The Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Akira Ikeda, 2021)

“Just shoot where you’re told and you’ll be fine” a veteran advises an unusually curious newbie when asked who exactly it is they’re shooting at, beginning to question for the first time everything he’s been told. Continuing in the same vein as his 2017 surrealist drama Ambiguous Places, Akira Ikeda’s Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Kimajime Gakutai no Bonyari Senso) follows a more linear though meandering path in its timely anti-war message as the brainwashed hero comes to contemplate the tenets of his society thanks to a naive young man and the healing power of music. 

The small town of Tsuhiramachi has been at war with Tawaramachi across the river for so long no one can remember why it is that they’re fighting, least of all perpetually absent-minded mayor Natsume (Renji Ishibashi) who can’t even remember his own son’s name. Soldier Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara) is woken every day by a marching band, meeting friend and colleague Fujima (Hiroki Konno) in the street and walking over to the barracks where he changes into his uniform and then spends all day firing a rifle across the river. His identical days are disrupted when former thief Mito (Hiroki Nakajima) is conscripted into their group and Fujima is injured in seemingly the only instance of returned fire. Tsuyuki is then transferred to the marching band and begins practicing his trumpet by the water only to be surprised when he begins hearing someone joining him from the other side. 

Everyone in Tsuhiramachi walks with automaton rigidity and talks with an almost ritualistic austerity in which dialogue is repeated endlessly and conversation loops are common. The townspeople dress as if they were stuck in the 1940s though the uniforms are more European than Japanese while Tsuyuki and Fujima wear identical blue suits when travelling to and from their homes. The thief, Mito, meanwhile dresses in a less formal brown shirt and trousers, apparently engaging in stealing from the local simmered food stand for reasons of poverty while his friend, mayor’s son Heiichi (Naoya Shimizu), does so because he can. When the stall owner’s wife catches them, Heiichi allows his father to think he valiantly chased a thief and is made a police officer for his pains continuing to extort food and generally abuse his authority largely conferred through feudal dynastic privilege. 

There is certainly something in Mito’s tendency to frame each of his statements as a questions, asking “Am I a soldier now?” Or “My name is Mito?” when questioned. The lady who runs the diner where Tsuyuki frequently lunches is extremely proud of her son away fighting up river and resents being questioned by Mito, shovelling extra rice into the men’s bowls when impressed by something they’ve said and then taking it back when disappointed. Mito wants to know why it is they’re fighting and who the people across the river really are. Shiroko (Hairi Katagiri) doesn’t approve of asking such taboo questions and affirms that she doesn’t need to meet the residents of Tawaramachi to know that they’re “barbaric”, “horrible” people. Even the owner of the simmered food stall who insists he knows “everything” insists he’s no interest in knowing about Tawaramachi. 

Yet they’re always being told that the “threat” from across the river is increasing even if the mayor has forgotten what the threat exactly is. Meanwhile, an elite troop will soon be arriving to take part in the trials for a brand new super weapon. A disapproving Shirako asks Tsuyuki how music is useful for the war, but he doesn’t know, he’s merely following orders. Music however, along with Mito’s awkward questions, begins to open his eyes as he contemplates whether the trumpeter from across the water can really be so different from himself. He disapproves of Heiichi’s abuse of his authority, of civil servant Kawajiri’s apparent replacing of his wife with another woman because he believes she cannot bear children, and of the army’s treatment of a friend now struggling to find employment having lost his arm for the good of the town. Shiroko insists that dying in war is better than being injured, but the young universally agree that no, it isn’t. In this strangely Kafka-esque world of crypto-militarism and the feudal mentality, Tsuyuki finds freedom and escape in his trumpet but not even these it seems are enough to call the “meaningless” and internecine violence to a halt. Filled with a strangely poignant poetry, Ikeda’s absurdist drama takes aim at lingering authoritarianism but suggests that music may be panacea for human conflict if only we’d stop a little and listen. 


The Blue Danube streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sexual Drive (性的衝動, Kota Yoshida, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

A weird chestnut-bearing spirit of sexual awakening visits three troubled couples in Kota Yoshida’s odyssey of food-themed eroticism, Sexual Drive (性的衝動, Seitekishodo). As the title perhaps implies, Yoshida’s loose thesis seems to be that each of the spouses he counsels is living a dull and unfulfilling life because they’re repressing their authentic selves either unrecognising or rejecting the true nature of their sexual desires. Yet who or what is Kurita (Tateto Serizawa) and what is he really up to? Aside from all that, is he even “real”?

When we first meet Kurita, he’s bearing a box of Chinese chestnuts (“chestnut” being the first character of his name but also a slang term for clitoris) and walking with a pronounced limp. This lends credence to his story of having suffered a stroke three years previously though as we will later discover the cause is likely very different if at least suggesting a healthy corporality. The visit is all the more unusual as it seems he doesn’t know the man he’s come to see, Enatsu (Ryo Ikeda). Just as we’re wondering if this is some kind of hookup while his wife (Manami Hashimoto) works an extra shift at the hospital, we realise that the reverse may be true as Kurita claims to have been having a three-year affair with Enatsu’s spouse having fixated on her after she fitted a catheter for him following an operation. This is a discussion between men, but Kurita soon becomes excitable making lewd gestures with a mostly empty natto carton apparently likening its distinctive taste and odour to the nether regions of Enatsu’s wife. Goading him that their marriage has been sexless for the last five years, what Kurita seems to do is ironically restore Enatsu’s sexual potency through his vicarious enjoyment of his wife’s taste for this famously love it or hate dish of fermented soy beans. 

Kurita’s second victim, meanwhile, has apparently committed the crime of making inauthentic mapo tofu, its heat turned down to suit the Japanese palate. This time Kurita claims to have been an elementary school classmate of the nervous Akane (Honami Sato) who has frequent panic attacks and has finally got up the courage to go for her first solo drive. He insists that Akane is a sadist who brokered his own masochistic awakening through her merciless bullying and that the reason she’s so on edge is because she’s living a neutered life with only inauthentic mapo tofu when she should really be making her own loaded with enough spice to burn the roof of her husband’s mouth clean off. 

His third case, however, sees him steal a device from Snake of June in communicating with an adulterous husband, Ikeyama (Shogen), claiming that he’s kidnapped his mistress, Momoka (Rina Takeda), and will soon expose his extra-marital affair if he refuses to follow the instructions he gives him. These are mostly surprisingly wholesome and a little bit sad as what Kurita is hoping to teach Ikeyama is what a cad he’s being and how his insensitive treatment of Momoka must make her feel. Accordingly, he sends him to a greasy ramen bar mostly frequented by middle-aged men where talking is very much not allowed in order for him to consume a satisfyingly fatty dish the transgressive energy of which both inflamed Momoka’s desire and forced her into a contemplation of her role as the mistress of a married man. Ikeyama’s awakening is less to sex than to love in being forced to accept Momoka’s personhood in empathising with the loneliness his indifference causes her to feel. 

Yet, if it weren’t for the chestnuts, we might wonder if Kurita were real or merely a manifestation of each of his victims’ subconscious fears and desires. Even as it stands, we can’t be sure that anything he says is actually true, nor do we know what motive he has for guiding these frustrated souls towards their sexual release like some strange sex fairy sent from on high. Nevertheless, in satisfying appetites of all kinds he paints the fulfilment of authentic sexuality as a basic human need even as food becomes a kind of displacement activity standing in for the satisfaction of human desire. Strangely absurd in Kurita’s rather creepy demeanour coupled with his victims’ crumbling wholesomeness, Sexual Drive even if ironically presents a refreshingly positive message of embracing kink while remaining mindful of its effects on others. 


Sexual Drive streams in Canada Aug. 5 – 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋, Kan Eguchi, 2021)

Appearances can be deceptive. A case could be made that everyone is in a sense living undercover, pretending to be something they’re not in order to survive in a conformist society and most do indeed have their secrets even if they’re relatively benign. Others, meanwhile, are on a kind of sabbatical from a life of meticulous violence such as the hero of Kan Eguchi’s sequel to smash hit action comedy The Fable, The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋, The Fable: Korosanai Koroshiya) or like his antagonist living a double life with his apparently genuine concern for the lives of disabled and disadvantaged children balanced by his business of targeting wayward youngsters for the purposes of extortion. 

Some months on from the previous action, “Sato” (Junichi Okada), formerly a top Tokyo assassin known as The Fable, is successfully maintaining his cover hiding out in Osaka as an “ordinary” person with a part-time job in a print and design shop. His cover is almost blown, however, when his colleague Etsuji (Masao Yoshii) is targeted by Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi), ostensibly the leader of a local organisation advocating for the rights of children but also a shady gangster who finances his “philanthropy” by extorting the parents of young people who’ve in someway gone off the rails. Etsuji’s crime is, as was exposed in the previous film, his spy cam habit and in particular his planting of hidden cameras in the home of colleague Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) with whom he has an unhealthy obsession stemming from her time as an aspiring idol star. Blaming Misaki for his misfortune, Etsuji turns to violence but is shut down by Sato who risks blowing his cover in order to protect her. Realising he has a previous connection with Utsubo, Sato makes the gang an offer they can’t refuse in order to get Etsuji back but quickly finds himself drawn into another deadly battle with bad guys endangering his still in progress no kill mission. 

Focussed this time much more on action than the fish out of water comedy of Sato’s attempts learn the rules of polite society having been raised in the mountains as a super efficient killing machine, The Fable 2 nevertheless wastes no time in exposing the murkiness of the “normal” world Sato is intended to inhabit. Utsubo is a hit with the local mothers, taken with his smart suit and professionalism as he gives “inspirational” speeches about park safety while making time to converse in sign language with a deaf little girl explaining to another mother that it’s important to “listen to every voice”. As part of his patter he implies his assistant, Hinako (Yurina Hirate), who uses a wheelchair, was injured in a freak park-related accident as a child when in reality she sustained the injury while trapped in the back of a car which veered off a roof after The Fable took out its driver. Vaguely recognising her in the local park, Sato takes an interest out of guilt as the young woman attempts to rebuild her strength in the hope of walking again though that might in itself be contrary to Utsubo’s desires. 

As in the first film, Sato may be a ruthlessly efficient killing machine but at heart he’s still childishly innocent, hoping to help the young woman he unwittingly hurt but also keen not interfere with her ability to help herself. Misunderstanding the situation, Hinako asks Utsubo to lay off Sato, explaining that he gives her confidence as she begins to realise that she can stand alone, as the sometimes uncomfortably ablest metaphor would have it, and no longer needs to be complicit in Utsubo’s nefarious schemes nor need she continue to punish herself in guilt over her traumatic past. While Sato and his handler Yoko (Fumino Kimura) pose as a pair of siblings watched over by their benevolent if absent boss (Koichi Sato), Hinako and underling Suzuki (Masanobu Ando) similarly pose as brother and sister only with the comparatively dubious guidance of Utsubo who affects kindness and generosity while burying problematic youngsters alive in the forest in order to extort money from their “protective” parents. “It’s always the villain who tells the truth” Utsubo explains, insisting that it’s shame and humiliation which build self-esteem in direct contrast to the gently invisible support which seems to have re-activated Hinako’s desire for life.

Sato has at least discovered the benefits of a well functioning and supportive “family” network thanks to the, as we discover, equally handy Yoko, and his still largely oblivious workplace friends. Amping up the action value, Eguchi careers from set piece to set piece culminating in a high octane chase through an apartment block and its eventually unstable scaffolding while making space for slapstick comedy such as two guys trying to move a piano at a very inconvenient moment. A gently wholesome tale of a pure-hearted hitman kicking back against societal hypocrisy while figuring out how to be “normal” in a confusing society, The Fable 2 more than builds on the promise of its predecessor while allowing its hero the space to grow as he begins to adjust to his new and very “ordinary” life.


The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill screens on July 7 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

JK Rock (JK☆ROCK, Shunji Muguruma, 2019)

JK Rock poster 1The heyday of the idol movie may have passed with the Showa era, but the genre proves itself alive and kicking with the infinitely charming JK Rock (JK☆ROCK). Starring the members of Drop Doll – a band formed by the three actresses from director Shunji Muguruma’s previous short Little Performer: The Pulse of Winds, JK Rock is a spunky coming of age tale in which three lost high school girls end up starting band at the behest of a strange old man (Masahiko Nishimura) who owns a rock and roll bar in bohemian Kichijoji and secretly wants to coax reluctant rocker Joe (Shodai Fukuyama) back to the stage.

Joe was once in a promising band, JoKers – a combination of his own name and that of his best friend and bandmate whose initials are also JK. A year earlier, however, he appears to have got cold feet and left music behind him for good in order to concentrate on a law degree. He still has his adoring fans though, these days he’s known as the “purple prince” because he drives round campus in an ostentatious purple Lamborghini. A fateful meet cute brings him into contact with feisty high school girl Sakura (Chihiro Hayama) when she decides to take a middle-aged man to task for queue jumping in a convenience store only for Joe to calmly point out that she’s now the one holding everyone up. Somewhat grateful for Joe’s life lesson, Sakura is non-plussed when he calls her a weirdo as he leaves. It’s no surprise to discover that Sakura is a regular at Teru’s Rock ’n Roll Cafe where Joe used to play and so fate is set in motion.

The film’s name, “JK Rock” is a witty multilayered pun in that it refers both to the multiple “JKs” and to the more obvious “Joshi Kosei” which means “high school girls”. Sakura is joined by two more frequenters of Teru’s – waitress and track star Mao (Yuina) who takes up the guitar, and fabulously wealthy Rina (Yukino Miyake) who practices bass in secret so her ultra ambitious mother won’t stop her doing what she loves. In true idol movie fashion, everyone seems to be fairly well off in an aspirational sense but each has their own problems which run from an inappropriate crush on a supportive teacher to overbearing parents keen to stamp their own view of success on their kids in order to stop them making their own mistakes.

Meanwhile, Joe is battling the usual early life crises as he weighs up following his dreams against the safety of conventionality. “You can’t fire up my rock spirit and then run away!” Sakura angrily tells him in a line that seems oddly filled with subtext, but running away does seem to be Joe’s problem. He didn’t go with his friend to America, and the other Joe is now big international star. Snapped at by the band’s manager that he had no guts and no love for rock, Joe decided he was unworthy for the stage and had no right to play, forcing himself into a dull but conventionally successful life as a lawyer. Consequently, he is a grumpy, empty shell of a man driving round in a stupidly big and colourful car with a superficial girlfriend who assumes she’ll soon be getting married to an independently wealthy professional grade husband. Through jamming with Sakura he begins to rediscover some of his rock spirit and get his mojo back to realise he’s free to play with whoever he wants on his own terms.

A musical coming of age tale, JK Rock does its best to showcase the musical talents of Drop Doll which appear to be vast. JoKers plays only a minor role in brief flashbacks of what might have been (and perhaps could be again) for the dejected Joe while the girlband studies intently under his, originally reluctant, tutorship to become fine musicians in their own right. Of course, when it comes down it, it’s not just music but youthful solidarity and the true power of friendship which eventually show the way as old wounds are repaired and new bonds formed between the variously troubled youngsters who eventually realise that they’re figuring things out and will probably be OK. A charming, sprightly youth movie filled with true punk spirit and genuine warmth, JK Rock is an improbable delight and sure to make stars of its three leading ladies.


JK Rock was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Short version of the music video for the movie’s theme song – Secret Voice

Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2017)

hamon posterConventional wisdom states it’s better not to get involved with the yakuza. According to Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ Hamon: Futari no Yakubyogami), the same goes for sleazy film execs who can prove surprisingly slippery when the occasion calls. Based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s Naoki Prize winning novel and directed by Shotaro Kobayashi who also adapted the same author’s Gold Rush into a successful WOWWOW TV Series, Hamon: Yakuza Boogie is a classic buddy movie in which a down at heels slacker forms an unlikely, grudging yet mutually dependent relationship with a low-level gangster.

Ninomiya (Yu Yokoyama), a classic slacker, makes ends meet by acting as a kind of liaison officer between the normal world and the yakuza one. His contact, Kuwahara (Kuranosuke Sasaki), is a scary looking guy but as yakuza go not so bad to work with. Following the government’s organised crime crackdown, Ninomiya finds himself at more of a loose end and so when an elderly film director, Koshimizu (Isao Hashizume), comes to him and asks to meet a yakuza first hand, Ninomiya sets up a meeting. Yakuza and movies can be a dangerous mix but somehow or other Koshimizu manages to charm the pair and even gets Kuwahara’s boss, Shimada (Jun Kunimura), to invest some of his own money.

Unfortunately, this is when things start to go wrong. Koshimizu’s pretty “daughter” is really his mistress (as Kuwahara suspected) and the wily old bugger has taken off for the casino paradise of Macao with both the beautiful woman and suitcase full of yakuza dough. Kuwahara is now in a lot of trouble and ropes in Ninomiya to help him sort it out but in their pursuit of Koshimizu they eventually find themselves caught up in a series of turf wars.

Yakuza comedies have a tendency towards unexpected darkness but Hamon’s key feature is its almost childish innocence as Ninomiya and Kuwahara go about their business with relatively few genuinely life threatening incidents. Though the pair bicker and argue with Ninomiya always secretly afraid of his big gangster buddy and Kuwahara fed up with his nerdy friend’s lack of know how, the relationship they’ve developed is an intensely co-dependent one which fully supports the slightly ironic “no me without you” message. Eventually growing into each other, Ninomiya and Kuwahara move increasingly into the other’s territory before finally re-encountering each other on more equal footing.

These are less rabid killers than a bunch of guys caught up in a silly game. Shady film director Koshimizu turns out to be some sort of cartoon hero, perpetually making a sprightly and unexpected escape despite his advanced age while the toughened gangsters hired to keep him locked up find themselves one hostage short time after time. Ninomiya’s worried cousin Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) keeps trying to talk him into a more ordered way of life which doesn’t involve so much hanging round with scary looking guys in suits, but Ninomiya is reluctant to leave the fringes of the underworld even if he seems afraid for much of the time. Kuwahara is a yakuza through and through, or so he thinks. This latest saga has left him in an embarrassing position with his bosses, not to mention the diplomatic incident with a rival gang, all of which threatens his underworld status and thereby essential identity.

Still, all we’re talking about here is having a little more time for solo karaoke, not being bundled into the boot of a car and driven to a remote location. Filled with movie references and slapstick humour this is a yakuza tale inspired by classic cinematic gangsters rather than their real world counterparts but it still has a few things to say about human nature in general outside of the fictional. An odd couple, Ninomiya and Kuwahara couldn’t be more different but besides the fact they don’t quite get along, they make a good team. No me without you indeed, solo stakeouts are boring, even if you do bicker and fuss the whole time it’s good to know there’s someone who’ll always come back for you (especially if you tell them not to) ready to take the wheel.


Hamon: Yakuza Boogie was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)