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.

Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Yoichi Higashi, 2016)

someones-xylophoneYoichi Higashi has had a long and varied career, deliberately rejecting a particular style or home genre which is one reason he’s never become quite as well known internationally as some of his contemporaries. This slightly anonymous quality serves the veteran director well in his adaptation of Arane Inoue’s novel which takes a long hard look at those living lives of quiet desperation in modern Japan. Though sometimes filled with a strange sense of dread, the world of Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Dareka no Mokkin) is a gentle and forgiving one in which people are basically good though driven to the brink by loneliness and disconnection.

Middle aged housewife Sayoko (Takako Tokiwa) has just moved into a new area with her security alarm salesman husband, Kotaro (Masanobu Katsumura), and teenage daughter, Kanna (Mikoto Kimura). By all appearances the home seems to be a happy one, and the atmosphere is pleasant, if ordinary. Even so, stopping into an upscale salon one day Sayoko gets a haircut from the very good looking and warm hearted hairdresser Kaito (Sosuke Ikematsu). Hoping for repeat business Kaito gives her a business card and she reciprocates with one of her own so that she can be added to the mailing list. After some awkward chitchat, she leaves but when she gets a typical “thank you for visiting, please come again” text message, Sayoko makes the unusual decision to reply. Not wanting to seem rude, Kaito continues the strange text correspondence but Sayoko’s growing interest in the good looking young man, and later even in his girlfriend, soon crosses the line from harmless fixation to inappropriate obsession, threatening to derail her otherwise “normal” happy family life.

Higashi begins the film with a naturalistic sequence travelling from early morning light to bright sunshine as Kaito takes his bike out for a ride before returning to make breakfast for his still sleeping girlfriend, Yui (Aimi Satsukawa) – a model/store assistant at the upscale Lolita brand Baby the Stars Shine Bright. Accompanied by a thrumming, modern jazz funk soundtrack, these scenes reflect the film’s baseline reality. Kaito and Yui may live in the real world, to a point at least, whereas Sayoko has her head in the clouds and almost lives there too. A middle aged housewife, her life has begun to lose its purpose now that her daughter is almost grown and needs her much less than she ever has before. Though Sayoko and her husband appear to have a good relationship, she seems to want something more – bored with his caresses and long since past the point where there is nothing left to talk about.

The delivery of a new bed prompts a very particular fantasy of being fondled by both men at the same time though what exactly she wants from Kaito remains unclear. If her original decision to reply to a standard confirmation email could be dismissed as friendly innocence, sending a picture of your new bed to someone you just met is decidedly strange. Nevertheless, Kaito feels the need to keep replying even once it becomes clear that Sayoko has also tracked down his apartment and seems intent on further infiltrating his life. When she takes the decision to visit Yui at her work (the brand is not one which ordinarily caters to women of Sayoko’s age), the younger woman starts to get worried and eventually takes some direct action of her own.

Sayoko remains something of a cypher, a woman who can’t seem to figure herself out. The xylophone of the title refers to a dream or vision she has of a girl in far off window banging away at the instrument but never quite getting the tune – eventually she realises the girl is her, still trying to find her inner rhythm all these years later. Kotaro, by contrast, seems to have more worldly anxieties despite his outwardly calm and kindly manner. When his daughter asks him if they really need the security system they have at home he tells her about a long unsolved family murder before explaining that it just makes him feel safer when he can’t be there in person to protect his wife and daughter. Kanna, a bright child, points out that more threat is posed by accidents in the home than by intruders – to which Kotaro is forced to agree, lamenting that there is no alarm system to prevent a domestic accident. Thus when Kanna calls him to say that there has been an “incident” at home, the metaphor is an apt one – nobody was looking, and now everything’s falling apart.

Despite the expectation for grand scenes or bloody violence, Someone’s Xylophone consistently refuses to follow the signposted direction preferring a more adult resolution born of self reflection and mutual understanding. A subplot involving a very particular young man who comes to the salon solely for female contact hints at a darker path for unresolved loneliness and repressed emotion, but even if Sayoko and Kotaro make ill advised decisions in search of closeness their sojourns in alternate realities ultimately allow them to rediscover their mutual universe (for a time, at least). The xylophone finally plays out a recognisable tune as a more settled Sayoko fantasises about a phantom blanket rather than an illicit ménage à trois but whether this craving for warmth will provoke a similar crisis as the need for passion remains to be seen.


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1999)

keihoArticle 39 of Japan’s Penal Code states that a person cannot be held responsible for a crime if they are found to be “insane” though a person who commits a crime during a period of “diminished responsibility” can be held accountable and will receive a reduced sentence. Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1999 courtroom drama/psychological thriller Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, 39 Keiho Dai Sanjukyu Jo) puts this very aspect of the law on trial. During this period (and still in 2016) Japan does nominally have the death penalty (though rarely practiced) and it is only right in a fair and humane society that those people whom the state deems as incapable of understanding the law should receive its protection and, if necessary, assistance. However, the law itself is also open to abuse and as it’s largely left to the discretion of the psychologists and lawyers, the judgement of sane or insane might be a matter of interpretation.

The case at the centre of the film centres around a young actor, Masaki Shibata, who has confessed to the murder of a pregnant woman and her husband after he argued with the woman at her place of work. Shibata acts strangely and makes a point of asking for the death penalty before spouting off about angels and demons and later displays evidence of a split personality. Everyone seems convinced he’s suffering from MPD and committed the murders during a dissociative episode but the assistant psychologist is convinced he’s faking. At the same time, one of the lead policemen on the case also thinks there’s more to this. On investigating further, he discovers the strange irony that the murdered man himself escaped prosecution by reason of insanity after committing a horrifying crime that lead to the death of a six year old girl.

The film may be about a murder but what’s really on trial here is the law itself. The murdered man, Hatada, committed a heinous crime but was a child himself at the time so received only a brief sentence served in a hospital. He was released, went to university, got a good job and got married – a normal life. The family of the little girl he killed, by contrast, will never be able to return to normality and will continue to live in torment for the rest of their lives knowing the man who so brutally took their child from them is still out there living just like one of us. The film does not go into why Hatada committed the original crime or the reasons he was later declared fit to return to society, but the film wants to question the idea of releasing back into the world someone who has done something as horrifying as the rape, murder and dismemberment of a child.

The case at hand is a complicated one which has so many layers coupled with twists and turns that it becomes unavoidably confusing. Playing with several literary allusions from the frequent quotations from the “mad prince” Hamlet to naming the assistant psychologist “Kafuka”, Keiho also wants to delve deep into human psychology with its questions of identity and self realisation. Both the accused and the psychologist have deeply buried memories of trauma the suppression of which has cast a shadow through the rest of their lives. Both of them are, in a sense (even if not quite in the way it originally appears), haunted by a shadow of themselves.

When it comes to the procedural aspects, the final “twist” is a step too far and perhaps undermines the groundwork which has gone before it. Something which is presented as an elaborate revenge plot against both the state and the original instigator of a crime also appears to originate with a clumsy motion of self preservation. The state’s failure to properly deal with the criminal in the first case has resulted the death of another innocent bystander, all of which might have been avoided if Article 39 had not come into play.

Kafka-esque is, in fact, a good way to describe the circularity of the narrative as the notion of an insanity plea becomes a recurrent plot device. Backstories are constructed and discarded, identities are shed and adopted at will and the past becomes a thorn in the side of the future that has to be removed so everyone can comfortably move on. Morita relies heavily on dissolves to create a floating, dreamlike atmosphere as memories (imaginary or otherwise) segue in and out like tides but he also shows us images reflected in other surfaces such as the Strangers on a Train inspired sequence which literally shows us events through someone else’s eyes as we’re watching them reflected doubly on the lenses of a pair of sunglasses.

Difficult, complicated and ultimately flawed Keiho proves an elusive and intriguing piece that is put together with some truly beautiful cinematography and interesting editing choices. Fascinating and frustrating in equal points Keiho is another characteristically probing effort from the wry pen of Morita which continues to echo in the mind long after the credits have rolled.


Keiho is available with English subtitles via HK R3 DVD as part of Panorama’s 100 Years of Japanese Cinema Collection.

 

Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen (龍三と七人の子分たち, Takeshi Kitano, 2015)

142984037484393493178_ryuzo-7nin-kobuntachi-g4First published on UK Anime Network – review of Takeshi Kitano’s Ryuzo and the Seven Henchman (龍三と七人の子分たち Ryuzo to Shichinin no Kobuntachi) from LFF 2015.


Most people probably know Takeshi Kitano best for his series of ultra violent ’90s gangster movies, his role as the sadistic teacher in the controversial Battle Royale or as the host of bizarre Japanese endurance game show Takeshi’s Castle. However, in Japan he’s probably best known as a comedian though few of his comedy films have ever made it overseas. This may change with his latest effort, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen, which both takes him back to his yakuza roots and celebrates his comedic talents.

Ryuzo “the demon” was once a yakuza more feared the than respected whose very name alone made women swoon and struck fear into the hearts of men. Now though, he’s a grumpy grandpa living with his ultra conservative son who’d rather the neighbours didn’t know he had a gangster living in his house. After some punks make the mistake of trying an “ore ore” scam on him, Ryuzo gets back into the spirit of his gangster days and takes the guy down in a classic intimidation play. However, some of his other yakuza buddies also seem to be getting into trouble with upstart youngsters and once again it’s up to Ryuzo and his seven old timer yakuza buddies to set the town to rights.

The world has changed since Ryuzo and his guys were ruling the streets. In the old days the yakuza were a family, they had rules and ethics and they stuck to them. They saw themselves both as heroic outlaws and as defenders of the rights of ordinary people (even if they made their money through extorting those very people they claimed to protect). This new brand of crooks doesn’t care about honour, or morality or human kindness – they aren’t above conning the vulnerable into falling for obvious telephone scams or loaning large amounts of money to desperate people at ridiculously high interest just to make a buck. These guys are “business men” running a “legitimate enterprise” where the only rules are that you get rich and stay rich.

Ryuzo and co may be old, but they still have their honour and their pride. Watching the old guys trying to relive their former glory days is often funny, if a little sad as their grand schemes take on the absurd quality of little boys playing cops and robbers. It goes without saying that the film is hilarious though perhaps takes certain instances of low humour a too little far. Each of the main eight old timer yakuza has his own particular strength which endures despite their advanced ages though perhaps in slightly different forms and even if they’re coasting on former glory none of them has forgotten their former status.

Though not quite a return to the artistic highs of Sonatine or Hana-bi, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is nevertheless an entertaining mix of Kitano’s tough guy yakuza and absurd comedian personas. Unlikely to walk away with any awards or lasting praise, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is sure to be remembered fondly for its expertly timed and often gleefully absurd humour.


Reviewed at LFF 2015.