Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2019)

Gambling, the ultimate act of faith or the height of anarchic genius? Based on the hit manga which has already been adapted as a popular TV anime, Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ) is the sequel to two seasons of a live action TV drama set in a school where hierarchy is decided not by grades or by fists, but by your prowess at the gaming tables. Those who lose so badly they bankrupt themselves become a kind of subhuman underclass, tied up like dogs and routinely humiliated, while the Student Council becomes a stand in for an oppressive social order ruling over all and enforcing the law with an iron hand. 

Into this high stress environment walks Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), a transfer student to the elite Hyakkaou Private Academy determined to bend its rules to her own advantage. Meanwhile, Student Council President Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda) is forced to deal with a new and unexpected threat – The Village, a small cult made up of students who have rejected the system, dropped out to live a hippy lifestyle in the grounds, and refuse to participate in “meaningless” games of chance. Their priest-like leader, Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), once beat Kirari at cards becoming something like a god of gambling, but lost his zeal for the game after losing the only thing he ever cared about. 

Where he opposes the system passively yet pointedly, Yumeko rebels in her own, fiercely individualistic way by superficially conforming, becoming a top gambler, but only because she is exercising a free choice to do so. She plays for kicks alone, and generally wins because she isn’t stressed enough about losing to let it bother her. This individualist streak makes her a hidden threat against Kirari, but one that might in itself be an interesting gamble for the infinitely bored Student Council President. 

While Yumeko’s individualism threatens to unbalance the system, The Village presents a collectivist threat, agitating wholesale revolution and an end to the oppressive rule of the Student Council which renders losers inhuman. Yet there’s an essential irony in The Village’s creepy monotony that stands in stark contrast to Yumeko’s seeming conformity but insistence on her own freedom. Your life’s your own, she later explains, it’s annoying if people try to manipulate it. In this instance she’s talking not about the “life plans” handed out by the Student Council, but the egotistical desire to “save” the lives of others without considering if they want them saved or if you’re merely infringing on their personal freedom in attempting to make choices for them based entirely on your own value system. 

Murasame perhaps bet something he shouldn’t have and technically won, but ended up losing anyway which is what has made him turn against gambling. Yumeko, meanwhile, believes that the only way to be truly free to entrust yourself to luck and destiny. That is, however, somewhat disingenuous, because what Yumeko excels at is mind games, essentially manipulating those around her in order to win. Yumeko plays players, not cards, and is rarely played herself. Unlike Murasame’s righthand woman Arukibi (Haruka Fukuhara), she doesn’t care that much what people think. Arukibi, meanwhile, is desperate for approval and is playing her own game just to get someone’s attention which makes her a volatile, if easily manipulated, opponent.

Essentially, Murasame wants freedom outside of the system where Yumeko has found it within, but her philosophy is perhaps the more dangerous in that it proposes total freedom that has no regard for the systems of governance. Then again, maybe this is all a long con to get better cakes in the cafeteria, merely gaming the system rather than actively undermining it. Nevertheless, for Yumeko life is risk, rebelling against an oppressive social order through the anarchic individualism of living by “chance”. Living in a society as highly regimented as this is a high stakes game, but you can’t win if you don’t play, and you need to play smart. That’s the peculiar irony of life at Hyakkaou Private Academy where the Student Council literally owns your future but you can win it back by playing them at their own game. Bet your life, win your freedom Yumeko seems to say but she still makes sure to bring cake for everyone, not just the “winners” or the privileged few. 


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2019)

12 Suicidal Teens posterJapan has a relatively high suicide rate, but even so the number of people taking their own lives had been steadily decreasing, hitting a 22-year low in 2016. Conversely, youth suicide rates peaked, hitting a 30-year high. Inspired by Tow Ubukata’s novel, 12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Juni-nin no Shinitai Kodomo-tachi), as the title implies, sees a dozen high school students forming a kind of club in which they will take the decision to live or die as a group, ironically undercutting the sense of powerlessness which has led them to the conclusion that they have no other choice other than death.

Ringleader Satoshi (Mahiro Takasugi) has recruited 11 likeminded souls and furnished them with complicated instructions involving a series of secret codes granting them access to a basement meeting room in an abandoned hospital. The 12 dutifully make their way into the building, but a surprise is waiting for them. When the first guest arrives, a young man is already lying in one of the 12 beds arranged around the edges of the room, apparently having jumped the gun, dead or dying after taking a large amount of sleeping pills. Everyone concludes he must be the event’s organiser, only for Satoshi to suddenly arrive and attempt to “open” the meeting at which they’re supposed to discuss the issues thoroughly so they can be sure they’re making the right decision. Because of the unexpected 13th guest, a decision is taken to postpone the discussion until after they figure out what’s going on.

Part of the reason for that is less curiosity than a kind of resentment. The teens are worried that their own deaths maybe misunderstood or misused if they’re discovered with this randomer in their midst. What if he’s the victim of a serial killer and everyone thinks they are too, never getting the message that each of them was desperate to send with their deaths? One young man who is dying to get back at a neglectful mother by denying her a life insurance pay out is worried it might backfire and she’d end up quids in if the police decide he’s a murder victim and not a suicide. He decides to live (for the moment at least) almost all out of spite.

Spite is, it seems, a powerful motivator in one sense or another. What most of our teens want isn’t really death but freedom, an end to pain or suffering. Suicide rates spike in September because bullied students can’t bear the thought of returning to school. Bullying is indeed the reason one of our teens wants to die, only the instigator was a teacher who led his class to victimise an innocent student solely for the crime of being an “annoying” person. Another teen, meanwhile, was bullied until he finally snapped, pushing his aggressor down a flight of stairs. Unable to live with the guilt, he too feels he can’t go on.

For the girls, the lack of control is all the more obvious. One young woman walks around with a surgical mask covering her face, not because she’s hideously burned but because she’s fantastically beautiful. One of Japan’s many celebrity idols, she’s on the cover of a thousand teen magazines but doesn’t recognise herself in the images that she sees and resents the way in which her existence is micromanaged by others. She wants to die as a means of seizing her own agency, to prove that her life and her individuality were valid and mattered as distinct from the fake persona created by her managers. Her fame endangers the mission of the group’s most emo member who declares that the mass suicide should be bomb detonated under an indifferent society, that she’s dying to reject her existence and rebelling against having been born.

Like some of the others, she’s a survivor of abusive parenting and resents having been given a “meaningless” life. A few of the other teens feel the same but for different reasons, they are suffering longterm or terminal health conditions and resent both their fates and being forced to live on without hope. They choose death now to prove they have a choice and are leaving on their own terms, not those of the universe.

Eventually the conclusion that they come to is that to live is also a choice. Working together to solve the mystery of the unexpected guest, they begin to understand a little of each other’s lives and their own, bonding in a shared sense of futility that slowly drifts into a rejection of the nihilism that had convinced them that their only choice was death. A strangely uplifting experience, 12 Suicidal Teens is a dark celebration of life that makes a virtue of endurance and finally finds meaning in commonality and the simple joy of empathic connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)

©2017 BEFORE WE VANISH FILM PARTNERS

before we vanish posterKiyoshi Kurosawa is getting sentimental in his old age. In Journey to the Shore and Real, brokenhearted, left behind spouses went on long and difficult journeys of grief and salvation. In Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha) we receive a visitation that presages our doom but wishes to know us before we go. An alien invasion movie which takes its cues from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and They Live, Kurosawa’s quirky drama is less about the enemy within than the hidden existential threat of a failure to understand oneself. As the Japanese title suggests, these invaders are merely out for a stroll, making time to smell the flowers before the big lawnmower arrives to cut them all down.

Strange events are afoot in Tokyo. A high school girl wanders home with a pair of goldfish in a plastic bag before brutally murdering her entire family, gazing at the scene of carnage with a beatific smile. Meanwhile, the estranged wife of Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda), Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), has been sent for to claim her presumably amnesiac husband from a medical facility. Shinji was brought in after wandering the streets cluelessly and seems to have lost certain sections of his memory. The doctor’s diagnosis is uncertain but leans towards some kind of temporary psychotic break or early onset Alzheimer’s. In any case, he is now Narumi’s responsibility, much to her consternation. Across town a down on his luck journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) covering the brutal family murder finds himself the designated “guide” to another strange young man, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), who seems to have done something very untoward to his parents.

These three “strangers” are really invaders from outer space – something which they freely confess to anyone who will listen, only everyone assumes they are joking. Exactly why they want to destroy the Earth is never revealed, nor is the the reason for the strange mission undertaken by the three researchers acting as the vanguard for the upcoming invasion. These three have been tasked with a thorough investigation of “humanity” in which they must learn and acquire certain “concepts”. They do this by requiring the subject to visualise their thinking behind a word or phrase and then tapping the head to pinch it causing that concept to be removed from the person’s interior cosmology.

The aliens learn as much from the effect of removing the concept as they do from its explanation. This being Japan, it’s not surprising that the first concept Shinji removes is that of “family” which he takes from Narumi’s younger sister, Asumi (Atsuko Maeda). Asumi had decamped to Narumi’s after an argument with her parents over their railroading her into a mainstream life she doesn’t really want. The removal of the concept of family means Asumi no longer needs to be bound by hollow obligation but her sudden coldness towards her sister immediately invites a series of other questions as to the true nature of their relationship. Similarly, Shinji removes a concept of “possession” from a young man. The young man does not immediately lose understanding of the word, but the concept ceases to be important to him. He is, in a sense, freed from the burden of materialism. Paying an unexpected visit to Narumi’s workplace and meeting her boss who, it seems, has just belittled her work on an important project after she rebuffed his attempt at sexual harassment, Shinji removes his concept of “work” leading him to play aeroplanes all around the office like an overexcited child.

There are positive effects of losing some of these centrally held ideas even if their loss seems tragic or painful on the surface. They are, however, what make us human whether that be attachment to family or an irrational desire to devote all to work and ceaseless acquisition. The final, most elusive concept is that of love – something alien and fascinating to the visitors which they find impossible to harvest due its essentially nebulous nature. Despite being part of a uniform hive mind, the invaders have each developed unique personality traits as a consequence of their “human” lives – the schoolgirl craves violence and destruction, Amano fatherly friendship, and Shinji something close to love with his own “guide” in the form of Narumi whose love for her husband apparently endured despite his betrayal.

Far from the gloomy nihilism of Pulse in which death is eternal loneliness, Before We Vanish suggests that what will survive of us is love. Salvation does, however, require a sacrifice which provokes the film’s romantic conclusion in which the absence of love becomes the “eternal loneliness” promised by Pulse but is tempered by patience and devotion. A gleefully absurdist exploration of the human soul, Before We Vanish finds Kurosawa at his most optimistic affirming the power of the human spirit at its most indestructible.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Policeman And Me (PとJK, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

policeman 2The world of shojo manga is a particular one. Aimed squarely at younger teenage girls, the genre focuses heavily on idealised, aspirational romance as the usually female protagonist finds innocent love with a charming if sometimes shy or diffident suitor. Then again, sometimes that all feels a little dull meaning there is always space to send the drama into strange or uncomfortable areas. Policeman and Me (PとJK, P to JK), adapted from the shojo manga by Maki Miyoshi is just one of these slightly problematic romances in which a high school girl ends up married to a 26 year old policeman who somehow thinks having an official certificate will make all of this seem less ill-advised than it perhaps is.

Kako (Tao Tsuchiya) is only 16 and, truth be told, a little innocent, even naive when it comes to love though she desperately wants to get herself a proper boyfriend. Dragged by a friend to singles mixer where she’s abruptly told that’s she’s 22 for the next few hours, Kako is bashful and dutifully refrains from underage drinking or inappropriate behaviour. Against the odds she hits it off with handsome policeman, Kota (Kazuya Kamenashi), who still thinks she’s 22 and that her reticence is a sign both of shyness and of maturity. Inadvertently blurting out her real age, Kako blows things with Kota who, as policeman, has no interest in dating a 16 year old. However, leaving Kako to walk home alone after the last train has left through a dodgy area of town is not a good idea and she’s soon beset by a gang of moody boys! Luckily, Kota’s policeman instincts have kicked in and he turns up to save the day with some delinquent moves of his own.

Despite the age difference, Kota and Kako have a genuine connection but Kota is anxious not to do anything dishonourable or untoward. Thus, facing the prospect of breaking up with his teenage sweetheart, he abruptly proposes marriage! After all, when the government rubber stamps something it must be OK and no-one can be accused of doing anything morally wrong, right? The surprising thing is, Kota puts on a fancy suit and goes to break the news to Kako’s parents only to have them give up almost without a fight. Her father may be angry to begin with but he’s soon won over and left with nothing other to say than please look after my girl (and try not to get her pregnant until she’s finished her education).

Kako is then placed in the incongruous position of being both a regular high school girl and a married housewife. Kota is stationed at the local police box with two other officers – one an older guy and the other a young woman who both support him in his new life as a married man. The couple live in an improbably large house inherited from Kota’s late parents but their relationship remains chaste and innocent. Perhaps realising that this unusual union will not be welcomed by all Kako has not told anyone at school about her marriage whilst she goes about trying to rescue the sensitive delinquent, Okami (Mahiro Takasugi), who accidentally put her in the hospital before she was valiantly rescued by Kota.

Okami and Kota lock horns over several things from Kako to the rule of law but they have more in common than it might first seem. Kota, once a violent teen himself, is nursing a huge debt to his policeman father killed in the line of duty. Taking on his father’s mission, Kota has dedicated himself to serving and protecting even if he once rebelled against that very thing as the kind of teenage punk Okami currently aspires to be. Okami has his own share of troubles at home which explain most of his behaviour as well as his aversion to law enforcement but Kako sees straight through his tough facade for the damaged boy inside. Kota too comes to find him more of a kindred spirit in need of rescue than a danger to society who needs locking up and also views him as an ally in being another of Kako’s admirers.

Ryuichi Hiroki thrives on this sort of uncomfortable drama, bringing a touch of moral queasiness to an otherwise cute story of innocent romance. Kota and Kako never particularly deal with the elephant in the room aside from Kako’s worries that Kota sees her a little girl who needs protecting rather than a wife who wants to stand alongside him as an equal. Then again Kako is quite happy in a subservient role, playing directly into her romantic fantasies. Hiroki directs all of this in true shojo style, keeping it all very chaste and innocent, overcoming all obstacles related to the inappropriateness in the central relationship and reaffirming the fact that true love is real, occurs in unexpected places, and is waiting for every romantic young girl who dreams of a tall guy in a dashing uniform. Unrealistic? Perhaps, but that’s shojo.


Policeman and Me was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

30s trailer (no subtitles)