Fire Festival (火まつり, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985)

By 1985 the Japanese economy was approaching its zenith yet along with increasing economic prosperity had come social change of which small-town Japan was either casualty or sacrificial victim. “Nigishima will stay as it is” declares the last holdout of an increasingly obsolete way of life in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s intense modernity drama, Fire Festival (火まつり, Himatsuri), a manly mountain man and animalistic force of nature by several metrics unsuited to life in the contemporary society into which he is ultimately unable to progress. 

There are many things which it seems have not changed in Nigishima for generations, one being the animosity between the cohorts of its bifurcated community, those who live by land and those who live by sea. Rural depopulation may have forced them to come closer but it has also increased their sense of mistrust while both industries continue to suffer in an economy which no longer prizes their humble rural output. Despite being catapulted into a promised modernity by the advent of the railway to great fanfare in 1959, it now seems that Nigishima cannot survive without a new road which could be paid for by the development of a marine park only mountain man Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji) owns the property right in the middle of the earmarked area and has hitherto refused to sell further increasing the tension between the two communities. 

Tatsuo is thought of, and thinks of himself, as a big man in the area quite literally it seems as part of the reason he enjoys this status is down to his being unusually well-endowed. He believes himself to have a special relationship with the mountain goddess, often joking to the other men about having a sexual relationship with her while sometimes describing her as his girlfriend. Several times he is mistaken for an animal, firstly by the boatman bringing his childhood sweetheart and sometime mistress Kimiko (Kiwako Taichi) back to the island who assumed he was a monkey crawling along the cliff edge thoughtlessly throwing rocks at them, while he often gambols through the forest whooping like some kind of Tarzan. Entirely unreconstructed, his worldview is patriarchal and misogynistic. All of his banter with the other men is sexual, constantly referring to his penis while greeting his friends with lewd hand gestures thrusting his fist into his pocket as if waving with an erection. The cure for offending the goddess he tells his young protege Ryota (Ryota Nakamoto) is to drop his trousers and display his manhood, Tatsuo strangely believing this would appease her for taking wood from a sacred tree or killing without permission. 

Smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal over his chest and forearms he dedicates the death to the goddess, a gesture he will repeat in the film’s violent and tragic conclusion yet there is also arrogance in his conduct as if he believes himself above natural law, protected as the goddess’ favourite even as he describes himself as “suffocated” by the women in his life from his mother and five older sisters all of whom indulge him to his wife, kids, and mistresses. He has trained his dogs to hunt wild boar without the use of guns in a method he admits even other hunters describe as “cruel” while breaking a local taboo shooting monkeys in the forest well aware of nature red in tooth and claw. As such, there is little nobility to be seen in his determination to preserve this already obsolete way of life. His virility maybe contrasted with that of the ageing land broker Yamakawa (Norihei Miki) and his failed attempts to bed sex worker Kimiko who tricks him into paying off her debts, but he at least knows the way the wind is blowing explaining to her that towns such as Nigishima survive only through things like marine parks or hotels or even nuclear power plants. Without the road, the town will die. 

Yet in 1959 they were told the railway would save them and it seems it did not. Tatsuo’s love making with Kimiko in a boat borrowed from a treacherous fisherman who later agrees to sail it transgressively into sacred waters is intercut with memories of the rail line’s opening ceremony, two teenagers who might have been them or at least of around the same age ride an elephant on the jetty while the townspeople arrange themselves into the formation of the character for “celebration” captured by the aerial photographer above. For Tatsuo as a boy, was this a rebirth of Nigishima or the beginning of its demise as the coming modernity began to eat away at its foundations? 

The fire festival is “for men”, according to Tatsuo, “to drive out evil spirits”, his manliness getting the better of him as he disrupts the proceedings to attack a man he accuses of having brought “false fire”. These are the lessons he teaches to surrogate son Ryota whose devotion to him borders on the homoerotic, Tatsuo cradling him during the climactic rain storm and he seeming to develop a fascination for Kimiko as a kind of indirect fixation. Ryota has learned Tatsuo’s chauvinism mimicking his lewd hand gestures and swaggering walk, his cruelty in sacrificing 1000 yen to trick Yamakawa into injuring his hand in a bear trap, and his arrogance ensuring that his problematic masculinity will survive into another generation presumably no more capable of halting the march of modernity than he has been. Tatsuo poisons the waters with fuel oil which as one of the greek chorus of fish wives points out does not catch fire, Tatsuo himself smouldering until an inevitable explosion. Receiving some kind of epiphany during a mystical congress with the goddess in the middle of a storm, he knows what he must do and accepts that he cannot progress into the modern society. Smoulderingly intense in its small-town animosity and primeval sensibilities, Yanagimachi’s poetic tragedy of futility and the broken promises of a badly distributed modernity may accept the the sacrifice but mourns it all the same. 


Fire Festival screens at the BFI on 20/27 December as part of BFI Japan.

Clip (English subtitles)

Gohatto (御法度, Nagisa Oshima, 1999)

Nagisa Oshima once said that his hatred of Japanese cinema extended to absolutely all of it, decrying the hackneyed nativism of “foggy beauty and stupid gardens”, yet his final film is filled with Mizoguchian mist and almost a paen to Japanese aesthetics which ends with a cherry blossom tree in full bloom cut down in its prime. Burdened by the slightly more salacious title “Taboo”, Gohatto is less about love between men in an intensely homosocial world even as it asks what it might mean by “forbidden” or “against the law” than it is about idealism and aesthetics as its band of contradictory conservatives unknowingly approach the end of their world in a coming modernity ushered in by dangerous beauty. 

Set in the Kyoto of 1865, a scant three years prior to the Meiji Restoration, the film opens with an audition of sorts as the Shinsengumi search for promising new recruits among talented swordsmen. Already a mess of contradictions, the Shinsengumi is, loosely, a kind of official police force dedicated to defending the Shogunate against the revolutionary forces set on restoring power to the emperor. Nevertheless, in an odd way and in contrast to the elite Mimawarigumi which was staffed only by direct retainers to the Shogun, the Shinsengumi was noted for its lowkey egalitarianism in that it made a point of admitting those of ordinary birth as well as lower level samurai and ronin. Of course, the notions of equality only went so far and perhaps only fuelled its reputation for merciless savagery, but also make it a strangely progressive force fighting against progress in defence of the feudal status quo. 

Only two of the hopefuls are thought to be any good, one a young ronin, Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), and the other a beautiful boy, Kano Sozaburo (Ryuhei Matsuda), the third son of a wealthy merchant whose line were once samurai but are no longer counted among the noble retainers. A talented swordsman, Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty presents an existential threat to the Shinsengumi order, the steely Hijikata (Takeshi Kitano) looking on conflicted in witnessing the way his commander, Kondo (Yoichi Sai), looks at this vision of androgynous beauty remarking that he had not known him to be “that way inclined”.

Being that way inclined does not seem to be a particular issue within the Shinsengumi, it is not against their draconian rules and in fact appears to be tolerated at least as long as it causes no further problems. Kondo is however mindful of the chaos caused by a similar wave of homoerotic lust which took hold shortly before a climactic battle which would prove to be their last success. What Sozaburo seems to arouse in them is something more dangerous than the accepted patterns of love between military men which is in a sense sublimated as a mentor/student relationship, loyalty more than romance. Tashiro, who is of a similar age to the apparently 18-year-old Sozaburo, lets his desire be known, vowing to sleep with him before he dies ironically acknowledging Sozaburo for what he is, an angel of death. 

For his part, Sozaburo remains curiously passive in each of his encounters, aroused only it seems by the act of killing. Yet Hijikata discerns that he has indeed become Tashiro’s lover on witnessing them fight, Sozaburo losing clumsily despite being the more skilled in a dynamic that mimics their relationship in which Tashiro is the dominant partner. Aware of the danger in Sozaburo’s allure, Kondo suggests having a superior take him to the red light district to show him the delights of woman hoping to guide him back towards a less dangerous path, only the attempt backfires on several levels. Firstly, Sozaburo has no interest in women and continues to decline believing his commander is also hitting on him (like everyone else), thereafter determined to seduce him after all. Another retainer does indeed succeed in seducing Sozaburo, developing a mild obsession, but later ends up dead, Tashiro a main suspect in his murder with the motive of sexual jealousy though all of this additional violence is perhaps only an expression of Sozaburo’s dangerous beauty. 

As so often, sex if not love becomes the force which destabilises the social order only here it’s equated both with death and with an alternative mediation of male violence. Perhaps reflecting the way they look to the 18-year-old Sozaburo who makes a faux pas in accidentally suggesting at least one of them is of pensionable age, the ranking members of the Shinsengumi are played by actors already well into their golden years as if relics of a bygone era though in reality most were in their 30s. As Soji (Shinji Takeda), a filial figure like Sozaburo wearing long hair, puts it, there are no old men in their unit which is in essence an anti-revolutionary force. Nevertheless, the Shinsengumi is on the wrong side of history and already living in its end times, perhaps ushered towards its doom by the figure of the beautiful boy. “You were too beautiful”, Hijikata eventually laments as he finally perhaps understands the nature of the revolution he is witnessing. Perverse to the last, Oshima sets his ethereal finale in a stygian fog and pays an ironic tribute to the Mizoguchian classicism he so railed against in his youth, taking a sword to the cherry blossoms as he like Hijikata severs his own legacy in a moment of destructive beauty. 


Gohatto screens at Genesis Cinema on 25th September as part of this year’s Queer East

International trailer (English subtitles)

Rex: Dinosaur Story (REX 恐竜物語, Haruki Kadokawa, 1993)

Like him or loathe him, Haruki Kadokawa was the dominant force in commercial Japanese cinema from the mid-70s to the end of the Bubble era. Thanks to his circular marketing approach which involved producing movie adaptations of books his company published starring idols he had under contract at his movie studio and releasing the theme songs they often sang to accompany them on his record label, Kadokawa had a virtual stranglehold on ‘80s pop culture. All that came to an end, however, in 1993 when he was arrested for cocaine use/smuggling and accused of embezzling money to pay for his habit, eventually winding up with a four-year jail sentence. Despite all of that, Rex: Dinosaur Story (REX 恐竜物語, Rex: Kyoryu Monogatari) was until the release of Lord of the Rings in 2002 the highest grossing movie distributed by veteran studio Shochiku and was due to extend its 10-week run but was ultimately pulled early because of the “moral embarrassment” surrounding its director’s arrest. 

That moral panic might be all the more acute because as the title and poster might imply, Rex: Dinosaur Story is a tentpole family film released, despite its Christmas setting, at the height of the summer season and in the wake of Jurassic Park with an obvious eye on merchandising (much of which actually appears in the movie). The slightly ridiculous story revolves around 10-year-old Chie (Yumi Adachi) whose parents have recently split up with her mother Naomi (Shinobu Otake), a professor of veterinary medicine, heading to New York for an exciting work opportunity while she’s stayed behind with her nerdy father Akira (Tsunehiko Watase), a researcher of Japan’s Jomon period, and moved in with her maternal grandmother (Mitsuko Kusabue) at a Hokkaido ranch. Little Chie is it seems finding it hard to adjust and has become very withdrawn, refusing to answer when expected to introduce herself at her new school. Mostly she spends her time alone on the farm hanging out with the family dog and riding a horse while drawing pictures of her longed-for mother in a stylish Edwardian outfit with the farmhouse in the background. 

Meanwhile, Akira has made a discovery. A Jomon statue appearing to feature a boy riding on the back of a dinosaur along with a collection of shards he thinks are from a dinosaur egg have convinced him that dinosaurs may have survived in Japan until the Jomon period and perhaps may survive still. Intrigued by a message on a stele that advises one should not advance any further because a giant god is living further up the mountain, Akira takes his daughter and a handful of researchers to meet an Ainu priest (Fujio Tokita) who eventually leads them to a grotto where they find a giant dinosaur egg, narrowly escaping with it after having angered the gods. Akira and the researchers eventually hatch the egg, giving birth to Rex and allowing Chie to become his “mother”.

The egg’s discovery eventually hastens Naomi’s return, but she virtually ignores her daughter greeting her with nothing more than a curt hello while making it plain she’s only here to work on the historically significant discovery not patch up her family. Chie’s relationship with Rex is, in many ways, a way of bonding with her aloof mother who, it has to be said, comes in for a lot of slightly misogynistic criticism as a woman who “abandoned” her daughter to chase career success. Nevertheless, through parenting Rex Chie comes to understand something of motherhood while recognising that she and Rex are essentially the same and that he is most likely lonely missing his dinosaur birth mother. 

Meanwhile, she’s also acutely aware that not everyone has Rex’s best interests at heart. The birth of a cute baby dinosaur is obviously front page news with the consequence that Rex becomes the moment’s biggest celebrity trotted out for a host of TV commercials (featuring a cameo by Kirin Kiki) one of which has Chie and Rex perhaps insensitively sitting down to enjoy a wholesome family meal of Japanese curry. Aside from the irony, Chie’s attempt to suggest that they take break because Rex is after all a baby and he’s tired results in one of the other scientists, Morioka (Mitsuru Hirata), physically abusing him. Sidelined from the project, he enacts a dastardly plan to steal Rex for himself, turning up with four minions dressing like he’s just joined the Gestapo. 

In typical kids movie fashion, Chie and Rex end up on the run through a weird Christmas wonderland in which religious ceremonies and Santa mingle freely, a choir full of children led by her schoolfriend Kenta (Yuta Yamazaki) eventually aiding their escape by throwing snowballs at the bad guys. Chie’s attempts at “disguise” may be laughably bad, but it seems so many people are indulging in Rex cosplay that it becomes possible to blend in even while travelling with a dinosaur companion wearing a Santa hat and sunglasses. Nevertheless, the lesson that Chie begins to learn is that sometimes mothers have to separate from their children but it doesn’t mean they love them any less or that it doesn’t make them sad. Incongruously relegating the “happy ending” to a post-credits sequence, Rex’s distinctly Mid-Western aesthetic with its Dorothy-esque Hokkaido ranch coupled with the fantastical Jomon-era/Ainu mythology lend it a rather strange flavour but it remains an oddly nostalgic experience even as it lifts gleefully from its Hollywood contemporaries. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (星くず兄弟の伝説, Macoto Tezka, 1985)

Stardust Brothers poster 2More or less out of fashion today, concept albums were all the rage back in the ‘70s and ‘80s but few of them ever made it to the big screen. Macoto Tezka’s The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (星くず兄弟の伝説, Hoshikuzu Kyodai no Densetsu), apparently drawing inspiration from The Who’s Tommy, is a rare exception though you’d be forgiven for never having heard of it seeing as it’s been mostly forgotten since receiving a decidedly frosty reception from critics on its 1985 release. Tezka would revisit the Stardust Brothers in 2016 with a Brand New Legend, but this now fully restored “director’s cut” distributed by Third Window Films who are also co-producing Tezka’s latest work – an adaptation of a manga by his legendary father Osamu Tezuka starring Fumi Nikaido, is the first opportunity many will have to reappraise the film in 34 years.

Inspired by an “imaginary soundtrack” composed by Haruo Chicada, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers concerns itself with aspiring musicians Shingo (Shingo Kubota) and Kan (Kazuhiro Takagi) who seem to have a healthy rivalry in the intense 1980s Japanese underground club scene. Their luck changes one day when they are each handed a card for a shady-looking management company, Atomic Promotion, where the manager, Minami (played by voice of the ’70s crooner Kiyohiko Ozaki), promises to make them stars beyond their wildest dreams but only on one condition – they have to form a band of two, or it’s no dice.

On their first arrival at Atomic Promotion, the boys are introduced to a young woman, Marimo (Kyoko Togawa) – an aspiring singer who has been repeatedly kicked out of Minami’s office because he doesn’t hire girls (seemingly a satirical reference to an all powerful agency controlling most of Japan’s A-list male idols). Kan comes to her rescue and, in a throwaway comment, casts himself as Urashima Taro rescuing the “turtle” from, in this case, belligerent security guards. It is tempting, in an impish sense, to read the rest of the ongoing tale as an extended retelling of the Urashima Taro myth as the boys find themselves catching a ride to another kingdom filled with untold wealth and unimaginable pleasure only to tire of their newfound luxury and discover that while they were trapped within a tiny champagne bubble of success other stars were also rising.

It is indeed the “plateau” of success which highlights the differences between the two guys and threatens to send each of them on different paths as they contemplate the demands of showbiz life. Shingo, an insecure rocker, begins to resent the presence of the ultra modern Kan whose punkish energy and zeitgeisty features have captured the hearts of the youth. Numbing the emptiness with drink and drugs, he dreams himself swallowed whole by his sworn brother before being chased by creepy zombies emerging from their human suits to suck whatever of his soul remains right out of him.

Bored by their fame, the boys resent the implication that their “stardom” comes only at the price of their artistic integrity. They long to break free of the corporate straightjacket which attempts to strip them of their individuality in order to replace it with a manufactured, marketable persona in another jab at the increasingly commodified idol world of the burgeoning bubble era. Meanwhile, the corporate machine moves on, mass media is exposed as yet another medium of propaganda with a (perhaps conflicted) Minami propositioned by a politician with a son keen to get into the business. Fearing the Stardust Brothers are too “vulgar”, the powers that be want a new face to sell the message of love and peace to the young, which sounds much more positive than it really is. The boys’ rival, Kaworu (visual kei pioneer Issay), is very much a figure of the age – an androgynous, Bowie-like counter culture personality who is in essence the face of entrenched privilege insidiously camouflaged to infiltrate alternative youth subculture. 

Yet the political message is not perhaps the point so much as anarchic, absurdist fun. Perfectly in tune with lo-fi late punk / early New Wave sensibilities, Tezka’s script freewheels from one surreal set piece to another following the flow of Chicada’s expertly composed score which encapsulates the variety of the age while remaining absolutely of its time. Filled with youthful energy and true punk spirit, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is the strange tale of the dust that stars are made on and its unexpected ability to find its way home even if it takes a little longer than expected.


The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is released on blu-ray later in the year courtesy of Third Window Films. It will also be screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival on 1st June, 22.30.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Bonus:

Kiyohiko Ozaki’s 1971 hit Mata Au Hi Made

And its fantastic use in Isshin Inudo’s La Maison de Himiko

After School (アフタースクール, Kenji Uchida, 2008)

after school posterKenji Uchida is well known for intricately constructed farces but he takes intrigue to new heights in After School (アフタースクール), allowing a mid-way twist to completely reverse everything you thought you knew. Yet at heart Uchida’s film is as uncynical as it’s possible to be even when our heroes find themselves embroiled in a large-scale conspiracy of corporate corruption, organised crime, and police machinations. What begins with a confession spirals outwards into a complicated web of deception and counter-deception proving it really is all connected, even if not quite in the way you first thought.

A salaryman, Kimura (Masato Sakai), enters a reverie staring at the pregnant woman (Takako Tokiwa) sitting opposite him over breakfast, flashing back to a breezy middle school day when she (presumably) nervously handed him a letter.  Kimura leaves for work and borrows the fancy Porche belonging to his high school teacher middle school friend, Jinno (Yo Oizumi), to go to a work meeting in Yokohama. While he’s away the woman goes into labour leaving Jinno to take care of everything but alarm bells start ringing when no one can reach Kimura the following morning. Meanwhile, Kimura has been seen with a mysterious woman at a hotel which seems to have right royally spooked his bosses who have hired a shady private detective, Kitazawa (Kuranosuke Sasaki), to track Kimura down. Kitazawa thinks his best bet is to start at Kimura’s old middle school – which is where he runs into Jinno who agrees to help look for his friend.

As might be assumed, all is not quite as it seems. Shady PI Kitazawa is in deep with the yakuza to whom he apparently has massive gambling debts. At a low ebb, he decides to ask his male assistant to run away with him to Sapporo (which he agrees to do) but this case just might be his salvation, especially once he works out that both ends are connected and he could technically double his pay out with a little strategic blackmail. Kitazawa is as cynical as they come. He thinks nothing of invading Kimura’s life and is fully prepared to make use of Jinno’s seeming innocence, claiming that naivety and pureheartedness make him sick. Later he attempts a pathetic act of petty revenge against Jinno for no real reason that could have ruined his entire life but instead ends up another cog in the grand wheel of Uchida’s finely crafted farce.

Kitazawa’s cynicism is eventually what leads to his downfall. His detective brain so wired for motives and gains is unable to process the idea that some actions are merely altruistic and offer no further reward than the pleasure of helping a friend. Jinno, at first a goofy school teacher with an improbably expensive car, soon becomes the film’s MVP and the only still point in a constantly turning world. Taken to task by Kitazawa for his continuing goodness, Jinno offers a perfectly schoolmasterly reply to the effect that there’s a snotty kid like him in every class, sneering away too cool for school and decrying everything as boring when really the problem isn’t school, it’s Kitazawa.

What eventually looked like a sordid affair turns into a beautiful romance as the truth is gradually revealed. The title refers not just to the setting of the initial flashback, but also to the entirety of adult life. Jinno’s innocence and goodness are belittled by Kitazawa who accuses him of being stuck in middle school with a childishly naive way of seeing the world. This is in a sense true, Jinno has never lost his childlike sense of justice and fair play, willing to go great lengths to help his friends even if it puts him in danger and forces him into some sticky situations which are not his natural milieu, but Jinno’s faith and loyalty are the qualities which eventually see him through and make possible the poignant, hopeful ending despite all that has gone before. Corrupt politicians preaching “family values” whilst associating themselves with dodgy corporations who are taking back handers from the yakuza, hidden policemen, shady PIs – there’s certainly a lot of darkness here but if anything is going to beat it, it’s sincerity and goodness rather than guile and cunning.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 February 2018
  • Filmhouse – 6 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)

P. P. Rider (ションベンライダー, Shinji Somai, 1983)

PP rider posterDespite a brief resurgence following a retrospective at Tokyo Filmex followed by another at Edinburgh International Film Festival, Shinji Somai remains frustratingly underrepresented in the West. Though his career is more varied than most give him credit for, encompassing the melancholy pink film Love Hotel and masculinity drama The Catch among others, Somai is justifiably most closely associated with his youth films. Running from the artier Typhoon Club and The Friends to the rabidly populist in the Kadokawa idol movies Sailor Suit and Machine Gun and Tokyo Heaven, Somai’s work is unique in managing to catch hold of a zeitgeist, capturing the essence of the contemporary teenager more or less in the way they saw themselves rather than the way they were generally seen by adults. Like many Japanese teen movies of the ‘80s, the world of P.P. Rider (ションベンライダー, Shonben Rider) is essentially a safe one – our three protagonists get themselves mixed up in some dark and shady business but they are never afraid, do not lose heart, and face danger with only contempt and determination.

Somai opens with one of his trademark long takes which whirls around from two suspicious looking yakuza types to a bunch of kids playing around in the school swimming pool. One of the kids, a rotund boy who goes by the nickname Debunaga (he has the rather pretentious name of Nobunaga Deguchi, “Nobunaga” being the first name of a historical tyrant) is being a bit of a twit and having a go at one of our heroes – JoJo (Masatoshi Nagase). Debunaga (Yoshikazu Suzuki) then tries to “drown” JoJo’s friend Jisho (lit. Dictionary) (Shinobu Sakagami), before the third member of the trio arrives – an androgynous girl who goes by the name of Bruce (Michiko Kawai). Bruce neatly dispatches the petty high school punks while a teacher, Arane (Hideko Hara), attempts to shift some bosozoku who’ve invaded school property.

Meanwhile, the petty yakuza get on with their plan. They’ve come to kidnap Debunaga – his pharmacist dad apparently has a sideline in drug dealing, but before they can grab him, Debunaga is kidnapped by entirely different kidnappers! Our three heroes, JoJo, Jisho, and Bruce are very annoyed about this because they didn’t get a proper chance to get even with Debunaga. Accordingly, they decide the best way to make use of their summer holiday is to rescue him themselves and make sure they get their revenge before the kidnappers do him in.

P.P. Rider means exactly you think it means, except it doesn’t quite mean anything at all aside from perfectly capturing the strange mix of childish jokes and serious crime that defines the movie’s tone. The atmosphere is absurd and ironic, the kids distrust adult authority and attempt to define their own nascent personalities by effectively rejecting them – using nicknames, dressing in highly codified ways, and either conforming to or subverting social codes as they see fit. Amusingly enough, the trio take a brief pause in the middle of their quest to get haircuts and change outfits, after which they emerge dressed in each other’s clothes as if implying they are almost interchangeable. 

In keeping with most Japanese youth dramas, parents are an entirely off screen presence. Adult input comes from two very different directions (plus the occasional interventions of bumbling beat cop Tanaka) – a down-at-heels yakuza called Gombei (Tatsuya Fuji), and the kids’ teacher, Arane. Gombei, a drug addled gangster, is hardly an ideal role model (especially when he tries to drown Bruce and attacks Jisho with a samurai sword), but he does eventually take the kids under his wing with JoJo picking up the classic deputy role in learning the yakuza ropes. Arane, by contrast begins by letting them down. Harried by the bosozoku she tells the kids to buzz off when they try to talk to her, telling them that she’s off to hot springs town Atami and they’d best come back next term. Nevertheless she eventually becomes an integral part of their group, assisting in the quest and helping to rescue Debunaga while the strange finale plays out before her impassive eyes.

The kids didn’t really want to save Debunaga, and are conflicted when they eventually locate him, but in the end it’s friendship which wins out as they each celebrate their various roles in the successful rescue whilst lamenting the relative lack of care they’ve received from adults and authority figures aside from Arane and Gombei. Absurdist and ironic, P.P. Rider is a strange children’s odyssey in which the adolescent teens head out on a dark and dangerous adventure but live in the relative safety of the world and so nothing very bad is going to happen to them despite the terrible things they eventually witness. Classical long takes jostle alongside Somai’s mobile camera, random intertitles, and frequent breaks for pop music (this is an idol movie after all) in a frenzy of post-modern gags but somehow it all just works, and does so with wit and charm.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

Interview with actor Masatoshi Nagase from the Tokyo Filmex screening in 2011 (Japanese only, no subtitles)

Michiko Kawai’s main titles song – Watashi, Takanna Koro

Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Kazuyuki Izutsu, 1984)

fine with occasional murders posterIn Japan’s ailing late ‘70s cinema market, studios were taking extreme decisions to get the public away from their TV sets and back into movie houses, yet one enterprising would-be media mogul had another idea. Haruki Kadokawa, a man with a publishing house and cinematic ambitions hit on a then innovative marketing strategy which amounted to a perfect storm for his own particular capabilities. Amassing a small stable of idols, he resurrected the studio system to produce a steady stream of youth movies adapting novels he also published and featuring title songs which his idols sang and he released on his record label. Hitting their heyday in the early to mid-1980s, Kadokawa’s idol films are a perfect time capsule of their pre-bubble setting in which, unlike the “seishun eiga” of twenty years before, upperclass young girls solved crimes and defied authority all whilst remaining prim, elegant and innocent. Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Hare, Tokidoki Satsujin) is a prime example of this gentle yet somehow dangerous world as its heroine returns home from studying abroad only to become embroiled in a conspiracy lodged firmly within her own home.

As the film opens, a middle-aged man and woman pay a nighttime visit to the site of a new factory, reminiscing about their youth and the small soap business they started thirty years ago which is now a full scale plastics film. The woman catches sight of someone leaving and stops to wish him goodnight only to suddenly wonder why he’s there in the first place. The reason becomes apparent when she steps forward a little and discovers the body of a young woman lying against her fence post. As if that weren’t worrying enough, factory owner Mrs. Kitazato (Mitsuyo Asaka) then starts getting threatening letters telling her she must go to the police and confirm that an innocent man is the killer or her daughter, Kanako (Noriko Watanabe), studying overseas, will be in danger. Mrs. Kitazato frets and worries but goes along with the killer’s demands to save her daughter only to be confronted with the dead body of the patsy as it lands right at her feet after being thrown from a police station window.

Suffering from a heart condition, Mrs. Kitazato remains unwell until Kanako comes home but then lasts only long enough to impart two important secrets – one being that the man Kanako assumed was her father may not have been, and secondly the whole story with the threatening letters and her belief that they were sent by someone in the family from whom she received a New Year card written in the same handwriting.

As usual Kanako is left to deal with all of this on her own, though slightly less usually remains within her own family home for the vast majority of the picture. Paid a visit by the police, Kanako comes into contact with their prime suspect in the first murder, Kamimura (Yosuke Tagawa) – a young man who had been a high school friend of the victim and had given her a place to stay while she was trying to escape her career as a hotel hooker. Kamimura becomes Kanako’s innocent love interest as she hides him in the secret room her mother had built behind a dresser in the dining room. Together the pair try to investigate the strange goings on in the Kitazato household whilst also exploring their very different backgrounds. 

Like many of Kadokawa’s idol movies (often adapted from the novels of Jiro Akagawa) the setting is both dark and hopefully innocent as Kanako is burdened with the knowledge that someone close to her is a murderer but faces her situation with cheerful resilience and determination. Whilst pursuing her spiky relationship with Kamimura, she’s also being haunted by the spectre of an arranged marriage to the dreadful son of a business associate, Masahiko (Akihiro Shimizu), who attempts to rape her with her mother’s body still still lying on the bed in the same room, and is also having an affair with their maid, Mari (Mariko Miike). Masahiko is also revealed as a prime suspect in the murders when another body is discovered in the living room with Masahiko standing red handed over it. The murder scenes (and there are more than you’d expect), are nasty, bloody and violent. Despite the innocence of Kanako’s wide open world, misogynistic killers lurk round every corner as do corrupt businessmen, untrustworthy servants, and enemies masquerading as friends.

As darks as it gets, the tone is always one of irony filled with bumbling policemen who form an odd double act in their humorous black and forth, running jokes about hard contact lenses and improbably large sandwiches, and the general whimsy of a young man’s dream of building a real flying bicycle. Despite being one of Kadokawa’s new “Sannin Musume” (alongside Hiroko Yakusushimaru and Tomoyo Harada), Noriko Watanabe played fewer leading roles than her two compatriots. Fine with Occasional Murders (released in the same year as Someday, Someone Will Be Killed), is her first big idol movie lead for which she also sings the theme song which has an almost identical title. She is, however, the archetypal Kadokawa heroine – steadfast, strong, confident, kind, and noble, calmly solving the mystery behind her own mother’s death mere days after losing her, figuring out that poor boys are probably OK, and that awful CEOs and their sons will always be awful. Valuable lessons indeed for increasingly wealthy 1980s teens. 


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And the song itself which has the same title as the movie only the last two characters are read differently – Hare, Tokidoki Kirumi

Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2011)

scabbard samuraiA samurai’s soul in his sword, so they say. What is a samurai once he’s been reduced to selling the symbol of his status? According to Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Sayazamurai) not much of anything at all, yet perhaps there’s another way of defining yourself in keeping with the established code even when robbed of your equipment. Hitoshi Matsumoto, one of Japan’s best known comedians, made a name for himself with the surreal comedies Big Man Japan and Symbol but takes a low-key turn in Scabbard Samurai, stepping back in time but also in comedic tastes as the hero tests his mettle as a showman in a high stakes game of life and death.

Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) is a samurai on the run. Wandering with an empty scabbard hanging at his side, he pushes on into the wilderness with his nine year old daughter Tae (Sea Kumada) grumpily traipsing behind him. Eventually, Nomi is attacked by a series of assassins but rather than heroically fighting back as any other jidaigeki hero might, he runs off into the bushes screaming hysterically. Nomi and Tae are then captured by a local lord but rather than the usual punishment for escapee retainers, Nomi is given an opportunity to earn his freedom if only he can make the lord’s sad little boy smile again before the time is up.

Nomi is not exactly a natural comedian. He’s as sullen and passive as the little lord he’s supposed to entertain yet he does try to come up with the kind of ideas which might amuse bored children. Given one opportunity to impress every day for a period of thirty days, Nomi starts off with the regular dad stuff like sticking oranges on his eyes or dancing around with a face drawn on his chest but the melancholy child remains impassive. By turns, Nomi’s ideas become more complex as the guards (Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) begin to take an interest and help him plan his next attempts. Before long Nomi is jumping naked through flaming barrels, being shot out of cannons, and performing as a human firework but all to no avail.

Meanwhile, Tae looks on with contempt as her useless father continues to embarrass them both on an increasingly large stage. Tae’s harsh words express her disappointment with in Nomi, berating him for running away, abandoning his sword and with it his samurai honour, and exposing him as a failure by the code in which she has been raised. She watches her father’s attempts at humour with exasperation, unsurprised that he’s failed once again. Later striking up a friendship with the guards Tae begins to get more involved, finally becoming an ally and ringmaster for her father’s newfound career as an artist.

Tae and the orphaned little boy share the same sorrow in having lost their mothers to illness and it’s her contribution that perhaps begins to reawaken his talent for joy. Nomi’s attempts at comedy largely fall flat but the nature of his battle turns out to be a different one than anyone expected. Tae eventually comes around to her father’s fecklessness thanks to his determination, realising that he’s been fighting on without a sword for all this time and if that’s not samurai spirit, what is? Nomi makes a decision to save his honour, sending a heartfelt letter to his little girl instructing her to live her life to the fullest, delivering a message he was unable to express in words but only in his deeds.

Matsumoto’s approach is less surreal here and his comedy more of a vaudeville than an absurd kind, cannons and mechanical horses notwithstanding. The story of a scabbard samurai is the story of an empty man whose soul followed his wife, leaving his vacant body to wander aimlessly looking for an exit. Intentionally flat comedy gives way to an oddly moving finale in which a man finds his redemption and his release in the most unexpected of ways but makes sure to pass that same liberation on to his daughter who has come to realise that her father embodies the true samurai spirit in his righteous perseverance. Laughter and tears, Scabbard Samurai states the case for the interdependence of joy and sorrow, yet even if it makes plain that kindness and understanding are worth more than superficial attempts at humour it also allows that comedy can be the bridge that spans a chasm of despair, even if accidentally.


Currently streaming on Mubi

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン, SABU, 2005)

hold-up-downReteaming with popular boy band V6, SABU returns with another madcap caper in the form of surreal farce Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン). Holding up is, as usual, not on SABU’s roadmap as he proceeds at a necessarily brisk pace, weaving these disparate plot strands into their inevitable climax. Perhaps a little shallower than the director’s other similarly themed offerings, Hold Up Down mixes everything from reverse Father Christmasing gone wrong, to gun obsessed policemen, train obsessed policewomen, clumsy defrocked priests carrying the cross of frozen Jesus, and a Shining-esque hotel filled with creepy ghosts. Quite a lot to be going on with but if SABU has proved anything it’s that he’s very adept at juggling.

Christmas Eve – two guys hold up a bank whilst cunningly disguised as Santas, but emerging with the money they find their getaway car getting away from them on the back of a tow truck. Still dressed as Father Christmases, the guys head for the subway and decide to stash the cash in a coin locker only neither of them has any change. After robbing a busker at gunpoint for 800 yen, the duo get rid of the loot but the guy chases after them at which point they lose the key which the busker swallows after being hit by a speeding police car. Trying to cover up the crime the two policeman bundle him into the car but crash a short time later at which time the busker gets thrown in a lake and then retrieved by a defrocked priest under the misapprehension that he is Japanese Jesus!

Following SABU’s usual spiralling chase formula, events quickly escalate as one random incident eventually leads to another. Christmas is a time of romance in Japan, though encountering the love of your life during a bank robbery is less than ideal. After a love at first sight moment heralded by a musical cue, the thieves head back on the run with the girl in tow but the course of true love never did run smooth. If romance is one motivator – death is another. On this holiest of days, our defrocked priest is caught in a moment of despair, contemplating the ultimate religious taboo in taking his own life and ending the torment he feels in having failed God so badly. Therefore, when our scruffy hippy busker washes up right nearby he draws the obvious conclusion – Jesus has returned to save him! Attempting to make up for his numerous mistakes, the priest is determined to save and preserve his Lord, but, again, his clumsiness results in more catastrophes.

The situation resolves itself as each of the players winds up at the same abandoned hot springs resort which turns out to be not quite so closed down as everyone thought. Filled with ghostly charm, the gloomy haunted house atmosphere sends everyone over the edge as they thrash out their various issues as if possessed by madness. Culminating in a sequence of extreme slapstick in which everyone fights with everyone else and frozen Jesus plays an unexpectedly active part, Hold Up Down brings all of its surreal goings on to a suitably absurd conclusion in which it seems perfectly reasonable that those wishing to leave limbo land could take a 2.5hr bus trip back to the afterlife.

Pure farce and lacking the heavier themes of other SABU outings, Hold Up Down, can’t help but feel something of a lightweight exercise but that’s not to belittle the extreme intricacy of the plotting or elegance of its resolution. An innovativeIy integrated early fantasy sequence begins the voyage into the surreal which is completed in the strangely spiritual haunted house set piece as the disillusioned priest spends some time with congenial demons before attempting to make his peace with God only for it all to go wrong again. If there is a god here, it’s the Lord of Misrule but thankfully they prove a benevolent one as somehow everything seems to shake itself out with each of our troubled protagonists discovering some kind of inner calm as a result of their strange adventure, as improbable as it seems (in one way or another). Christmas is a time for ghost stories, after all, but you’ll rarely find one as joyful as Hold Up Down.


Scene from the end of the film:

A Stitch of Life (繕い裁つ人, Yukiko Mishima, 2015)

stitch-of-lifeTradition vs modernity is not so much of theme in Japanese cinema as an ever present trope. The characters at the centre of Yukiko Mishima’s adaptation of Aoi Ikebe’s manga, A Stitch of Life (繕い裁つ人, Tsukuroi Tatsu Hito), might as well be frozen in amber, so determined are they to continuing living in the same old way despite whatever personal need for change they may be feeling. The arrival of an unexpected visitor from what might as well be the future begins to loosen some of the perfectly executed stitches which have kept the heroine’s heart constrained all this time but this is less a romance than a gentle blossoming as love of craftsmanship comes to the fore and an artist begins to realise that moving forward does not necessarily entail a betrayal of the past.

Ichie Minami (Miki Nakatani) has taken over the tailoring business started by her grandmother, using her grandmother’s vintage treadle sewing machine and mostly occupying her time by making alterations on her grandmother’s existing patterns. To make ends meet, she’s also been reproducing some of her grandmother’s designs for sale at a local shop which brings her to the attention of department store employee and fashion enthusiast Fujii (Takahiro Miura) who has the idea of getting Ichie to work on some new items for a branded fashion line. Ichie, however, is devoted to her grandmother’s legacy and has committed herself to continuing the work her grandmother started with no deviation from the current model. Undeterred, Fujii continues to visit Ichie while she works, reaching even deeper levels of understanding both of her craft and of her person. Something inside Ichie begins to move too, but the pull back to the past is a strong one and it takes more than just courage to decide to finally embrace all of your hopes and dreams.

When Fujii hands the portfolio pitch he’s designed to his boss at the department store she loves the clothes and exclaims that the person who made them must be nice too, to which Fujii sheepishly admits that Ichie is more like a stubborn old man. Rigid in her habits and a little standoffish, perhaps even austere, Ichie does indeed seem harsh and unforgiving. Yet the irony is that her work requires the opposite of her. The clothes Ichie makes, and those her grandmother made before her, are perfectly tailored to the person in question, not just in terms of their measurements but designed to bring out each person’s personality, to help them become more of themselves and live a little happier in beautifully made outfits. Thus, Ichie must look closely at each person she meets in order to understand them fully and arrange her craft in perfect symbiosis with their individual needs. Perhaps for this reason Ichie finds her solitary time listening to the rhythmical beat of the sewing machine particularly relaxing, but the shop remains somewhere the local people gather in search of something more than just a simple hem repair.

Ichie’s grandmother sought to create clothes that could be worn for a lifetime, remaining long after both she and the person they were made for have disappeared. This approach may seem odd from a modern perspective of wash and wear disposable clothing intended to be replaced in a matter of months, but the idea here was never about the fashionable but one of engineering personal happiness through attire. The clothes make the man, in a sense, but the man also makes the clothes. As she made her alterations, Ichie’s grandmother recorded the various goings on in her customers’ lives in her notebook, allowing the clothes themselves to become the story of someone’s life. As Ichie’s former teacher puts it when trying to explain the art of making tea, it takes more than just heart – it takes experience, and care, and dedication. Ichie’s grandmother was meticulous – a trait which her granddaughter has inherited, with every stitch perfectly placed, each hem perfectly straight, and garment perfectly tailored for its intended wearer.

Ichie may keep herself contained for good reason, but now and then something else comes through such as a love of truly giant cheesecakes or a sudden bout of worry on being asked to craft a funeral dress for a good friend, but Fujii’s gentle prodding does indeed lead her towards a period of self reflection on what exactly it is she wants to do with her grandmother’s legacy. A cynical person might regard the annual “soirees” Ichie’s grandmother began in the small town as an excuse to get people to buy an outfit they’ll only wear once a year but the event, like the clothes, becomes an occasion for the artifice which lays bare the truth. Eventually, her grandmother’s gentle spell works on Ichie too (with a little help from Fujii) as the love of the craft of tailoring helps her to become herself, cast off her grandmother’s shadow whilst honouring her legacy, and learn to take pleasure in doing the things which only she can do.


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)