Twilight: Saya in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2014)

Japanese cinema has its fare share of ghosts. From Ugetsu to Ringu, scorned women have emerged from wells and creepy, fog hidden mansions bearing grudges since time immemorial but departed spirits have generally had very little positive to offer in their post-mortal lives. Twilight: Saga in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや,  Twilight Sasara Saya) is an oddity in more ways than one – firstly in its recently deceased narrator’s comic approach to his sad life story, and secondly in its partial rejection of the tearjerking melodrama usually common to its genre.

Unsuccessful Rakugo performer Yutaro (Yo Oizumi) met the love of his life during one of his sparsely attended recitations. Saya (Yui Aragaki) was the only one laughing but even she didn’t think he was very funny, she just liked him because he was trying so hard. Eventually, he married her and they had a lovely baby boy but before little Yusuke was even a year old, Yutaro got himself killed in a random traffic accident. Such is life. Still, knowing that Saya had no family of her own and having grown up without a father himself Yutaro feels even worse about leaving his wife and son all alone in such a stupid way. Therefore he decides to delay going to heaven so that he can stick around to help Saya in whatever way he can.

A crisis occurs when Yutaro’s estranged father (Ryo Ishibashi) suddenly turns up at the funeral laying claim to little Yusuke with no thought to the additional emotional ramifications of trying to snatch a baby from a grieving mother right over the coffin of her husband. Possessing the body of another guest, Yutaro manages to convince Saya to run leading her to retreat to her late aunt’s house in the peaceful rural village of Sasara.

Though the premise is a familiar one, Fukagawa neatly sidesteps the more maudlin aspects for a broadly comic approach in which Yutaro recounts the story of his death as if it were a rakugo tale. Possessing various people along the way, Yutaro does indeed help Saya adjust to her new life but eventually discovers that perhaps the reason he hasn’t passed over was one of the past rather than one of the future.

Saya’s arrival in Sasara gets off to a bad start – essentially forced out of the city to escape Yutaro’s father Saya causes unexpected trouble when it emerges that the corrupt local estate agent has been letting out her aunt’s house without telling her. If that weren’t enough, some of her valuables are almost stolen by a local delivery boy but, this being an ageing village, children are a rarity and so little Yusuke quickly captures the hearts of the neighbourhood grannies who eventually become Saya’s friends and staunch supporters. Familial problems are the name of the day from childlessness to children (hopefully) writing down possible signs of dementia or just leaving town and not coming back. Yutaro also helps Saya improve the life of another young woman with a son who doesn’t speak by allowing him to finally voice what he really feels, adding to the circle of female help and support which becomes the family Saya had always longed for.

Orphaned at a young age, raised by her grandmother until she died and having lost her only living relative in her aunt a few years previously, Saya had always wondered what it felt like to have a real family of her own. Yutaro had also lost his mother at a young age through illness and was estranged from his father who refused to visit her even on her deathbed. Yutaro’s untimely death adds to Saya’s ongoing sorrows but also ends the beginnings of the happy family they’d begun to build with each other. As it turns out, Yotaro’s limbo is less about his son and more about his father as he gets a last opportunity to bond with his outwardly harsh and cruel dad and come to a kind of understanding about fatherhood in hearing his side of the story. Life is too short for grudges, and even spirits sometimes need to give up the ghost so that the air can rest a little lighter.

Though there are the expected moments of sadness as Yotaro realises the number of people he can possess is dwindling and his time with Saya will be limited, Fukagawa keeps things light and whimsical with a kind of small town quirkiness aided by Oizumi’s spirited delivery. Adding in frequent rakugo references complete with painted backdrops and sound effects as well as a repeated motif which sees the little town remade as a diorama model, Twilight: Saya in Sarasa has a pleasantly old fashioned feeling which only adds to its wholesome emphasis on an extended family of community coupled with the continuing presence of Yutaro watching from somewhere on high. Warm and funny if a little lacking in impact, Twilight: Saya in Sasara is a rare instance of a ghost bringing people together in love and harmony through helping them get closer to their true emotions but one that is also keen to emphasise that we’re all only here for an unspecified time – better not to waste it with silly things like grudges.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Journey to the Shore (岸辺の旅, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)

journey to the shoreTime is an ocean, but it ends at the shore. Kiyoshi Kurosawa neatly reverses Dylan’s poetic phrasing as his shoreline is less a place of endings but of beginnings or at least a representation of the idea that every beginning is born from the death of that which preceded it. Adapted from a novel by Kazumi Yumoto, Journey to the Shore (岸辺の旅, Kishibe no Tabi) takes its grief stricken, walking dead heroine on a long journey of the soul until she can finally put to rest a series of wandering ghosts and begin to live once again, albeit at her own tempo.

The film begins with three years widowed Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) giving a piano lesson to a little girl whose mother goes on to enquire about her daughter’s progress. Wouldn’t it be better if she could learn something a little more cheerful once in a while? Reconsidering, the mother reflects that uptempo doesn’t quite suit Mizuki, and she’s right – it doesn’t. After impulse buying some flour and baking a few Japanese sweets at home, Mizuki receives an unexpected visit from her deceased husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), who drowned himself at sea.

Somehow unsurprised and pausing only to remind him to remove his shoes, Mizuki gives Yusuke some of the dumplings then retires to bed, only to wake up the next morning and wonder if she dreamt the strange events of the night before but, sure enough, Yusuke is still very much present. Promising to show her some of the beautiful places he discovered on his long odyssey home to her, Yusuke takes Mizuki on a reverse honeymoon in celebration and in mourning of all they once were to each other.

In each place they travel to, Mizuki and Yusuke help the people there deal with their own walking ghosts. Yusuke is not the only returnee as they discover with a lonely old newspaper seller who doesn’t appear to be aware that he died a long time ago. Walking dead in a realer sense than Mizuki or some of the other depressives they meet along the way who are still living but not exactly alive, Mr Shimakage is a spirit held in place by an inability to reconcile himself with the actions of his past and has brought his feelings of self loathing and regret with him into the afterlife.

Sometimes it’s the living that pin the dead, holding them close with guilt, regret, love or loneliness. If the film has a central tenet, it’s that the past has its place, and it’s not among the living. At one point Mizuki says that perhaps it’s better to leave some things unresolved. Yusuke asks her if she’s really OK with that, and she seems to reconsider but in the end that’s the way it has to be. There are no final solutions, the answers are not at the back of the book. In the end, the best you can do is try to understand and learn to be OK with everything you do and do not know about yourself and about those who are no longer here to tell their stories. Mizuki also says that she hated to practice piano as a child, but her teacher always told her to pay attention to her own rhythm. The music will always be lifeless, until you learn to hear your own song.

Kurosawa creates a beautifully ethereal world, held in a tension between the spirit realm and the everyday. Playing with lighting levels in extremely interesting ways, he allows the supernatural and natural to flow into each other, jostling and merging like waves and shore. Travelling from the grey, ordered and utilitarian city to the unruly nature of the countryside with its ancient, crashing waterfalls and beautiful, if lonely, coastlines we move from static and lifeless existence to a place of perpetual potential as we let go of one thing so that we might grasp another.

As much as Journey to the Shore is bound up with death, it necessarily speaks of life, too. During one of his strange lessons for the village folk, Yusuke delivers some meditations on science and philosophy to the effect that the world is built of nothingness but that nothingness does not lack meaning. He tells us that we are all dying, the universe was born billions of years ago and will end one day just as our species may end when the planet’s temperature exceeds that which we can endure or galaxies collide and take us down with them. For all of that, the universe is young, still growing, still expanding, and we are so lucky to have been born now when there is still so much ahead of us. This is a time of infinite beginnings. Starting again means letting go, but sooner or later you have to step off the shore of this self imposed purgatory and return to the great ocean which is life.


Journey to the Shore is availble on dual format DVD and blu-ray in the UK courtesty of Eureka Masters of Cinema.

Main Theme (メイン・テーマ, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1984)

main themeDespite being one of the most prolific directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the work of Yoshimitsu Morita has not often travelled extensively overseas. Though frequently appearing at high profile international film festivals, few of Morita’s films have been released outside of Japan and largely he’s still best remembered for his hugely influential (and oft re-visited) 1983 black comedy, The Family Game. In part, this has to be down to Morita’s own zigzagging career which saw him mixing arthouse aesthetics with more populist projects. Main Theme is definitely in the latter category and is one of the many commercial teen idol vehicles he tackled in the 1980s.

A tale of two intersecting love stories, Main Theme begins with nursery nurse Shibuki getting close to the father of one of her pupils, Omaezaki, who will shortly be transferred to Osaka. Omaezaki also has a long running thing with a cabaret jazz singer, Kayoko, which seems to be a messy situation to begin with. Shibuki then ends up running into magician with a pick-up truck Ken who drives her to Osaka where she’s set to meet up with Omaezaki to become some kind of nanny living with him and his wife. En route, the pair pick up Kayako little knowing of her relationship with Omaezaki. Eventually, everyone ends up in Okinawa where Ken lives and Shibuki has an older sister each hoping to sort out their romantic difficulties under the blue island skies.

Main Theme stars popular idol of the time Hiroko Yakushimaru (star of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and is, unsurprisingly, centred around her chart topping song of the same name. A neat, new Japanese arrangement of the classic jazz standard Sway, the song fits neatly into the movie’s soundtrack which also features a number of other jazz hits such as The Man I Love and most notably Bei Mir Bistu Shein (or Shoen, or Shön depending on which version you’re looking at) courtesy of our cabaret singer (and her rivals) but being an ‘80s movie there’s still a bit of pop synth in there too though our central couple do seem to have oddly sophisticated tastes.

Though it is, as it’s intended to be, a teen romantic comedy, Morita tries (not entirely successfully) to put a little more substance into the background by also showing us the unhappy romance of middle-aged jazz singer Kayoko and the non-committal Omaezaki. It seems the pair have had an entailment probably stemming back years, perhaps even before Omaezaki’s marriage. Mrs. Omaezaki is a fairly ditzy and neurotic woman who loves shopping and seems to be more interested in the appearance of things than the reality. The status of the marriage itself is difficult to discern and it’s not quite clear if Omaezaki’s problem is a lack of will to leave his wife or that he’s already “left” and is trying to find a way to support her. In any case, introducing Shibuki, a 19yr old with an obvious crush on him, to the household is not one of his better ideas.

Needless to say, Ken also ends up forming an attraction to the older, melancholy musician who doesn’t seem to know what it is she wants (or knows but chooses to run away from it) leaving us in an odd kind of love square with the couples really each wanting their age appropriate partners but getting distracted by foolish dalliances with age and youth respectively. It does feel as if Morita could have made more of this dramatically interesting idea as Kayoko in particular is drawn in by Ken’s youthful innocence, but this isn’t what the film is for so it remains an intriguing yet perverse addition to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative.

The “perversity” or strangeness of the film doesn’t end there as Morita has also added a number of quirky, absurd touches to offset the flatness of the teenage love drama. Perhaps because he’s a magician we get these odd flashes of Ken where he’s suddenly got crazy eyebrows (just for one 15 second shot) or crazy hair and there’s another charming scene where he’s pulling artificial flowers out of his suit only to have the magic bouquet suddenly droop as his heart starts to break. In another intriguing trope there’s also a strange illustrated map which lead’s Shibuki to her sister’s house by outlining common scenes from the area and when she gets there the gates are covered in light up ornamental tropical fruits. Add to this that the backing behind Kayoko’s final cabaret reads “Bates Motel Live” and there’s definitely a very strange mind behind the production design on this run of the mill, idol pop pushing rom-com.

Undoubtedly of its time, there is probably a reason Main Theme has not proved a big overseas hit though it seems to have been massively popular at the time and is fondly remembered for nostalgic reasons even if not particularly well regarded today. This is perhaps how the film is best approached – as a monument of its times and as a prime example of the 80s idol dramas studios such as Kadokawa put out to push their inoffensive pop music. However, Morita does add his own quirky touches to the film which does provide its fair share of youthful fun even if it isn’t always successful.


Unsubtitled trailer:

And a more recent version of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song:

University of Laughs (笑の大学, Mamoru Hoshi, 2004)

warainodaigakuUniversity of Laughs (笑の大学, Warai no Daigaku) is certainly an apt name for a film which aims to teach the universal power of comedy. Based on a 1997 stage play by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani and directed by Mamoru Hoshi, the film is set in 1940 at the height of Japan’s militaristic fervour. With the annexation of Manchuria only three years previously and the war in full swing, there is no room for such petty bourgeois pleasures as slapstick comedy shows. The censor’s stamp rules all and if the piece doesn’t exult the glorious nature of the empire, then what good is it?

Or so thinks recent Manchurian returnee Sakisaka (Koji Yakusho) – the newly appointed occupier of the censor’s chair. Sakisaka has been appointed because he has no sense of humour at all and very little in the way of human feeling. In fact, he even thinks this censorship business is a little pointless and it would be better to just ban everything outright. Then, one day, he encounters quite the stupidest piece of low comedy he’s ever come across in the form of the latest play by a company called “University of Laughs” written by their company director, Tsubaki (Goro Inagaki).

Tsubaki is a nervous, neurotic young man. “Don’t worry, we very rarely use torture” Sakisaka reassures him. Still, Tsubaki tries to talk him through his parodic play script called “The Tragedy of Juleo and Romiet”. However, Tsubaki’s play is no good at all! It’s full of foreigners! And there’s romance, and no one talks about how amazing Japan is, what the hell sort of play is this!? Sakisaka tells him to bring it back tomorrow with the requisite changes. However, tomorrow’s effort is only a little better. Maybe another day? Gradually over the course of a week the pair become uneasy collaborators as Sakisaka eventually rediscovers his sense of humour.

The central irony being that in trying to eliminate all subversive elements in the script, Sakisaka actually ends up in the position of editor – all of the changes he suggests only succeed in making the play funnier and more coherent. The more advice he receives from Sakisaka, the better a writer Tsubaki becomes. However, Sakisaka is the representative of everything the true artists abhors as the tool of an oppressive state which seeks to repress all independent thought. In going along with Sakisaka’s recommendations, isn’t Tsubaki becoming just another government lapdog? Is it better to compromise, go as far as you can go, and stay open or should you staunchly refuse and boycott the regime in its entirety?

For Tsubaki, comedy is a religion. He’s a comedy writer, if he can’t write comedies he may as well not exist at all and the way he sees it, this stuff is making the work better so who cares what it’s all about, really, so long as the work is good. His actors, though, feel differently and Tsubaki is paying a heavy price for his awkward quasi-friendship with the government stooge. Nevertheless, the two develop a strange bond with the previously stiff Sakisaka bucking his rigid adherence to government doublespeak in opening up to Tsubaki’s comedic education. However, their friendship may not be as deep as Tsubaki hopes when he unwisely reveals his real feelings about the regime causing Sakisaka to remind him where his loyalties lie. This is 1940 after all and the spectre of war lies all around. In the end, even if Tsubaki’s now near perfect work is passed for presentation, he may be unable to realise it in person.

Consciously old fashioned, University of Laughs has echoes of Fellini though perhaps filtered through mid period Woody Allen. The Nino Rota-esque score further enhances the association as does the idea of the fascist state as a mad circus where one is forced repeat the same actions over and over again until the ringmasters finally applaud. Warm, witty and surprisingly engaging for a film that is essentially two guys in a room for two hours, University of Laughs is another impressive effort from the pen of Mitani which offers both a cutting critique of oppressive censorship, a defence of the artist and an exultation of the universal power of laughter.