length commentary from all three directors and a series of deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Floating Castle (のぼうの城, Isshin Inudo & Shinji Higuchi, 2012)

What happens if you call the bluff of those who thought they could take your complicity for granted? As it turns out, at least in the case of a small provincial outpost in Isshin Inudo & Shinji Higuchi’s lighthearted historical drama The Floating Castle (のぼうの城, Nobo no Shiro), something and nothing. Inspired by a real life incident which took place in 1590, 10 years prior to the era defining battle of Sekigahara, the film asks how far standing up to corrupt authority will get you but as history tells us this this is the twilight of the Sengoku warring states period and in the end any victory can at best be only partial and temporary. 

With Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Masachika Ichimura) poised to unify all of Japan under his rule he turns his gaze towards Hojo, the last remaining hold out in the East of Japan. The small castle of Oshi is asked to commit its forces to protecting the main castle at Odawara where lord Ujinaga (Masahiko Nishimura) is to meet with the head of the clan which has decided to resist the Toyotomi invasion. Ujinaga meanwhile is privately doubtful. He knows they do not have the manpower to protect themselves and the only viable course of action is immediate surrender though he cannot of course say this openly even if buffoonish lord in waiting Nagachika (Mansai Nomura) is brave enough to raise the idea of neutrality in front of the messengers. Preparing to head to Odawara, Ujinaga tells his closest retainers to strengthen defences but to open the castle should the enemy approach while revealing that he plans to write to Hideyoshi, whom he apparently knows personally, and privately pledge allegiance in order to avoid destruction. 

Nagachika, however, eventually makes the decision to resist following the arrogant entreaty from Natsuka (Takehiro Hira), the right-hand man of the Toyotomi retainer leading the assault, Mitsunari Ishida (Yusuke Kamiji). He does this largely because Natsuka makes the unreasonable demand that they surrender their princess, Kai (Nana Eikura), herself a fearsome warrior though somewhat sidelined here relegated to the role of contested love interest, to be sent to Hideyoshi as a concubine but also correctly reads that Natsuka and Ishida are overreaching and actually have little more than their bluster to leverage other than the 20,000 men standing behind them which they may not know how to use. Nagachika may play the clown, but he’s not stupid and knows that the 20,000 men are there for the purposes of intimidation and are not expecting a force of a mere 500 to tell them where to go so it stands to reason to think they are not entirely prepared for battle. 

In this he’s mostly correct. Hideyoshi has essentially given Ishida, previously in finance, an easy ride to improve his reputation among the other lords instructing the more experienced Yoshitsugu Otani (Takayuki Yamada) to ensure he comes back painted in glory. Otani had said that others admired Ishida for his “childlike sense of fair play”, but his sense of fair play is often childish as in his gradual realisation that everyone is surrendering to him because of the 20,000 men rather than his prowess as a general annoyed with his enemies for backing down from a challenge which is why he sends Natsuka to alienate Nagachika hoping to provoke a battle which no rational person could ever describe as “fair”. Having assumed that Nagachika would back down or that the castle would be easy to take with only 500 country bumpkin soldiers defending it, the Toyotomi are in for a rude awakening discovering the extent of the counterstrategies in place to protect the small provincial outpost, forced into a humiliating defeat licking their wounds from a nearby hill. 

But then, as Ishida manically proclaims power comes from one thing, gold, using his vast resources to dam two nearby rivers and then burst them to drown the town as Hideyoshi had done once before. Designed by effects specialist Higuchi the flooding of the town is indeed terrifying, a spectacle which delayed the film’s release as the eerie similarities with the catastrophic tsunami of the year before may have been too traumatic for audiences, and speaks to nothing if not Ishida’s intense cruelty in which he is willing to go to any lengths in order to win even destroying the lives of innocent farmers far removed from these petty samurai games. As the film would have it, his arrogance and entitlement eventually come for him, his trap turned back on himself after an ill-advised potshot at Nagachika, a natural leader beloved by all because rather than in spite of his deceptive clownishness, causes disillusionment with his leadership. 

In any case, we already know how this story ends, Ishida is defeated at Sekigahara and beheaded in Kyoto. Nagachika’s victory can be only partial and in fact does not even win him the thing he went into battle for even if he strikes a blow at corrupt government in refusing to simply give in to intimidation, calling their bluff and showing them they cannot continue to push smaller clans around solely with the threat of extinction. In the end they are all at the mercy of their superiors, a truce imposed and imperfect to each side in an act of compromise which spells the end of an era many of those surviving the battles voluntarily renouncing samurai status as if realising their age is drawing to a close, Nagachika proved on the right of history in cultivating links with the Tokugawa soon to take the Toyotomi’s place as rulers of a unified Japan. His resistance was then not foolhardy but justified, necessary, and principled in standing up to injustice even if it could not in the end be fully stopped. 


The Floating Castle streamed as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Suzaku (萌の朱雀, Naomi Kawase, 1997)

Changing times and economic malaise slowly encroach upon the lives of an ordinary rural family in Naomi Kawase’s Caméra d’Or winning feature debut, Suzaku (萌の朱雀, Moe no Suzaku). Previously known for her experimental 8mm documentaries, Kawase maintains a trademark naturalism in capturing both the beauty of the natural world and the incidental details of everyday life as the family finds itself at odds with its environment, facing a moment of extreme transience as they recognise the existential threat to their way of life that is caused by, perhaps ironically, a failure of modernity. 

The action opens in the early 70s as an ordinary family take breakfast in a remote rural cabin with a picturesque view of a verdant local mountain. Patriarch Kozo (Jun Kunimura) lives with his wife Yasuyo (Yasuyo Kamimura), mother Sachiko (Sachiko Izumi), daughter Michiru (Machiko Ono), and Eisuke (Kotaro Shibata), the son of his estranged sister whose continued absence already seems to hint at cracks in the family unit. Meanwhile, the village has been badly hit by an economic downturn causing many of the younger people to leave and seek their fortunes in the city. Hopes have been pinned on a controversial rail line with Kozo one of its foremost proponents, hoping that with greater infrastructure provision the town will be reinvigorated. Kawase then flashes forward 15 years during which a now grown Eisuke has become the family’s breadwinner with a job at an inn outside of the village while Kozo appears depressed and Yasuyo seems to be suffering from some kind of illness. The long delayed rail project is finally cancelled, much to the consternation of the local community who now seem to have universally come round to the idea. They fear that cut off as they are, the village will dwindle, they will find it harder to find spouses, and their children will have far fewer possibilities. 

The smallness of the community is both a strength and a weakness as Kawase plays with the less palatable sides of isolation in the awkward adolescent infatuation of Michiru for her cousin who has been raised more or less as her brother while he appears to have a not altogether maternal appreciation for his aunt who is nearing the end of her tether with stultifying rural life and her husband’s emotional absence, her mysterious illness perhaps a manifestation of her existential unease. She takes a part time job at the inn, moving further away from the family home, out of the village and towards the town while Kozo walks in the other direction, retreating into nature unable to step into the present let alone the future. 

Kozo’s camera reels may not contain any great secret but perhaps have their own profound truths, mimicking Kawase’s documentary practice as he captures the smiling faces of local farmers amid the natural greenery. It is precisely this, it’s implied, that he wanted to save, the traditional way of life with its tightly bound communities and local festivals, a life lived in concert with the natural world in all its glorious greenery. He watches the old couple next-door prepare to leave the village because their children have decided to put them in a nursing a home and the sight breaks his heart. He can’t bear to go on living in such a declining world. Pinning all his hopes on modernity he throws himself into the rail project, but in a slightly overworked metaphor the tunnel stops right in the middle. He cannot cross to the other side, and neither can Eisuke, permanently trapped by a painful sense of nostalgia but exiled from his natural habitat. 

Eisuke himself is already displaced as a foster child whose mother has abandoned him, apparently in the city but out of contact with her family. Michiru faces a similar dilemma when her mother finally decides it’s time to leave and return to her hometown. Grandma Sachiko sings a folksong sitting on her front porch which quickly gives way to the voices of children echoing those we heard in the opening sequence of 15 years previously in which the local kids played together happily making the most of a warm summer’s day. The family is scattered, divided along its natural fault-lines and trapped between tradition and unrealised modernity with only the melancholy comfort of transience to sustain them.


Suzaku streams in the US until Dec. 23 series alongside Naomi Kawase’s 2018 drama Vision as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

The Stormy Family (台風家族, Masahide Ichii, 2019)

A disparate group of now middle-aged children orphaned by the storm of their parents’ abandonment struggle to find solidarity on reuniting to put the past to rest, but eventually come to an understanding in letting go in Masahide Ichii’s darkly comic tale of familial resentments, The Stormy Family (台風家族, Taifu Kazoku, AKA Typhoon Family). Battling not just a sense of betrayal, but intense resentment in being left to deal with the fallout of a corrupted parental legacy the kids squabble over their “inheritance” but later perhaps regain a sense of mutual connection in reclaiming their shared history. 

10 years previously, Ittetsu (Tatsuya Fuji) and his wife Mitsuko (Rumi Sakakibara) robbed a local bank and then apparently made a run for it in the family hearse. With the statute of limitations now expired, the children decide to hold a funeral having had their parents declared dead so they can divide the estate and presumably draw a line under their shared trauma. The problem is, partly, that they’re hurt believing that their parents committed a crime and then simply abandoned them, but they have each also had to deal with the stigma of being the children of the elderly bandits who robbed a bank with a hearse. Oldest son Kotetsu (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) lost his job, daughter Rena’s (Megumi) marriage broke down, and while middle son Kyo (Hirofumi Arai) does not particularly mention how the crisis affected him, youngest brother Chihiro (Tomoya Nakamura) who was a teenager at the time remains resentful that as he only had a part-time job anyway no one from the media was very much interested in hassling him. 

Rather than finding siblings’ solidarity in their shared trauma, the crisis only seems to have driven them further apart. If perhaps slightly ashamed, they freely admit that they’ve only come to sort out the inheritance but even this leads to another argument as Kotetsu tries to use his oldest son privileges to claim he’s entitled to an unequal share because the others all went to uni on the parents’ dime, complaining that he needs the money more because he’s been unable to hold down a steady job and has to pay for his teenage daughter Yuzuki’s (Mahiru Coda) education, hoping to send her to music conservatoire in Vienna. As expected, that doesn’t go down very well with everyone else, while even Yuzuki expresses disdain and exasperation for her father’s amoral venality, telling him to get back on his feet with honest work rather than trying to cheat his siblings out of their birthright. In this, however, the family largely agree he might not be so different from patriarch Ittetsu who despite his motto of “don’t bother others” often penny pinched to an extreme degree and even seemed inappropriately happy to receive new business considering he ran a funeral parlour. 

On closer investigation of their parents’ home, what the kids learn is that there were things they didn’t understand perhaps because Ittetsu didn’t want to “bother” them with an explanation, though as someone else points out family aren’t “others” and probably it should be alright to bother them. Having argued with his father when he left to pursue his dream of being an actor, Kotetsu eventually sacrificed his desires recommitting himself to making his daughter’s dreams come true instead but like Ittetsu struggles to find a way to support her emotionally. Ittetsu may have been a difficult, perhaps less than honest, man but in learning the truth the family begin to realise that his actions came from a deep place of love even if it was a love he was unable to show on the surface. 

In an extremely ironic twist, the funeral and a climactic storm eventually allow the siblings to let their parents go, forgiving them for the fallout from their crime but also for their abandonment and all the petty resentments of their childhood. The world may be a pretty dishonest place, filled with greedy monks, telephone fraudsters, schemers and thieves, and perhaps you can’t even really trust your family but a father’s love is apparently the one true thing though it might not always be easy to understand. A darkly comic take on dysfunctional family bonds and the radiating legacy of crime, The Stormy Family gradually creeps towards its macabre but surprisingly moving finale allowing the family to rediscover itself in letting go only to set them at odds once again with the corrupting influence of greed. 


The Stormy Family streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2019 “The Stormy Family” FILM PARTNERS

The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shadowfall (影踏み, Tetsuo Shinohara, 2019)

Cinema has an odd preoccupation with twins. The uncanniness of seeing more than one person with the same face in the same frame injects a note of inescapable unease, not least because of the oddness of the techniques required to make one actor appear to be in two places at once. Shadowfall (影踏み, Kagefumi) adapted from the mystery novel by 64’s Hideo Yokoyama, places the “evil twin” motif at its heart but, perhaps a little uncomfortably, uses it as a metaphor for the shadow self as the conflicted hero attempts to find closure with past trauma and family legacy in order to reintegrate his two selves into one complete whole capable of living a life both spiritually and emotionally honest. 

As the film opens, ace cat burgler Shuichi (Masayoshi Yamazaki) is in the process of breaking into the home of a local politician. Whilst there, however, he discovers petrol pooled on the hall floor and the politician’s wife, Yoko (Yuri Nakamura), nervously grasping a cigarette lighter. He manages to snap the lighter shut before she can use it, saving her life (as well as that of the husband she was about to kill), but is then caught by a policeman, Sosuke (Pistol Takehara), who happened to be “just passing by” and is also, coincidentally, a childhood friend. Shuichi gets two years, and is met on his release by a young man, Keiji (Takumi Kitamura), dressed in incongruously old-fashioned, gangster-style clothes and adressing him as “Shuichi-ni” or “big brother Shuichi”. Together, the pair form a small crime fighting team determined to find out what became of Yoko while poking their noses into some conspiratorial corruption which links her with yakuza, police, and the judiciary. The situation is further complicated when Sosuke is found dead after a visit to Yoko’s bar, leaving Shuichi implicated in the possible murder of his old friend. 

Reflecting on the case, police detective Mabuchi (Shingo Tsurumi), who also knew Shuichi in his youth, remarks that twins are tied to each other like heaven is to hell. One will necessarily drag the other down. Later, he corrects himself, that if is that is true then the reverse must also be and one should be able to raise the other up. What we see, however, is largely the former. We discover that Shuichi had an identical twin who was “no good”, a petty teenage hoodlum always in trouble with the police where he was a top student preparing to study the law and become a prosector. Their mother (Shinobu Otake), a teacher, found herself a victim of social stigma as the mother of a criminal, asked to resign from her job because a woman who can’t raise her own son to be a law abiding citizen is not fit to educate those of others. Hisako (Machiko Ono), who had been friends with both the boys and is still carrying a smouldering torch for the “good” Shuichi, experiences something of the same when she’s targeted by a creepy stalker (Kenichi Takito) who leaks her “criminal associations” on the message board of the nursery school where she too teaches. 

Having waited for him all these years, Hisako is praying for the restoration of the Shuichi she once knew who was good where his brother was “bad”. Despite her deep and abiding love for him, she claims to have chosen Shuichi, rather than his brother, because loving the good is the safer, more responsible choice. Shuichi, meanwhile, describes himself as walking in his brother’s shadow, a darkened space into which Hisako wishes to be admitted but is wilfully denied. He tells himself he does this to keep her safe, but is in reality unable to step into that space himself and occupy it as a full and complete person. He claims that his criminality is an act of revenge when it is actually a kind of self-harm that ensures his two selves, the shadow self that is his departed brother, and the ghost self which is the cat burglar, will remain forever separate. 

Talking with another twin whose mirroring of his brother had even darker results, Shuichi confesses that to share a soul with another human being is a terrible curse and one he secretly longed to be released from. It’s this latent sense of guilt which haunts him, cleaving his soul in two. Only by dealing with the traumatic past, the memories inflamed by Yoko whose burden is a fear of an excessive “niceness” she too must learn to let go, can he reintegrate his two selves into one complete whole with only a single shadow. A noirish tale of haunting grief and unresolved regret, Shadowfall finds hope in the simple act of acceptance and the promised restoration of the imperfect whole. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store posterKeigo Higashino is probably best known for his murder mysteries, most particularly the international best seller The Devotion of Suspect X. His literary output is however a little broader than one might assume and fantastical hypotheticals are very much a part of his work as in the bizarre The Secret in which a mother wakes up in her daughter’s body after a fatal accident. Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki) is indeed one of his warmer stories even if it occasionally veers towards the author’s usual taste for moral conservatism in its yearning for a more innocent, pre-bubble Japan that is rapidly being forgotten.

Back in 1980, Mr. Namiya (Toshiyuki Nishida) runs the local store and is a much loved member of the community. As an older man with plenty of life experience, he also offers an agony uncle service. People with problems can simply write him a letter and drop it through his box. He’ll have a bit of a think about it and then either paste up a response on the village noticeboard outside or, if the question is a little more delicate, place his reply in an envelope in the milk box.

32 years later, a trio of delinquent boys end up taking refuge in the disused store after committing some kind of crime. While they’re poking around, what should pop through the letter box but a letter, direct from 1980. Freaked out the boys try to leave but find themselves trapped in some kind of timeslip town. Eventually they decide to answer the letter just to pass the time and then quickly find themselves conversing with an earlier generation by means of some strange magic.

At the end of his life, what Mr. Namiya is keen to know is if his advice really mattered, and if it did, did it help or hinder? His introspection is caused in part by a news report that someone he advised on a particularly tricky issue may have committed suicide. Mr. Namiya isn’t now so sure he gave them the right advice and worries what he told them may have contributed to the way they died. This itself is a difficult question and if it sounds like a moral justification to point out that no one was forced to follow Mr. Namiya’s “advice” and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own decisions, that’s because it is but then it doesn’t make it any less true. Then again, Mr. Namiya’s advice, by his own admission, was not really about telling people what to do – most have already made a decision, they just want someone to help them feel better about it. What he tries to do is read between the lines and then tell them what they want to hear – the decision was always theirs he just helped them find a way to accommodate it.

The boys have quite different attitudes. Kohei (Kanichiro), who takes the initial decision to write back, is compassionate but pragmatic. As we later find out, the three boys are all orphans and Kohei counsels a melancholy musician who wants to know if he should give up on his Tokyo music career and come home to run the family fish shop that he should count himself lucky to have a place to come back to and that if he was going to get anywhere in music he’d have got there already. Mr. Namiya’s philosophy proves apt – the musician writes back and argues his case, he wants to carry on with music but feels guilty and hopes Mr. Namiya will tell him it’s OK to follow his dreams. For the boys however, “dreams” are an unaffordable luxury and like a trio of cynical old men they tell the musician to grow up and get a real job. That is, until he decides to play them a tune and they realise it’s all too familiar.

Similarly, a conflicted young woman drops them a letter wanting advice on whether to become the mistress of a wealthy man who claims he will help her set up in business. The boys say no, do not debase yourself, work hard and be honest – that’s the best way to repay a debt to the people that raised you. Again she writes back, she wants her shot but it is a high price. That’s where hindsight comes in, as does advance knowledge about Japan’s impending economic boom and subsequent bust.

As expected, everything is connected. Higashino maybe romanticising an earlier time in which community still mattered and the wisest man you knew ran the corner store, but then there’s a mild inconsistency between the idealised picture of small town life and the orphanage which links it all together – these kids are after all removed, even perhaps exiled, from that same idea of “community” even if they are able to create their own familial bonds thanks to the place that has raised them. The most cynical of the boys once wanted to be a doctor, but as another boy points out it takes more than just brains to get there. While it’s a nice message to say that there are no limits and nothing is impossible, it is rather optimistic and perhaps glosses over many of the issues the kids face after “graduating” from the group home and having nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, seeing everything come together in the end through the power of human goodness and the resurgence of personal agency is an inspirational sight indeed. The world could use a few more miracles, but as long as there are kind hearted people with a desire for understanding, there will perhaps be hope.


Original trailer (English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

Dynamite Graffiti (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Masanori Tominaga, 2018)

Dynamite Graffiti posterThe division between “art” and “porn” is as fuzzy as the modesty fog which still occasionally finds itself masking “obscene” images in Japanese cinema, but for accidental king of the skin rag trade Akira Suei it’s question he finds himself increasingly unwilling to answer even while he employs it to his own benefit. Back in the heady pre-internet days of the 1980s, Suei was the public face behind a series of magazines along differing themes but which all included “artistic” images of underdressed women in provocative poses alongside more “serious” content provided by such esteemed figures as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki in addition to stories and essays penned by “legitimate” authors and the more scurrilous fare written by Suei himself. Inspired by one of Suei’s essays “Dynamite Graffiti” (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Sutekina Dynamite Scandal), Masanori Tominaga’s ramshackle biopic has the informal feel of a man telling his sad life story to a less than attentive bar girl as he takes us on a long, strange walk through the back alleys of ‘70s Japan.

The entirety of Suei’s (Tasuku Emoto) life is lived in the wake of a bizarre childhood incident in which his mother (Machiko Ono), suffering with TB and trapped in an unhappy marriage to a violent drunk, chose to commit double suicide with the young man from next door. Perhaps there’s nothing so strange about that in the straightened Japan of 1955, but Suei’s mother chose to end her life in the most explosive of ways – with dynamite stolen from the local mine. Carrying the legacy of abandonment as well as mild embarrassment as to the means of his mother’s dramatic exit, Suei finds himself a perpetual outsider drifting along without the need to feel bound by conventional social moralities as symbolised by the “ideal” family.

What he longs for, by contrast is freedom and independence. Bored by country life he dreamt of moving to the city to work in a factory, but the problem with factories is that they’re mechanical and turn their employees into mere tools with no possibility of personal expression or fulfilment. Spotting an advert for courses in “graphic design”, Suei’s world begins to open up as he embraces the bold new possibilities of art even as it wilfully intersects with commerce.

Taken with the new philosophy of design as the message, a means of “exposing” oneself and ultimately enabling true human connection, Suei remains frustrated by the limitations of his role as a draughtsman for local advertisers and, inspired by a friend’s beautiful poster, finds himself entering the relatively freer creative world of the “cabaret” scene as a crafter of signboards and flyers. The cabaret bars are little better than the factories, exploiting the labour of women who themselves are the product, but Suei’s distaste is soon worn down by constant exposure. From the clubs and cabarets it’s only a natural step towards erotic artwork, nudie photographs, and finally a vast magazine empire of “literary” pornography.

Suei’s accounts of his youth are filled with a lot of high talk about the possibilities of art, of his desire to remove the masks which keep us divided so that we might all know “true” human love. Whether his adventures in adult magazines can be said to do that is very much up for debate. They are, as he freely admits, expressions of male fantasy – exposing a perhaps unwelcome truth about the relationships between men and women even as they continue to exploit them. Yet Suei’s own desire to find something more than a potential for titillation in his work continues to dwindle as he finds himself engaged in increasingly complicated schemes to avoid censure from the police while simultaneously insisting that his magazines are both “artistic” and not.

His insistence that the photographs are “artistic” becomes his primary weapon in getting sometimes vulnerable young women to agree to take their clothes off. Abandoning his loftier aspirations, Suei sinks still further into the smutty morass whilst still maintaining the pretension that his magazines are not like the others. He neglects his wife (Atsuko Maeda) to chase fleeting affections with unsuitable or unstable women, one of whom eventually descends into a mental breakdown which provokes in him only the realisation that his desire for her was a romantic fantasy which her illness has now dissipated. Art is an explosion, Suei claims, but his mother was the explosive force in his life, blowing him off course and leaving him too wounded to embrace the reality he so desperately claims to crave but continues to reject in favour of the same kind of male fantasies his magazines peddle.

Everyone around Suei seems to be damaged. Nary a face in the red light district is without a bandage or bruise of some sort. These are people who’ve found themselves at the bottom of the ladder and are desperately trying to scrap their way up. Times change and Suei’s empire implodes. Porn is swapped for pachinko as the exploitable pleasure of choice paving the way for yet another reinvention which sees him throw on a kimono to rebrand himself as his own mother and self-styled pachinko expert. You couldn’t make it up. Still, perhaps there is something more honest in Suei’s pachinko persona than it might first appear even if his present “art” is unlikely to enlighten us to the true nature of love.


Dynamite Graffiti is screening as the opening night movie of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Tale of Nishino (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nami Iguchi, 2014)

tale of nishinoEvery love story is a ghost story, as the aphorism made popular (though not perhaps coined) by David Foster Wallace goes. For The Tale of Nishio (ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険, Nishino Yukihiko no Koi to Boken), adapted from the novel by Hiromi Kawakami, this is a literal truth as the hero dies not long after the film begins and then returns to visit an old lover, only to find her gone, having ghosted her own family including a now teenage daughter. The Japanese title, which is identical to Kawakami’s novel, means something more like Yukihiko Nishino’s Adventures in Love which might give more of an indication into his repeated failures to find the “normal” family life he apparently sought, but then his life is a kind of cautionary tale offered up as a fable. What looks like kindness sometimes isn’t, and things done for others can in fact be for the most selfish of reasons.

Ten years prior to his death in a traffic accident, Yukihiko Nishino (Yutaka Takenouchi) has taken a (former?) lover and her little girl out for drinks and parfait at a lovely seaside cafe. The woman, Natsumi (Kumiko Aso), declines the offer of dessert but Nishino orders two anyway – one for himself and one for the little girl, Minami, though it seems neither of them really wanted one anyway. An odd flirtation exists between the adults but Nishino laments his ability to gain exactly what this situation might look like from the outside – a “normal” family. He wants to get married, have a daughter of his own, but his relationships always end in failure. Natsumi tells him why – he always gives women exactly what they want, which sounds good, but really isn’t.

Nishino’s problem is that he’s almost irresistible to women, but sooner or later they all leave him. He believes he has an almost telepathic ability to figure out what it is women want from him coupled with an intense need to satisfy their innermost desires. Ironically enough, it’s this strange kindness that eventually leads to his death when he runs into an old friend at a crowded marketplace. Excited to see him she calls and waves, dropping her shopping and losing one of her crutches in the process. Rushing to help, Nishino does not see an oncoming van and is run over. Quite literally the story of his life.

Reappearing as a ghost he attempts to pay a visit to Natsumi, having jokingly promised to do so while they were dating. Natsumi, however, is nowhere to be found and so Nishino is left to exorcise his demons with the now teenage Minami (Yurika Nakamura) who decides to attend his funeral in case her long absent mother decides to pay her respects. It’s here that she begins to learn a little of Nishino’s sad romantic history courtesy of an older woman who became a friend and confident rather than a lover (and consequently remained in his life a little longer).

The problem is, Nishino’s desire to be eternally helpful means that he’s always pulled in more than one direction. A slow burn affair with shy and retiring superior Manami (Machiko Ono) looks as if it could be the one, but she eventually points out to him that he’s not the sort of man who can have the life he craves because he never fully commits to any one person and never truly loves anyone. His irresistibility apparently even extends to one half of the lesbian couple from next door though, notably, not the half you’d expect.

Nishino first gets to know Tama (Fumino Kimura) and Subaru (Riko Narumi) when their cat, Nau, invites himself over, after which the feline Subaru decides to do the same, flirting away with her uptight girlfriend presumably going crazy in an adjacent room. Subaru is Nishino’s opposing number, the kind of girl that gets everything done for her, but there are obvious cracks in the strained relationship between the two women and it’s the neurotic Tama he finally bonds with after an unusually perceptive conversation over convenience store ice cream. Nishino, as he later puts it, is faithful in mind if not in body but satisfying immediate desires is not always the best idea. Trying to provide comfort, Nishino adds even more confusion to a messy situation and, even if it perhaps works out for the best, Nishino is left alone once again.

A botched proposal leads Nishino to let slip the real reason for his boundless desire to please – it’s because he’s lonely. Desiring to keep these women around him, he gives them whatever it is they want to stay. Just like Tama has effectively relegated Subaru to the same level as their cat – giving in to her every demand in the terror that she will leave, Nishino loses the women he loves by embracing his selfish desire to keep them rather than acting in their best interests and recognising the true depth of love which may not always work out in his favour. The interfering spectre of old girlfriend Kanoko (Tsubasa Honda) who can’t let go even though the relationship is over is a lingering hangover of this tendency as she too cannot seem to commit and wants to keep Nishino as a backup plan, resenting his interest in other women yet not willing to make a permanent decision to stay with him.

A whimsical fable of a man looking for love in all the wrong places, The Tale of Nishino is a long, melancholy journey through modern relationships in which not just romantic but platonic and familial love find themselves under the microscope. As Manami points out, you can’t share loneliness – Nishino’s need to be needed eventually drives a wedge between himself and everything he wanted. Natsumi’s words of wisdom for her injured daughter offer only that romantic love necessarily ends, whereas a mother’s love for her child is ever lasting even if it does not necessarily look that way. Iguchi’s style is typical of the “quirkier” end of Japanese indie, shooting with a deadpan abstraction, but the slight feeling of alienation works well with Nishino’s ultimate refusal to bare his heart in a more “straightforward” manner. A bittersweet story of love lost and found, Nishino may have given up the ghost but perhaps he did find that family after all, in a way, even if it was not his own.


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)