March Comes in Like a Lion (三月のライオン, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1992)

March comes in like a lionIce in the heart of summer pins its hopes on spring in the second feature from Hitoshi Yazaki. Afternoon Breezes, Yazaki’s debut, chronicled forbidden love becoming dangerous obsession as a naive young woman falls for her straight roommate but has no mechanism by which to expresses herself in a society that deems her feelings so taboo as to not quite have the words to describe them. March Comes in Like a Lion (三月のライオン, Sangatsu no Lion) again focusses on an illicit connection but this time an incestuous one in which a strange young woman realises a life long crush on her older brother by telling him that she is his girlfriend after he wakes up from a coma with amnesia.

Natsuko (lit. summer’s child) told her brother, Haruo (lit. boy of spring), that she would one day be his wife when she was just seven and he eight. Years later, Haruo (Cho Bang-ho) has been involved in a motorcycle accident and lost his memory. Natsuko (Yoshiko Yura) seizes her chance. Taking the name of “Ice”, she tells her brother that she is his lover and they live together in a barely furnished apartment on the upper floor of a tenement building. Maintaining the ruse, Ice nurses Haruo back to health, watching his progression day by day and dreading the moment he might finally remember who she really is.

Ice has rented the apartment for two months only – putting an expiry date on her true love dream. She’s done this mostly to avoid taking her brother back to their childhood home, fearing it might jog his memory and wanting avoid the prying eyes of friendly neighbours they’ve known all their lives. Her love is, by the common values of her society, against nature yet Ice surrenders to it anyway, fully expecting the “storm” of March between the seasons of ice and flowers. Flowers here may be warmth or death, but Ice is prepared to wait for her heart to melt and become the summer once again.

The early ‘90s was a time of walls falling, for good or ill, though the Tokyo Ice inhabits is a cold and frozen place. One of loneliness and confusion where busyness has given way to ennui and listless lethargy. Natsuko (and Ice too) has been surviving on casual prostitution, swiping the fashionable clothes of a client to give to Haruo and bestowing on him his curiously mad hatter-like appearance, as if he’d just stepped out of a silent movie. Ice walks around with all her worldly goods stored inside a giant cool box which emits dry ice every time she opens it. She has a compulsion for eating ice lollies and fondling the fridge freezer that is the only appliance in the sparse apartment apart from a circus-like ceiling lamp which rests on its top. Ice does not really want to melt, she tries to keep herself cool, resisting the heat of passion which may reduce her frozen paradise to watery tears, but knows that her present life is but a dream, a lingering state of limbo which must one day end.

While Ice keeps things cool, Haruo gets a job in demolition. Post-bubble the city is failing, crumbling ominously to the ground. Where once there was life and creation, now there is only death and decay. Mirroring his sister, Haruo takes things apart and throws them away but becomes oddly fascinated by the looking glass. Looking at himself, through himself, Haruo searches for the keys to his existence. As his relationship with Ice becomes physical, his mind begins to turn. Haruo regains the power of speech, remembers there was someone he loved, and awakens to the coming spring.

Ice wants to know her love can last – she looks for proof everywhere. An elderly couple – she cutting his hair while he remains less steady, still in love forty years later. The housewife next-door sending her husband off to work in the middle of the night and talking of children. Polaroids and fairy tales, white rabbits and magic girls – her world is fantasy, she is Alice adrift in Wonderland. Natsuko dares to dream a dream of love in a world which is collapsing before her eyes yet she does for a time at least win it. Filled with whimsical poetry and beautifully composed images and set to a nostalgic folk score by Bolivian Rockers, March Comes in Like a Lion is a tender, touching romance made all the stranger and sadder for its unusual genesis.


Short scene from the film (English subtitles)

A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Tatsushi Omori, 2010)

crowd-of-threeTatsushi Omori’s debut feature The Whispering of the Gods proved so controversial that he was left with no choice other than to set up his own temporary cinema to screen it. Five years later he returned with another uncompromising look at modern society which is only a little less grim than its predecessor. A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Kenta to Jun to Kayo-chan no Kuni) takes what has become a staple of quirky indie comedy dramas – a small group of disconnected people taking a road trip to look for something better, and turns it into a depressingly nihilistic voyage to nowhere. Never quite achieving the kind of painful, angst ridden atmosphere of disaffected young men desperately trying to break out of a social straight jacket, A Crowd of Three is an oddly cold film, undercut with a pervasive layer of misogyny and hopelessness which makes its ultimate destination somewhere few will wish to travel.

Kenta (Shota Matsuda) and Jun (Kengo Kora) are young men working dead end construction jobs. Growing up together almost like brothers in the same orphanage the pair share an intense bond but also a shared sense of having been badly let down by life even at such a young age. Their main source of relief seems to be in picking up “loose women” from the street by asking random ladies on their own for their ages. One evening Jun picks up Kayo (Sakura Ando) – a melancholy woman with low self esteem who sleeps around because she is insecure about her own plain looks. After Kenta is assaulted by the foreman, he decides to take revenge by smashing up the office and his boss’ car before taking off on a journey north to see his (biological) brother who is currently in prison.

Kayo tags along with the pair after apparently having fallen in love with Jun who is only interested in her for easy sex and occasional cash tips. Despite the fact that the film’s original Japanese title is “Jun, Kenta, and Kayo’s Country”, Kayo is quickly cast aside by the pair of travellers who think it’s funny to throw all of her stuff out of the window and abandon her at a service station in the middle of nowhere. Getting thrown out of cars and left behind in remote places is something which happens to Kayo repeatedly throughout the film as she tries to follow Jun despite his obvious indifference towards her.

Kayo just wants to feel love, but at least as far as the film goes she’s looking for it in all the wrong places. Even if Jun does start to feel something more genuine for her in the end, it’s born of a kind of shared insecurity as he worries about a repetitive strain injury from using the pneumatic drill which turns his hand white at moments of stress. After literally jilting Kayo, Jun takes up with a vacuous bar hostess who does, indeed, recoil from his pale hand. The bar hostess has very ordinary dreams – a big house, wealthy husband, children. She’s even planned out her own death. These are all things which Jun could never give her, a middle school drop out with no family he already fears he has no future but at least he’s not railroaded onto a pre-determined course and is free to choose his destination even if he feels there is nowhere for him to go.

Kenta expresses this early in the film when he states that there are two kinds of people – those who choose how they’re going to live, and those who don’t. The boys feel as if they’re in the no choice category – unceremoniously kicked out of social care and expected to fend for themselves with no education or contacts, reliant on poorly paid temporary work to get by. In a slightly overworked metaphor, Kenta and Jun’s jobs on demolition projects point to their desire to dismantle their world but the more they smash away at it the less progress they make. Kenta’s literal smashing of the car and office belonging to his boss are his final act of choice but again it gets him nowhere. Even talking to his brother who is in prison for the most heinous of crimes, Kenta finds no encouragement but only cold rejection.

A Crowd of Three goes to some very dark places ranging from work place harassment to child abuse and sexualised violence, but it largely fails to capitalise on its grim atmosphere to make any kind of impact aside from the pervasive melancholia. Omori mostly sticks to a straight forward approach with some interesting editing choices and composition but largely relies on the quality performances of his leading players. Far from youth aflame with nihilistic rage, A Crowd of Three is bleaker than bleak and frozen throughout making the battling of its heroes to transcend their difficult social circumstances a forlorn hope of epic proportions.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Whispering of the Gods (ゲルマニウムの夜, Tatsushi Omori, 2005)

whispering of the godsIf you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live in hell, you could enjoy this fascinating promotional video which recounts events set in an isolated rural monastery somewhere in snow covered Japan. A debut feature from Tatsushi Omori (younger brother of actor Nao Omori who also plays a small part in the film), The Whispering of the Gods (ゲルマニウムの夜, Germanium no Yoru) adapted from the 1998 novel by Mangetsu Hanamura, paints an increasingly bleak picture of human nature as the lines between man and beast become hopelessly blurred in world filled with existential despair.

Rou (Hirofumi Arai) has returned to the religious community where he was raised but his reasons for this seem to have everything and nothing to do with God. He claims that he “kind of killed some people” and also says he’s a rapist, but there’s no way to tell how much of what he says is actually the truth. After opening with a sequence of bulls trudging through snow, we see Rou listening to a priest read from the bible, but we also see that Rou is giving the priest a hand job whilst looking resolutely vacant. Later, after expending some pent-up anger by thrashing around some with junk and kicking a dog, Rou has a heart to heart with a novice nun, Kyoko, which quickly results in a forbidden sexual relationship. Forbidden sexual relationships, well – “relationships” isn’t quite the right word here, perhaps transactions or just actions might be more appropriate, are very much the name of the game in this extremely strange community of runaways and reprobates each keen to pass their own suffering down to another through a complex network of abuse and violence.

An early scene sees Rou throw a metal pipe across his shoulders in an oddly Christ-like pose. He’s certainly no Messiah, he wants to take revenge on these people by being the very worst of them, but ultimately he does come carrying a message. Using the same tools against them as they’ve used against him all his life, he exploits the loopholes of religiosity to expose its inherent hypocrisy. He confesses sins he may or may not have committed as well as those he plans to commit. In giving him unconditional absolution for an uncommitted sin, has the priest just given him a free pass to balance the celestial books by going ahead and violating a random nun? As well as well and truly messing with the resident priest’s head, Rou’s rampant sexuality also exposes the latent longings present within the nuns themselves who are supposed to control their sexual urges, brides of Christ as they are, yet they too covertly indulge themselves in receiving satisfaction from the various kinds of strange sexual behaviour currently on offer.

Life on the farm is nature red in tooth and claw as one particularly brutal scene sees a male pig castrated with a pair of garden shears during a failed act of copulation. Later a pig will lie in neatly dissected pieces, dripping with blood and fluid. There’s no romance here, just flesh and impulse. Forming a kind of friendship with a younger boy, Toru, who is also being abused by the priests at the compound, Rou offers to take revenge for him but it seems the boy just wanted to confide in someone, to begin with. Later, Rou will take a kind of action and Toru offers to repay him by continuing the behaviours he has learned through a system of perpetual manipulation, unwittingly drawing Rou even more deeply into the spiral of abuse and hypocrisy that he set out to destroy.

Omori opts for a straightforward arthouse aesthetic which matches the bleakness of the environment and barrenness of spirituality found in this supposedly Christian commune. In fact, Omori had to go a roundabout route to get this film shown given its controversial nature which saw him set up a temporary marquee theatre to avoid having the film cut to get an Eirin certificate before getting it into more mainstream cinemas in his desired version. What it has to say about the base essence of humanity is extremely hard to take, though no less valid, and its picture of a hellish world filled with nothing but despair punctuated by guilt filled sexual episodes and violence in which there is nothing left to do but continue shovelling shit until you die is an uncomfortably apt metaphor for contemporary society.


Mangetsu Hanamura’s source novel does not appear to be available in English but actually seems to be even more disturbing than this extremely depressing film – more info over at Books From Japan.

Unsubbed trailer: