Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2010)

sketches of kaitan cityYasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, has provided the source material for some of the best films of recent times including Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence but it has to be said that his world view is anything but positive. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri takes on Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kaitanshi Jokei) inspired by a collection of short stories left unfinished on Sato’s death by suicide in 1990. Despite the late bubble era setting of the stories (now updated to the present day), his Kaitan (eerily close to the real life Hakodate) is a place of decline and hopelessness, populated by the disillusioned and despairing.

The first story concerns a brother and sister whose lives have been defined by the local shipbuilding industry. Since their father was killed in a dockside fire, older brother Futa (Pistol Takehara) has been taking care of his little sister Honami (Mitsuki Tanimura) and now works at the docks himself. Times being what they are, the company is planning to close three docks with mass layoffs inevitable. The workers strike but are unable to win more than minor concessions leaving Futa unable to continue providing for himself or his sister.

Similar tales of societal indifference follow as an old lady living alone with her beloved cat is hounded by a developer (Takashi Yamanaka) desperate to buy her home. Across town the owner of the planetarium (Kaoru Kobayashi) is living a life of quiet desperation, suspecting that his bar hostess wife (Kaho Minami) is having an affair. Meanwhile a gas canister salesman (Ryo Kase) is trying to branch out but having little success, and a tram driver dwells on his relationship with his estranged son.

Economic and social concerns become intertwined as increasing financial instability chips away at the foundations of otherwise sound family bonds. Futa’s situation is one of true desperation now that he’s lost the only job he’s ever had and is ill equipped to get a new one even if there were anything going in this town which revolves entirely around its port.

Yet other familial bonds are far from sound to begin with. The gas canister salesman, going against his father’s wishes in trying to diversify with a series of water purifiers he believes will be a guaranteed earner because of the need to replace filters, takes out his various frustrations through astonishing acts of violence against his wife who then passes on the legacy of abuse to his son, Akira (You Koyama). Resentful towards his father and embarrassed by his lack of success with the water filters, the gas canister salesman threatens to explode but unexpectedly finding himself on the receiving end of violence, he is forced into a reconsideration of his way of life – saving one family member, but perhaps betraying another.

The gas canister salesman is not the only one to have a difficult relationship with his child. The planetarium owner cannot seem to connect with his own sullen offspring and is treated like an exile within his own home while the tram driver no longer speaks to his son who is apparently still angry and embarrassed that his mother worked in a hostess bar.

Yet for all of this real world disillusionment, despair takes on a poetic quality as the planetarium owner spends his days literally staring at the stars – even if they are fake. The gas canister salesman’s son, Akira, becomes a frequent visitor, excited by the idea of the telescope and dreaming of a better, far away world only to have his hopes literally dashed by his parents, themselves already teetering on the brink of an abyss. Futa’s lifelong love has been with shipping – the company officials are keen to sell the line that it’s all about the boats and an early scene of jubilation following the launch of a recently completed vessel would seem to bear that out, but when it comes down to it the values are far less pure than a simple love of craftsmanship. Kaitan City is a place where dreams go to die and hope is a double edged sword.

There are, however, small shoots of positivity. The old lady welcomes her cat back into her arms, discovering that it is pregnant and stroking it gently, reassuring it that everything will be OK and she will take care of the new cat family. Signs of life appear, even if drowned out by the noise of ancient engines and the sound of the future marching quickly in the opposite direction. Bleak yet beautifully photographed, Sketches of Kaitan City perfectly captures the post-industrial malaise and growing despair of those excluded from economic prosperity, left with nothing other than false promises and misplaced hope to guide the way towards some kind of survival.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Projects (団地, AKA Danchi, Junji Sakamoto, 2016)

danchi posterTimes change so quickly. The “danchi” was a symbol of post-war aspiration and rising economic prosperity as it sought to give young professionals an affordable yet modern, convenient way of life. The term itself is a little hard to translate though loosely enough just means a housing estate but unlike “The Projects” (団地, Danchi) of the title, these are generally not areas of social housing or lower class neighbourhoods but a kind of vertical village which one should never need to leave (except to go to work) as they also include all the necessary amenities for everyday life from shops and supermarkets to bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, aspirations change across generations and what was once considered a dreamlike promise of futuristic convenience now seems run down and squalid. Cramped apartments with tiny rooms, washing machines on the balconies, no lifts – young people do not see these things as convenient and so the danchi is mostly home to the older generation, downsizers, or the down on their luck.

The Yamashitas – Hinako (Naomi Fujiyama) and her husband Seiji (Ittoku Kishibe), moved into the danchi just a few months ago after abruptly closing their herbal medicine business. The couple have integrated into the mini community fairly well, but as newcomers their neighbours remain a little suspicious and stand offish while Hinako and Seiji have their own reasons for moving and mostly want to be left alone. To make ends meet, Hinako is working part-time at the local supermarket but Seiji is mostly left alone in his thoughts and likes to wander through the nearby woodland behind the estate, eventually earning a nomination for head of the housing committee thanks to his calm and reliable character.

Despite being the last thing he wanted Seiji warms to the idea and has quite a few suggestions for improvements to the estate if he gets elected. Sadly, he loses out at the last second when the incumbent decides to stand again. Depressed and humiliated, Seiji decides to hide inside the mini storage compartment under the couple’s kitchen floor, only emerging for meals and to use the bathroom. Seeing as no one has seen Seiji in weeks, the danchi is ripe with gossip. What can have happened to him? Has he run away with his tail between his legs? Found another woman? Disappeared? Another new resident whose husband is a TV reporter has different idea – Hinako must have killed him!

The village mentality is very much alive in the danchi where the dwindling population and host of empty apartments mean that everyone is very invested in everyone else’s business. Thus the gaggle of women who make up the chief gossip society are suddenly convinced they have a murderer in their midst! Hinako, disinterested in her neighbours’ petty chitchat, ignores them and tries to go on with her business whilst putting up with Seiji’s odd antics as best she can. The neighbours’ suspicions are further aroused by the couple’s mysterious visitor, Shinjo (Takumi Saito), who speaks extremely strange Japanese with oddly robotic delivery.

However much the residents like to tell tales about each other, they are still reluctant to get involved in each other’s affairs. Everyone seems to know that the bossy man from across the way is abusive towards his wife and step-son but no one wants to do anything about it. The boy wanders the same woodland as Seiji, loudly singing the Gatchaman theme song with its cheerful chorus of the world being as one, and trying to keep out of his stepfather’s way. Only Hinako, witnessing the man about to inflict some harsh discipline on his step-son is brave enough to say something but her intervention only provides a momentary reprieve.

Though largely played for laughs there are some darker sides to the world of the danchi – the covert affairs, the gossip, the boredom, and the wilful ignoring of other people’s distress, to name but a few. In true Osakan style there is however a warmth to the comedy coupled with an endearing silliness which contrasts nicely with the more melancholy aspects hanging around the edges. Taking in everything from petty local politics to murder accusations and over zealous TV reporting, not to mention aliens, The Projects’ ambitions are wild and the tone oddly surreal but then again, nothing’s impossible in the danchi!


The Projects was screened as part of the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2016)

destruction-babiesPost-golden age, Japanese cinema has arguably had a preoccupation with the angry young man. From the ever present tension of the seishun eiga to the frustrations of ‘70s art films and the punk nihilism of the 1980s which only seemed to deepen after the bubble burst, the young men of Japanese cinema have most often gone to war with themselves in violent intensity, prepared to burn the world which they feel holds no place for them. Tetsuya Mariko’s Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ) is a fine addition to this tradition but also an urgent one. Stepping somehow beyond nihilism, Mariko’s vision of his country’s future is a bleak one in which young, fatherless men inherit the traditions of their ancestors all the while desperately trying to destroy them. Devoid of hope, of purpose, and of human connection the youth of the day get their kicks vicariously, so busy sharing their experiences online that reality has become an obsolete concept and the physical sensation of violence the only remaining truth.

The rundown port towns of Shikoku are an apt place to stage this battle. Panning over the depressingly quiet harbour, urgent, thrumming electric guitars bring tension to the air as the younger of two brothers, Shota (Nijiro Murakami), catches sight of his only remaining family member, older brother Taira (Yuya Yagira). Currently in the middle of getting a beating from local thugs, Taira signals his intention to leave town, which he does after his boss breaks up the fight and tells him to get lost.

By the time Shota has crossed the river, his brother is already lost to him. A vengeful, crazed demon with strange, burning eyes, Taira has taken the same path as many an angry young man and headed into town spoiling for a fight. Driven by rage, Taira fights back but only to be fought with – he craves pain, is energised by it, and rises again with every fall stronger but a little less human.

As he says, he has his rules (as mysterious as they may be), but Taira’s violent exploits eventually find a disciple in previously cowardly high school boy Yuya (Masaki Suda) who discovers the potential violence has to create power from fear in witnessing Taira’s one man war of stubbornness with the local yakuza. Yuya, a coward at heart, is without code, fears pain, and seeks only domination to ease his lack of self confidence. Taira, random as his violence is, attacks only other males capable of giving him what he needs but Yuya makes a point of attacking those least likely to offer resistance. Proclaiming that he always wanted to hit a woman, Yuya drop kicks schoolgirls and sends middle aged housewives and their shopping flying.

The sole female voice, Nana (Nana Komatsu) – a kleptomaniac yakuza moll who finds her validation though shoplifting unneeded items selected for the pleasure of stealing them, originally finds the ongoing violence exciting as she watches the viral videos but feels very differently when confronted with its real, physical presence and each of the implied threats to her person it presents. Tough and wily, Nana is a survivor. Where Taira staked his life on violence and Yuya on the threat of it, Nana survives through cunning. The victory is hers, as hollow as it may turn out to be.

Mariko’s chilling vision paints the ongoing crime spree as a natural result of a series of long standing cultural norms in which contradictory notions of masculinity compete with a conformist, constraining society. The entire founding principle of the small town in which the film takes place is that men come of age through violence, though the older man who has (or claims to have) provided the bulk of parental input for these parentless brothers describes Taira as if he were the very demon such festivals are often created to expel. Men of 18 years carry the portable shrines, he repeatedly says, but 18 year old Taira is a “troublemaker” and “troublemakers” must leave the town altogether.

If Taira sought connection through violence, Shota continues to seek it through human emotions – searching for his brother, hanging out with his friends, and drawing closer to his brother’s boss who offers him differing degrees of fatherly input. In contrast to his peers, Shota seems to disapprove of the way his cocksure (false) friend Kenji (Takumi Kitamura) treats women though it is also true that Kenji is actively frustrating his attempts to find his brother whilst dangling a clue right before his eyes. Nevertheless, the harshness of this unforgiving world seems determined to turn Shota into the same rage filled creature of despair as his older brother as injustice piles on injustice with no hope of respite.

Destruction Babies is apt name for the current society – born of chaos, trapped in perpetual childhood, and thriving on violence. Taira and Shota were always outsiders in a world which organises itself entirely around the family unit but the force which drives their world is not love but pain, this world is one underpinned by the physical at the expense of the spiritual. Metaphorically or literally, the lives of the young men of today will entail repeated blows to the face while those of the young women will require ingenious sideward motions to avoid them. Oblique, ambiguous, and soaked in blood, Destruction Babies is a rebel yell for a forlorn hope, as raw as it is disturbing.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017 and set for UK release from Third Window Films later in the year.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Undulant Fever (海を感じる時, Hiroshi Ando, 2014)

Undulant FeverOne of the most surprising things about the 1978 novel When I Sense the Sea is that its author was only 18 years old when the book was published. Though the protagonist begins as a 16 year old high school girl, author Kei Nakazawa follows her on into adulthood as the damage done to her teenage psyche radiates like a series of tiny, branching chasms stretching far back into a difficult childhood. This 2015 adaptation from Hiroshi Ando, Undulant Fever (海を感じる時, Umi wo Kanjiru Toki), maintains a distant and detached tone which, while not shying away from the erotic nature of the discussion, is quick to underline the unfulfilling and often utilitarian nature of the central couple’s relationship.

Beginning in the “contemporary” 1970s era of the film, Emiko (Yui Ichikawa) and Hiroshi (Sosuke Ikematsu) enjoy a strangely lonely trip to the zoo and later an intimate, if odd, love making session at home. They seem a fairly settled couple but there’s something not quite right between them. On flashing back to their teenage years we learn how they met – as members of the high school newspaper club when Hiroshi was a year above Emiko. The pair quickly embark on a messy sexual relationship but when Emiko declares her love for him, Hiroshi coldly tells her that he was never interested in her as a person but merely as an anonymous body which could easily be replaced by any other female form. Despite his harsh treatment of her and her mother’s eventual discovery of the affair, Emiko continues to pursue Hiroshi until finally he does come to feel something for her which might be described as love. However, at this late stage of the game Emiko’s notions of love, sex, and desire have become so hopelessly confused that she is unable to comprehend the emotional landscape of her life.

It would be easy to read the case of Emiko as one of the “God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later” blues (to borrow a phrase from Sondheim), but it’s a little more complicated than that. After her father died at a young age Emiko was raised alone by her widowed mother who seems to cut an austere and somewhat distant figure. Her reaction to finding out about Emiko’s relationship with Hiroshi, which only occurs in the first place due to an extreme betrayal of trust, is veering into Carrie territory and only further emphasises how little emotional support Emiko has received from her central parental figure.

After having battled so hard to win some kind of attention from her cold and distant mother, Emiko learns to allow herself to be used and abused by uncaring men in the hope of one day winning their love. Hiroshi is not the focus of the narrative and his problems are less well addressed but no less interesting. His constant pleas with Emiko to simply leave him alone because he because he doesn’t care about her take on a passive aggressive quality in which one starts to wonder if it’s an oddly sado-masochistic way of ensuring she does exactly the opposite. The more he ignores her, the more she is committed to staying by his side. Though Emiko seems to be aware of how cruelly he treats her, she is unable to stop needing him even if she ruins her own life for nothing more than the simple reward of remaining in his general vicinity.

Undulant Fever is a deeply probing exploration of sex and desire and particularly how early relationships can forge the course of a person’s life. An earnest character drama, the film moves at a considered pace which leaves ample room for its protagonists’ complicated emotions. The cold and dispassionate approach is a perfect match for the heroine’s depressed and confused emotional state which leaves her doubting her entire concept of self as she travels from unloved teenage girl to a confused adult woman approaching an unsettled middle age. The surprisingly astute observations of the novel also ring true in the film which captures the book’s late ‘70s feminist leanings whilst at the same time painting a fairly bleak picture of the troubled emotional life of a flawed and damaged modern woman caught in a confusing maelstrom of love and desire.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD of Undulant Fever includes English subtitles.

Kanikosen (蟹工船, SABU, 2009)

kanikosenBack in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.

As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.

SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.

Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.

Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.

In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.