Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

The Black House (黒い家, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1999)

black house posterYoshimitsu Morita, though committed to commercial filmmaking, also enjoyed trying on different kinds of directorial hats from from purveyor of smart social satires to teen idol movies, high art literary adaptations and just about everything else in-between. It’s no surprise then that at the height of the J-horror boom, he too got in on the action with an adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel of the same name, The Black House (黒い家, Kuroi Ie). Though tagged as “J-horror” you’ll find no long haired ghosts here and, in fact, barely anything supernatural as the true horror on show is the slow descent into madness taking place inside the protagonist’s mind.

Wakatsuki (Masaaki Uchino) is a nice young man with a good job investigating claims at an insurance office. Unfortunately, this gives him a slightly dim view of humanity as he comes into contact with scamsters and even people willing to maim themselves just so that they can claim on their policies. One day, he receives a strange phone call from a woman who wants to know if her insurance policy will pay out in case of suicide. Wakatsuki, slightly panicked, tells her that it really depends on the circumstances and, jumping to the conclusion she plans to kill herself, urges her to get help and talk things over with someone before doing anything rash.

The next thing he knows, Wakatsuki is despatched to her house to sort things out whereupon he makes an extremely gruesome discovery – the woman’s son, though only a child, has hanged himself in the back room. Obviously extremely shocked and distressed, Wakatsuki heads home with the nagging suspicion that Sachiko (Shinobu Ootake) and her husband Komoda (Masahiko Nishimura) have done something truly dreadful. The couple take turns coming into the office to find out what’s taking so long with their claim and gradually the situation begins to spiral desperately out of control.

Always one for irony,  Morita’s tone varies widely here. There’s an oddly Twin Peaks-like vibe with the jolly jazz score giving way to synths at moments of high tension, not to mention the run down industrial town setting. If that weren’t enough Lynchery, there’s even a moment where a severed hand is found in a patch of grass, crawling with ants just like the ear found by Jeffrey at the beginning of Blue Velvet. Morita seems to be telling us not to take any of this too seriously yet his subjects include parents harming or even murdering their children to claim on an insurance policy as well as bloody violence and dismemberment of corpses.

In fact, the insurance guys don’t spend too long trying to figure out if the boy actually killed himself but Wakatsuki becomes preoccupied by the idea the husband, Komoda, is behind the whole thing (the boy was only his step-son after all) and will now try and kill his wife to claim her insurance too. The couple are certainly both very strange people and the insurance company also have a problem as the policy was signed off on during a campaign drive in which a now dismissed employ made use of a personal connection to try and meet her unrealistic quota. Wakatsuki eventually engages an equally eccentric psychology professor who takes him out on a weird nighttime odyssey to a seedy strip club where he expounds on a epidemic of psychopathy among the younger generation. Even Wakatsuki’s girlfriend, Megumi, has some off the wall ideas based on an essay Sachiko wrote in elementary school (though actually Megumi’s view has some merit).

Things hit a more conventional note from this point on landing us with a familiar slasher villain who begins stalking Wakatsuki, even trashing his apartment before kidnapping his girlfriend and keeping her prisoner in the “Black House”. Wakatsuki heads to the den of evil by himself in the dark (in true horror movie fashion) where he finds a whole bunch of other dismembered corpses (and a few other surprises). He might think he can put his troubles behind him after this extremely traumatic incident, but this is still a horror movie so the killer gets away to strike again by throwing a bright yellow bowling ball at his head through the office toilet window.

Morita is not being serious at all, even for a second, but somehow he still manages to create an oddly threatening atmosphere of suspense despite the extremely weird things which are going on. He creates a complex set of visual cues from the recurring sunflower motif repeated on Sachiko’s shirt to the glistening yellow bowling ball, goldfish (in a toilet bowl if not a percolator), repeated sounds of cockroaches and old fashioned reel printers, and even the green glow from both old fashioned computer systems and the company’s insurance documents. Undoubtedly bizarre, The Black House is mind bending psychological-horror-movie-cum-Freudian-slasher that is primed for both head scratching puzzlement and confused chuckling as Morita has a lot of fun messing with our senses.