Kingdom (キングダム, Shinsuke Sato, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Kingdom poster 1The class war arrives in feudal China via modern Japan in Shinsuke Sato’s big budget adaptation of the wuxia-inspired manga by Yasuhisa Hara, Kingdom (キングダム). Set in China’s Warring States period, Kingdom offers a surprisingly progressive message, if mildly tempered by a failure to tackle the system in its entirety, in which the oppressed (which in this case includes the king) rise up against sneering aristocracy fuelled mostly by righteousness and fierce defence of the right to dream.

The tale begins with a fateful meeting between enslaved war orphans Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Xin (Kento Yamazaki) on a small farm somewhere in rural China. The boys, realising there is no way out of their enslavement save the sword, commit themselves to perfecting their martial arts with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s greatest generals. Their intense bond is broken when a mysterious man, Lord Chang . Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima), appears and offers Piao a job at the palace. Though he agonises over leaving his brother behind, Piao seizes his destiny little knowing he has been hired not quite so much for his sword skills as for his resemblance to weakened king Ying Zheng (also played by Ryo Yoshizawa). Sometime later, Piao returns close to death, entrusting Xin with an important mission – go to Ying Zheng and seek his own destiny by restoring rightful rule.

The two boys are about as oppressed as it’s possible to be – orphaned slaves with no prospect of improving their condition save the one they’ve already decided on, fighting in a war. This doesn’t quite explain how they can release themselves from the farm, but Xin’s eventual flight, in which his master does not attempt to stop him, might suggest the first hurdle is not as big as it seems. In any case, Xin finds an unlikely ally in Ying Zheng who has been deposed from the throne by his younger brother for not being royal enough because his birth was illegitimate and his mother was a dancer.

Of course, Ying Zheng’s intention to regain his “rightful” throne is in defence of a necessarily unequal social order, but it’s also a blow against the kind of elitism which mark’s his brother Cheng Jiao’s (Kanata Hongo) philosophy. Cheng Jiao believes that he is the most rightful king because his blood is the most royal. He looks down on Ying Zheng as low born, and has no respect for his subjects or the lower orders. “A peasant in fine clothes is still a peasant” one of his minions intones to intimidate an opponent, but someone with a sword is still someone with a sword no matter their circumstances of birth and provided you have access to acquire one, perhaps swordsmanship is a truly egalitarian art given that it largely depends on how well you wield a blade. Eventually, Ying Zheng makes an ally of another oppressed people – the mountain dwellers subjugated, and previously betrayed, by the powers that be who lend their strength to toppling a corrupt power structure in order to restore something like peace and balance to the land.

Indeed, asked to give a brief manifesto speech, Ying Zheng cooly declares that he aims to create a unified China by eliminating borders and therefore the need for war. Insisting that when a king picks up a sword it ought to be in service of his people, he makes the case for a borderless world, little caring that, as his general points out, history may brand him a tyrant. Nevertheless, he remains a “puppet king” whose status is dependent on the loyalty of key general Wang Yi (Takao Ohsawa) with whom true power lies. Wang Yi, as we later find out seems to be a “good” person who used his troops to protect the innocent and ensure no civilians were harmed during the chaos of the insurrection but he does indeed wield dangerously vast power for just one man. Meanwhile, Ying Zheng may reject the primacy of blood, but does dare to claim his birthright as an oldest son and is of course acting in service of an inherently oppressive system even if he means to make minor improvements towards the kind of meritocracy that allows men like Xin to embrace the power of their dreams.

The power of dreams is indeed the key. Though Cheng Jiao’s hardline mercenary may sneer that “dreams are bullshit” and deny a slave like Xin’s right to have one at all, to men like Xin dreams are all they have. As he says, they get you back on your feet when everything else seems hopeless. Learning that Piao achieved his dream even if it was only for a few moments gives him the strength to pursue his own in service not just of himself but his brother, friends, and kingdom.

Appropriating the aesthetics of wuxia may prove problematic for some, but like many Japanese manga with international settings, Kingdom’s mechanics are essentially home grown which is perhaps why Sato heavily leans on Kurosawa’s legacy, possibly overusing the distinctive side wipe and giving his heroine a look echoing that from Hidden Fortress while other influences seem to feed back from Star Wars in the strangely cute masked mountain elders and gleaming golden armour of bad ass warrior queen Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa). A surprisingly positive, perhaps ironically bold plea for a borderless world and if not actual equality at least a friendly kind of egalitarian nobility, Kingdom hands victory to those who fight hardest for their right to dream while subtly advocating for their right to rebel against an inherently unjust social order in order to claim it. 


Kingdom was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be screened in US cinemas from Aug. 16 courtesy of Funimation.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2017)

Hanagatami posterIn time the past becomes a dream. A world in and of itself, conjured from feeling and memory and painted in the imprecise strokes of one attempting to recreate a long forgotten scene. The melancholy heroes of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s long career were each trapped in a sense by nostalgia, a yearning for another time and place, or more precisely another, more innocent, version of themselves only with the benefit of hindsight and the confidence of age. Finally realising a long dreamt of project in dramatising Kazuo Dan’s classic wartime youth novel Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI), Obayashi reunites with another melancholy young man who as he puts it in the opening text wants to tell his story not out of a sense of nostalgia but out of longing for the things which were lost. Those like him who had the misfortune to be young before the war saw their whole world swept away by a kind of madness far beyond their control, losing not only a past but a future too.

When Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) returns home from Amsterdam where he had been living with his parents, Japan is already at war in China. Though the times are changing, Toshihiko’s life remains relatively untouched by conflict, insulated from the concerns of the day by the pleasant natural surroundings of his old-fashioned country town. Returning to the family estate presided over by his war-widow aunt, Keiko (Takako Tokiwa), Toshihiko strikes up a friendship with her sickly sister-in-law, Mina (Honoka Yahagi), whose proximity to death only seems to enhance her beauty. At school he finds himself caught between two polar opposites – the strong and silent Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) and the cynical nihilist Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), while his two sets of social circles finally combine with the addition of Mina’s friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) who also happens to be Kira’s cousin. The world is on the brink of ruin, but there are dances and picnics and festivals and everywhere everyone is desperate to live even in the midst of such foreboding.

Obayashi opens with a quote from one of Dan’s poems in which he mourns the flowers in full bloom shortly to be cut down in their prime. Hanagatami itself means “flower basket” but is also the title of a noh play about a woman driven mad by love for a man from whom she is separated by the arbitrary rules of her society. Japan itself has become a basket of flowers, offering up its youth on a senseless altar to political hubris while a generation attends its own funeral and becomes obsessed with the idea of permanence in a permanently uncertain world. Chitose carries about her camera, bitterly claiming that she will confer immortality on her subjects while privately longing for an end to her loneliness and suffering.

Like the heroine of the noh play, our protagonists too are driven mad by love as the madness of their times spurs them on and holds them back in equal measure. Mina, in all her etherial beauty, becomes the symbol of an age – innocence about die, drowned in its own blood. All in love with Mina, or perhaps with death itself, the men sink further into petty rivalries and conflicted friendships all the while staving off the inevitabilities of their times – that soon they too will be expected to sacrifice themselves for a cause they don’t believe in or risk being left behind alone.

Toshihiko finds himself torn between his two friends – the light and the dark, the robust Ukai and the gloomy Kira. While Toshihiko’s wide-eyed hero worship of Ukai and his idealised male physique takes on an inescapable homoerotic quality, his relationship with Kira leads him towards a darker path on which everything is “worthless” and all pleasures impossible in a world apparently so close to its end. Kira, having committed a truly heinous act, reminds his friends that they routinely kill and eat animals, and that one day they too will be gobbled up, swallowed whole by the cruelty of their times.

One by one the war takes them, if indirectly, leaving only Toshihiko behind. Describing his youth as like a game of hide and seek in which he suddenly realised it had gotten dark and all his friends had gone home, Toshihiko recasts his tale as a ghost story in which he remains haunted by the visions of his younger self and longs for his long absent friends, robbed of the futures promised to them by right of birth. Free floating through dreams and memory, Obayashi conjures an etherial world overshadowed by tragedy but coloured with wistful melancholy as pale-faced soldiers march off for the land of the dead while youth does its best to live all its tomorrows today in rejecting the senseless cruelty of its age.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Masayuki Suo, 2014)

lady-maikoWhen Japan does musicals, even Hollywood style musicals, it tends to go for the backstage variety or a kind of hybrid form in which the idol/singing star protagonist gets a few snazzy numbers which somehow blur into the real world. Masayuki Suo’s previous big hit, Shall We Dance, took its title from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song featured in the King and I but it’s Lerner and Loewe he turns to for an American style song and dance fiesta relocating My Fair Lady to the world of Kyoto geisha, Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Maiko wa Lady) . My Fair Lady was itself inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion though replaces much of its class conscious, feminist questioning with genial romance. Suo’s take leans the same way but suffers somewhat in the inefficacy of its half hearted love story seeing as its heroine is only 15 years old.

Country bumpkin Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) arrives in the elegant Kyoto geisha quarters with only one hope – to become a maiko! However, despite the scarcity of young girls wanting to train, Haruko’s hopes are dashed by the head geisha who finds it impossible to understand anything she’s saying thanks to her extraordinarily rare accent which is an odd mix of north and south country dialects. Luckily for her, a linguistics professor who has an unhealthy obsession with rare dialectical forms overhears her speech patterns and is instantly fascinated. Striking up a bet with another tea house patron, Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa) takes on the challenge of training Haruko to master the elegant Kyoto geisha accent in just six months.

The teahouses and the culture which goes with them are a part of the old world just barely hanging on in the bright new modern era. Haruko first became infatuated with all things maiko thanks to an online blog kept by the teahouse’s only current star, Momoko (Tomoko Tabata) – the daughter of the proprietor still only a maiko at age thirty precisely because of the lack of candidates to succeed her. Despite this intrusion of the modern, the way of the geisha remains essentially the same as it has for centuries with all of the unfairness and exploitation it entails. Hence, most of the women working in the teahouses are part-timers brought in for big events with only rudimentary training and even those who have spent a significant amount of time learning their craft lament that they don’t get paid a real salary and even their kimono and accessories technically belong to the teahouse.

Despite being on the fringes of the sex trade, as the professor’s assistant takes care to warn Haruko, there’s still something glamorous about the the arcane teahouse world bound up in ancient traditions and complicated rituals of elegance. Haruko faces a steep learning curve as a clumsy country girl who doesn’t even know how to sit “seiza” without her legs going numb. Learning to speak like a Kyoto native may be the least of her worries seeing as she has to learn how to dress in kimono, play a taiko drum and shamisen, and perform the traditional dances to perfection.

This is a musical after all and so the maiko dance routines eventually give way to more conventional choreography and large scale broadway numbers. The title song is particularly catchy and resurfaces at several points though the score as a whole is cheerful and inventive, incorporating a classic broadway sound with modern twist fused with the traditional music of the teahouse. Naoto Takenaka makes a typically creepy appearance displaying a fine voice for a comic number dedicated to the art of being a male maid to a geisha house but the big set piece is reserved for a comic take on the “Rain in Spain” in which the linguistics professor oddly wonders where all the water goes when it’s “pissing it down in Kyoto”. Unfortunately much of this revolves around linguistic jokes which are impossible to translate though the scene as a whole does its job well enough in introducing us to Haruko’s travails in the world of elocution. Other routines featuring the backstories of some of the minor characters also have a pleasantly retro quality inspired by period cinema complete with painted backdrops and old fashioned studio bound cinematography.

Though charming enough, Haruko’s progress is perhaps too conventional to move Lady Maiko far beyond the realms of cheerful fluff. Though Suo wisely keeps the romance to a minimum, Haruko’s growing feelings for the professor as well as a possible connection with his assistant are a little uncomfortable given her youth and the age differences involved even if the professor remains completely unaware. Unlike the source material Haruko’s passage is otherwise presented without complication (save for brief forays into the darkside of the geisha trade) as the country girl makes good, achieving her goals through hard work, perseverance, and the support of the community. In the end it’s all just far too nice, but then that’s not such a bad problem to have and there are enough pretty dance routines and warmhearted comedy to charm even the most jaded of viewers.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2006)

mamiya-brothersEver the populist, Yoshitmitsu Morita returns to the world of quirky comedy during the genre’s heyday in the first decade of the 21st century. Adapting a novel by Kaori Ekuni, The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Mamiya Kyodai) centres on the unchanging world of its arrested central duo who, whilst leading perfectly successful, independent adult lives outside the home, seem incapable of leaving their boyhood bond behind in order to create new families of their own.

Older bother Akinobu (Kuranosuke Sasaki) and younger brother Tetsunobu (Muga Tsukaji) live together in a small apartment in Tokyo where they enjoy hanging out keeping track of baseball games and watching movies rented from the local store where Akinobu has a crush on the cashier, Naomi (Erika Sawajiri). They are perfectly happy but sometimes frustrated that they don’t have girlfriends so they decide to host a curry party and invite Naomi over in the hopes that she might develop an affection for Akinobu. So that she won’t feel weird about going to the house of two middle-aged guys she doesn’t really know, Tetsunobu invites a reserved teacher, Yoriko (Takako Tokiwa), from the primary school he works at as a caretaker though he “never dates coworkers” and is only really asking her as a backup for Akinobu.

Against expectation the both ladies agree to attend the curry party which actually goes pretty well though neither man is fully capable of following up on the opportunities presented to him. Outside events provide a distraction as Akinobu is swept into his adulterous boss’ divorce crisis and Tetsunobu becomes fixated on a damsel in distress who has no desire to be rescued by him. As much as the boys might want to form independent relationships for female companionship, their brotherly bond is more akin to a marriage in itself leaving both of them unwilling to abandon the status quo for a new kind of happiness.

These kinds of closely interdependent sibling relationships are more often seen between sisters, often as one or both of them has rejected offers of marriage for fear of leaving the other on the shelf. Elderly spinsters and their histories of unhappy romance are almost a genre in themselves though they often present the peaceful co-existence of the two women as a double failure and ongoing tragedy rather than a perfectly legitimate choice each may have made to reject the normal social path and rely solely on each other. The Mamiya Brothers neatly subverts this stereotype, presenting the relationship of the two men as a broadly happy one though perhaps tinged with sadness as it becomes clear that the intense bond they share is holding each of them back in a kind of never ending childhood.

Indeed, though they live alone together and have steady jobs, whilst in each other’s company the brothers regress back to childhood by spending their spare time riding bikes around the neighbourhood and playing on the beach. They are each keenly aware of how they must appear to members of the opposite sex and are always mindful not to appear “creepy”. Accordingly, they’re careful about which DVDs they check out so that Naomi doesn’t get a bad impression of them, and they’re sure to make it clear that both girls can bring other people to their parties so they won’t think there’s anything untoward going on. Throwing quick fire questions back for and constantly making references to private jokes the boys are effectively a manzai duo performing for an audience of two, perpetually suffocating inside their self made bubble.

Though they might not find love, the boys do at least make some new friends. Naomi’s sister, Yumi (Keiko Kitagawa), is exactly the kind of girl they’d usually steer clear of lest she begins to make fun of their old fashioned ways yet she actually becomes an ally and even a friend after spending time hanging out in the brothers’ odd little world. Yumi and Naomi are, in many ways, almost as closely connected as Akinobu and Tetsunobu though they both currently have boyfriends even if they find them equally disappointing.

The teacher, Yoriko, also finds herself unlucky in love as she pursues a relationship with a colleague who doesn’t seem particularly invested in her and is lackadaisical about even the smallest forms of commitment. Tetsunobu seems to have discounted her as a romantic partner under his “no coworkers” rule and is either unaware or deliberately ignoring her growing feelings for him. It may be that he invited Yoriko as a love interest for his brother precisely because he was interested himself and wanted to eliminate the problem, but he may come to regret outwardly rejecting this chance of mutual affection turning into something more solid.

When push comes to shove it might just be that the Mamiya Brothers are happiest in their own company and have no desire to move on and leave their arrested development behind. Though tinged with a degree of lingering sadness as it appears the boys do have a desire to form bonds outside of their mutually dependent bubble, they are after all quite happy and mostly fulfilled in their life together. Cute and quirky, if at times melancholic, The Mamiya Brothers is a strange tale of modern romance in a world where no one really grows up anymore. The brothers are clearly not afraid of broadening their horizons, but might prefer to continue doing so together rather than finding their own, independent, paths.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Snow on the Blades (柘榴坂の仇討, Setsuro Wakamatsu, 2014)

Snow on the Blades 2Times change, and men must change with them or they must die. When Japan was forced to open up to the rest of the world after centuries of isolation, its ancient order of samurai with their feudal lords and subjugated peasantry was abandoned in favour of a more Western looking democratic solution to social stratification. Suddenly the entirety of a man’s life was rendered nil – no more lords to serve, a man must his make his own way now. However, for some, old wounds continue to fester, making it impossible for them to embrace this entirely new way of thinking.

Kingo is one such man who finds himself frustrated by history in Setsuro Wakamatsu’s adaptation of a novel by Jiro Asada, Snow on the Blades (柘榴坂の仇討, Zakurozaka no Adauchi). In 1860 (as we count it) he married a beautiful young woman and received a promotion as the bodyguard for his lord, Ii Naosuke. However, one fateful day his progressive master is ambushed by a rival clan making a pretence of arriving with a petition that needs to be heard. Kingo and his men fail in protecting their lord and though many of the survivors commit suicide in shame, Kingo is charged with finding the remaining perpetrators and exacting his revenge. His quest spans almost fifteen years of turbulent Meiji era history as he trudges all over Japan looking for rumours of men who no longer quite exist all the while a lonely wife waits for him at home, becoming the sole breadwinner for this new life of forced “equality”.

The man Kingo has been looking for, Naokichi, is also living an unfulfilling life, hiding from retribution but also from himself and his own remorse over the deeds of a young man whom he no longer recognises. He has the possibility of building a new life with a local widow and her sweet little daughter who’s taken a liking to him, but like Kingo he’s held frozen by the old ways and can’t quite allow himself to bring a woman and child into his life of shame and fear.

Both men have been left behind by history. Kingo is the more obvious relic with his anachronistic top knot and old fashioned Japanese dress but Naokichi is also unable to move forward until he faces his past. For much of the running time Snow on the Blades plays out like a conventional mystery or revenge tale with Kingo on the road trying to track down those who he believes wronged his master in an attempt to atone for his failures through vengeance, but all that awaits him at the end of his journey is a lonely grave. The problem is, he liked his lord who was good and progressive man, filled with kindness and poetic sentiments. His regret over not being able to save him is more than failed duty, it is also personal grief and guilt though he finds little comfort in pursing those he believes to responsible.

Having spent thirteen years striving for something Kingo suddenly finds himself adapting to the times and beginning to believe perhaps this isn’t what his lord would have wanted anyway. Both men, confronted by each other and by several different kinds of history, are forced to face themselves as they are now and as they were then and assess what all of these codes and honour systems are really worth. Snow on the Blades is often beautifully photographed and filled with scenes as lovely as any woodblock painting but, it has to be said, somewhat dull as its central psychological dramas fail to ignite. Impressive production values and universally strong performances from its high profile cast lift the film above its fairly generic narrative but can’t quite save it from its rather trite message and run of the mill period drama aesthetic.


The assassination at Sakuradamon or Sakuradamon Incident is a real historical event in which the Japanese Chief Minister Ii Naosuke was murdered by ronin samurai working for the Mito clan outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle in 1860. Ii Naosuke was a leading proponent of opening up to foreign powers (albeit as a sort of defense mechanism) but made an enemy of just about everyone through his tyrranical actions and was a very unpopular figure at the time of his death though his image has now been somewhat rehabilitated.