Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette (映画 賭ケグルイ 絶体絶命ロシアンルーレット, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Closet revolutionary or compulsive gambler, Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe) continues to be a thorn in the side of the Student Council in the sequel to hit movie Kakegurui, itself a sequel to a two-series live action drama adapted from the manga by Homura Kawamoto. Set as the opening expositionary narration explains at school for the elite Hyakkaoh Academy where social hierarchy is determined by skill in gambling, Ultimate Russian Roulette (映画 賭ケグルイ 絶体絶命ロシアンルーレット, Eiga Kakegurui: Zettai Zetsumei Russian Roulette) sees the rattled Student Council making a counterproductive and potentially ruinous decision in bringing back a previously exiled player in the hope of permanently neutralising Yumeko. 

Makuro Shikigami (Ryusei Fujii) was suspended some years ago for his part in the “House Pets’ Curse” which led to most of the school being demoted to its lowest, near untouchable ranks. At Hyakkaoh Academy, students are required to pay a tithe to the Council and those who can’t pay end up as “House Pets”, humiliatingly treated as cats and dogs. Yumeko’s friend Meari (Aoi Morikawa) fears she may have fallen foul of the curse herself having hit a lengthy losing streak, but it’s not until Shikigami begins twisting the situation to his advantage that Yumeko is snared by his manipulative trap. 

Yumeko, meanwhile, is in the middle of a depressive episode largely down to her reluctance to take part in the school’s upcoming sports’ day. Just as in the previous film her long game was better cakes in the cafeteria, her end goal here is trying to get the event cancelled by whatever means possible. In any case, we also witness another dark side to the oppressive rule of the Student Council as a demoted Maeri finds herself in a literal chain gang forced into hard labour building the facilities for the sports festival in what seems to be a minor dig at preparations for the Olympics. Yumeko and Meari are, however, responsible gamblers in that they refuse to bet on other people’s safety or at least refuse to be complicit in games which are designed to inflict harm or cruelty on others. 

As Shikigami explains in his opening monologue, the skills needed for gambling are strategy, ability to read your opponents, and a killer instinct. This is something Yumeko knows well, she plays players not games and sees straight through Shikigami realising that his crazed psychopathy is an act to mask the meticulous quality of his external manipulations. Nevertheless she is also caught out by her unwillingness to put her friends in danger, willingly sacrificing herself instead. The Student Council too are seemingly caught off guard little realising that Shikigami presents just as much of a threat to their authority as Yumeko and is equally uncontrollable with far fewer principles. Still as Student Council President Kirari (Elaiza Ikeda) ominously reflects, “there must be chaos before order”. 

In any case, they find themselves awkward allies in facing off against Shikigami in the promised game of Russian roulette mediated through a card game but played for real. The Student Council leaves itself surprisingly vulnerable in a loophole which allows House Pets to challenge them directly overruling all of the other school regulations, while Shikigami too falls victim to his own arrogance never quite expecting to be challenged having achieved his primary goals of seizing control of the school via the Council. The only way to beat him is to play him at his own game, disrupting his self-serving plotting and tendency to cheat in an insult to the art of gambling while undermining his confidence in his own intellectual superiority. “Only a twisted mind could beat you” he says of Yumeko believing himself to be a twisted mind though as it turns out perhaps not quite twisted enough. 

Temporarily siding with authority in order to put a stop to Shikigami’s authoritarian potential, Yumeko does not so much challenge the system as work around it while protecting herself and her friends from Shikigami’s machinations. What she defends is in a sense gambling itself, rejecting Shikigami’s intention to subvert it to his own advantage. Maintaining the same absurdist, manga-esque aesthetic as the first film complete with cartoonish CGI pupil shrinking, slick onscreen graphics, and even this time a random musical number, Hanabusa significantly ups the ante with bomb threats and unexpected Satanism while leaving the door open for the next instalment with Yumeko’s final instruction to “Bring on the Madness”. 


Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)

Jigoku-no-Hanazono: Office Royale (地獄の花園, Kazuaki Seki, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

The OL, or “office lady” occupies a peculiar place in Japanese pop culture if not the society itself. The evolution of the typing pool, the OL exists to one side of office life, treated as domestic staff in the corporate environment and in many ways expected to be invisible. As such, an OL performs stereotypically feminine tasks in the office such as keeping the place clean and their male bosses looked after in addition to handling often dull and pointless admin work. It goes without saying that in general being an OL is a young woman’s job with the expectation that most will either find a way to transition onto a more viable career track or simply leave the world of work behind to marry and become a regular housewife. 

It’s this image of the OL as the embodiment of bland geniality that is at the centre of Kazuaki Seki’s zany comedy Jigoku-no-Hanazono: Office Royale (地獄の花園, Jigoku no Hanazono), a repurposing of “yankee” high school delinquent manga for the world of the office lady scripted by comedian Bakarhythm. A devotee of yankee manga, 26-year-old OL Naoko (Mei Nagano) explains that even office ladies have their warring factions outlining the tripartite fault lines at play in even her small company where the head OLs from Sales, R&D, and Manufacturing constantly vie for hegemony through physical dominance. She however merely observes from the sidelines defiantly living her “ordinary” office lady life. That is until new hire Ran Hojo (Alice Hirose) arrives to upset the precarious workplace power balance. 

Naoko first catches sight of Ran after she challenges some of the OLs from her company as they harass a timid male employee in the street though they don’t become best friends until after Ran spots a salaryman trying to upskirt her at a bus stop and decides to teach him a lesson. Despite being a yankee, it seems that Ran is also trying to live a normal OL life, bonding with Naoko over their shared love of a TV drama, but is not exactly good at the job and regards fighting as her one and only skill. Perhaps speaking to an inner insecurity born of being a woman in a conformist and patriarchal society, each of the women struggle to see themselves as protagonists in their own lives rather than mere supporting players unwittingly both playing the role of the ditzy best friend to the competent hero. 

In one of her many meta quips commenting on the action and how it would play out if she were a character in a yankee manga, Naoko laments her status as the “comic book hero’s boring friend” which is extremely ironic seeing as she is certainly the heroine of this movie given that it’s her voiceover we’re hearing and her POV we generally adopt. Yet Seki sometimes undercuts her by shifting to a rival voiceover offered by Ran herself doubtful of her proper place in the narrative and eventually descending into an existential crisis after an unexpected setback shatters her sense of self. 

Nevertheless, even if as the de facto leader of her company’s OLs Ran advocates for equality insisting there are no bosses and no underlings only women standing together, Office Royale generally embraces rather than attacks societal sexism particularly in its somewhat unexpected conclusion which ends in ironic romance rather than female solidarity. Even so, it’s interesting that the OLs lose interest in delinquency once the hierarchy of fists has been fairly decided, acknowledging the superior skills of a better fighter and thereafter living peacefully rather than continuing the internecine determination to sit at the top of the pyramid which is the hallmark of the high school yankee manga. 

While the final arc strays into some potentially problematic territory with the uncomfortable humour of four male actors playing the top fighters of a rival gang of OLs from another company, Office Royale offers a series of surprisingly well choreographed fight scenes even if eventually descending into manga-esque cartoonish violence while much of the humour stems from Naoko’s adorably nerdy voiceover musing on what would happen next if this were a yankee manga. In the end, however, it’s less a tale of office lady infighting than of a pair of young women coming to a better understanding of themselves even if they do so through the potentially destructive medium of pugilism. 


Jigoku-no-Hanazono: Office Royale streamed as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Revengers (東京リベンジャーズ, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

“You don’t deserve to change my life” the hero of Tsutomu Hanabusa’s adaptation of Ken Wakui’s manga Tokyo Revengers (東京リベンジャーズ) eventually affirms in finally facing his fears while trying to change destiny not least his own. In contrast to its original meaning in English, the wasei eigo “Revenge” usually means not payback but “rematch” or at least a second chance to prove oneself or make up for a past mistake. Through his time travel shenanigans, this is perhaps what young Takemichi (Takumi Kitamura) is attempting to do in revisiting the events which he feels ruined his life and left him a useless coward too cowed to offer much resistance to his continual degradation. 

Now 27, Takemichi lives in a rundown, untidy apartment and works part-time in a bookstore where his boss inappropriately mocks for him for still being a virgin, the kind of guy who peaked in high school and can’t move on from adolescent bravado. He might have a point in a sense in that Takemichi is indeed arrested but hearing on the news one day that his first love Hinata (Mio Imada) has been killed in a car accident supposedly caused by the Tokyo Manji gang alongside her brother Naoto (Yosuke Sugino), he finds himself thinking back to his school days. It’s at this point that someone shoves him off a train platform and, facing certain death, he suddenly finds himself in the body of his 17-year-old, bleach blond delinquent self. Takemichi assumes it’s a near death flashback, but later wakes up back in the present and realises that his actions in the past have consequences in the future. 

Quite clearly taking its cues from classic high school delinquent manga in which moody high school boys vie for the top spot through relentless violence, Tokyo Revengers nevertheless undercuts the genre’s macho posturing in firstly having Takemichi broken by his first defeat and then allowing him to reclaim his space as a hero through his determination to care for and protect others even if his final victory is in facing the man he held responsible for shattering his sense of self. Sent back into the past to prevent the Tokyo Manji Gang from ever forming, Takemichi refuses the obvious early solution but remains conflicted in realising that at its inception “Toman” saw itself as a compassionate force for good, a far cry from the nihilistic violence it now brings to the city. Rather than more violence, he finds a solution in its reverse, safeguarding relationships and preventing heartbreak in order to ensure no one else’s soul is corrupted by grief or loneliness. 

Takemichi feels himself powerless but is valued by his friends for his determination to protect others no matter the cost to himself, as he unwittingly proves through his time travel adventures attempting to save himself as much as Hinata by restoring his sense of self apparently shattered by his subjugation at the hands of a rival gang back back in high school. At 27 he’s a meek and broken man, forever apologising for his existence and living an unfulfilling life always running away from challenge or difficulty. Given an improbable second chance, he begins to find the courage to do it all differently with the benefit of hindsight and the stability of age, finally facing his teenage trauma as a fully adult man.  

Like any good delinquent movie, Hanabusa makes space for more than a few mass brawls along with intensely personal one-on-one battles drawing a direct line between high school violence and street war thuggery. “Thugs aren’t cool anymore” Toman leader Mikey (Ryo Yoshizawa) had explained, his compassionate second in command Kenchin (Yuki Yamada) reminding him to “have a heart” in keeping gang violence within the confines of their society and refraining from injuring innocent people. Toman aren’t yakuza, but they are perhaps the inheritors of jingi, or at least would be if left untouched by trauma and betrayal. In beating his own trauma, Takemichi undoes his destiny saving his friends and himself by learning to embrace his inner strength and refusing to back down in the face of intimidation. Part high school delinquent manga, part time travel adventure, Hanabusa’s sci-fi-inflected drama swaps macho posturing for a more contemplative take on the weight of past mistakes while giving its hero a second chance to be the kind of man he always thought himself to be.


Tokyo Revengers screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Koji Fukada, 2020)

“It’s hard to see weakness, especially your own” the oblivious hero of Koji Fukada’s perhaps uncharacteristically optimistic romantic melodrama The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Honki no Shirushi) is told, though it’ll be a while before he realises how annoyingly right his rival has read him. Adapted from the manga by Mochiru Hoshisato and first aired as a 10-part TV drama, Fukada’s tale of mutual salvations finds its dissatisfied heroes struggling to define themselves in a conformist culture but finding perhaps the “signpost” towards the real through a process of romantic misadventure in realising that the emotional crash of a failed connection can perhaps bounce you into a moment of self-realisation and the courage to carry it through. 

Last to experience such a moment, the hero 30-year old Tsuji (Win Morisaki) is a thoroughly bored salaryman working at a company which sells fireworks along with cheap plastic toys for children. Entirely passive, he is in two contradictory romances with a pair of diametrically opposed office ladies at his company (which has a strict rule against inter-office dating) but is emotionally invested in neither of them. His life changes one day while he’s idly buying a bottle of water at a convenience store and notices a confused woman has picked up a damaged children’s toy he was trying to get taken off the shelf by the disinterested cashier but she hardly pays attention to him changing it over for her because she’s intensely confused by a map of the local area. After his attempt to help her fails, Tsuji leaves the store but later comes across the woman again when she somehow stalls in the middle of a level crossing and is about to be hit by a train, heroically leaning through an open window to put the car in neutral and push it out of the way with mere seconds to spare. He stays with the woman, Ukiyo (Kaho Tsuchimura), until the police arrive but she panics and tries to make out he was driving before thinking better of it and coming clean. 

It’s a pattern than will often be repeated in the earlier parts of their relationship. Having tried to do something good, he finds himself incurring only infinite trouble. Bugged by the rental company who find his business card in the abandoned car, Tsuji is bamboozled into Ukiyo’s very complicated world of lies and broken promises but nevertheless feels oddly compelled to help her. “You’re too kind to everyone”, the first of his office romances Ms. Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi) tells him with mild contempt, though he offers her a wry smile that suggests he doesn’t quite think of it as kindness implying his capacity for altruism may be masking a deep-seated sense of emptiness and inadequacy. When his affair with Hosokawa is exposed, he expresses consternation that she shouldn’t have to be the one to transfer simply because she’s a woman, describing himself as an average employee going through the motions while she is clearly keeping the place together, though she again accuses him of selling himself short unable to see how many people in the office look up to and depend on him precisely because of his rather dull efficiency and air of confident reliability born of having no real personality. 

In fact he seems to be in flight from the “real”, consciously or otherwise afraid of facing his authentic self and wilfully masking it by putting on the suit of the conventional salaryman. Ms. Hosokawa is much the same, having initiated the relationship on a no strings basis but secretly wanting more. Approaching middle age she finds herself suffocating under her various demands, playing the part of the dependable senior office lady but dreaming of escape through romantic salvation. Only once her relationship with Tsuji begins to implode does she rediscover a new sense of self. The other girlfriend, meanwhile, Minako (Akari Fukunaga) plays the contrasting role of the office cutie irritatingly sweet and simpleminded but after being cruelly dumped suddenly dyes her hair pink and becomes feisty and uncompromising no longer unable to stand up for herself while refusing to conform to idealised visions of youthful femininity. 

Tsuji meanwhile fixates on the idea of “saving” Ukiyo while she battles an internalised victim complex which encourages her to think that all the bad things happening to her are entirely her own fault because she is a bad person, constantly apologising for her own existence. Yet the situation is later reversed, Ukiyo repeating word for word the speech Tsuji had given to Hosokawa as she explains there’s another man she must save because he is incapable of saving himself. Investing their entire worth in the act of saving someone else, the pair attempt to paper over their lack of selfhood, but in essence find their positions reversing in pattern which seems to suggest you have to save yourself before you can find the path towards your romantic destiny. As Tsuji turns fugitive, imploding in a perceived defeat in having failed to take control over the forces of change in his life, Ukiyo finally develops the strength to take care of herself bolstered by the certainty of her love for him. 

Painted alternately as a damsel in distress and a femme fatale who ruins men and drags them to hell, Ukiyo is of course neither just, as an old friend explains, an unlucky woman subject to a series of societal prejudices. There is however something in the pair’s mutual claims that there was someone trapped who couldn’t climb out without their help even if that help is slightly less literal than they’d assumed. Even when relationships fail, or crash and burn as another puts it, they invite the possibility for growth and become perhaps signposts on the way to the “real thing”. Shot with a whimsical realism and filled with a series of twists and reversals, Fukada’s elliptical tale is less one of romantic fulfilment than a search for the true self but finally allows its heroes to find mutual salvation in staking all on love. 


The 10-episode TV drama edit of The Real Thing streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Feature edit trailer (no subtitles)

My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Sho Tsukikawa, 2018)

A wilfully self-contained high school girl falls for a big-hearted classmate, but struggles to understand that they are in essence fighting different battles in their parallel quests for acceptance. Adapted from the hit shojo manga by Robico, Sho Tsukikawa’s My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) is in many ways a typical high school rom-com in which a repressed young woman begins to deal with her abandonment issues essentially by mothering a displaced young man whose “problematic” big-heartedness sees him regarded as a “monster” by a still conservative society. 

Opening with a flashback presumably set in the present day, an older Shizuku (Tao Tsuchiya) now wearing a lawyer’s pin listens wistfully to Kana Nishino’s 2010 hit Best Friend and reflects on a time when all she cared about was studying, rejecting all human connection. Until that is she met the titular “monster” Haru (Masaki Suda) and suddenly found herself surrounded by people. Haru, as we discover, got into a fight on the first day of school and never actually showed up for classes. Because Shizuku should have been his desk neighbour, the panicked teacher asks her to take the handouts etc to his home in the hope he’ll one day return. Shizuku has no interest in doing as the teacher has tasked her but fulfils her duty, only to unexpectedly encounter Haru who then decides they must be “friends” based on a primary school understanding that friends take each other notes and homework when one of them is sick. 

It turns out that Haru hasn’t been coming to school because it bothers him that everyone finds him scary because of his lack of impulse control. He desperately wants to make friends and thinks he has some in a trio of local boys but Shizuku can see right away that they are essentially bullying him for money and tries to explain that “real” friends don’t sponge off each other. Perhaps because of his innate kindness, Haru is completely guileless and sees the best in everyone unable to understand when he’s being taken advantage of. Despite herself, Shizuku begins to feel protective assuring Haru that he will one day be surrounded by people who understand him unwittingly echoing the words of his late aunt who was the only other person who’d ever rooted for him. Straightforward as ever, Haru immediately confesses his love and so their awkward high school romance begins. 

Shizuku, however, is still largely uninterested in love. She has devoted herself to studying and only cares about coming top in the school exams. As we discover this is less because of academic ambition than practical application. She studies hard and immediately sees results. It’s the sure thing, something which is completely within her own control, unlike other people’s feelings which are necessarily messy and unpredictable. There is however an uncomfortable conservatism in the centring of Shizuku’s trauma solely in the fact that her mother works outside the home and is therefore not present in her life in the way that mothers are expected to be in a patriarchal society while her family set up is regarded as unusual in that her father, having failed several times in business, is a househusband. 

Meanwhile, she remains fairly blinkered to Haru’s parallel familial disconnection in that he has apparently been disowned by his authoritarian father for his free-spirited ways. Taken to a birthday party held for Haru’s older brother Yuzan (Yuki Furukawa), Shizuku begins to realise there is a large class difference between them but reacts badly, confused that he is rejecting the very things she’s striving for in refusing to reconnect with his father, ignoring the fact that he has separated from him because he is essentially abusive. He refuses to let Haru be Haru, trying to straight-jacket him into conventionality by forcing him to clamp down on his noisy impulsivity, something which he seems unable to do even if he wanted to. Shizuku fails to realise the hurt she deals him in refusing to understand his reluctance, unable to see that it amounts to a rejection from the one person he assumed had completely accepted him. 

What she discovers is that you won’t always be forgiven for momentary thoughtlessness and in the end you have to let people be what they are, which throws into light the problematic “monster” of the title which is how Haru is often seen by others, a quality brought to vivid life in Suda’s manic performance. A rival suitor, Yamaken (Yuki Yamada), selling himself as the slow and steady candidate perhaps more suited to Shizuku in being more like herself, describes their relationship as a “make-believe friendship” rather than a real romance, something she has to accept may have a grain of truth in it in her inability to fully understand the person she claims to love, but nevertheless comes to the conclusion that while Yamaken may make her feel at ease in herself it’s the stressful stimulation with the intense yet passionate Haru that she truly craves. That aside, their romance is a fairly cool affair and its resolution too contrived to have any kind of impact which is perhaps why Tsukikawa resorts to anime-style imagery including a flying leap of love accompanied by bright sunshine flooding in from behind. Nevertheless, in true shojo fashion My Little Monster celebrates not only its heroine’s gradual path towards an embrace of the chaos of being alive, but also the power of friendship and acceptance as the gang find a place to belong in each other and with it a more concrete sense of self.


Singapore release trailer (English/Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Kana Nishino – Best Friend

One Summer Story (子供はわかってあげない, Shuichi Okita, 2020)

“One man’s not enough to make a difference, you learn something and pass it on” the heroine of Shuichi Okita’s One Summer Story (子供はわかってあげない, Kodomo wa Wakatte Agenai) is told, learning about life from her philosophical, slightly defeated birth father. Adapted from the manga by Retto Tajima, Okita’s teen drama is in many ways a typical “summer story” in which a high schooler goes on a quietly life changing journey during one of the last summer breaks of their adolescent lives, but it’s also as much of his work is an empathetic plea for a kinder world built on mutual understanding and acceptance. 

Okita signals as much with his animated opening, taken from the heroine’s favourite show, Koteko, in which a magical girl plasterer helps “Count Cement” repair his relationships with his estranged children, Mortar and Concrete, from whom he had withdrawn in shame realising that without water he is nothing while his kids could still make something of themselves through becoming bridges and houses. Koteko is something of a touchstone for Minami (Moka Kamishiraishi), a regular high school girl and member of the swimming team moved to tears by the opening song which preaches that walls aren’t something to be overcome but a canvas on which you can plaster your dreams. At the pool one day, she spots a boy on the roof painting a picture she quickly recognises as Koteko, rushing up there to befriend him as a fellow fan. In addition to being a Koteko-lover, Moji (Kanata Hosoda) is the son of a prominent calligraphy family and it’s at his house that she finds a vital clue, a talisman which matches the one she got from her birth father for her last birthday. 

Immediately following the end of the opening anime sequence, Okita shows us a happy family scene in which Minami’s stepdad (Kanji Furutachi) hands her tissues while she cries to the ending theme, joining in with the dance while her mum (Yuki Saito) cooks in the background and her live-wire half-brother runs round in his pants. Her family setup might still be considered unusual in conservative Japan, in fact one of her friends even exclaims that they’d never have guessed that her stepdad isn’t her birth father on hearing her mother was married before, but they are clearly very close and loving, ordinary in the very best of ways. Minami isn’t unhappy or lonely at home, she isn’t really thinking too much about her birth father even if perhaps on some level curious but the talisman becomes a thread to tug on, sending her on a quest of self-discovery seeking some answers about her past as she begins to come of age. 

To do this, she enlists the help of Moji’s older sibling Akihiro (Yudai Chiba), a transgender woman disowned by the conservative, traditionalist family of calligraphers and now living above a bookshop while working as a “detective”. As the pair find out, it’s less high crime than missing moggies that are Akihiro’s stock in trade but she’s moved to have a go helping to find Minami’s dad after looking at her bankbook containing her life savings, not for the amount but because she remembers saving up herself at Minami’s age to fund her reassignment surgery. Invoicing her later, Akihiro bills her zero yen telling her merely to make sure she uses her money to help others when she grows up, echoing the film’s pay it forward philosophy as advanced by Moji who teaches kids calligraphy at his dad’s school, advising Minami that people can only pass on skills they’ve learned from others and so perhaps she could teach someone to swim. Her birth father Tomomitsu (Etsushi Toyokawa), a former cult leader who lost faith in himself for being unable to teach his innate mind reading ability to his followers, eventually tells her the same thing, that what’s important in life isn’t grandstanding, trying to change the world all on your own, but sharing what you know in a gentle process of continuity and change. 

Ironically enough and in true teenage fashion, Minami finds new security in family after lying to her mother about going on a school trip to find her dad, later realising her mother is only slightly hurt about the lying and not at all about her reconnecting her birth father. Through her extended stay with him at the seaside she begins to find the courage step into herself, accepting the position of teacher in helping a lonely little girl learn to swim, while also processing her growing feelings for the equally shy Moji who leaves her space to complete her quest on her own but chases after her when he thinks she really might be in danger. A gentle summer story Okita’s breezy drama has a pleasingly timeless, occasionally retro feel, full of summer warmth in its spirit of acceptance and mutual support as its surprisingly carefree youngsters come to an appreciation of themselves and each other as they push forward into a more adult world with confidence and compassion. 


One Summer Story screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, Kenji Katagiri, 2019)

A dejected young woman finds herself conflicted in her memories of the father who failed her in Kenji Katagiri’s A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (酔うと化け物になる父がつらい, You to Bakemono ni Naru Chichi ga Tsurai). Drawing inspiration from the webcomic by Mariko Kikuchi, Katagiri’s whimsical drama does its best to put a comical spin on the extended trauma of living with an alcoholic dad while laying the blame squarely at the the feet of a society with an entrenched drinking culture in which refusing to imbibe is all but unthinkable. 

The heroine, Saki (Honoka Matsumoto), begins her tale in the late ‘90s when she is only eight years old and unaware that her family circumstances are not exactly normal. Tadokoro (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), her salaryman dad, usually rolls in late and collapses in the hall after staying out all night drinking. This is such a common occurrence that Saki and her younger sister Fumi are completely unfazed by it, marking off dad’s drunken days with a big red X on the calendar and cheerfully helping their mum drag him back into the house. Saeko (Rie Tomosaka), their mother, tries to put a brave face on it, and to the girls it probably still seems a little bit funny, but as she gets older Saki begins to see the toll her father’s drinking has taken on her mother not only in practical terms but emotional in realising that he drinks largely as a means of escaping his responsibility which includes that towards his family. 

Saki asks her mum why dad’s three friends keep coming round to drink while playing mahjong but the only explanation she can offer is that adults need to socialise. Socialisation does it seems revolve around alcohol, and to that extent perpetuates deeply entrenched patriarchal social codes in largely remaining a homosocial activity with the only women present those that run the bar (the wives of Tadokoro’s friends make a point of thanking Saeko for allowing their husbands to drink at her house, they it seems are not invited). Tadokoro’s excuse for his drinking is that it’s a necessary business activity, that you can’t get by as a salaryman without figuring out how to have fun at a nomikai and bond with your clients over sake. His office best friend later discovers this to be true as a teetotaller given the banishment room treatment he attributes to the fact he doesn’t drink which is why his bosses don’t trust him as member of the team. 

Tadokoro might think he’s serving his family through his career, but it’s clear that he neglects them physically and emotionally by refusing to moderate his drinking. He breaks promises to his kids to take them to the pool because he’s still hung over from the night before while his wife finds herself at the end of her tether with his continued indifference later telling the little Saki that she wanted to divorce him even before the kids were born but it’s too late for that now. Saeko escapes from the burden of her life through religion, adhering to a shady Christian-leaning cult which preaches that endurance builds character and character leads to hope, all of which presumably convinces her that she is supposed to just put up with Tadokoro’s problematic behaviour rather than reassuring her that there is no sin in leaving him. 

Saki fears making her mother’s mistake, traumatised by her childhood experiences and drawn into an abusive relationship of her own out of loneliness and low self esteem. She resents her father but also feels bad about it, simultaneously thankful when he takes a temporary break from drinking and mahjong but also aware of how sad it is that she is grateful for things that other families would consider normal. Tadokoro proves unable to quit drinking, and Saki wonders if she’s right to even ask him if, as others say, drinking is his mechanism for escaping loneliness, but also reflects on the sadness she now understands in her mother as stemming from her father’s abnegation of his responsibilities and the loneliness it must have provoked in her. Fumi (Yui Imaizumi), trying to explain why Saki should break up with her abusive boyfriend (Shogo Hama), tells her of an experiment she read about in which a rat was trapped in a box and randomly given electric shocks. At first, it tried to escape, but eventually became resigned to its fate and settled for learning to endure the pain. Saki is perhaps much the same, trapped by filiality in finding herself unable to either forgive or reject the memory of the father who so resolutely failed to live up to the name.


A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tezuka’s Barbara (ばるぼら, Macoto Tezka, 2019)

The relationship between an artist and his muse (necessarily “his” in all but a few cases) is at the root of all drama, asking us if creation is necessarily a parasitical act of often unwilling transmutation. Osamu Tezuka’s Barbara (ばるぼら), brought to the screen by his son Macoto Tezka, takes this idea to its natural conclusion while painting the act of creation as a madness in itself. The hero, a blocked writer, describes art as a goddess far out of his reach, but also the cause of man’s downfall, framing his creative impotence in terms of sexual conquest that lend his ongoing crisis an increasingly troubling quality. 

Yousuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) was once apparently a well regarded novelist but has hit a creative block. While his friends and contemporaries are winning awards and national acclaim, he’s become one of “those” writers busying himself with potboilers and eroticism to mask a creative decline. Passing a young woman collapsed drunk in a subway, something makes him stop and turn back. Surprisingly, she begins quoting romantic French poetry to him, and actually turns out to be, if not quite a “fan”, familiar with his work which she describes as too inoffensive for her taste. Mikura takes her home and invites her to have a shower, but later throws her out when she dares to criticise an embarrassingly bad sex scene he’s in the middle of writing. Nevertheless, he’s hooked. “Barbara” (Fumi Nikaido) becomes a fixture in his life, popping up whenever he needs a creative boost or perhaps saving from himself. 

Strangely, Barbara is in the habit of referring to herself using a first person pronoun almost exclusively used by men, which might invite us to think that perhaps she is just a manifestation of Mikura’s will to art and symbol of his destructive creative drive. He does indeed seem to be a walking cliché of the hardbitten writer, permanently sporting sunshades, drinking vintage whiskey, and listening to jazz while obsessing over the integrity of his art. We’re told that he’s a best-selling author and previously well regarded by the critics, but also that he has perhaps sold out, engaging in a casual relationship with a politician’s daughter and cosying up to a regime he may or may not actually support. He’s beginning to come to the conclusion that he’s a soulless hack and the sense of shame is driving him out of his mind. 

Mikura’s agent Kanako (Shizuka Ishibashi) certainly seems to think he’s having some kind of breakdown, though the jury’s out on whether her attentions towards him are professional, sisterly, or something more. There isn’t much we can be sure of in Mikura’s ever shifting reality, but it does seem a strange touch that even a rockstar writer of the kind he seems to think he is could inspire such popularity, recognised by giggling women wherever he goes yet seemingly sexually frustrated to quite an alarming degree. His world view is an inherently misogynistic one in which all women seem to want him, but he can’t have them. A weird encounter in a dress shop is a case in point, the assistant catching his eye from the window display turning out to be a devotee of his work because of its “mindlessness”, something which annoys Mikura but only causes him to pause as she abruptly strips off for a quickie in the fitting room. Tellingly, the woman turns out to be an inanimate mannequin, literally an empty vessel onto which Mikura can project his fears and desires, which is, perhaps, what all other women, including Barbara, are to him. 

Yet who, or what, is Barbara? Chasing his new “muse”, Mikura finds himself on a dark path through grungy subculture clubs right through to black magic cults, eventually arrested on suspicion of drug use. There is something essentially uncomfortable in his dependency, that he is both consuming and consumed by his creative impulses. Inside another delusion, he imagines himself bitten by potential love interest Shigako (Minami), as if she meant to suck him dry like some kind of vampire succubus, but finds himself doing something much the same to Barbara, stripping her bare, consuming her essence, and regurgitating it as “art”. Either an unwitting critique of the various ways in which women become mere fodder for a man’s creativity, or a meditation on art as madness, Barbara seems to suggest that true artistry is achieved only through masochistic laceration and the sublimation of desire culminating in a strange act of climax that stains the page with ink.  


Tezuka’s Barbara screens in Amsterdam on March 6/7 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Saint Young Men (聖☆おにいさん, Yuichi Fukuda, 2018)

Saint young men posterWhat if Buddha and Jesus were flatmates in modern day Tokyo? Hikaru Nakamura’s much loved manga Saint Young Men (聖☆おにいさん, Saint Oniisan) attempted to find out, casting the two holy beings as conventional manga slackers on “vacation” in the mortal realm, supposedly researching modern Japanese society. A firm favourite with fans, the franchise has already been adapted into a popular anime and now receives the live action treatment from none other than Gintama’s Yuichi Fukuda.

Split into a series of short vignettes mostly featuring only Jesus (Kenichi Matsuyama) and Buddha (Shota Sometani) in their apartment, Saint Young Men first aired as a 10-part web series before being compiled into a 70-minute movie. The central conceit is that Jesus is a cheerful if slightly feckless hippy, while Buddha is the calm and the responsible one making sure he’s well looked after. Perhaps surprisingly, Saint Young Men presents its vision of contemporary Japan from the point of view of the two guys as they explore everyday life, occasionally including explanatory narration from a distant authorial voice which, presumably, contains information widely known to the target audience, such as an explanations of “White Day” – Japan’s secondary Valentines in which men given chocolates are expected to return the favour with gifts three times the cost, and spring festival “Setsubun” in which beans are thrown at people wearing ogre masks to frighten off bad luck.

For the two guys these are fascinating little anthropological details they can get quite excited about despite their thousands of years of existence. On a trip to the convenience store, Jesus is thrilled to think he’s finally “made it” after 2000 years because some high school girls said he looked like Johnny Depp. Buddha goes to see if he looks like someone too, but the girls immediately recognise him as looking “like Buddha” which is both a disappointment and somehow validating. Meanwhile, he laments that the majority of his artistic renderings have only captured him in his “fat period” rather than the handsome figure he currently cuts. 

Bickering like an old married couple, the guys fight about the usual things – money, and the irresponsible use of it. Jesus has a bad habit of buying random stuff he doesn’t need off the internet, causing Buddha to get so annoyed he starts physically glowing and only calms down when Jesus gives him a present, a manga artist’s starter kit. Sadly, Buddha is proved right when Jesus gets bored with his random electric pottery wheel after only a few minutes, but is witness to an unexpected miracle when the clay is magically transformed into bread, turning the wheel into a “bread oven” with which Jesus seems very pleased only to tire of it just as quickly.

Trying to keep their “real” identities secret, the guys are keen to keep their abilities behind closed doors – something Buddha forgets when he hatches on the great idea of levitating to save floor space. Jesus comes home and quickly closes the curtains in case someone thinks they’re some kind of weird cult. The guys consider moving somewhere with a little more room, but discover that even for holy beings it’s almost impossible to find a decent apartment in modern day Tokyo that doesn’t cost the Earth. The primary reason Jesus wanted to move, however, is not so much that the apartment’s a little poky for two full-grown guys, but that the other place was gated which means he won’t be getting bothered by cold calling newspaper sales representatives.

Jesus may be too nice to keep saying no to pushy salesmen, but Buddha has a few unexpected trust issues. Faint from hunger, the guys think about ordering a take away, but Buddha is a strict vegetarian and worries about the chain of communication involved in food preparation. He can only trust that the restaurant follows the instructions he gives them honestly and that the delivery guy won’t do anything weird with the food on his way over. In the end, you just have to have faith, but Buddha is struggling while Jesus is content to let it all hang out. Something similar occurs when earnest Buddha unwisely meditates for hours in the beautiful snow in only his ironic T-shirt and catches a cold with only Jesus to nurse him. Jesus wants to take him to the hospital, but they don’t have insurance and don’t want to risk extortionate medical bills. Jesus’ healing powers apparently don’t work on other holy beings, and so he finds himself healing a bunch of people at the hospital to earn a free visit from a doctor with whom Buddha can only communicate through possession and telepathy.

Obviously very low budget and mostly starring just the two guys with additional appearances from their middle-aged landlady and the confused doctor, Saint Young Men is very much a Fukuda production bearing his familiar hallmark of waiting slightly too long for a joke land, which it often does not. Though seeing all 10 episodes in one go necessarily flags up their essential sameness, they do provide an amusing exploration of slacker life in contemporary Japan with occasional forays into warmhearted cross-cultural exchanges between the serious Buddha and scatterbrained Jesus.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tokyo Ghoul S (東京喰種 トーキョーグール【S】, Kazuhiko Hiramaki & Takuya Kawasaki, 2019)

tg2_poster_3校B_ol_6In Tokyo Ghoul, regular university student Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota) had to learn to accept the parts of himself he didn’t like in order to become the kind of man he wanted to be. Of course, the situation was more complicated than that faced by most young men because Ken Kaneki’s darkness was born of being seduced by a beautiful woman who turned out to be a “ghoul” – a supernatural being craving human flesh, something he later became himself when they were both injured in a freak accident after which he got some of her organs. The sequel, Tokyo Ghoul S (東京喰種 トーキョーグール【S】) finds him in a more centred place, having accepted his new nature as neither human nor ghoul but a bridge between the two. Now he has a series of different questions to face in trying help others accept themselves in the same way as they too wonder if there are some parts of themselves so dark that if they revealed them they could never be loved.

While Ken goes about his regular student life working part-time at ethical ghoul cafe Anteiku, a ghoul serial killer known as “The Gourmet” (Shota Matsuda) has been making the news after targeting a high profile model (Maggy) whom he stalked and killed simply to taste her heterochromatic eyes. Tsukiyama, as we later learn his name to be, is a dandyish fopp living in a Western-style country house complete with servants who serve him only the finest meals well presented to hide their dark genesis. On catching a whiff of Ken’s unique human/ghoul scent, he knows he must taste him and puts a nefarious plan in motion in order to lure him to a mysterious ghoul-only restaurant where humans are butchered live for show while the clientele salivate over scenes of intense cruelty.

That’s all too much for poor Ken. He can’t understand how anybody could act with so little regard for life. The cafe owner pointedly asks him if he feels pity when looking at the butchered flesh of an animal, which he of course does not. The ghouls feel much the same, humans are their prey – they can’t help what they are, but living under the intense fear of discovery in an obviously hostile world has made them cruel and resentful to the extent that they no longer understand the value of life. The ghouls that Ken knows, the ones which frequent Anteiku, are different. They have resolved to live ethically and respect lives both human and ghoul equally.

Ken’s friend and colleague Touka (Maika Yamamoto), however, is beginning to have her doubts. In the first film we saw her pursue a touching friendship with classmate Yoriko (Nana Mori) whose cooking she made a point of eating solely as a means of connection despite the fact that human food makes her ill. Now she fears she’s doing the wrong thing, that it will only hurt more if her friend finds out her secret and rejects her, or worse that she may put her in danger. Therefore, she counsels Ken to distance himself from his overly cheerful friend Hide (Kai Ogasawara) and the human world in general, threatening that she herself will kill Hide if he discovers that Ken is a ghoul. As expected, Ken ignores her advice but is mildly shaken by it. Deciding to intervene when his sometime enemy Nishiki (Shunya Shiraishi) is being beaten up in the street, he discovers a better future on learning that Nishiki is living with a human woman who knows he is a ghoul, but loves him anyway.

Though Kimi’s (Mai Kiryu) justifications that she can live with the fact her boyfriend kills people and eats them so long as he leaves her friends and family alone is a little worrying, it is a touching example of the film’s positive message that there is no secret so terrible that it means someone can’t be loved. Kimi accepts Nishiki’s nature as a ghoul, aware of the fact he can’t help what he is and that if she had been born a ghoul she would be the same. Touka fears rejection, but on catching sight of her bright red wings Kimi utters the single word “beautiful”, seeing only goodness without fear or hate.

Tsukiyama meanwhile seems to have gone in the opposite direction, pursuing his desires to the point of obsession in a quest for ever greater sensation. He stalks and murders the model to devour her eyes in an especial piece of irony, while his pursuit of Ken takes on an intensely homoerotic quality. Using the same tactics as Tokyo Ghoul‘s Rize, Tsukiyama picks Ken up through bonding over books, invites him to “dinner” and later sends him an invitation accompanied by a single red rose. Despite the romanticism, however, he soon reverts to type in blaming Ken for his actions. “You’re making me this way”, he insists, “take responsibility”, like every abuser ever simultaneously accepting that his behaviour is inappropriate and justifying it as a consequence of someone else’s actions. In the end, Tsukiyama’s illicit desires consume him, while Ken’s act of self-sacrifice once again allows him to be the human/ghoul bridge combatting Tsukiyama’s rapacious cruelty with an open-hearted generosity which pushes Touka to the fore so that she too can learn that peaceful co-existence is possible when there is trust and understanding on both sides.

Nishiki tells Ken his problem is that he’s too nice, but that’s not a bad thing to be because he just might “save somebody someday”. Niceness as a superpower might be an odd message for a movie about flesh eating monsters almost indistinguishable from regular humans, but perhaps that’s what will save us in the end, a generosity of spirit that makes it possible for us each to accept each other’s darkness in acknowledgement of our own. Less stylistically interesting than the first instalment, Tokyo Ghoul S may be a kind of bridge movie in a possible trilogy (a sequel is teased in a brief mid-credits sequence featuring a mysterious character who makes several unexplained appearances throughout the film), but nevertheless does its best to further the Tokyo Ghoul mythology as its hero finds his strength in difference and mutual understanding.


Tokyo Ghoul S screens in the US for three nights only on Sept. 16/18/20 courtesy of Funimation. Check the official website to find out where it’s playing near you!

Original trailer (English subtitles)