Thicker than Water (犬猿, Keisuke Yoshida, 2018)

Thicker than Water posterIn the long history of the Japanese family drama, the tensions are generally vertical rather than horizontal. Siblings are often engaged in trying to broker the peace or snatch a little bit of independent living away from an all consuming family environment. Then again, we meet most families when the kids are gown up and struggling with their approaching transition into other families or other lives. Kids fight, but grown up brothers and sisters are supposed to find a degree of civility at least even if the petty resentments of childhood never quite go away. For the parallel pairs of mismatched siblings at the centre of Thicker than Water (犬猿, Kenen), however, the reverse is true.

Older sister Yuria (Keiko Enoue) has taken over the family print shop now that her father is bedridden while her younger, prettier sister Mako (Miwako Kakei) is struggling to make it as an actress. Often resentful of her sister’s domineering, business-like attitude, Mako wilfully targets her weaknesses by making barbed comments about her weight and appearance of which she knows Yuria is insecure. Yuria, meanwhile, treats her sister as a foolish child, immediately taking over rather than let Mako do something “wrong” and thereby chipping into her insecurities about a lack of intelligence.

The spiky dynamic between the two sisters intensifies when Yuria develops a crush on a handsome young salaryman who makes regular visits to the shop to get his posters printed. Kazunari (Masataka Kubota), however, predictably falls for Mako (who is only interested in him as a way of annoying her sister). Meanwhile, he has sibling drama of his own in that his no good, thuggish older brother Takuji (Hirofumi Arai) has just been released from prison and made an unwelcome reappearance in his life.

What exists between the siblings isn’t quite “rivalry”, mostly they aren’t fighting over parental affection or esteem so much reacting against their obviously complimentary characteristics. Yuria envies Mako’s beauty, while Mako secretly envies her sister’s intellectual confidence even if she also resents her bossiness and affectation of superiority in order to mask her insecurity. Kazunari makes a show of his earnestness, that he’s doing everything “properly” – working hard, living within his means, paying off his parents’ debts and saving for his retirement, while underneath it all he envies his brother’s non-conformity even if its risks terrify him. Thus they snipe at each other. The thing about family is they know where all the buttons are and find pressing them extremely hard to resist.

That said, the familial bond is a strong one and perhaps they can snipe cruelly at each other precisely because it is unlikely to break. Nevertheless, when pettiness and cruelty intensify there can hardly be a positive outcome save perhaps to hit the reset button and send our warring siblings back to their idyllic childhoods in which they played together happily free from their adult resentments. Like children fighting over toys, each wants what the other has and seethes over the injustice of not being the one to have it. An extreme situation might seem to clear the air, repair the relationships and restore them to their original condition with each reaching an understanding of themselves and their opposite number, but old habits are hard to break and any thaw in relations is likely to be extremely temporary.

No stranger to extremes, Yoshida opens with a humorous sequence spoofing a trailer for a cheesy Japanese teen romance which is enthusiastically recommended by a series of vox pop champions, not least among them Mako who who somewhat unethically plays the part of a lovestruck young woman who over identifies with the movie’s themes. The trailer promises a “parallel love story” which, in truly Yoshida-esque irony, is more or less what we get as we witness the symmetrical tales of our two sets of warring siblings whose animosity almost tips over into co-dependency. Mirrors of each other, they love and loathe but remain unable to reconcile themselves to the various faults they see reflected in their opposing number and therefore unable to break free from the petty jealousies and resentments which define family life. There may be no escape from the intense self loathing unfairly projected onto an equally burdened sibling, but perhaps there is faint hope in the enduring continuity of their quietly simmering warfare even as it binds them in mutual misery.


Thicker than Water was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Ghoul (東京喰種, Kentaro Hagiwara, 2017)

Tokyo Ghoul posterThough the idea has never been far away, Japanese cinema has largely steered clear of the enemy within. Recently however the “they walk among us” phenomenon seems to have gained traction from the horror-leaning Parasyte to the contemplative Before We Vanish. Parasyte would seem to be an appropriate point of departure for Kentaro Hagiwara’s debut feature, an adaptation of Sui Ishida’s hugely popular manga Tokyo Ghoul (東京喰種). Like Hitoshi Iwaaki’s ‘80s take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Tokyo Ghoul creates for itself a subsection of “humanity” which is not quite human yet apparently lives alongside “us” keeping its true nature and identity a secret in order to avoid detection. Unlike Parasyte, however, the intentions of the Ghouls are not so much destruction or colonisation as simple survival.

Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota), a shy bookworm with only one real friend, is trying to pluck up the courage to talk to another shy bookworm he often notices reading the kind of books he likes in a cafe they both seem to enjoy going to. It would seem that they have quite a lot in common already, but when Ken ends up on a successful date with Rize (Yu Aoi) he gets a little more than he bargained for. Far from the shy and mousy creature of his dreams, Rize is a raging Ghoul hungry for flesh rather than love. Luckily, Rize is killed in a freak accident just as she’s about devour poor Ken. Ken, however, survives but only thanks to a transplant of Rize’s organs meaning he is now part-Ghoul and can only live on human meat.

Neither one thing nor another, Ken struggles to accept his new nature as he craves flesh and has strange visions in which he imagines himself as Rize the crazed and ravenous Ghoul. Starving and alone he finally finds his way to the Anteiku cafe where he first met Rize and now finds a support network led by ethical Ghouls who sustain themselves on ethically sourced meat and high end coffee. These Ghouls do not want to kill, they simply want to survive which also means keeping one step ahead of the CCG which exists specifically in order to hunt down Ghouls with extreme prejudice.

In many a sci-fi tome, the CCG would be the good guys – protecting regular humans from a monstrous threat lurking in the shadows. After all, who would defend a substratum of cannibal serial killers who think nothing of devouring human flesh in front of its horrified offspring, but the CCG have perhaps begun to take too much pleasure in their work. Cold and calculating detective Amon (Nobuyuki Suzuki) has an idea that the world is “wrong” and it’s his job to put it right by exterminating the Ghouls, whereas creepy silver-haired detective Mado (Yo Oizumi) enjoys toying with his prey as much as Rize did and has even begun to harvest the various “Kagune” protuberances with which the Ghouls are endowed to use in his quest to defeat them.

The CCG may be justified in their fear in but in their methods they are little different than their quarry. The Ghouls too have a right to survive and are, after all, only being what they are. CCG might be better off working with Anteiku to minimise the Ghoul threat rather than engaging in a pointless and internecine war that guarantees only a continuation of violence and fear on both sides.

Having posited such interesting ideas it’s a shame that Tokyo Ghoul reverts to the classic super hero formula of resolving everything through a climactic battle in which Ken is forced to confront himself whilst battling CCG. Neither Ghoul nor human, Ken sees faults on both sides but perhaps learns to come into himself, no longer a diffident young man but one committed to protecting his friends even if it’s themselves they need protecting from.

Hagiwara opts for an artier approach than might expected though his noble intentions are often undercut by poor quality CGI and the inescapably outrageous quality of the source material. Nevertheless he gets impressive performances from his young cast even if some fan favourite characters are relegated to little more than background decoration and others scarcely written at all. Perhaps biting off more than it can chew, Tokyo Ghoul is an uneven experience but one that does its best to find heroism in villainy and villainy in heroism, negating the good/evil dichotomy of superhero morality for something altogether more complex.


Tokyo Ghoul was screened for one night only across the UK and will be released by Anime Limited later in the year.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

The Liar and His Lover (カノジョは嘘を愛しすぎてる, Norihiro Koizumi, 2013)

liar and his lover posterDespite the potential raciness of the title, The Liar and his Lover (カノジョは嘘を愛しすぎてる, Kanojo wa Uso wo Aishisugiteru) is another innocent tale of youthful romance adapted from a shojo manga by Kotomi Aoki. As is customary in the genre, the heroine is cute yet earnest, emotionally honest and fiercely clear cut whereas the hero is a broken hearted artist much in the need of the love of a good woman. Innocent and chaste as it all is, Liar also imports the worst aspects of shojo in its unseemly age gap romance between a 25 year old musician and the 16 year old high school girl he picks up on a whim and then apparently falls for precisely because of her uncomplicated goodness.

Aki (Takeru Satoh) introduces himself through a film noir-style voice over in which he details his ongoing malaise. Now a ghost member of the band Crude Play, Aki feels conflicted over his artistic legacy as his carefully crafted tunes are repurposed as disposable idol pop and performed by the friends who were once his high school bandmates. His idol girlfriend, Mari (Saki Aibu), has also been seeing the band’s manager in an effort to get ahead leaving Aki feeling betrayed and devoid of purpose.

Soon after, Aki runs into grocer’s daughter Riko (Sakurako Ohara) who is captivated by the song he’s been humming whilst staring aimlessly out to sea. Aki, feeling mischievous, picks Riko up on a whim. He goes to great pains to remind us that he had no real feelings for her and was only in it for the kicks but a later meeting sets the pair off on a complicated romance.

Aki becomes the “liar” of the title when he gives Riko a false name – Shinya, the name of the bassist who has replaced him in his own band. Despite the supposed purity of music as a means of communication, it is, in many ways, another lie. When Aki and his bandmates were offered a contract straight after high school they were overjoyed but it was short lived. Listening to their demo tape, Aki spots the problem right away – it’s not them playing, they’ve been replaced by polished studio session musicians. Saddened, Aki quits the band and is replaced by a ringer but continues to write songs both for Crude Play and other artists while the band’s manager gets the credit.

Music conveys and complicates the romance as it brings the two together but also threatens to keep them apart. Riko, a Crude Play fan, does not know Aki’s true identity and is disappointed when he says he hates girls who sing because she herself is in a high school band. Sure enough, the band get scouted by odious producer Takagi (Takashi Sorimachi) and handed to the villainous Shinya (Masataka Kubota) who threatens to do the same thing to them as they did to Crude Play. Riko, like Aki, is a musical purist but also wants to make her rock star dreams come true.

Like many a shojo heroine, Riko is convinced only she sees the “real” Aki, pushing past his angry, distant persona to a deeper layer of sensitive vulnerability. This being shojo she is more or less right, as Aki tells us in his voice over detailing just how irritating it seems to be for him that he’s falling for this unusually perceptive young woman. Despite realising that almost everything Aki has told her has been a lie (intentional or otherwise), Riko ignores his duplicity precisely because she thinks she already knows the “real” Aki through the “truth” of his music.

Takagi, the band’s unscrupulous manager, prattles on about music not mattering if it doesn’t sell, avowing that it’s all a matter or marketing anyway. Aki’s central concern is the misuse of his artistic legacy, that his art form has been stripped of its meaning and repackaged for mass market consumption. The band is “fake”, a manufactured image based on the ruins of the truth. Aki believes himself to be the same – an empty vessel, devoid of meaning or purpose. His love of music is only reawakened by Riko’s innocent enthusiasm and her surprising promise of “protection”.

The conflict is one of essential truth betrayed by music in all senses of the word as it is used and misused by the various forces in play. Unlike most shojo adaptations, Aki leads the way with Riko a vaguer figure ready to absorb the projected personalities of the target audience but the central dynamic is still one of goodhearted girl and broody boy. The unseemly age gap issue is entirely ignored, as the troubling undercurrent of Riko’s most attractive quality being her all encompassing pureness, undermining the otherwise charming, wistful comedy of the innocent musical romance.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

April Fools (エイプリルフールズ, Junichi Ishikawa, 2015)

april-foolsIn this brand new, post truth world where spin rules all, it’s important to look on the bright side and recognise the enormous positive power of the lie. 2015’s April Fools (エイプリルフールズ) is suddenly seeming just as prophetic as the machinations of the weird old woman buried at its centre seeing as its central message is “who cares about the truth so long as everyone (pretends) to be happy in the end?”. A dangerous message to be sure though perhaps there is something to be said about forgiving those who’ve misled you after understanding their reasoning. Or, then again, maybe not.

Juggling seven stories April Fools is never as successful at weaving them into a coherent whole as other similarly structured efforts but begins with an intriguing Star Wars style scroll regarding alien sleeper agents who can apparently go home now because they’ve accomplished everything they came for. Changing track, pregnant snack addict Ayumi (Erika Toda) decides to ring the still unknowing father of her child after witnessing an improbable reunion on TV only he’s in bed with someone else and assumes her call is a weird practical joke. Overhearing that he’s just arrived at a restaurant for a lunch date, Ayumi takes matters into her own hands and marches over there, eventually taking the entire place hostage. Meanwhile an older couple are having a harmless holiday pretending to be royalty and a grizzled gangster has “kidnapped” a teenage girl only to give her a nice day out at the fun fair. Oh, and the hikkikomori from the beginning who’s fallen for the whole alien thing has made a total fool of himself at school by taking out his bully, kissing his crush goodbye and racing up to the roof to try and hitch a lift from the mothership.

Importing this weird European tradition to Japan, the creative team have only incorporated parts of it in that they don’t call time on jokes at noon and it’s less about practical shenanigans and elaborate set ups than it is about wholesale lying which is frustrated by this famous non-holiday apparently created in celebration of it. All of the protagonists are lying about something quite fundamental and usually to themselves more than anyone else but at least their April Fools adventures will help them to realise these basic inner truths.

Then again some of these revelations backfire, such as in the slightly misjudged minor segment concerning two college friends who are repeatedly kicked out of restaurants before they can get anything to eat. One decides to “prank” his friend with an April Fools confession of love, only to find that his friend really is gay and is in love with him. Awkward is not the word, but then an April Fools declaration of love is about the worst kind of cruel there is and is never funny anyway, nor is the casual homophobia involved in this entire skit but that’s another story.

In fact, most of the other people are aware they’re being lied to, but are going along with it for various reasons, some hoping that the liars will spontaneously reform and apologise or explain their actions. Ayumi, who is shy and isolated by nature, always knew her handsome doctor suitor was probably not all he seemed to be but is still disappointed to be proved right, only be perhaps be proved wrong again in the end. Convinced to take a chance on an unwise romance by an older colleague who explains to her that many miracles begin with lies, Ayumi is angry with herself as much as with her lying Casanova of a baby daddy, and also feels guilty about an incredibly sight deception of her own. As in many of the other stories, now that everyone has figured out the real, important, truths about themselves and about the situation, they can excuse all of the lying. Sensible or not? The choice is yours.

Despite coming from the team who created some very funny TV dramas including Legal High, the comedy of April Fools never quite hits its stride. Weak jokes backed up with slapstick humour giving way to sentimentality as the “good reasons” for the avoidance of truth are revealed don’t exactly whip up the farcical frenzy which the premiss implies. The point may very well be that we’re the April Fools going along with this, but even so its difficult to admire a film which pushes the “lying is good” mantra right to the end rather than neatly undercutting it. Still, there is enough zany humour to make April Fools not a complete waste of time, even if it doesn’t make as much of its original inspiration as might be hoped.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Yuki Tanada, 2012)

Cowards who looked to the sky posterThe work of director Yuki Tanada has had a predominant focus on the stories of independent young women but The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky sees her shift focus slightly as the troubled relationship between a middle aged housewife who escapes her humdrum life through cosplay and an ordinary high school boy takes centre stage. Based on the novel of the same name by Misumi Kubo, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Fugainai Boku wa Sora wo Mita) also tackles the difficult themes of social stigma, the power of rumour, teenage poverty, elder care, childbirth and even pedophilia which is, to be frank, a little too much to be going on with.

Told in a non-linear, overlapping structure the central spine of the film follows unfulfilled housewife Satomi who likes to dress up as her favourite character from the retro anime Magic Girl. Whilst dressed as its heroine, Anzu, she spots a high school boy at a convention who looks eerily like the anime’s hero, Muramasa. Takumi is only at the convention with a friend and has no particular interest in anime but as the two live in the same area “Anzu” convinces Takumi to come and try on a Muramasa outfit at her place. One thing leads to another and the pair embark on a proxy affair which takes the form of role-play between the two anime characters carefully scripted by Satomi. However, Satomi’s hitherto disinterested husband begins to notice a change in her behaviour and has spy cameras installed catching the hot cosplay action for all to see. When he uploads the video to the internet it causes a serious problem for the young and impressionable Takumi.

Actually, there’s a third person in Satomi’s marriage to her feckless husband Keiichiro in the form of his overbearing mother. So far, the couple have no children despite having been married for some time and this has distressed Michiko to the point that she’s the one dragging the couple in for IVF treatment and getting upset when it doesn’t work. Her son, Keiichiro, has weak swimmers and actively doesn’t want children but this doesn’t stop Michiko taking all her frustrations out on Satomi whom she brands as “defective” and gives the impression that she’d like to “fire” her if she could. A shy woman and probably quite bored as a stay at home housewife, Satomi retreats into fantasy by cosplaying as the familiar character from her favourite childhood anime Magic Girl. Becoming Anzu and having an affair with Muramasa isn’t quite cheating, after all, and perhaps she even hopes to have the child that her mother-in-law so desperately wants her to have even if her husband and medical science won’t help her.

Among the younger generation, Takumi lives with his mother, Sumiko, in a residential maternity clinic that she runs where pregnant women can come and be looked after in a more natural and homely environment than the comparatively cold and sterile hospital. Takumi is best friends with a boy who lives near by who, like him, has no father but unlike Takumi his mother is also an absent figure too so Ryota must work part-time at the combini whilst also looking after his grandmother who is suffering with dementia.

Sumiko tries to support Ryota by giving him occasional food parcels but as a young man Ryota sometimes finds this a little embarrassing and is offended by the idea of receiving charity. When it comes right down to it, he resents Takumi’s happy relationship with his mother and their relative financial security. The manager at the store brands Ryota a “ghetto kid” and even blames him for the increase in shoplifting by kids from the estate. He has little time to study even if he wanted to, but all he sees for his future is a great big dead end. Another worker at the store who previously worked as a teacher offers to help Ryota improve his grades and maybe even try for a university scholarship but turns out to have a dark side of his own.

Simply put, there are far too many plot strands in rotation here and the screenplay never manages to corral them into any kind of satisfying arrangement. There is a moment of unity where Ryota’s story meets Takumi’s but it’s a fairly brief point of intersection (though a hugely important one both in terms of themes and storyline) leaving Ryota’s entire subplot feeling like a distraction to the main high school boy meets damaged older woman narrative. That’s without all of the goings on at the clinic, the brief appearance of Takumi’s father and the disappearing act of Ryota’s deadbeat mother who makes off with all his savings. The film’s scope and ambition is admirable but it ultimately fails to unify its disparate plot strands into a convincingly focused form.

That said, other than running too long the The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky does have a lot of interesting elements and is always beautifully shot showing off a rarely seen side of suburban Tokyo. The performances are also of a high quality particularly given the film’s frank erotic content which is played with refreshing realism by the veteran former child actress Tomoko Tabata and the comparatively less experienced Kento Nagayama as the confused high school boy caught in the fire of his first affair. At once too superficial and too deep, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky spreads itself too thin to make a lasting impact though does offer enough rewards to justify its lengthy running time.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

 

Jellyfish Eyes (めめめのくらげ, Takashi Murakami, 2013)

161244_01Jellyfish Eyes (めめめのくらげ, Mememe no Kurage) is the feature film debut of the internationally popular Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami. Well known for his cutesy character designs which are as likely to turn up in the world’s best regarded art galleries as they are on a kid’s backpack, Murakami is one of Japan’s most highly regarded art exports. Having unsuccessfully tried to raise interest in the more obvious totally CG animation, Murakami has enlisted the help of gore master Yoshihiro Nishimura for some director’s chair tips in creating a live action/CGI hybrid. Jellyfish Eyes is very definitely a kids’ movie, calling it a “family film” seems unfair when the age cut off is most likely around seven or eight years old but those who meet the (lack of) height requirement are sure to lap it up.

The story is set in post-tsunami Japan as Masashi (Takuto Sueoka) has finally moved out of the earthquake evacuation centre with his mother (Mayu Tsuruta) to live in a new town. As it will transpire, the two have moved there alone as Masashi’s father (Kanji Tsuda) has been killed in the tsunami and his mother has a brother (Takumi Saito) in the area. Not long after he moves in, the boy makes a new friend in the shape of a Jellyfish-like creature who floats in the air and loves eating the same kind of snacks as Mashashi. The creature, christened Kurage-bo (Jellyfish Boy), becomes a firm fixture in Masashi’s life and when he arrives at school Masashi realises Kurage-bo is not the only one of his kind. In this strange town all the kids have a weird little creature friend they can control by means of a smartphone app. Predictably some of the meaner boys use them to fight, but could there be a more sinister reason for the appearance of these very odd little guys? and what’s up with the bizarre religious cult that’s located right next to the creepy science lab? This is a very strange town indeed.

The film’s Japanese title, Mememe no Kurage, is a little reminiscent of the master work of the late Shigeru Mizuki, Gegege no Kitaro and like that perennially popular franchise the film focuses on the daily lives of children as they have strange adventures with supernatural creatures. The central premise is that a shady group of black clad scientific researchers (played by Masataka Kubota, Shota Sometani, Hidemasa Shiozawa, and Ami Ikenaga) claim to have found the key to surpassing natural disasters like earthquakes and it relies on the particles generated by the negative emotions of human children. Predictably it’s not long before things go from bad to worse and a giant kaiju-like creature descends on the town requiring the kids to work together to combat the marauding monster before it destroys the entire planet.

To be frank the film sounds a lot more entertaining that it turns out to be. Though undoubtedly very cute and not exactly uninteresting, it all ends up feeling, well, “superflat” only in an unintended way. The photography is generally basic though the CGI itself is of an extremely high quality and perfectly toned to match Murakami’s thematic concerns. Structurally it’s all over the place with the central ideas emphasised a little too strongly only to be thrown out of the window for the sugar rush finale of a million adorable monsters all fighting to the death for their cute as a button sad children masters. There’s quite a lot of darkness and melancholy lurking around the edges but the adorable little critters seem tailor-made for keeping the bad stuff in the background.

Like all good children’s movies the messages are the usual ones about the importance of friendship, sharing, teamwork and doing what’s right but it feels like Murakami has quite a lot of other things to say about reliance on forms of technology (and in particular what that can open the door to) and the state of post earthquake Japan that don’t quite come through. Having said that Jellyfish Eyes boasts some amazing visuals in its adorably cute cast of F.R.I.E.N.Ds and though a little messy is perfectly watchable. A festive treat for younger members of the family, Jellyfish Eyes is full of youthful idealism in the power of simple sincerity and genuine human feeling to win through against even the most terrifying of monsters but ultimately fails to offer much beyond its cutesy visuals.


Here’s a trailer – it says the creatures are invisible to adults but they aren’t (but some of them can make themselves transparent, if that makes sense).