Only the Cat Knows (初恋 お父さん、チビがいなくなりました, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2019)

Only the cat knows poaterThe disappearance of a beloved cat has sparked many a crisis in Japanese cinema. In Shotaro Kobayashi’s* Only the Cat Knows (初恋 お父さん、チビがいなくなりました, Hatsukoi: Otosan, Chibi ga Inaku Narimashita), the disappearance is as metaphorical as it is literal in that this particular cat has come to symbolise the faded love of a couple married for fifty years whose relationship has begun to disintegrate if in a very ordinary way.

Chibi had been a constant companion to Yukiko (Chieko Baisho) who often feels neglected by her salaryman husband of 50 years, Masaru (Tatsuya Fuji). Now that he’s (semi-)retired, she hoped they might be able reconnect, perhaps even travel, but he is just as disinterested in domestic life as ever and mostly spends his days popping back into the office or playing shogi in a nearby club. An awkward, conservative man, Masaru aggressively ignores his wife, even irritatedly blanking her when she spots him out and about, while she dutifully waits for him at home to take his socks off for him in the hall and pick up the jacket he so casually throws to the floor for her to deal with. Chibi’s disappearance is then another blow to her already lonely world and Masaru’s extremely unsympathetic reaction to her fears eventually provokes her into wondering if she should leave him.

Masaru, it has to be said, is not an easy man and it’s easy to imagine that much of Yukiko’s married life may have been difficult or even unhappy. This is perhaps why though youngest daughter Naoko (Mikako Ichikawa) is originally panicked by her mother’s mention of divorce, all three of the couple’s grown-up children are eventually on her side and claim they can completely understand why she might feel that way. As if trying to fill a very real void in her life, Yukiko has taken to watching romantic Korean dramas dubbed into Japanese while reminiscing on her own romantic past which led her to marry Masaru all those years ago.

Nevertheless, despite her own dissatisfaction, she remains perturbed by Naoko’s disinclination to marry even at the comparatively late age of 37. Avowing that she doesn’t think a woman needs a career, Yukiko tries to push her daughter towards the socially conservative choices of home and family. Yukiko may worry that Naoko will end up all alone in her old age, but then as Naoko points out, Yukiko did everything “right” and feels alone anyway. Tellingly, Naoko was once engaged to man who jilted her right before the wedding because he was insecure about her career success which had exceeded his own and apparently needed to be master in his own home. Unfortunately, the world has not quite moved on enough and it seems many men still only want women who will take their socks off for them at the end of a busy day.

Naoko doesn’t want to get married just for the sake of it which, ironically, seems to be the same way Yukiko felt when she was young though as it turned out her courtship with Masaru was an awkward mix of arranged and not. Having fallen for him at her job on the milk counter at the station, she was slightly stunned to spot his picture in an omiai book and agreed to the meeting only for Masaru to tersely tell her he’d decided to take the first offer and didn’t even open the envelope to peek inside. In true Masaru fashion, this may turn out to be a lie of awkwardness but it’s left a note of anxiety running right through their decades long marriage which only is now bubbling the surface. Yukiko worries she “stole” Masaru from her friend on the counter who liked him first and whom she spots him secretly meeting all these years later. A lack of emotional honesty has created a widening gulf between husband and wife with Yukiko left wondering if her husband ever really loved her at all.

The search for the missing cat becomes a quest to rediscover the smouldering love of a longterm couple that a lack of communication has all but smothered. Yukiko tries everything she can to find Chibi, even hiring a pet detective, while Masaru irritatedly tells her to give up – that Chibi has most likely gone off to die and wanted to spare Yukiko the pain of watching him suffer. Masaru may be somewhat casting himself as the wandering cat, the strong and silent type who thinks he’s protecting his wife by making her miserable, but deep down he too wants to save their love even if it means he will finally have to find the wherewithal to talk about his feelings without embarrassment. A charming late life love story, Only the Cat Knows is careful not to sugarcoat the the destructive social codes of a bygone era but allows its pair of former lovers to rediscover what it was they once had while allowing them to move forward into a happier future.


Only the Cat Knows was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

*Director Shotaro Kobayashi’s name is also romanised as Syoutarou Kobayasi

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Takashi Miike, 2015)

Yakuza-Apocalypse-Quad-HalfSize-NEWBelated review from the 2015 London Film Festival – Yakuza Apocalypse is released in UK cinemas for one day only on 6th January 2016 courtesy of Manga who will also be releasing on home video at a later date.


Takashi Miike shuffles back towards the yakuza plains in the western inspired horror comedy Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Gokudo Daisenso) trailing ever more zany humour behind him. Yakuza gungslingers, bloodsucking, high school girls running away from things and, finally, a guy with a magic belly button wearing a frog suit who just happens to be “The World’s Toughest Terrorist”.

We open in media res as vampire yakuza boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) cuts up a storm in settling some local disputes. There’s a handy voice over from our soon to be protagonist, Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), lamenting the old yakuza world of tough guys and honour codes but things don’t really take off until a very geeky looking guy and a Van Helsing type in 17th century attire suddenly turn up hoping to re-recruit the boss to “The Syndicate”. When he refuses, they fight and the geek twists Kamiura’s head right off. Using his last ounce of strength and in a touch right out of Hausu, Kamiura clamps onto Kageyama’s neck turning him into a vampire. However, in his just turned state, the honourable Kageyama turns a few more vampires of his own – and not only vampires, the bite also transmits yakuzaism too. This increase in bloodsucking gangsters is a bit of a problem for the regular guys as it does mean their pool of victims is being steadily depleted…

Not making much sense is not generally much of a problem in a Miike film. In fact, it’s a pretty much a given at this stage of the prolific director’s career. However, in the case of Yakuza Apocalypse it’s even more pointless than usual to pay any attention at all to any kind of narrative. Looking over Kageyama’s shoulder, we move from set to piece to set piece as, first of all, the non-vampire yakuza guys struggle for power between themselves and then with the vampire variety before the giant frog turns up to ruin everything.

There are some rules, Miike takes a while explaining to us how this yakuza business works with Kamiura as the “good” kind of yakuza committed to protecting his townspeople above all else – essentially, he’s the sherriff around these parts. He’s a vampire, yes, but he only feeds on yakuza who he’s “reforming” by means of an underground knitting circle held prisoner in his basement. Apparently yakuza blood tastes bad and isn’t very good for you but eating civilians is dishonourable and anyway, limited in supply, because when you turn someone they also become a foul mouthed yakuza fighting machine.

The world building is shaky at best, none of this really hangs together making for a fairly disappointing series of one note jokes. There is an attempt at a bit of more sophisticated satire with the regular gangsters suddenly lamenting that there will be no one left for them to prey on if everyone turns yakuza vampire but otherwise it’s crazy piled on crazy. Not a bad thing in itself but somewhat lacking in substance.

Despite that, the film offers some quality performances notably from its lead, Kageyama, played by Hayato Ichihara, as the yakuza who’s so sensitive his delicate skin won’t allow him to get a proper yakuza tattoo. That is, until he becomes a brooding, conflicted vampire mourning the loss of his boss and of those long held tough guy ideals. Lily Franky also offers a high impact though short lived appearance as the honourable vampire boss with a hinted at backstory, though the much publicised cameo of The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian feels a little wasted as he’s just generally hanging around for a handful of fight scenes. That said, the action scenes themselves are extremely impressive, both exciting and often funny too.

Yakuza Apocalypse is not one of Miike’s most well thought out efforts. Its collection of crazy ideas feels thrown together and there’s disappointingly little depth to its world building. Even its media res conclusion looks more like running out of ideas than a deliberate decision. However, that’s not to say it isn’t heaps of fun, which it often is. A crazy frog riding a bicycle who somehow wakes up the giant king of the crazy frog people after some kind of emergency plaster is ripped off his belly button – really, what could be more fun than that? That really is all there is though and those who prefer their absurdist action thrills with a little more substance had best look elsewhere.


Yakuza Apocalypse is in released in UK cinemas for one night only on 6th January 2016. Luckily the film is playing across the UK even if it’s only the one night and you can see if it’s on anywhere near you by checking out this handy link! If it’s not, don’t despair! It’ll also be available in all the normal ways from Manga later in the year.

Reviewed at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival.

 

Assassination Classroom (映画 暗殺教室, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

photo_4First Published on UK Anime Network in November 2015.


You might make the mistake of thinking that the E in class 3E just means it’s the 5th 3rd year class, or that it stands for “elite” and contains some of the top students in the school. You’d be wrong, “E” stands for “end” because these are the no hoper kids that everyone’s already written off as having no future. However, it’s precisely these kids that a mysterious extraterrestrial being insists on becoming the teacher of in return for not destroying the Earth (just yet). Nicknamed UT (unkillable teacher), the giant yellow octopus-like creature has already destroyed 30% of the moon just for kicks and has now set the challenge that if the boys and girls of class 3E fail to assassinate him before graduation he’ll destroy the Earth too.

The ironic thing is, UT is the best teacher they’ve ever had, but to pass the course (and save the world) they have to kill him. The high schoolers are also under the tutelage of a self defence forces officer for their military training and a sexy assassin who randomly ends up becoming their English teacher (and giving them one of the least appropriate English lessons ever recorded on film). Every morning they bow and then pull out their various kinds of firearms as UT takes the register whilst flitting about dodging bullets. Despite wanting to destroy the Earth, UT is 100% committed to training his students both in the arts of assassination and in the more regular subjects. Because of his super speed and ability to be in several places at once he has time for everybody and is quick to work out each of his charge’s specific weaknesses and help them work on those to become better people as well as ace students.

Still, the students are supposed to kill their teacher and there’s a little bit of sadness creeping in as they inevitably grow closer to UT and his quirky antics. Up ’til now everyone has given up on them and now they’re supposed to kill the one person who’s actually trying to help. Of course, even while this surreal situation is going on these are just regular high school kids undergoing regular high school stuff like wanting to sneak into the girls’ changing rooms or having a crush on someone who hasn’t even noticed you. Despite the impending end of the world, the kids of Class 3E are just enjoying their time trying to work out ever more complex ways of trying assassinate their seemingly invincible teacher.

UT himself is strangely adorable with his giant yellow smiley face style head and bizarre little laugh. He also changes color according to his mood and has a tendency to go off on tangents with one notable example which turns into a long form ‘80s style melodrama about abandoned single mothers before being politely shut down by the bored students. Assassination Classroom is undoubtedly bizarre, surreal and full of absurd humour but all the better for it. It’s just very silly but has an undeniably clever and very witty script that proves near impossible to resist.

To put it mildly, Assassination Classroom is just heaps of zany, crazy fun. It also manages to be genuinely heartfelt as we come to care for this rag-tag bunch of no hopers but also for UT himself as we start to hope the kids will somehow fail and succeed at the same time so we can save both the world and UT. The film drops us a few hints about UT’s backstory but stops short of offering a full explanation for the crazy goings on. Thankfully a sequel, Assassination Classroom: Graduation Day is already in production and even if it doesn’t offer any answers, Assassination Classroom is already one of the most enjoyably absurd offerings to come out of Japan this year.


Assassination Classroom receives its UK premiere at the Leeds International Film Festival on 15th November 2015.

Look out for a review of Tag which is also playing at the festival as it Happy Hour, and Our Little Sister.