Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (新宿泥棒日記, Nagisa Oshima, 1969)

Shinjuku thief posterIn Sing a Song of Sex, Nagisa Oshima had lamented the depressing decline of political consciousness among the young who remained so preoccupied with their sexual desires that they’d forgotten all about the revolution. In Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (新宿泥棒日記, Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki), once again a story told through song, he examines the same problem from the other side – if repressed desires frustrate the battle for social change, then perhaps the sexual revolution must precede the political.

Our “hero” if you can call him that, is a man calling himself “Birdey Hilltop” (Tadanori Yokoo). Birdey gets off on shoplifting books from the huge Kunokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku. One day he is caught by a feisty young woman, Umeko (Rie Yokoyama), who we later discover is merely posing as an employee in one of the film’s many acts of role play. Umeko drags the shoplifting Birdey up to see her “boss”, Mr. Tanabe (the real life boss of Kunokuniya playing “himself”), who, to be honest, isn’t very interested in dealing with a petty thief but is quite interested in this strange pair of awkward young people and becomes something between invested audience member and accidental director in setting them off on a journey to explore the nature of their peculiar sexualities.

These largely seem to lean on the idea of anonymous theft, that neither Birdey nor Umeko are able to accept the reality of altruistic connection and value only that which is actively taken (preferably in secret). Umeko allows herself to be “stolen” in skipping out on already arranged date with a man who had threatened to take what he wanted by force to undergo an unfulfilling sexual experience with Birdey which nevertheless provokes in her a desire to shatter the realities of time and space. Given money to enjoy themselves, neither of the pair quite want to accept it – the idea of splitting it amicably isn’t appealing, or perhaps the magnanimity of insisting the other take it all more pleasurable, but neither of them want anything that isn’t in some way a transgressive transaction.

Yet perhaps what it is they long to steal is an identity. Neither Birdey nor Umeko has been entirely truthful with the other and they are each only too happy to inhabit various other roles as they act their way through life. The final apotheosis of the self occurs solely in the theatrical realm but apparently carries a level of essential truth which finally allows the pair to integrate their identities into a comfortable whole which liberates their bodies from sexual repression and perhaps becomes a kind of revolution of its own.

Nevertheless, their strange journey is massaged by a number of dubious guides from the sex therapist who reaches a series of bizarre conclusions based on little more than appearance and vague reactions to classic pornography to the gentle machinations of Tanabe who eventually declares himself too old for this particular game, and the entire legacy of world literature which crowds their heads with competing thoughts and leaves no room for originality. During their “therapy” session the pair are encouraged to get literally naked in front of the analyst who correctly points outs that they are each wearing masks (though his eagerness to see them disrobe does not seem entirely innocent) while also poking and prodding at their various dualities – Birdey is too “effeminate” and Umeko “too strong”, their gender atypicality apparently the root of all their problems. Birdey wonders if on some level he would rather be a woman, and if Umeko would rather be a man before deciding to search for himself on the stage.

Another of the dubious mentors, avant-garde stage performer and legendary figure of the Japanese underground theatre movement Juro Kara makes frequent appearances throughout the film strumming a guitar and singing a song about Alibaba while dressed in a deliberately gaudy modern take on traditional stage costuming. One of several real life figures Oshima cast in the film, Juro Kara more than any of the others is here to remind us that everything we see is affectation – something Oshima further rams home with his jarring transitions from elegant black and white photography to oversaturated colour filled with the deep red of passion and desire. Frequent title cards, surrealist imagery, rapid shifts in tone and style, and a free floating approach to narrative – Oshima out Godards Godard and even if his messages are obscure in the extreme, his images hold their power all the same.


Diary of a Shinjuku Thief was screened as part of the Japanese Avant-garde and Experimental Film Festival 2018.

Opening sequence (no subtitles)

A Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Juzo Itami, 1988)

Taxing Woman 2 posterA Taxing Woman introduced us to Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) – an oddball detective working as an insurance inspector who met her Irene Adler in a tax dodging corporate gangster with a limp. A year later she’s back, still the only woman working with the tax inspectorate and apparently still a dogged pursuer of those who would seek to defraud the Japanese government of its rightful earnings. Ryoko may have been a stickler for the rules who applied the same dog with a bone approach to a mom and pop store chowing down on its own supplies as to a dodgy yakuza led conspiracy, but she also believed in justice – something which stands her in good stead when she rubs up against a dodgy cult which, again, is a yakuza front but adds insult to injury by deliberately manipulating the vulnerable.

The action opens with some kids poking at the dead body of a “landshark” floating in a pond before flashing to a meeting of officials sucking crab meat from the shell and wondering what they’re going to do about this land they need cleared now their heavy is out of the picture. The corrupt politician from the first film, Urushibara (Takeya Nakamura), is apparently still involved in semi-legal land deals but palms the assignment off on a colleague. The big wigs need to empty a dated housing complex on some valuable land so they can build a vanity skyscraper – office space apparently being scarce in mid bubble Tokyo.

To do this they enlist the services of dodgy cult leader Onizawa (Rentaro Mikuni) and his troop of yakuza goons. Most of the tenants have already signed but they have three key holdouts – a diner owner clinging on to the family legacy, a stubborn paparazzo, and an intellectual professor who heads up the housing association. Unlike the yakuza of Taxing Woman, these guys have not reformed – they are the new/old style of lawless thugs who are perfectly prepared to threaten women and children to get their own way. Making it impossible for the tenants to stay through intimidation and noise torture, they stoop to blackmail to seal the deal.

Despite arriving only a year after A Taxing Woman, Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Marusa no Onna 2) takes place in a much darker, though more obviously comedic, world. Whereas the earlier film adopted a noticeably ambivalent attitude to the tax inspectors and the enterprising gangsters, the villains of A Taxing Woman’s Return are so heinous and morally bankrupt as to be entirely indefensible even if the inspectorate takes a turn for the bumbling to compensate. The “cult” is, of course, merely a convenient money laundering front and tax dodge for the yakuza – religious organisations are exempt from taxation in the vast majority of cases which may be why the local tax office records hundreds of registered “religious bodies” in its jurisdiction alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its loyal followers, often vulnerable people looking for spiritual fulfilment but being bled dry by the money hungry cultists while the leader’s wife swans around in sables costing more than the average annual salary. A desperate devotee in need of a loan puts his own teenage daughter up as collateral only to see her raped by Onizawa, eventually becoming pregnant by him at only 16 years of age and thereafter becoming his devoted concubine in a bizarre instance of Stockholm Syndrome.

Yet for all the background darkness of weird cultists and nasty yakuza backed up by corrupt and venial politicians, Itami ups the cartoonish sense of the absurd with our hero Ryoko clambering over rooftops to listen in to the bad guys while her boss throws himself down flights of stairs and has to battle piercing sirens to get into the villains’ secret vault. It is however a dark humour as the opening makes plain with its troupe of little children staring at the strange shape floating in the water – a motif later repeated when a yakuza is gunned down in the street only for another group of children to pour over him as he expires, a single tear rolling down his cheek. The original spongy white body gives way to the businessmen sucking spongy white crab out its shell while insensitively discussing the late land shark, and the yakuza are unafraid to deploy a maggot infested severed hand (thankfully a fake picked up from a friend who makes horror movies) to convince the tenants they mean business.

At the end of A Taxing Woman, the gangster and the inspector reached something of a truce but one which came down, broadly, on the side of right. This time things aren’t quite so simple. The conspiracy is bigger and deeper, stretching all the way into the Diet and about more than just office space in still developing Tokyo. Onizawa, regarding himself as public servant, tries to say he did it all for his country, that if someone didn’t get their hands dirty Tokyo would be eclipsed by Hong Kong or Seoul. A post-war justification for a bubble era problem, but one that takes us straight back to the first film in Onizawa’s second proposition that only through money does he truly feel “immortal”. He may be a liar and a cheat, but he’s only a symptom of rapidly spreading infection, one which Ryoko and her team are powerless to cure, trapped on the wrong side of the fence while the bad guys build monuments to economic hubris, indulging in vanity in an era of bad faith which is about to be brought to a rather abrupt close.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Joji Matsuoka, 2016)

midnight diner 2 posterThe Midnight Diner is open for business once again. Yaro Abe’s eponymous manga was first adapted as a TV drama in 2009 which then ran for three seasons before heading to the big screen and then again to the smaller one with the Netflix original Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories becoming the de facto season four. Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Zoku Shinya Shokudo) returns with more of the same as Master puts out his sign and opens the shop, welcoming the denizens of Tokyo after dark in search of a little place to call home amid all the chaos and alienation.

To re-cap, the Midnight Diner is a casual eating establishment run by Master which opens only between the hours of midnight and 7am. The restaurant has only a small formal menu but Master’s selling point is that he is prepared to make whatever the customer so desires (assuming the ingredients are available). Regulars and newcomers alike are given a warm welcome and a place to feel at home, free of whatever it was that was bothering them in the outside world.

Like the first film, Midnight Diner 2 is really three TV episodes stitched together. The first begins on an ominous note as each of the regulars arrives in mourning clothes only to be struck by the coincidence that they’ve each been to a different person’s funeral. A woman arrives dressed in black but reveals she hasn’t been bereaved, she simply enjoys dressing like this to destress from the difficult atmosphere at her publishing job. Noriko (Aoba Kawai) is a top editor but often finds herself sidelined – this time by a young author whose book she made a success but has now dumped her owing to all her notes on his second effort. Saddled with an elderly client who doesn’t like taking advice from a woman, Noriko’s fortunes fall still further when she finds him dead. A visit to a real funeral threatens to change her life completely.

Strand two follows the son of a nearby soba shop, Seita (Sosuke Ikematsu), who has fallen in love with a much older woman and wants to marry despite his mother’s reservations. The third segment continues along the familial theme with an old woman travelling all the way from Kyushu to Tokyo after falling victim to an “Ore Ore” scam.

Scams and parental bonds become the central themes tying the episodes together as each of the lovelorn protagonists finds themselves taking advantage of Master’s sturdy shoulders. Noriko and Mrs. Ogawa (Misako Watanabe) fall victim to an obvious conman but do so almost willingly out of their desperate loneliness. Noriko, dissatisfied with her working environment, takes to the streets dressed in black but becomes the target of “funeral fetishists” who are only interested in her “bereaved” state. A chance encounter at a real funeral makes her believe her life can change but she is deceived again when a man she came to care for is unmasked as a serial trickster. Mrs. Ogawa faces a similar problem when she races all the way to Tokyo to pay off a “colleague” of her son’s, so desperate to help that she never suspects that she’s fallen victim to a scam.

Mrs. Ogawa’s deep love for the son she has become estranged from is contrasted with that of the soba noodle seller for the son she can’t let go. Seita cares for nothing other than ping pong, much to his mother’s consternation and has little interest in taking over the family business. A young man, he’s tired of the constraints his lonely widowed mother continues to place on him though his determination to marry an older woman at such a young age bears out his relative maturity.

As usual Master has good advice and a kind word for everyone that helps them get where they need to go, softly nudging them in the right direction through the power of comfort food. By now the cast of familiars is well and truly entrenched but there will always be space at Master’s counter for those in need who will be greeted warmly by those already aware of its charms. True enough, Midnight Diner 2 offers little in the way of innovation (though we do get a little more information about the mysterious Master) but no one comes the Midnight Diner looking to try something new. In here, nostalgia rules and we wouldn’t have it any other way.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo, Joji Matsuoka, 2015)

mainvisualYaro Abe’s manga Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo) was first adapted as 10 episode TV drama back in 2009 with a second series in 2011 and a third in 2014. With a Korean adaptation in between, the series now finds itself back for second helpings in the form of a big screen adaptation.

Midnight Diner is set in a cosy little eatery which only opens between the hours of midnight and 7am. Presided over by the “Master”, a mysterious figure himself with a large unexplained scar running down one side of his face, the restaurant has only one regular dish on its menu but Master is willing to make whatever his customers want provided he has the ingredients. Regulars and newcomers mingle nightly each with their own, sometimes sad, stories while Master offers them a safe place to think things through coupled with his gentle, all knowing advice.

The big screen movie plays just like a series of connected episodes from the television drama yet manages unify its approach into something which feels consistently more cinematic. Keeping the warm, nostalgic tone the film also increases its production values whilst maintaining its trademark style. The movie opens with the same title sequence as its TV version and divides itself neatly into chapters which each carry the title of the key dish that Master will cook for this segment’s star. A little less wilfully melodramatic, Midnight Diner the movie nevertheless offers its gentle commentary on the melancholy elements of modern life and its ordinary moments of sadness.

Fans of the TV drama will be pleased to see their favourite restaurant regulars reappearing if only briefly, but the film also boosts its profile in the form of some big name stars including a manager of another restaurant in town played by Kimiko Yo who seems to have some kind of history with Master as well as a smaller role played by prolific indie star of the moment Kiyohiko Shibukawa and the return of Joe Odagiri whose character seems to have undergone quite a radical change since we last saw him.

The stories this time around feature a serial mistress and her dalliance with another, poorer, client of the diner; a young girl who pulls a dine and dash only to return, apologise and offer to work off her bill; a lovelorn widower who’s come to Tokyo to chase an aid worker who probably just isn’t interested in him; and then there’s strange mystery of a mislaid funerary urn neatly tieing everything together. Just as in the TV series, each character has a special dish that they’ve been longing for and through reconnecting with the past by means of Master’s magic cooking, they manage to unlock their futures too. As usual, Master knows what it is they need long before they do and though he’s a man of few words, always seems to know what to say. One of the charms of the series as a whole which is echoed in the film is that it’s content to let a few mysteries hang while the central tale unfolds naturally almost as if you’re just another customer sitting at the end of Master’s counter.

Shot in more or less the same style as the TV series favouring long, static takes the film still manages to feel cinematic and its slight colour filtering adds to the overall warm and nostalgic tone the series has become known for. Once again offering a series of gentle human stories, Midnight Diner might not be the most groundbreaking of films but it offers its own delicate insights into the human condition and slowly but surely captivates with its intriguing cast of unlikely dining companions.