Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Crazy Samurai Musashi (狂武蔵, Yuji Shimomura, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Action star Tak Sakaguchi rose to fame in Ryuhei Kitamura’s low budget zombie movie Versus, thereafter starring in a series of similarly pitched splatter and exploitation films as well as appearing in long running tokusatsu series Kamen Rider and making his own directorial debut with manga adaptation Be a Man! Samurai School in 2008. Much to fans’ disappointment, Sakaguchi announced his retirement as a performer in 2013, but has since made several high profile returns to the big screen including Yuji Shimomura’s Re:Born in which he played a former JSDF elite soldier living quietly in the countryside until an old enemy tracked him down. 

Again emerging from semi-retirement, Crazy Samurai Musashi (狂武蔵, Kurui Musashi) sees Sakaguchi reunite with Shimomura to play the most famous of legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi in an all out action fest including a 77-minute one cut assault during which he singlehandedly kills 588 men. Unsurprisingly light on dialogue, the film credits Sion Sono with original concept and Atsuki Tomori with screenplay who do at least add a little context which frames this, to an extent, as a tale of merciless samurai hypocrisy and the fallacy of “honour” as a code for living. 

As the film opens, a small boy stares in wonder at a white butterfly before being reminded that he has, as the head of this clan, apparently challenged the great Miyamoto Musashi to a duel in revenge for his murder of two of their previous leaders. Affable retainer Chusuke (Kenta Yamazaki) tells the boy not to worry, he’s not going to let anything happen to him, but stops short of explaining that he’s really just a kind of bait. Nevertheless, Chusuke has his reservations about their plan. After all, it’s not very befitting of a samurai’s honour to challenge someone to a private duel but invite 400 retainers to the surprise party. 400 against one seems faintly ridiculous. It might even be embarrassing if anyone else finds out, but then as the priest (Yosuke Saito) says you can just kill them too. In any case, while Chusuke is talking to the priest and the mercenaries are busy arguing with the retainers, Miyamoto Musashi sneaks through the perimeter and fells the small boy who is technically the “leader” of the clan with one flying sword blow, kickstarting a scene of utter carnage as he attempts to fight his way out of the compound.   

“How many more?” Musashi asks in exasperation during a momentary pause, later doing a few calculations. He thought there’d be about 70, but it feels like he’s killed a few more than that. True to form, the samurai warriors largely follow the protocols of honour. They fight one-on-on, and only at the end does anyone attempt to attack Musashi from behind. He makes swift work of them, taking each man out with maximum economy, occasionally challenged by complete randomers who apparently aren’t even part of the clan, they just really don’t like him. Though necessarily repetitive, Shimomura’s innovative, non-stop fight choreography follows a realtime, broadly naturalistic logic in which duels are generally brutish and short. Musashi begins to tire as he continues to fight for his life, taking brief breaks for water, food, and existential questioning, before heading back into the fray. 

“Duty? Honour? Who gives a crap? I just wanna win” he later says in what is simultaneously a rejection and an embodiment of the samurai code. “I’ll die one day anyway” Musashi chuckles to himself before rejoining the fight, wilfully embracing the nihilism of the samurai existence that allowed him to kill a child without thinking twice. Chusuke failed to protect his honour, or save his clan, his earnestness perhaps betrayed by his mentor’s underhandedness in unwisely hiring vast numbers of mercenaries and sending his own unprepared students, many of whom simply flee (a wise decision), to face off against an unstoppable killing machine. Paradoxically, Miyamoto Musashi will survive because he doesn’t care about playing fair, he may not even care about surviving, all he wants is to win. “A kid who knows nothing of war”, Chusuke’s stubborn insistence on illusionary samurai honour will lead only to more suffering and violence while all Musashi can do is sigh in resignation and ready his sword. 


Crazy Samurai Musashi streams in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (シコふんじゃった, Masayuki Suo, 1992)

sumo do sumo don'tConsidering how well known sumo wrestling is around the world, it’s surprising that it doesn’t make its way onto cinema screens more often. That said, Masayuki Suo’s Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (シコふんじゃった, Shiko Funjatta) displays an ambivalent attitude to this ancient sport in that it’s definitely uncool, ridiculous, and prone to the obsessive fan effect, yet it’s also noble – not only a game of size and brute force but of strategy and comradeship. Not unlike Suo’s later film for which he remains most well known, Shall We Dance, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t uses the presumed unpopularity of its central activity as a magnet which draws in and then binds together a disparate, originally reluctant collection of central characters.

We begin with a lecture given by Professor Anayama (Akira Emoto) in which he recounts the brief mention of sumo in the work of Jean Cocteau. It seems that Anayama is something of a sumo fanatic and had previously been a champion wrestler in his student days. Shuhei Yamamoto (Masahiro Motoki) is currently registered for Anayama’s class but he’s here on a party mandate and never attends classes – he even has someone raise their hand for him at registration. Shuhei already has a job offer for when he leaves so he needs to graduate – Anayama makes him a proposition, join the currently moribund sumo club and he’ll forget about the lack of attendance problem and fill his credits up too.

Actually, the sumo club has only one member – fanatical sumo fan and mature student, Aoki (Naoto Takenaka). Aoki takes tradition very seriously and it’s not long before he’s got Shuhei in a traditional “mawashi” sash (don’t call it a fundoshi!) and parading about the campus trying to find others they might be able to coerce into the club so they can compete in the next competition. Luckily they run into shy student Hosaku (Hiromasa Taguchi) who’s quickly convinced to help them keep the sumo club open, before also recruiting Shuhei’s younger brother Haruno (a refugee from the regular wrestling team), and even a foreign student, George Smiley, who only joins up to save on his rent. Together, they face an uphill battle but can they really conquer this demanding game with so little experience between them?

At heart, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is a standard sports comedy in which a rag tag collection of amateurs attempt to triumph over adversity whilst finding out more about themselves and each other.  No one, other than Aoki, really wanted to be in the sumo club with its embarrassing attire and total lack of social kudos. Shuhei is only there because he needs the grades, but after seeing how much Aoki cares about his sport he becomes determined to support his new found friend. Similarly, Hosaku had been leading quite a lonely life but enjoys being part of a team where his friends enthusiastically cheer him on.

By bringing in the foreign student (supposedly an English rugby player but played by an American with an unusually gung-ho attitude) Suo attempts to define sumo and, in a roundabout way, other aspects of Japanese culture from a more detached view point. “You Japanese never think things through” he’s fond of saying after asking a perfectly logical question that no one seems able to answer such as why they have a shrine to a household god in their clubhouse when this is a Christian university or why it’s frowned upon for him to wear shorts underneath his mawashi. Later, the group get a hanger on in the form of Masako (Ritsuko Umemoto) who has taken a liking to sumo, and more particularly to Haruno. Women aren’t allowed in the sumo ring but this is one aspect of tradition that it seems even the sumo diehards are prepared to let go. Far from the serious and rarified sumo world, the sumo club is a strictly equal opportunities enterprise built on mutual trust and acceptance. No one who loves the beautiful art of sumo is getting turned away.

Perhaps with less serious intent that some of Suo’s later works, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is a prime example of the ensemble comedy drama. The essence of the humour is physical leaning mainly on slapstick but with a side serving of wit and irony. Suo keeps things simple and straightforward, allowing the gentle comedy to emerge organically underpinned by strong characterisation and performances. Unashamedly feel good yet never tipping over into the mawkishly sentimental, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is the best kind of sports comedy where the outcome itself is almost irrelevant in light of the greater game that’s been in play right the way through.


Unsubbed trailer: