Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Eisuke Naito, 2018)

(C)押切蓮介/双葉社 (C)2017「ミスミソウ」製作委員会

Liverleaf poster“How have things turned out this way?” Asks the heroine of Eisuke Naito’s Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Misumisou) after receiving a poignant (non)explanation for the cause of all her sufferings. Adolescence is cruel at the best of times, but when you’re stuck in a tiny no horse town with nothing to do, violence can become an easy pastime. The kids of Liverleaf take the art of bullying to all new heights, stopping not at humiliation, ostracisation, or conspiratorial acts of emotional ruin but allowing their petty games to run all the way to arson and murder.

Haruka (Anna Yamada), unlike most of her classmates, is a relatively new resident of a small rural town where she and her family have moved for her father’s job. Her only friend at school, and the only one to stand up for her against the gang of popular kids making her life a misery, is another transfer student, Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu), living alone with his grandmother for mysterious reasons. The usual high school girl tricks of making another girl feel unwelcome – stolen shoes, name calling, silent stalking etc eventually progress into direct violence at which point her father (Masahiro Toda) tries to go to the school to complain. Unfortunately, Haruka’s teacher (Aki Morita) is an almost absent, hollow source of authority who cannot control the kids and nor does she try. She tells Haruka’s dad that as the school will be closing down at the end of the academic year it’s hardly the time to make waves and she sees no need to get involved in such trivial matters. Matters come to a head when the kids, egging each other on, set fire to Haruka’s house with her mother (Reiko Kataoka), father, and little sister Shoko (Sena Tamayori) trapped inside.

It’s true enough to say Haruka reacted to her bullying in the way that society expects – she kept her head down and tried to put up with it without making a fuss. Some may read Liverleaf as a tale of vengeance, but it isn’t. As passive as she’s always been, Haruka’s acts of violence are a matter of extreme self defence. She doesn’t go looking for the ones who’ve done her wrong, but they come looking for her and thereafter pay a heavy price for their continued campaign of subjugation.

Haruka became an easy subject for bullying because she was a literal outsider – Aiba escaped this particular fate through being male, conventionally attractive, and with a confidence and maturity which set him apart from the bratty kids trying to prove their status by belittling others. Once Haruka decides to sit out the rest of the school term rather than put up with constant torment, she activates an extreme chain of events when the next likely target, a strange girl with a stammer (Rena Ohtsuka), decides to do whatever it takes to become one of the bullies rather than their latest victim. Morality goes out the window when fear takes over and some will to whatever it takes to make sure it’s someone else in the firing line rather than themselves.

Yet for all the fear and violence, there’s another, perhaps more interesting, story buried under all the senseless bloodletting. It’s not so much that teenage emotions are running wild, but that they barely have them at all and those they do have find no available outlet. Romantic jealousy spirals out of control, turning in on itself as love denied masquerades as hate. Unable to freely voice their innermost anxieties, the kids take their resentments out on each other, getting their kicks through cruel games which bind them with complicity in the absence of real feeling.

Naito attempts to lend an air of realism to the increasingly bizarre middle school warfare but cannot escape the manga origins of his source material. The violence itself is cartoonish and absurd, but there’s also an unpleasant layer of fetishisation which takes over as the blood starts flowing, almost revelling in acts of extreme cruelty as a young man exults in beating the face of a young girl to a bloody pulp. Unremittingly bleak, Liverleaf makes a bid for pathos in its closing coda as it takes us back to a case of ruined friendships and broken dreams but it can’t overcome the uneasy stylisation of all that’s gone before in swapping emptiness for wistful melancholy.


Liverleaf screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 8th July, 7pm with director Eisuke Naito in attendance for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Side JOb posterFukushima has become a focal point for recent Japanese cinema, not just as a literal depiction of an area in crisis but as a symbol for various social concerns chief among them being a loss of faith in governmental responsibility. Side Job (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない, Kanojo no Jinsei wa Machigai ja Nai) has the distinction of being helmed by a Fukushima native in Ryuichi Hiroki who also wrote the original novel from which the film is adapted. Typical of Hiroki’s work, Side Job is less an ode to the power of perseverance than a powerful meditation on grief, inertia, and helplessness. Though he offers no easy answers and refuses to judge his protagonists for the ways they attempt to deal with their situations, Hiroki does allow them to find a kind of peace, at least of the kind that allows them to begin moving forward if not quite away from the past.

Five years after The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, Miyuki Kanazawa (Kumi Takiuchi) is still living in a cramped prefab house with her widowed father, Osamu (Ken Mitsuishi). Miyuki’s mother was lost in the storm and her body never found, leaving the pair bereft and with an unanswered question. Having lost his farm to the exclusion zone, Osamu is left with nothing much to do and mostly spends his time idly playing pachinko and drinking much to the consternation of Miyuki who has a regular job with the city council.

Miyuki may well be angry about the way her father fritters away their money, but that doesn’t quite explain why she boards an overnight coach every Friday and spends her weekends in Tokyo engaging in casual sex work. She appears not to like the work very much and it is occasionally dangerous, but she does seem to have built up a kind of friendship with her “manager” as he drives her around the city to her various clients. Miura (Kengo Kora) claims to enjoy his work because it gives him an opportunity to observe human nature in all of its complexity though if he harbours any conflict about his role as a dispatcher of sometimes vulnerable young women, he is slow to voice it.

The “side job” of the title provides a kind of escape from a boring, conventional life in rural Iwaki, equal parts self-harm and quest for sensation. Miyuki, like many of those around her walks around with an air of irritated blankness, angry at so many things she doesn’t quite know where to begin. Yet for all that she’s also emotionally numbed, held in a state of suspended animation, longing to feel something, anything, even if that something is only shame. Through her double life Miyuki is able to find a sense of control and equilibrium that eluded her in grief-stricken Iwaki. Her manager, Miura, promises to “protect” her, though he makes clear that there are many women he feels a duty to protect rather than just Miyuki. Just as it seems Miyuki has come to depend on him, Miura drops a bombshell of his own though it maybe one which spurs Miyuki on towards a new beginning.

Everything in Iwaki is, in a sense, temporary. Miyuki and her father still live in the tiny prefab house in the hope of one day being able to go “home” while Osamu attends occasional meetings with the farming collective to try and find out what’s going on with his fields. Held in a kind of limbo, repeating the same daily tasks with relentless monotony, Miyuki and Osamu are trapped by a sense of helpless dread, forever waiting for something to happen but having lost the faith that it ever will.

While the pair struggle on, others find themselves unable to bear the weight of their tragedies. The spectre of suicide haunts Miyuki and her father from the woman next-door (Tamae Ando) who has become depressed thanks to the stigma surrounding her husband’s job with the decontamination programme, to the window at the agency which no longer opens following the suicide of one of the employees. Pushed to the edge by financial strain, there are also those who find themselves befriending the vulnerable with an intent to defraud, but it is in the end genuine human relationships which light the way for each of our struggling protagonists. Osamu bonds with an orphaned little boy through playing catch, Miyuki finds strength in Miura’s decision to break with his old life and build a new one, and her assistant at the city council, Nitta (Tokio Emoto), grows into the responsibility of being a big brother while attempting to do the best he can for the people of Fukushima.

What each of them finds isn’t an answer or a “cure” for their trauma but a path towards accepting it in such a way as it allows them to begin moving forward. New seeds are planted in the expectation of a coming future, new lives are celebrated, and the past begins to recede. Memory becomes a still frame, bottled and in a sense commodified but held close as a kind of talisman proving nothing is really ever “lost”. Filmed with an eerie sense of listless beauty, Side Job is an unflinching yet not unforgiving exploration of life after tragedy in which the only possible chance for survival lies in empathy and simple human connection.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

 

Creepy (クリーピー 偽りの隣人, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)

creepyHow well do you know your neighbours? Perhaps you have one that seems a little bit strange to you, “creepy”, even. Then again, everyone has their quirks, so you leave things at nodding at your “probably harmless” fellow suburbanites and walking away as quickly as possible. The central couple at the centre of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s return to genre filmmaking Creepy (クリーピー 偽りの隣人, Creepy Itsuwari no Rinjin), based on the novel by Yutaka Maekawa, may have wished they’d better heeded their initial instincts when it comes to dealing with their decidedly odd new neighbours considering the extremely dark territory they’re about to move in to…

The Takakuras, Koichi (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi), have just relocated to the suburbs where Koichi will be taking a position at a local university teaching criminal psychology. A year previously, Koichi had been a member of the police force working on serial murder cases but after a serious miscalculation on his part during a negotiation with an escaped prisoner leaves an innocent woman dead and himself in the hospital, Koichi comes to the conclusion that he’s not quite cut out for the force after all.

Having just moved into the neighbourhood, Koichi and Yasuko attempt to make the expected visit to announce their presence to their neighbours only to find that the locals aren’t exactly friendly. After one neighbour slams the door in her face, Yasuko pays a visit to the other one, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), but the way in which be begins talking to her is very strange indeed. Though unsettled, Yasuko just can’t let the idea drop and becomes intent on building up a more conventional relationship with her hard to read neighbour, ignoring all of her better instincts in the process.

Meanwhile, Koichi has become intrigued by a six year old cold case in which three members of a family abruptly disappeared leaving their young daughter, Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi), behind. Working with a former colleague, Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), Koichi tracks down the abandoned little girl (now a teenager) and attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Japanese films are full of the parasitic interloper who wheedles his way into a family only to usurp control for himself and eventually colonise it. Generally, such families go back to normal once the interloper has had his fun but for the families of Creepy that would be quite difficult. In the modern world when the family unit has become so fractured and insecure that it renders once permanent communities only temporary, a chasm has been opened in human interactions which makes it easier for extreme horror to locate itself right next door to you. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors, and in a sense no one wants to know. Koichi attempts to use his scientific knowledge to reassure Yasuko that, as psychopaths are usually very good neighbours, Nishino must be fine, but this only goes to show superficial the couple’s interest in their environment really is.

Koichi has a mild obsession with serial killers. His desire to spend more time with a real life psycho contributed to this fall from grace at the beginning, but his investigative abilities leave a lot to be desired. Yasuko may have suggested that Nishino is the kind of person who “has no social skills” but Koichi is the archetypal interrogator – only interested in the facts and blind to the emotional subtext. After Koichi puts too much pressure on the traumatised Saki, she accuses him of tearing into people’s emotions as if dissecting a rat, and later asks him if he has any kind of heart or real human empathy at all. For all his highly prized science, most of Koichi’s clues are based on his intuition – he just “feels” the house seems like a crime scene, that Nishino is a bad guy, and that something strange is going on.

This almost supernatural “feeling” becomes the central spine of the film as creepiness travels through the air in invisible waves. Kurosawa adopts a swirling, floating approach to camera movement in the early part of the film which gives it a drunken, ethereal atmosphere, preventing any concrete attempt to grasp the reality. Playing with lighting levels Kurosawa emphasises and isolates the characters but also adds a note of uncertainty that hints at the darkness lingering at the edges of the frame. This sense of the ever present evil that exists within otherwise pleasant environments contributes to the Lynchian sense of the absurd which is also echoed by the anxiety inducing lingering camera shots of banal objects such as room thermostat or closed gates.

Despite the eeriness of the general tone, Kurosawa encourages a strain of black humour which helps to cover some of the more outlandish plot elements. The final conclusion perhaps strains credulity and is never fully explained but then the lack of concrete details adds to the already overwhelming creepiness of the events in play. Wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully photographed, and filled with a spirit of absurdism, Creepy is a very modern horror story though one not unafraid to step into the realms of the senses.


Reviewed at 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rock’n’Roll Mishin (ロックンロールミシン, Isao Yukisada, 2002)

rock'n'roll misshinYou know how it is, you’ve left college and got yourself a pretty good job (that you don’t like very much but it pays the bills) and even a steady girlfriend too (not sure if you like her that much either) but somehow everything starts to feel vaguely dissatisfying. This is where we find Kenji (Ryo Kase) at the beginning of Isao Yukisada’s sewing bee of a movie, Rock ’n’ Roll Mishin (ロックンロールミシン). However, this is not exactly the story of a salaryman risking all and becoming a great artist so much as a man taking a brief bohemian holiday from a humdrum everyday existence.

Kenji’s life probably would have continued down a path of corporate serfdom uninterrupted if he had not run into old schoolfriend Ryoichi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who, he learns, is setting up an indie fashion label with some of his friends. Ryoichi has to leave pretty quickly but he pastes a note on the outside of the restaurant window with his contact details so Kenji can find him again.

At work the next day Kenji “enjoys” some “banter” with an extremely unpleasant corporate stooge colleague who seems to be under the mistaken impression that he and Kenji are friends. After making some misogynistic comments about how Kenji is too much of a pushover and should “knock some sense” (literally) into his girlfriend, his colleague sets in on some typical salaryman careerist chat which is exactly the kind of thing Kenji is becoming disillusioned with.

Having failed to meet her at the restaurant, Kenji returns home one evening to find his girlfriend waiting outside his flat. She comes in and immediately takes off her clothes and gets into bed all without saying anything at all. When her T-shirt accidentally blows off the washing line and gets caught on some cabling below, Kenji remembers about his friend’s fashion company and decides to pay them a visit. Kenji is taken in by the sense of freedom and individual enterprise he finds in the workshop in contrast to his corporate drone office job. Eventually Kenji quits and joins the fashion gang full-time though he quickly finds that making a dream come true is surprisingly uphill work.

Unlike other films of this nature, there’s very little inspirational content to be found in Rock ’n’ Roll Mishin. The “mishin” of the title means a sewing machine and early on Ryoichi teases Kenji by telling him that his is a “rock and roll” machine because it beats out 8 stitches a second and if you really step on it it goes up to 16. Ryoichi’s teacher and mentor, Megumi (Ryo) lets Kenji in on the joke by explaining that it’s really called a “lock” machine because it holds the fabric in place for you. The other member of the team is a fashionista, Katsuo (Kenji Mizuhashi), who wants to create fashion that makes a sun of your heart so that you shine forth with an inner light. Needless to say, though the original three all have fashion skills from Ryoichi who’s the designer to Megumi who is a fashion teacher and Katsuo who studied fashion in London, nobody has any kind of business sense or a real business plan for this fledgling business.

In another film this might be where Kenji’s salaryman experience plays in, completing a missing element of the group which will enable them to triumph over adversity. However, Kenji’s experience is also fairly limited but the sensible economic advice he has to offer largely falls on deaf ears with his more creatively orientated teammates. They may understand the business on some level – at least enough to know what they can realistically expect to charge for their wares but are completely clueless about how they can go about managing their costs and maximising their profits. They also don’t really seem to know how to promote their business in anything other than a grungy, underground way which might be cool but is unlikely to take off without a serious amount of cynical marketing gimmickry which Ryoichi isn’t prepared to go for.

What Rock ’n’ Roll Mishin has to say about the youth of today isn’t very encouraging. It paints them as a group of unrealistic dreamers unwilling to put the work in to achieve anything. They might start to go for it in the beginning, but as soon as things start to look up they get scared and childishly run away rather than following through. Ryoichi is very much the tortured artist type, so fixated on maintaining his own image of artistic integrity that he’s completely unable to commercialise to work in any effective kind of way. Kenji is sucked in by the atmosphere of creative freedom but ultimately he has very little to offer and even if he is the one most affected by this new, bohemian lifestyle he’s also the best placed to recognise that you can’t live on dreams alone.

It’s tempting to read Rock ’n’ Roll Mishin as an ultra conservative, stick to the path message movie. It almost wants to say that it’s just not worth trying anything new because you’ll never see it through and you’ll be heading back to your old life with your tail between your legs quicker than you can say haute couture. However, even if the typical underdog triumphs against the odds narrative doesn’t materialise, Kenji at least comes to view his time in the fashion business in a broadly positive light. What he values is the time spent with friends, and, even if it didn’t work out quite the way they would have liked they still created something that was a success on its own terms and was ultimately appreciated by fellow travellers along the same path which, in the end, is what it’s all about.


Not exactly a trailer but this music video for one of the songs used in the film, Rock ‘n’ Roll Missing by Scudelia Electro, contains some footage from the film (lyrics in English)