The Kodai Family (高台家の人々, Masato Hijikata, 2016)

kodai family posterFear of “broadcasting” is a classic symptom of psychosis, but supposing there really was someone who could hear all your thoughts as clearly as if you’d spoken them aloud, how would that make you feel? The shy daydreamer at the centre of The Kodai Family (高台家の人々, Kodaike no Hitobito) is about to find out as she becomes embroiled in a very real fairytale with a handsome prince whose lifelong ability to read minds has made him wary of trying to form genuine connections with ordinary people. Walls come down only to jump back up again when the full implications become apparent but there are taller walls to climb than that of discomfort with intimacy including snobby mothers and class based insecurities.

29-year-old Kie (Haruka Ayase) has a dull job as a regular OL in the successful Kodai company. A self-confessed shy person who finds it difficult to talk, Kei spends most of her time alone though she does have a few friends at work. Though Kei’s exterior life may appear dull she has a rich, even overactive imagination which she uses to entertain herself by heading off into wild flights of fancy guided only by a friendly (?) gnome.

Kei’s life begins to change when the oldest son of the Kodai family returns to the office after studying abroad. Mitsumasa (Takumi Saito) is a handsome, if sad-looking man who quickly has all of the office in a flurry of excitement thanks to his dashing good looks and confident stride. Mitsumasa, however, has a secret – the ability to read other people’s thoughts inherited from his British grandmother, Anne. Whilst walking down the corridor and trying to ignore the lewd and avaricious thoughts of some of the ladies (and the worried ones of some of the men now fearing more than one kind of competition), Mitsumasa is treated to one of Kei’s amusing fantasies and is quickly smitten.

For Kei who finds voicing her true feelings difficult, Mitsumasa’s ability seems like the perfect solution. Finally, someone who will just understand her without the need for conversation. However, what Kei hasn’t considered is that a deeper level of intimacy is being asked of her than she’d previously anticipated. From the merely embarrassing to the tactless and tasteless, it is no longer possible to withhold any part of herself other than by an exhausting process of trying to close her mind down completely. Mitsumasa is used to this particular phenomenon in which his enhanced powers of communication only result in additional barriers to connection. Somewhat closed off himself, resigned to the fact he’s going to “overhear” things he’d rather not know, Mitsumasa has made a point of keeping himself aloof from ordinary people who, once they know about his abilities, find him suspicious and threatening.

Yet Mitsumasa’s telepathic powers are not the only obstruction in this fairytale love story. Kei already can’t quite believe what’s happening is real and struggles with the idea someone like Mitsumasa might seriously be interested in her. Though Mitsumasa’s brother (Shotaro Mamiya) and sister (Kiko Mizuhara), who share his ability, are broadly supportive (and equally entertained by Kei’s innocent and quirky flights of fancy), his mother (Mao Daichi) is anything but. Kei’s prospective mother-in-law starts as she means to go on by mistaking Kei for a new maid and then proceeding to further erode her confidence by pointing out that she knows nothing about this upper class world of balls and tennis and horse riding.

When it all becomes too much, Kei does what she always does – retreats to safer ground. Papering over her cowardice with the weak justification that she thinks she’ll only make Mitsumasa miserable, Kei backs away from the idea of baring her whole, unfiltered soul even if she knows it will cost her the man she loves and the ending to her real life fairytale.

Though charming enough and filled with interesting manga-inspired effects, Kodai Family never makes the most of its interesting premise, falling back on standard romantic comedy tropes from parental disapproval to predictable misunderstandings. The irony is that Mitsumasa and his siblings are so busy listening to the thoughts of others that they often can’t hear their own and are so deep in denial that they need a third-party (telepathic or not) to push them into realising how it is they really feel. This is a world of double insulation, in which the walls are both thick and thin, but there is a way a through for those brave enough to kick them down by baring all for love, snobby mothers be damned.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-, Shun Nakahara, 2008)

The Cherry Orchard- Blossoming poster In 1990, Shun Nakahara adapted Akimi Yoshida’s manga Sakura no Sono and created a perfectly observed capsule of late ‘80s teenage life at an elite girls school where the encroaching future is both terrifying and oddly exciting. Revisiting the same material 28 years later, one can’t help feeling that the times have rolled back rather than forwards. Starring a collection of appropriately aged teenage starlets The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその- Sakura no Sono), dispenses with the arty overtones for a far more straightforward tale of melancholy schoolgirls finding release in art but, crucially, only to a point.

Less an attempt to remake the original, Blossoming acts as an odd kind of sequel in which the leading lady, Momo (Saki Fukuda), becomes fed up with her rigid life at a music conservatoire and rebelliously storms out. Already in her last year of high school, Momo is lucky enough to get a transfer to Oka Academy solely because her mother and (much) older sister are old girls. However, transfer students are rare at Oka and the other girls aren’t exactly happy to see her – they worked hard to get here but she’s just waltzed straight in without any kind of effort at all.

Gradually the situation improves. Wandering around the old school building (a European style country house) which was the setting for the first film and has now been replaced with a modern, purpose built high school complex, Momo finds the script for The Cherry Orchard and becomes fixated on the idea of putting the play on with some of the other students. However, though The Cherry Orchard used to be an annual fixture it hasn’t been performed in 11 years after being abruptly cancelled when one of the stars disgraced the school by falling pregnant.

Whereas Nakahara’s 1990 Cherry Orchard was a tightly controlled affair, penning the girls inside the school and staying with them through several crises across the two hours before their big performance, Blossoming has no such conceits and adopts a formula much more like the classic sports movie as the underdog girls fight to put the play on and then undergo physical training (complete with montages) rather than rehearsals.

Momo’s rebellion is (in a sense) a positive one as she abandons something she was beginning to find no longer worked for her to look for something else and also gains a need to see things through rather than give up when times get hard. The drama of the 1990 version is kickstarted when a student is caught smoking in a cafe with delinquents from another school, aside from being told that students are expected to go straight home, Momo feels little danger in hanging out in an underground bar where her music school friend plays in a avant-garde pop band.

Though this reflects a change in eras it also points to a slight sanitisation of the source material. Gone are the illicit boyfriends (though there is one we don’t see) and barely repressed crushes, these teens are still in the land of shojo – dreaming of romance but innocently. Teenage pregnancy becomes a recurrent theme but lost opportunities hover in the background as the girls are seen from their own perspective rather than the wistful melancholy of those looking back on their youth.

Such commentary is left to the “old girls” represented by Momo’s soon to be married sister and the girls’ teacher, each of whom is still left hanging thanks to the cancellation of the play during their high school years. Despite her impending marriage, Momo’s sister does not seem to be able to put the past behind her and may be nursing a long term unrequited crush on a high school classmate. Blossoming echoes some of the concerns of Cherry Orchard, notably in its central pairing as lanky high jumper Aoi (Anne Watanabe) worries over a perceived lack of femininity while the more refined Mayuko (Saki Terashima) silently pines for her, unable to make her feelings plain. The 1990 version presented a painful triangle of possibly unrequited loves and general romantic confusion but it did at least allow a space for overt discussion rather than the half hearted subtly of a mainstream idol film in a supposedly more progressive era.

Nevertheless, Nakahara’s second pass at teenage drama does fulfil on the plucky high school girls promise as the gang get together to put the show on right here. Much less nuanced than the earlier version, Blossoming’s teens are just as real even if somehow more naive than their ‘80s counterparts. Team building, friendship, and perseverance are the name of the day as the passing of time takes a back seat, relegated to Momo’s sad smile as she alone witnesses the painful love drama of her melancholy friend.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Shun Nakahara, 1990)

Cherry Orchard 1990 posterChekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is more about the passing of an era and the fates of those who fail to swim the tides of history than it is about transience and the ever-present tragedy of the death of every moment, but still there is a commonality in the symbolism. Shun Nakahara’s The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Sakura no Sono) is not an adaptation of Chekhov’s play but of Akimi Yoshida’s popular 1980s shojo manga which centres on a drama group at an all girls high school. Alarm bells may be ringing, but Nakahara sidesteps the usual teen angst drama for a sensitively done coming of age tale as the girls face up to their liminal status and prepare to step forward into their own new era.

The annual production of The Cherry Orchard has become a firm fixture at Oka Academy – even more so this year as it marks an important anniversary for the school. Stage manager Kaori (Miho Miyazawa) has come in extra early to prep for the performance, but also because she’s enjoying a covert assignation with her boyfriend whom she is keen to get rid of before anyone else turns up and catches them at it. Hearing the door, Kaori bundles him out the back way before the show’s director, Yuko (Hiroko Nakajima), who is also playing a maid arrives looking a little different – she’s had a giant perm.

Yuko’s hair is very much against school regulations but she figures they’ll get over it. Fortunately or unfortunately, Yuko’s hairdo is the least of their problems. Another girl who is supposed to be playing a leading role, Noriko (Miho Tsumiki), has been caught smoking and hanging out with delinquents from another school. She and her parents are currently in the headmaster’s office, and everyone is suddenly worried. The girls’ teacher, Ms. Satomi (Mai Okamoto), is going in to bat for them but it sounds like the play might be cancelled at the last-minute just because the strict school board don’t think it appropriate to associate themselves with such a disappointing student.

The drama club acts as a kind of safe space for the girls. Oka Academy is, to judge by the decor and uniforms, a fairly high-class place with strict rules and ideas about the way each of the young ladies should look, feel, and act. Their ages differ, but they’re all getting towards the age when they know whether or not those ideas are necessarily ones they wish to follow. As if to bring out the rigid nature of their school life, The Cherry Orchard is preformed every single year (classic plays get funded more easily than modern drama) but at least, as one commentator puts it, Ms. Satomi’s production is one of the most “refreshing” the school has ever seen, perhaps echoing the new-found freedoms these young women are beginning to explore.

Free they are and free they aren’t as the girls find themselves experiencing the usual teenage confusions but also finding the courage to face them. Yuko’s hair was less about self-expression than it was about catching the attention of a crush – not a boy, but a fellow student, Chiyoko (Yasuyo Shirashima). Chiyoko, by contrast is pre-occupied with her leading role in the play. Last year, in a male role, she excelled but Ranevskaya is out of her comfort zone. Tall and slim, Chiyoko has extreme hangups around her own femininity and would rather have taken any other male role than the female lead.

Yuko keeps her crush to herself but unexpectedly bonds with delinquent student Noriko who has correctly guessed the direction of Yuko’s desires. Sensitively probing the issue, using and then retreating from the “lesbian” label, Noriko draws a partial confession from her classmate but it proves a bittersweet experience. Predictably enough, Noriko’s “delinquency” is foregrounded by her own more certain sexuality. Noriko’s crush on the oblivious Yuko looks set to end in heartbreak, though Nakahara is less interested in the salaciousness of a teenage love triangle than the painfulness of unrequited, unspoken love which leaves Noriko hovering on the sidelines – wiser than the other girls, but paying heavily for it.

Chekhov’s play famously ends with the sound of falling trees, heralding the toppling of an era but with a kind of sadness for the destruction of something beautiful which could not be saved. Nakahara’s film ends with cherry blossoms blowing in through an open window in an empty room. The spectre of endings hangs heavily, neatly echoed by Ms. Satomi’s argument to the promise that the play will go ahead next year with the cry that next year these girls will be gone. This is a precious time filled with fun and friendship in which the drama club affords the opportunity to figure things out away from the otherwise strict and conformist school environment. Nakahara films with sympathetic naturalism, staying mainly within the rehearsal room with brief trips to the roof or empty school corridors capturing these late ‘80s teens for all of their natural exuberance and private sorrows.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hime-anole (ヒメアノ~ル, Keisuke Yoshida, 2016)

hime-anole posterSome people are odd, and that’s OK. Then there are the people who are odd, but definitely not OK. Hime-anole (ヒメアノ~ル) introduces us to both of these kinds of outsiders, attempting to draw a line between the merely awkward and the actively dangerous but ultimately finding that there is no line and perhaps simple acts of kindness offered at the right time could have prevented a mind snapping or a person descending into spiralling homicidal delusion. To go any further is to say too much, but Hime-anole revels in its reversals, switching rapidly between quirky romantic comedy, gritty Japanese indie, and finally grim social horror. Yet it plants its seeds early with two young men struggling to express their true emotions, trapped and lonely, leading unfulfilling lives. Their dissatisfaction is ordinary, but these same repressed emotions taken to an extreme can produce much more harmful results than two guys eating stale donuts everyday just to ask a pretty girl for the bill.

Okada (Gaku Hamada) is a young man lost. He has a dead end construction job he doesn’t like and isn’t particularly good at, but treading cement all over the finished floors at least helps him bond with his mentor, Ando (Tsuyoshi Muro), who seems to view him as a friend even if constantly referring to him as “Okamura”. Okada takes the opportunity to explain his malaise to Ando – that he feels his life slipping away from him in its emptiness, going through the motions with no real hobbies or girlfriend to give his existence meaning. Ando does not really understand this, he says dissatisfaction is natural and the driving force of all life but, on the other hand, he is not particularly dissatisfied because he lives for love!

Ando has a crush on a girl at the local cafe, Yuka (Aimi Satsukawa), who actually hasn’t noticed him because she’s pre-occupied with the blond guy who got there before Ando and sits outside everyday just staring at her. Luckily or unluckily, the guy in question, Morita (Go Morita), is an old high school acquaintance of Okada’s and so Ando asks him to find out what’s going on with this scary looking guy and his angelic lady love.

So far, so Japanese indie rom-com, but when the title card flashes up about a third of the way in, we’re in very different territory. Suddenly the colour drains from the screen and Yoshida changes his aesthetic and shooting style almost entirely. Gone is the comforting, slightly washed out colour scheme and the static, middle-distance camera of the opening. Now we are the voyeur, held helpless behind Yoshida’s erratic shaky cam, hiding behind the bins as Morita goes about his bloody business. Morita’s world is dark yet realistic, he’s shot and positioned with the arch naturalism familiar to the Japanese indie and the violence he inflicts is not movie violence, it is shocking, sickening, and visceral.

Hime-anole does not shy away from the consequences of its actions. This is, in a way, its point. At one time or another everyone concludes the increasingly surreal events they become engulfed in must be all their fault because they all have at some point acted in a way they do not quite approve of. Guilt is another of the emotions that is hard to express, especially when it’s mixed with humiliation or fear, but left unaddressed it is these corrosive agonies which develop into deep psychoses. Morita, a violent sociopath, was once (or so it would seem) an ordinary young boy who liked video games and had few friends. Perhaps if he hadn’t been the victim of humiliating, sadistic treatment, or if someone had found the courage to stand up for him, none of this might be happening.

Then again, the world is a strange place filled with people who have trouble deciding where the lines are when it comes to appropriate behaviour. Poor Yuka seems to have become something of a nutter magnet, stalked by two guys at the same time and chatted up in the street by persistent suitors who only leave her alone when they realise she’s waiting for another man. Okada is the only man who’s treated her like a regular human being for a very long time so it’s no surprise that she begins to prefer him to his awkward friend. Ando is, it has to be said, odd. Convinced Yuka is the one for him yet completely uninterested in her feelings, he vows to persevere. Yet for all his talk of chainsaws, Ando is basically harmless (to others at least) and just another lonely guy who doesn’t know how to express himself in way in which he will be understood. Morita, by contrast, is instantly creepy and has no interest in connection, he only wants to take and possess in a kind of ongoing vengeance for truly horrific events in his childhood following which something inside him became very broken.

That Hime-anole ends with a Brazil-style fantasy only adds to its strangely melancholy air as it insists on sympathy for the devil even whilst showing each of his sadistic crimes for the ugly, bloody messes they really are. Maybe the reason everybody feels they’re to blame is that in some way they are yet everyone has done things they regret or aren’t proud of, wishing they’d done things differently or managed to find the courage to do what they thought was right rather than choosing to protect themselves or keep their head down when they could have saved someone else pain. Betrayals can be small things, but they fester – like those unspoken emotions which were making our guys so unhappy in the first place. There are no innocents in Hime-anole save perhaps for the ones pushed further than they could endure, but there are those finally facing up to their own flaws and attempting to do things differently now they know better. If that’s not progress, what is?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Death Note: Light Up The NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

Death Note- Light up the NEW WorldTsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata’s Death Note manga has already spawned three live action films, an acclaimed TV anime, live action TV drama, musical, and various other forms of media becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. A return to cinema screens was therefore inevitable – Death Note: Light up the NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World) positions itself as the first in a possible new strand of the ongoing franchise, casting its net wider to embrace a new, global world. Directed by Shinsuke Sato – one of the foremost blockbuster directors in Japan responsible for Gantz, Library Wars, and the zombie comedy I am a Hero, Light up the NEW World is a new kind of Death Note movie which moves away from the adversarial nature of the series for a more traditional kind of existential procedural which takes its cues from noir rather the eccentric detectives the franchise is known for.

Ten years after Kira, the Shinigami are bored out of their minds and hoping to find themselves a new puppet to play with and so they drop six notebooks at different places across the world and wait to see who picks them up. The first is a Russian doctor who uses it out of curiosity and compassion when faced with the desperate pleas of a suffering, terminally ill man. Others are not so altruistic, as a young girl with reaper eyes goes on a mass random killing spree in the busy Shibuya streets while the police attempt to cover their faces so they can’t fall victim to her relentless writing. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) of the special Death Note task force hesitates, uncertain whether he should disobey orders and shoot the girl to end her killing spree, but his dilemma is solved when a strangely dressed masked man appears and shoots her for him. He is special detective Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) – L’s successor, and a crucial ally in discovering the Shinigami’s intentions as well as the counter plan to obtain the six books and lock them away to permanently disable the Death Note threat.

As in the original series, Kira has his devotees including the cybercriminal Shien (Masaki Suda) who is intent on frustrating the police’s plan by getting his hands on the books and using them to complete Kira’s grand design. This time around, there’s less questioning of the nature of justice or of the police but at least that means there’s little respect given to Kira’s cryptofascist ideas about crime and punishment. At one point a very wealthy woman begins to voice her support of Kira because something needs to be done about “the poor” and all their “crimes” but she is quickly cut down herself as her well dressed friends attempt to rally around her.

The focus is the police, or more specifically their internal political disputes and divisions. Mishima, described as a Kira geek, heads a special squad dedicated to Death Note related crimes, where he is asssited by the flamboyant private detective Ryuzaki who is apparently the last remaining inheritor of L’s DNA. Mishima remains distrustful of his colleague but the bond between the rest of the team is a tight one. In order to frustrate possible Death Note users, none of the squad is using their real names which places a barrier between comrades in arms when it comes to building trust and solidarity in addition to leaving a backdoor open for unexpected secrets.

Sato’s focus, as it has been in the majority of his career, is genre rather than character or exploring the wider themes of the Death Note franchise from the corrupting influence of absolute power to vigilante justice and the failings of the judicial system. The new Death Note world is a more conventional one loyal to the police procedural in which dogged detectives chase mad killers through whatever means necessary whether on foot or online.

The action, however, is generally exciting as the police engage in a cat and mouse game with Shien even if not as complex as that between Kira and L. The Death Notes are an unstoppable force, corrupting otherwise fair-minded people and turning them into vengeful killing machines acting like gods in deciding who should live and who die. Moving away from the series trademark, Light up the NEW World is, essentially, the generic thriller spin-off to the main franchise but is no less fun for it even if it necessarily loses a little of itself in the process.


Death Note: Light up the NEW World was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wolf Guy (ウルフガイ 燃えよ狼男, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)

Wolf Guy posterUniversal’s Monster series might have a lot to answer for in creating a cinematic canon of ambiguous “heroes” who are by turns both worthy of pity and the embodiment of somehow unnatural evil. Despite the enduring popularity of Dracula, Frankenstein (dropping his “monster” monicker and acceding to his master’s name even if not quite his identity), and even The Mummy, the Wolf Man has, appropriately enough, remained a shadowy figure relegated to a substratum of second-rate classics. Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Wolf Guy (ウルフガイ 燃えよ狼男, Wolf Guy: Moero Okami Otoko, AKA Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope) is no exception to this rule and in any case pays little more than lip service to werewolf lore. An adaptation of a popular manga, Wolf Guy is one among dozens of disposable B-movies starring action hero Sonny Chiba which have languished in obscurity save for the attentions of dedicated superfans, but sure as a full moon its time has come again.

Chiba plays Inugami (literally “dog god”, in Japanese folklore an Inugami is a vengeful dog spirit which can possess people in times of emotional extremity), a melancholy reporter with a reputation for getting himself into trouble who comes across a strange scene in the street in which a white suited man begins raving about a tiger before being gored to death by invisible forces. The police, dragging in Inugami for questioning, can’t come up with anything better than demons to explain such strange events but Inugami’s interest is piqued – more so when he runs into a shady paparazzo who tips him off to similar crimes all targeting a rock band run by a prominent talent agency.

Wolf Guy is not the most coherent of films, it explains itself piecemeal as it goes along and mostly through Inugami’s own world-weary voiceover. Despite this immediate access to Inugami’s psyche, he remains aloof, brooding, and distant. Literally a lone wolf, Inugami is the last of his kind – the little boy saved from a massacre in the black and white still frames of the opening sequence. Yamaguchi chooses not to engage with this theme on much more than a surface level though he maintains a low-level anger towards corrupt authority and those who attempt to wield power from the shadows, targeting the different or the weak.

Through this deeply held feeling of alienated otherness, Inugami comes to feel an intense kinship with the wronged woman at the centre of the curse. Miki (Etsuko Nami) is even more a victim of this intense authoritarianism than Inugami himself. A working class nightclub singer in love with a politician’s son, Miki becomes a problem for her potential father-in-law, one which he solves with gang rape and infection with syphilis. Dumped, alone, infected, and also hooked on drugs, Miki’s mental state is understandably volatile but her troubles are not yet over. The mysterious tiger and Inugami’s wolf man attributes bring the pair to the attentions of a shady group intent on harnessing these unique supernatural powers for themselves with no regard for the “human” cost involved.

Inugami sympathises with Miki out of a shared hatred for “humans” who can treat each other in such inhumane ways. Humans massacred his family and when he tries to go home, the sons of the men who did it seem to know who he is and want to finish the job. Lonely and afraid, Inugami starts to wonder if humans and his own kind will ever be able to live together in harmony. Though he does begin to form brief romantic relationships, none of them end well. It’s almost a running joke that he’s irresistible to every woman in the film, but as much as they run to him they run to death – his love is toxic and even the invulnerability conferred by the moon is unable to save the women in his life from the violence of mortal men. Yet for all his sadness and internalised rage, the Wolf Guy is a hippy hero, the kind who throws away his gun and chooses to retreat in peace rather than fight on in a pointless and internecine quest for vengeance.

Rather than a story of humanity overturned by overwhelming, irrational emotional forces, Wolf Guy presents a hero perfectly in tune with his emotional life even if imbued with Chiba’s iconic coolness. This is not a “werewolf” story, Chiba never transforms nor does he lose himself at the sight of a full moon – rather it strengthens, sustains, and protects him. This almost new age idea gels well with the generally psychedelic approach filled with groovy ‘70s guitar, whip pans, zooms and crazy action though the film certainly goes to some dark places including an extremely unsettling surgery scene followed by an equally disturbing one of healing body horror in which exposed intestines rearrange themselves neatly inside the stomach cavity which then begins to knit itself together again. An eccentric, essentially disposable offering, Wolf Guy makes no real attempt at coherence but is willing to embrace just about every kind of madcap idea which presents itself. Strange, absurd, and all the better for it Wolf Guy is one wild ride but also has its heart in the right place as its melancholy hero heads out into the mountains, a self-exile from a cruel and unforgiving world.


Wolf Guy is released on Dual Format DVD & Blu-ray in the US and UK on 22nd/23rd May 2017 courtesy of Arrow Video.

Arrow release EPK video

 

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: