Fancy (ファンシー, Masaoki Hirota, 2020)

“Every minute of life is yours to make use of” according to the ultra cool hero of Masaoki Hirota’s Fancy (ファンシー), a laconic postman with a penchant for sunshades and a resigned attitude to transience. Adapted from the manga short story by Naoki Yamamoto, Fancy is indeed a transitory tale, a minor episode in the life of a poet who thinks he’s a penguin, his best friend the postman, and his penpal seeking her own kind of escape in an impromptu and probably unwise proposal of marriage. 

The postman, Takasu (Masatoshi Nagase), is also a tattooist, a former yakuza now reformed and living quietly in an old-fashioned hot springs town which seems to be stuck in the Showa era. As Takasu’s colleague Tanaka (Tomorowo Taguchi) puts it, it’s pretty “standard” now for everyone to have two jobs, his side hustle being a shooting gallery which is a front for the sex trade. Even the local Buddhist priest is intent on trying to sell everyone he meets a funerary monument, while Southern Cross Penguin (Masataka Kubota) is a best-selling poet particularly popular with high school girls in addition to being a flightless aquatic bird in human form. Penguin doesn’t expect us to believe him, but tells us that a penguin is just what he is and there’s no particular reason for it. So completely does he take his penguinhood that he opens the door in a full penguin mask, dresses only in black and white, mainly eats raw fish, and keeps his home ice cold with the aid of several industrial-size air conditioners. Penguin prides himself on answering the many fan letters he gets, explaining that they’re not so much “fans” as “comrades” who are also looking for the “shining country”. In any case, his fan mail is how he met the postman, his only friend, who is content to shiver in his home putting whisky in his tea to stave off the cold. 

Penguin’s life begins to change, however, when he gets a letter from “Moon Night Star” (Sakurako Konishi), a fan with whom he’d been corresponding. Moon Night Star pretty much insists on becoming his “wife”, failing to take Penguin’s hints that she might not be very happy “married” to an aquatic animal who can’t go outside. As we will later discover, Moon Night Star is in her own way rebelling against her fate, taking refuge in Penguin’s igloo and engaging in a delusion that she loves him in order to make it work. For his part, Penguin perhaps comes to like her too, but he can also see that she’s quite “depressed” stuck in the cold with him, pushing her towards the outside and into the arms of the postman. 

Takasu, meanwhile, finds himself on a series of borders as he begins to confront his past in the form of his absent father and the family he seems to have lost, sympathetically telling his pained former wife that her life is hers to do with as she wishes, perhaps in a sense cuttingly refusing her apology but also accepting her right to seize the present. Another man with two jobs, Takasu’s childhood friend is both yakuza gang boss and hotelier, confiding that the gangster stuff is too stressful and he wishes he could just focus on the hotel in the same way the Takasu has now become a postman. It’s his strange relationship with a yakuza drifter, however, that threatens to drag him back into gangsterdom as he learns that there’s been a schism in his former clan. With a turf war brewing, the loyalists have taken over his friend’s hotel, unreconstructed Showa-era yakuza on the streets of a pleasant hot springs resort. 

“We’re doomed anyway, do what you like” one of the goons intones, in one sense subverting Takasu’s mantra but in another perhaps embracing it. A memory of his father reminds him to “make very second count” while also catching him in an endless moment of gaze, unable to forget the back of the woman his father was tattooing at the time. Takasu looks and does eventually touch, but admits his jealousy obsessed with skin as canvas only latterly taking off his shades in a willingness to see and be seen. Penguin, meanwhile, who wanted to swim in a sea of words, finds himself floating free, braving but eventually succumbing to the heat before exclaiming that he’s going to close his eyes to allow a new story to start. The love of a poet is fleeting, Takasu reflects as each of the various protagonists shifts towards their “main” identity, edging back towards conventionality in abandoning the “fancifulness” of their sometimes strange existences. There will, however, be more strange adventures because even if it falls apart beneath your feet, life’s what you make it, be you a postman or a penguin. 


Fancy screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Topless (トップレス, Eiji Uchida, 2008)

toplessFollowing the surreal horror film The Greatful Dead and cynical industry exposé Lowlife Love, Eiji Uchida is not generally known for straightforward naturalism but his 2008 movie Topless (トップレス) maybe among the most refreshingly straightforward, naturalistic depictions of lesbian life in modern Japan. Inspired by the writings of Pudding Watanabe, Topless, despite the title and suggestive poster, immediately jettisons preconceptions and sets about exploring the lives of young men and women in the city, just trying to make it in an often hostile society.

Forthright Natsuko (Mina Shimizu) splits up with her high school sweetheart Tomomi (Erika Okuda) but continues to pine after her even once Tomomi reveals that she’s got herself a boyfriend and plans to try the conventional life for a while. This heavy emotional blow provokes a kind of crisis in the otherwise certain Natsuko who finds herself musing on the fate on older lesbians and expressing sympathy for those who decide it’s just easier to enter a marriage of convenience than try to live alone. For the moment, Natusko lives with her understanding flatmate, Koji (So Sakamoto), who’s been nursing a long time crush on her even if he knows she’s gay and it’s impossible. A chance meeting with a high school girl, Kana (Aya Omasa), who’s come to Tokyo to find the mother who abandoned her to run off with a lesbian lover ten years ago only deepens Natsuko’s contemplative mood as she starts to wonder about where her life will take her if she chooses not to follow the accepted path.

Topless is less about romance than it is about acceptance and identity. Natsuko maybe a member of her university’s lesbian society but she’s about as far from a flag waver as it’s possible to be and just wants to live her life without thinking too much about the big stuff. Bar one woman (a new addition and not a student) the other girls are also just hanging round to have fun, aren’t particularly interested in activism and don’t feel themselves to be part of a movement defined by their sexuality. Natsuko certainly refuses to be defined by hers though her recent falling out with Tomomi has shaken her to the core and forced her into a consideration of her own hopes and desires for the future.

Tomomi claims to still love Natsuko but also that it “can’t be helped” because they’re both women and it’s just not possible. Natsuko tries to come to terms with her friend’s decision whilst nursing a broken heart but struggles to overcome her feelings of jealously towards Tomomi’s new boyfriend. Koji, Natsuko’s roommate, can’t understand why a lesbian would marry a man but being a man himself he can’t appreciate the societal necessities which make trying to live a life outside the mainstream particularly hard for women. As Natsuko points out, women earn less and living is expensive, it’s difficult to live out and proud in a hostile society, and then there’s the fear of growing old without children or an extended family network to fallback on. Though she sympathises with all of these factors on an intellectual level and then eventually even contemplates trying out life with a man herself,  it’s not something Natsuko could ever do and a part of her can never forgive Tomomi for doing it even if she does understand why someone might.

Kana’s quest for her long lost mother gets lost between the meatier subplots but proves enlightening in the unexpected bond between the troubled schoolgirl and the shaken if confident Natsuko. Still nursing deep scars from her abandonment, Kana claims to hate lesbians but grows to like Natsuko, the only person willing to help her track down her mother in a totally unfamiliar world. Despite Koji’s protestations that Natsuko will be angry if she hears any of Kana’s anti-gay sentiments, she listens patiently to Kana’s complaints stopping only to tell her she understands why she feels that way but that she also thinks she’s wrong. Trying to help Kana understand why her mother made the decisions that she did and see that there’s nothing wrong with two women loving each other, Natsuko changes hearts and minds just by being patient and kind.

In the conventional sense Topless offers no happy endings but it does advocate first and foremost for a kind of self acceptance and finally allowing old wounds to scar over, closed but not forgotten. Normalising lesbian life with ease, Uchida proceeds with a straightforward approach which sidesteps the obvious in order to provide a more nuanced portrait of life and love among the young people of Tokyo each trying to navigate the difficult process of learning to live as an independent person constrained by social conventions. Admittedly low budget but tastefully done and anchored by a standout performance from Mina Shimizu, Topless is a refreshingly down to earth look at gay life in the big city which refuses to give in preconceptions and expectations.


Short clip from the film (English subtitles)

Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン, Sion Sono, 2015)

Shinjuku SwanEnfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Sion Sono has always been prolific but recent times have seen him pushing the limits of the possible and giving even Takashi Miike a run for his money in the release stakes. Indeed, Takashi Miike is a handy reference point for Sono’s take on Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン) – an adaptation of a manga which has previously been brought to the small screen and is also scripted by an independent screenwriter rather than self penned in keeping with the majority of Sono’s directing credits. Oddly, the film shares several cast members with Miike’s Crows Zero movies and even lifts a key aesthetic directly from them. In fact, there are times when Shinjuku Swan feels like an unofficial spin-off to the Crows Zero world with its macho high school era tussling relocated to the seedy underbelly of Kabukicho. Unfortunately, this is somewhat  symptomatic of Sono’s failure, or lack of will, to add anything particularly original to this, it has to be said, unpleasant tale.

Our “hero” is down on his luck loser Tatsuhiko (Go Ayano) who’s come to Shinjuku to make it big. He’s here because it’s the sort of place you can make it happen with no plan and no resources. “Luckily” for him, he runs into low-level gangster Mako (Yusuke Iseya) who spots some kind of potential in him and recruits him as a “scout” for his organisation, Burst. Now dressed in a fancy suit, Tatsuhiko’s new job is stopping pretty girls in the street and trying to talk them into working in the sex industry….

Tatsuhiko is not the brightest and doesn’t quite understand what the implications of his work are. When he finally gets it, he feels conflicted but Mako convinces him that’s it’s OK really with a set of flimsy moral justifications. Before long, Tatsuhiko comes into conflict with a lieutenant, Hideyoshi (Takayuki Yamada), from the rival gang in town, Harlem, and a yakuza style territorial dispute begins to unfold destabilising the entire area.

Sono has often been criticised for latent misogyny and an exploitative approach to his material and Shinjuku Swan is yet more evidence for those who find his output “problematic”. Though based on a manga and scripted by a third party, Shinjuku Swan has an extremely ill-defined take on the sex industry and the people involved with it. After figuring out what happens to the girls he takes to Mako, Tatsuhiko has second thoughts but Mako tells him that the girls are happy and are in this line of work because they enjoy it (leaving out all the stuff about debts, drugs, and violence). So Tatsuhiko vows to make even more girls live happy lives inside the “massage parlours” of Kabukicho.

Noble heart or not, Tatsuhiko is a pimp. Not even that, he’s a middle man pimp. He’s earning his money from the suffering of the women that’s he conned, coerced, and finally exploited. Leaving aside the idea that, yes, some of these women may be perfectly happy with the arrangement, at least one of Tatsuhiko’s recruits displays evidence of previous self harm and is unable to cope with the demands of her new way of life. Another woman, Ageha (Erika Sawajiri), who becomes Tatsuhiko’s primary damsel in distress, escapes into a children’s fairytale picture book in which a prince with crazy hair just like Tatsuhiko’s comes to rescue the heroine from her life of slavery and takes her to a place of love and safety. Tatsuhiko “rescues” her by taking her to a “nicer” brothel…

Tatsuhiko may have convinced himself that he’s somehow a force for good, “helping” these women into employment and providing “protection” for them unlike the other guys from rival gangs who use drugs and violence to keep their girls in line, but his continued belief in his own goodness becomes increasingly hard to swallow as he learns more about how this industry really works. It’s difficult to believe in a “hero” who is so deluded about his own place in the grand scheme of things – he’s not stupid enough to be this oblivious, but not clever enough to be continually unseeing all of the darkness that surrounds the way he makes his living.

All of this is merely background to the central yakuza gang war which later ensues. Tatsuhiko ends up as a pawn in the tussle for territory between Burst and Harlem as double crosses become triple crosses and no one is to be trusted. Predictably, Tatsuhiko and Hideyoshi turn out to have a long standing connection though this revelation never achieves the dramatic weight it’s looking for and the gang war itself is, at best, underwhelming. Notable scenes including a classic battle in the rain could have been spliced in from Crows Zero and no one would have noticed. The main dramatic thread remains Tatsuhiko’s journey as he travels from clueless loser to, admittedly still clueless, assured petty gangster and smooth talking lady killer.

If there’s an overall feeling which imbues Shinjuku Swan, it’s lack of commitment. Though often beautifully photographed and featuring some interestingly composed sequences (including a few Carax-esque musical set pieces) the final effect is one of workman-like competence. Not bad by any means, but this feels like the work of a director for hire and lacks the sense of the personal that a would-be-auteur would usually seek to provide. Moral ambiguity can often be a film’s strong point, inviting comment and debate rather than pushing a pre-defined agenda but Shinjuku Swan takes too many incompatible approaches to the already unpalatable series of questions that it stops short of asking. Distinctly uneven, Shinjuku Swan ends on a note of anti-climax and though a perfectly serviceable, mainstream, commercial effort proves something of a disappointment from a director who has often managed to bring out a sense of mischievous irony in similarly themed work to date.


Unsubtitled trailer: