Choji Snack Bar (居酒屋兆治, Yasuo Furuhata, 1983)

Beginning his career at Toei, Yasuo Furuhata is most closely associated with tough guy action films forging a strong and enduring relationship with the genre’s key star Ken Takakura through their work on the New Abashiri Prison series. From the late ‘70s however he began to transition further towards the realms of manly melodrama with a series of films which often starred Takakura as a man struggling to adapt to life in modern Japan such as the guilt-ridden policeman of Station or the conflicted former yakuza of Yasha. Arriving between the two and adapted from a novel by Hitomi Yamaguchi, Choji Snack Bar (居酒屋兆治, Izakaya Choji) is in someways much the same casting a typically stoic Takakura as an intensely noble man whose values are increasingly at odds with the world in which he lives while shifting away from the realms of manly action towards a more somber contemplation of the broken dreams of post-war youth. 

Eiji (Ken Takakura), known to all as “Choji”, is a happily married father of two who gave up his job in shipping to open a bar selling small eats in a Hakodate. He and his wife Shigeko (Tokiko Kato) have been planning to expand the business by opening a larger location near the docks but Eiji is dragging his feet largely it seems because the place found for him by childhood friend Kawahara (Juzo Itami) is too close to another bar run by an old man who helped him when he first started out so he’s loathe to risk infringing on his livelihood. Meanwhile, the central drama in town in the mysterious disappearance of Choji’s childhood sweetheart, Sayo (Reiko Ohara), who married a wealthy ranch owner but has long been trapped in an unhappy marriage she has several times failed to escape. Sayo’s disappearance coincided with a fire at the ranch which is suspected to have been started deliberately the assumption being that Sayo is responsible. 

The ironic disappearance of Sayo forces Choji into a reconsideration of his life choices, something his middle-aged friends also find themselves experiencing if for various different reasons. Choji was once a high school baseball star dreaming of turning pro but his hopes were dashed after an injury forced him to leave the sport thereafter working in an office at the docks but later resigning rather than accept a promotion that would mean he’d suddenly be the boss to his former friends. The bar is his way of being his own man, no one’s boss but his own, though his decision was not universally respected among his friends and in fact came as something of a shock to Shigeko who consented to an arranged marriage partly in search of the typical salaryman life. Most of the other men in town, however, struggle to keep their youthful dreams alive or to find accommodation with the way their lives are now. Inoue (Eiji Misato), for example, is obsessed with cabaret singing, spending all his time in karaoke bars often wearing elaborate costumes and makeup. Childhood friend Iwashita (Kunie Tanaka) even wonders if he’s gone “mad” after taking him to task for neglecting his family on discovering that he’s converted a docked boat into a tiny private cabaret space complete with a sound system and lighting as well as a small seating area for spectators who presumably have not yet materialised. 

This is perhaps in a way a symbol in itself of Japan’s new economic prosperity, later thrown into stark contrast by Choji’s explanation that he and Sayo broke up because of their mutual poverty he nobly pushing her to marry a wealthy man so at least one of them could be happy. Happy is however something Sayo has never been, later paying a short visit to Choji during which she blames him for his “cowardice” suggesting that he is largely responsible for the misery of her life in failing to fight for their love, giving up too easily on a distant happiness which is something he later cautions a young baseball player not to do. The police meanwhile accuse him of complicity, implying the pair knew Sayo’s husband had TB and thought he’d die soon enough after which they’d inherit his money and stay together, consequently assuming the “arson” was an attempted murder. 

The irony is that Choji is far too noble to have ever considered such a thing, something demonstrated by his continuing righteousness in refusing to take up Kawahara’s offer of cheap and lucrative new premises because it would mean betraying his former mentor, refusing to condemn his former teacher’s shock marriage to a woman 30 years his junior, and eventually taking Kawahara to task for his callous comments over the death of friend’s wife. Rival cabbie Akimoto (Masao Komatsu) was forever joking that his wife would die before him and sleazily flirting with young women, but went into debt in order to buy her an elaborate funeral altar and is completely devastated by her loss while living with his three children in a noticeably rundown apartment. As Choji puts it, Kawahara’s broken dream is in no longer being the big boss among the boys as he was in their high school days, fuelling his sense of middle-aged male frustration into embittered drunken violence. Yet everyone is always telling Choji he is being unnecessarily “good”, that he should stop thinking about doing the right thing and put himself first by accepting the offer to relocate the bar because business is business. 

Sayo too is trapped in the past unable to accommodate herself with the way her life turned out, an ironic casualty of Choji’s goodness clinging to her broken dream of youth. These now middle-aged teens of the post-war era are in a sense victims of their age, denied the sense of possibility the youth of today might enjoy but equally unable to step fully into the contemporary era of economic prosperity which some feel has become increasingly amoral and unkind. Nevertheless, as Shigeko puts it “no one can take away what a person carries in their heart”, Choji manfully retaining his nobility while literally burning the image of the past but perhaps carrying it with him as the other men carry the shards of their broken dreams some with more nobility than others.  


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Shogo Kusano, 2016)

bittersweet poster“Vegetarian Men” became an unlikely buzzword in Japanese pop culture a few years ago. Coined by a confused older generation to describe a perceived decrease in “manliness” among young, urban males who had apparently lost interest in women and gained an interest in personal appearance as an indicator of social status, the term feeds into a series of social preoccupations from the declining birthrate and changing demographics to familial breakdown and economic stagnation. In an odd way, Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Nigakute Amai) backs into this particular alley by adding an extra dimension in the story of a somewhat “manly” career woman and her non-romance with a gay vegetarian she meets by chance who eventually helps her to escape her arrested adolescence and progress towards a more conventional adulthood.

Maki (Haruna Kawaguchi), an advertising agency employee and workaholic career woman in her late ‘20s, has a philosophical objection to the existence of vegetables. Unable to cook and generally disinterested in food (or house work, clothes, makeup etc), Maki sucks on jelly packs at her desk so she can keep on typing, sometimes treating herself to a store bought bento. She’s told her “friends” at work that she’ll shortly be moving in with a boyfriend, but in reality she’s recently broken up with someone and is being evicted from her flat. Things are looking up when she’s put in charge of a commercial but the commercial turns out to be for goya bitter melon which is both a vegetable and not exactly an easy sell.

Fast forward to a bar where Maki is a regular. After getting blind drunk and going off on an anti-vegetable rant, Maki wakes up at home with Nagisa (Kento Hayashi) – a guy she quite liked the look of the previous night but went off when she noticed he was carrying a giant box of veggies, making her a nutritious breakfast which she then refuses to eat. Paranoid that Nagisa took advantage of her in the night, Maki goes through his bag and discovers that he’s a high school art teacher. Challenging him about what exactly happened, he is forced to tell her that she’s not his type. Nagisa is gay and brought the blackout drunk Maki back to her flat on the instructions of his friend, the gay bartender at Maki’s local. Maki, classy as ever, threatens to blackmail Nagisa by outing him at school unless he agrees to move in with her.

Thankfully, Bittersweet drops the romance angle relatively quickly as Maki begins to grow up and accepts that there’s no point chasing a man who will never be interested in her. Nagisa, originally adopting an almost maternal attitude towards the sullen Maki, later becomes something like a big brother figure, gently coaxing his friend towards self realisation through a series of well cooked meals and hard won life advice. Though there is a degree of stereotyping in his refined, elegant personality, cleanliness, and cooking ability, Nagisa’s sexuality is never much of an issue outside of the obvious fact that he is not “out” at work and that it may be impossible for him to be so. Despite Maki’s original consternation she gets over the shock of Nagisa’s confession fairly quickly and when he eventually meets her parents, they too react with relative positivity (Maki’s mum even slips a copy of a BL manga into her next care package).

Somewhat bizarrely the central drama revolves around Maki’s hatred of vegetables which stems back to a stubborn resentment of her parents’ unconventionality. In combatting her parents’ decision to abandon the world of corporate consumerism, Maki has become a “career woman”, eschewing the feminine arts in favour of the male drive. Where Bittersweet was perhaps progressive in its acceptance of Nagisa’s sexuality, it is less so with Maki’s seeming “maleness” – her drinking, meat eating, and workaholic ambition all painted as aspects of her life which are in need of correction. Though some of her habits are undoubtedly unhealthy – she could definitely benefit from better nutrition and scaling back on the binge drinking, Bittersweet is intent on “restoring” Maki to the cuteness befitting the heroine of a shojo manga rather than allowing her to become a confident modern woman who can have both a career and a love interest with little conflict between the two.

Through meeting Nagisa Maki is able to get over her vegetable hate and repair her strained relationship with her comparatively more down to earth parents while also realising she doesn’t necessarily want the life of empty consumerism symbolised by her relationship with her status obsessed former boyfriend. Meanwhile Nagisa has his own problems in dealing with a past trauma which his new found, quasi-familial relationship with Maki is the key to addressing. A pleasant surprise, Bittersweet is not the awkward romance the synopsis hints at, but a warm and gentle coming of age story in which vegetarian cookery, mutual respect, and a lot of patience, allow two youngsters to become unstuck and find in each other the strength they needed to finally move forward into a more promising future.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police (ぼくたちと駐在さんの700日戦争, Renpei Tsukamoto, 2008)

700days-of-battleThose golden last few summers of high school have provided ample material for countless nostalgia filled Japanese comedies and 700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police (ぼくたちと駐在さんの700日戦争, Bokutachi to Chuzai-san no 700 Nichi Senso) is no exception. Set in a small rural town in 1979, this is an innocent story of bored teenagers letting off steam in an age before mass communications ruined everyone’s fun.

In the summer of 1979, a group of teenage high school students get their kicks pulling pranks around the neighbourhood. They finally meet their match when a new policeman, Chuzai (Kuranosuke Sasaki), arrives in town intent on actually enforcing the law. When one of the boys is fined for speeding after coming down a steep hill on his bicycle, the guys decide to make Chuzai their new enemy, virtually daring him to arrest them with their constant trolling.

However, things take a turn when the boys move their prank planning meetings to a local cafe and discover the beautiful waitress working there, Kanako (Kumiko Aso). Instantly smitten the boys step up their romance game (donning some fancy outfits in the process) and semi-forget about their mission. Unfortunately Kanako is a married woman and worse than that she’s married to Chuzai! This whole thing just got real.

Chuzai, for all his uptight authoritarianism is onto the boys and their generally innocent mischief. Finding it all very irritating rather than actually dangerous, Chuzai gradually starts playing them at their own game by attempting to prank them back such as in one notable incident where he makes them attend a public behaviour seminar but gives the entire lecture through a ventriloquist’s dummy called Taru-kun. As a slightly older man, Chuzai can see the boys are just hopelessly bored in their backwater town. Breaking with his hitherto austere persona, Chuzai drops the authoritarian line to offer some fatherly advice to the effect that these summers are precious times,  soon the boys’ high school lives will be over and they’ll most likely leave their pleasant small town for the bustling metropolis of Tokyo so they’d better make the most of these aimless days while they can.

Idyllic as it is, the nature of the boys’ mission changes in the second half as the war against Chuzai takes on a slightly more affectionate quality. At this point they decide to use their pranking powers for good to help a little girl who’s stuck in the hospital finally enjoy the summer fireworks she’s been longing for even though the doctors won’t let her out to go to the festival. With the fireworks heist hovering in the background the guys get into various romanctic difficulties while enjoying archetypal teenage summer adventures.

Infused with period detail, 700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police has an authentically ‘70s soundtrack with some of the biggest hits of the era running in the background. Frequent cultural references such as a brief appearance from Ultraman add to the atmosphere which has a kind of retro, nostalgic innocence behind it as these kids live in a golden era of friendship and bike riding when the sun is always shining and graduation is still a long way off.

Director Tsukamoto keeps things simple though the production values are high and visual gags are spot on. Somewhat episodic in nature, the tale is split up into various chapters by means of title cards which helps to break up the seemingly endless summer as the boys attempt to fill their otherwise empty days. Apparently this was only the beginning of the “war” against the police, occupying only 108 days of a “conflict” which would finally run to 700. Presumably the guys have finished up their high school days by that point but at least they’ve succeeded in making some amusing memories of their elaborate and sometimes fiendishly clever schemes to take revenge on the surprisingly patient Chuzai-san. Filled with innocent, witty and whimsical comedy 700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police offers no great leap forward even within the realm of quirky teen comedies but still manages to provide some old fashioned, wholesome summer themed fun.


Original trailer (English subtitles)