The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Nobuo Mizuta, 2013)

The Apology King.jpgThere are few things in life which cannot at least be improved by a full and frank apology. Sometimes that apology will need to go beyond a simple, if heart felt, “I’m Sorry” to truly make amends but as long as there’s a genuine desire to make things right, it can be done. Some people do, however, need help in navigating this complex series of culturally defined rituals which is where the enterprising hero of Nobuo Mizuta’s The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Shazai no Ousama), Ryoro Kurojima (Sadao Abe), comes in. As head of the Tokyo Apology Centre, Kurojima is on hand to save the needy who find themselves requiring extrication from all kinds of sticky situations such as accidentally getting sold into prostitution by the yakuza or causing small diplomatic incidents with a tiny yet very angry foreign country.

Kurojima promises to know an even more powerful form of apology than the classic Japanese “dogeza” (falling to your knees and placing your head on the ground with hands either side, or OTL in internet lingo), but if you do everything he tells you to, you shouldn’t need it. His first case brings him into contact with Noriko (Mao Inoue) whose awful driving has brought her into contact with the yakuza. Not really paying attention, Noriko has signed an arcane contract in which she’s pledged herself to pay off the extreme debts they’ve placed on her by entering their “employment” at a facility in Osaka. Luckily, she’s turned to Kurojima to help her sort out this mess, which he does by an elaborate process of sucking up to the top brass guys until they forget all about Noriko and the money she owes them in damages. Impressed, Noriko ends up becoming Kurojima’s assistant in all of his subsequent cases, helping people like her settle their disputes amicably rather allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

Mizuta begins with a neat meta segment in which Kurojima appears in a cinema ad outlining various situations in which you might need to apologise including allowing your phone to go off during the movie, or attempting to illegally film inside the auditorium etc ending with a catchy jingle and dance routine pointing towards the contact details for his apology school. Kurojima’s instructions are also offered throughout the film in a series of video essays in which he outlines the basic procedures for de-escalating a conflict and eventually getting the outcome you’re looking for.

Of course, all of this might sound a little manipulative, which it is to a degree, but the important thing to Kurojima lies in mutual understanding more than “winning” or “losing” the argument. The second case which comes to him concerns a young man who has some very outdated ideas and has, therefore, been accused of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, Numata (Masaki Okada) is a classic sexist who only makes the situation worse for himself and completely fails to understand why he was at fault in the first place. Even following Kurojima’s expertly crafted instructions, Numata further insults his female boss whilst attempting to apologise meaning Kurojima has to come up with an even more elaborate plan to smooth the situation which involves pretending to be the ghost of a man who threw himself under a train after being accused of harassing a young woman at work who did not return his affections. This seems to do the trick and the relationship between Numata and his boss appears to have improved even if Numata still has a long way to go in the person stakes, though it does perhaps make light of a serious workplace problem.

Numata follows all of Kurojima’s instructions but still gets everything wrong because he refuses to understand all of the various social rules he’s broken and therefore why and how the apology process is intended to make amends for them. Understanding and sincerity are the keys to Kurojima’s ideology but Numata, after a quick fix, fails to appreciate either of these central tenets and so is unable to work things out for himself. Similarly, in another case the parents of an actor are required to make a public apology when their son is captured on CCTV getting into a street fight. Only, being actors, they find genuine sincerity hard to pull off on the public stage either resorting to chewing the scenery or overdoing the dignified act, not to mention plugging their latest appearances at the end of the speech. The public apology is an important part of the Japanese entertainment industry though it might seem odd that the famous parents of a “disgraced” celebrity would be expected to apologise to the nation as a whole, but as it turns out all that was needed to settle the matter was a quick chat between the people involved, fully explaining the situation and reaching a degree of mutual understanding.

The innovative structure of Apology King neatly weaves each of the cases together as they occur in slightly overlapping timeframes but each contribute to the final set piece in which Kurojima becomes an advisor during a diplomatic incident caused when a film director unwittingly offends the small nation of Mutan by accidentally turning their crown prince into an extra in his film. Mutan is a nation with many arcane rules including a prohibition on filming royalty as well as on drinking and eating skewered meat, all of which the crown prince is seen doing in the movie. Matters only get worse when the film crew travel to Mutan to apologise but make even more faux pas, especially when it turns out that Japanese dogeza is actually incredibly rude in Mutanese culture. Revisiting elements from each of the previous cases, Kurojima is only able to engineer a peaceful solution by convincing the Japanese authorities to utter a set phrase in Mutanese which means something quite different and very embarrassing in their own language. Apologies are, of course, always a little humiliating, but then that is a part of the process in itself – placing oneself on a lower level to those who’ve been wronged, as symbolised in the dogeza.

Full of zany, madcap humour and culminating in a gloriously unexpected pop video complete with dancing idols of both genders exhorting the benefits of a perfectly constructed (and sincere) apology, The Apology King is a warm and innocent tribute to the importance of mutual understanding and its power to ease even the deepest of wounds and most difficult of situations. Hilarious but also heartfelt, The Apology King is a timely reminder that unresolved conflicts only snowball when left to their own devices, the only path to forgiveness lies in recognising your own faults and learning to see things from another perspective. Kurojima’s powers could be misused by the unscrupulous, but the most important ingredient is sincerity – empty words win no respect.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2015)

Her GranddaughterRyuichi Hiroki has one of the most varied back catalogues of any Japanese director currently working. After getting his start in pink films and then moving into V-Cinema, Hiroki came to prominence with 2003’s Vibrator – an erotically charged exploration of modern alienation, but recent years have also proved him adept at gentle character drama. Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Otoko no Isshou), though coming with its own degree of strangeness, is another venture into the world of peaceful, if complicated, adult romance.

Tsugumi, a still youngish woman with a good job in IT in Tokyo returns to her rural hometown to look after her ailing grandmother. When her grandmother unfortunately passes on, Tsugumi inherits her house and begins to consider not going back to her old life but staying and taking over her grandmother’s hand dyed fabric business.

Feeling a little alone after the funeral, she’s shocked to encounter a slightly abrasive older man who apparently has a key to the annex given to him by the grandmother. Confused, Tsugumi can’t exactly throw him out (much as she’d like to), but gradually the two start to form a tentative relationship.

Her Granddaughter is indeed based on a best selling manga by Keiko Nishi, which might go some distance to explaining some of its more unusual plot elements. Though in essence it’s a fairly innocent tale of May to September love between a lonely, unfulfilled young woman looking for a simpler way of life, and a sensitive if difficult older man with a complicated past, there’s more to it than that. Specifically, the grandma problem. The question whether or not to pursue a man who may have previously dated your grandmother, is not one that many young women will be faced with.

Tsugumi herself is obviously grief stricken after her grandmother’s death and has also left a messy situation behind her in Tokyo. The lack of desire to return may be partly to do with this same unresolved question, though the idea of a slower, more traditional way of life obviously appeals to her. Even when the possibly ex-boyfriend of her grandmother, Kaieda, abruptly moves in, she reverts to classic gender roles by doing his washing and cooking for him, expecting him to perform the more “manly” tasks like chopping wood and making sure the fire is in for the bath. According to her friend visiting from Tokyo, this is something Tsugumi tends to do which marks her as a little out of step with her more progressive city friends.

Kaieda is an outwardly abrasive, chain smoking philosophy professor who appears to be nursing a life long broken heart. He aims for a classically cool persona with his affected ennui yet, despite his gruffness, he is a pretty good judge of character able to nudge people in the direction they should be heading but might be about to miss such as when a gauche local politician with a longstanding crush on Tsugumi might be about to accidentally rebuff the attentions of a shy but pretty girl from the municipal office who is clearly interested in him.

A later scene sees Kaieda and Tsugumi becoming a temporary family with a little boy mysteriously dropped on their doorstep. Kaieda often harshly indicates to the boy that his mother has abandoned him and won’t be coming back. Lonely childhoods of rejected children become something of a running theme as the resultant certainly of abandonment leaves each of our now adult protagonists looking for a premature exit from any potentially serious relationship. For all his aloof exterior, Kaieda is sensitive soul, though one easily read after discovering the key to all his insecurities.

One of Hiroki’s softer efforts, Her Granddaughter is nevertheless a warm and gentle character driven romantic tale. Full of beautiful country landscapes and refreshing summer breezes, the circularity of all things comes to the fore as Tsugumi in some senses becomes her grandmother and sees herself in the sad little boy as he climbs on a stool to wind a clock just as she had done in her own childhood. An interesting, resolutely old fashioned tale of modern romance which, though shrouded in several taboos neatly side steps them and encourages us to do the same, Her Granddaughter is a gentle gem from Hiroki which proves rich both in terms of theme and of emotion.


English subtitled trailer:

Vengeance Can Wait (乱暴と待機, Masanori Tominaga, 2010)

MFBDm_Tallcase_sell_CS3Vengeance is a dish best served cold, but then if you’re going to wait a while perhaps you should make sure to add plenty of salt and spice to the mix to disguise its rather rancid odour. Adapted from a play by Yukiko Motoya, Masanori Tominaga’s Vengeance Can Wait (乱暴と待機, Ranbou to Taiki) is the strange tale of four interconnected people who each become ensnared in a bizarre circle of violent revenge!

Asuka (Eiko Koike) and Banjo (Takayuki Yamada) are currently expecting a baby and have moved back to Azusa’s hometown where she is working in a bar and he is currently seeking employment (somewhat half heartedly). Whilst Azusa heads off to work, Banjo goes to introduce himself to the neighbours and surprises Nanase (Minami) during a lengthy sutra reading session. Nanase is a very strange woman indeed – dressed in a grey tracksuit, glasses, and generally looking odd, she immediately jumps to the conclusion that she’s annoyed Banjo with her weirdness and tries to give him money to make up for it, such is her intense fear of being disliked. Things get even weirder when Azusa realises Nanase is an old high school classmate towards whom she’s still nursing an ancient grudge. This also means that Azusa knows the man Nanase is living with and addresses as “big brother” is not her actual brother at all…..

Nanase becomes the plot’s essential “object” in a sense with Azusa acting as its subject and the two men more or less relegated to the status of adverbs. Azusa’s personality changes dramatically in the presence of Nanase – seemingly perfectly pleasant and ordinary in other circumstances, her tone takes on an extremely harsh quality, almost yanki-ish in its coarseness. However, Nanase’s need to be liked, or at least not disliked, has her immediately acquiesce to whatever it is she thinks other people want of her. She’s completely incapable of saying what she might actually think or doing what she would like to do but only thinks about how others are viewing her which is both extraordinarily masochistic and actually a little bit selfish.

The relationship between Nanase and her “big brother” Mr. Yamane (Tadanobu Asano) is the perfect culmination of this strange dynamic. Nanase philosophises at one point about the certainty of hate and the mysterious quality of love – that it’s impossible to say exactly why you love someone but you can usually point to a concrete reason for hating them. She and Yamane are bound by a common event in their pasts and, she reasons, perhaps this is enough of a reason for fate to keep them together. Yamane keeps her around because he’s plotting an elaborate revenge plot for a grudge he holds against her but at five years and counting he still hasn’t figured it out yet. During this time, he’s also started pretending to go out “marathon running” but has really been crawling into the attic space to spy on Nanase while she gets on with normal household tasks throughout the day.

Things come to a head when the feckless Banjo develops an attraction for Nanase despite her deliberately slovenly appearance which she affects for the express purpose of avoiding male interest. Using her inability to say no against her, he convinces her to start an affair with him whilst also blackmailing her that if she doesn’t he’ll mistreat his wife, Azusa, whom Nananse is still keen on making up with despite the long held high school era hurt which continues to come between them.

It’s a fairly light and absurd if darkly comic set up which is more about the pointlessness of grudges, violence, and lying about yourself to please others, than it is about a grander mediation on the fruitlessness of revenge – the desire for which, strangely, does end up building an otherwise elusive connection between two people who seem to have been unable to form one in any other way. Tominaga opts for a fairly simple and straightforward approach but does a great job of avoiding the often overly theatrical feeling of many stage to screen adaptations. However, it has to be said that perhaps some of the more unusual elements play better in the enclosed, less “realistic” theatre environment than they do on screen.

That is to say, Vengeance Can Wait has the feeling of slightly throwaway fringe theatre which is partly based on the frisson of mocking supposedly bourgeois values with a series of comically absurd episodes. This approach feels much more fun over a claustrophobic 90 minutes trapped in a tiny performance space which ends up covered in the physical manifestation of a deteriorating situation, but fares a little less well when you open it up into a larger filmic world. However, the film’s odd comments on accidentally sado-masochistic relationships and its absurd black comedy provide enough quirky diversion to build an appropriately amusing atmosphere.


Interestingly enough, Vengeance Can Wait is one of the few Japanese plays which has been translated and performed in English (it’s also unusual because it seems to be a direct translation whereas most English adaptations of foreign plays are “rewritten” by an established playwright from a literal translation) – performance rights with Samuel French. There’s also a review of the run of the play in New York in 2008 from Village Voice.

unsubtitled trailer: