Midnight Bus (ミッドナイト・バス, Masao Takeshita, 2018)

midnight bus posterYou know how it is, you coast along empty inside for what seems like a millennia until you finally decide to change your life and life says no, not like that. The hero of Masao Takeshita’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize nominated novel by Yuki Ibuki Midnight Bus (ミッドナイト・バス) must be well acquainted with phenomenon as his attempts to move a new relationship to the next level are scuppered by the unexpected arrival of not only boomerang children, but an estranged ex-wife and in-laws to boot. Caught between two places, two families, and a number of possible futures it might be time to head off road but the courage to leave the familiar route behind is a hard thing to find when you’ve been used to the security of travelling in tunnels.

Riichi Takamiya (Taizo Harada) drives the overnight bus from Niigata to Tokyo. In the capital, he has a tentative relationship with a younger woman, Shiho (Manami Konishi), who runs a small cafe/bar but his attempts to introduce her to his home life back in the country run aground when grown-up son, Reiiji (Ko Nanase), picks exactly the wrong moment to come home after having abruptly given up his lucrative IT job and moved out of his Tokyo flat. Meanwhile, Riichi’s daughter, Ayana (Wakana Aoi), has embarked on a wacky cosplay career and is thinking about marrying her longterm boyfriend. At this extremely sensitive time, Riichi spots a familiar face on the bus one day – his estranged former wife, Miyuki (Mirai Yamamoto), who has returned to Niigata to visit her ailing father and take care of “family” business.

All three Takamiyas are in a sense adrift, never having properly dealt with the abrupt exit of Miyuki who left when both the children were small. As a young scrappy couple in post-bubble Tokyo, Riichi and Miyuki had been happy but when Riichi decided to move the family back to Niigata for a “less stressful” existence everything began to go wrong, largely because of Riichi’s unforgiving mother who made her daughter-in-law’s life a misery. Now Reiji is facing a similar dilemma in finding city life too demanding, but unlike his father he can afford the time to take a break and figure things out seeing as he is single and unburdened by the need to support a family. Ayana, meanwhile, is about to find herself in a similar position to her mother as she discovers when she plans to introduce her intended to her father only to have him bring his snooty parents along unannounced and change the venue to an upscale restaurant more in keeping with their tastes. Poking into family details, looking down on Riichi’s job, and finally making a pointed comment about Reiji’s stress-related skin condition and a “concern” regarding her son’s children being “contaminated”, it’s obvious Ayana and her boyfriend’s mother will never get on.

Riichi is a kind and patient man, though sometimes a little insensitive in his far seeing plan to ensure everybody’s happiness. He bears no ill will towards Miyuki and hopes that she will be able to rebuild a relationship with her children, engineering a plan to bring them together while he helps her cope with the events that have brought her back to Niigata. Meanwhile, he also tries to keep things going with Shiho who has been hurt before and understands the reasons for Riichi’s hot and cold attitudes but is increasingly frustrated by the abrupt changes in his feelings and intensions. Riichi will have to make a choice between past and future, but if he chooses to put his family back together again it must be short lived as he prepares to push his children back out into the world with a little more direction and confidence after having addressed their deep seated familial traumas.

The bus journey becomes a point of transition in more ways than one – between city and country but also between two personas and two ways of being. In Niigata Riichi is “dad”, the family lynchpin, while Tokyo affords him the opportunity to be a “man” in relative freedom, free to pursue a second chance at romance with all his baggage safely stored at home. Like his children he will need to find a way to integrate his past self with his future one if he wants to forge a way forward, but in order to do that he’ll have to accept the risks a putative future entails and make peace with his old life in order to start all over again. A sometimes poignant family drama, Midnight Bus is a restrained affair but one filled with empathy and a generosity of spirit as its various protagonists learn to free themselves from familial legacy in order to pursue their individual destinies with kind eyes and clear hearts. 


Midnight Bus screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 11th July at 6pm.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Kichitaro Negishi, 2009)

Villon's Wife2009 marked the centenary year of Osamu Dazai, a hugely important figure in the history of Japanese literature who is known for his melancholic stories of depressed, suicidal and drunken young men in contemporary post-war Japan. Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Villon no Tsuma: Oto to Tampopo) is a semi-autobiographical look at a wife’s devotion to her husband who causes her nothing but suffering thanks to his intense insecurity and seeming desire for death coupled with an inability to successfully commit suicide.

Beginning in the immediate post-war period of 1946, Sachiko (Takako Matsu) is a fairly ordinary housewife with a young son who generally waits around the house for her husband’s return. Only, she’s married to one of the most brilliant writers of the age, Joji Otani (Tadanobu Asano), whose book on the French poet François Villon is currently a best seller. Despite his obvious literary talents, Otani is a drunkard who spends most of his time (and money) in bars and with other women. When he crashes home one night only to be pursued by two bar owners who reveal that he ran off with their takings (around 5000 yen), Sachiko is not exactly surprised but still embarrassed and eventually takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to offer herself as a “hostage” by working at the bar until the debt is repaid.

“Men and women are equal now, even dogs and horses” says one customer, impressed with this sudden arrival of a beautiful woman in a low life drinking spot. To her own surprise, Sachiko actually enjoys working at the bar, it gives her purpose and proves more interesting than being stuck at home waiting to see what her drunken fool of a husband has got up to next. She’s good at it too – Sachiko is a beautiful and a fundamentally decent and kind person, in short the sort of woman that everyone falls a little bit in love with. That said, she isn’t a saint. She’s perfectly aware of the power she is able to wield over men and is unafraid to make use of it, though only when absolutely necessary.

Otani himself is a fairly pathetic figure. He may be a great artist but he’s a hollow human being. He admits the reason for all of his vices is fear – he’s a afraid to live but he’s also afraid to die. He seems to love his wife, though he’s insecure about losing her and dreads the embarrassment involved in becoming a cuckold. So afraid to face the possibility of failure, Otani satisfies himself in an underground world of drunks and easy women rather than facing his own self loathing as reflected in the faces of his unconditionally loving family.

Perhaps because Villon’s Wife is a commemorative project, the film has been given the prestige picture treatment meaning the darker sides of Dazai’s original novella have been largely excised. The chaos of the post-war city with its starving population, soldiers on the streets and generalised anxiety is all but hidden and some of the more serious travails Sachiko undergoes in devotion to her husband as well as Otani’s tuberculosis (from which Dazai also suffered in real life) have also largely been removed. What remains is the central picture of a self destructive husband and the goodly wife who’s trying to save him from himself but risks her own soul in the process.

The one spot of unseemliness of post-war life that the film lets through is in a brief scene which features a group of pan pan girls hanging around ready to try and snag some passing GIs. Sachiko buys some lipstick from them to use in attempt to convince an ex who is also a top lawyer to try and help her husband after his latest escapade lands him in jail on a possible murder charge. After visiting him, Sachiko wanders out slightly dazed to see the pan pans atop a military jeep cheerfully waving and shouting “goodbye” in English. Sachiko is confused at first but eventually shouts “goodbye” back in a way which is both excited and a little bit sad, perhaps realising she is not so different from them after all. Finally she wipes the lipstick from her face and leaves the small silver tube behind where the pan pans were sitting, hoping to bury this particular incident far in the past.

In actuality the pan pan girls are depicted in a fairly matter of fact way rather than in the negative light in which they are usually shown, just another phenomenon of occupation. At the end of the film Otani calls himself a monster whilst acknowledging that he’s a terrible father who would steal the cherries from his own son’s mouth. Sachiko replies that it’s OK to be a monster – as long as we’re alive, it’ll be alright. Oddly for someone so suicidal, this fits in quite well with Dazai’s tenet of embracing the simple gift of a dandelion. The film ends on an ambiguous note in which there seems to have been some kind of restoration but it’s far from a happy one as the couple remain locked in a perpetual battle between light and darkness albeit with the balance a little more equalised than it perhaps was before.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Villon’s Wife includes English subtitles.

Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1999)

keihoArticle 39 of Japan’s Penal Code states that a person cannot be held responsible for a crime if they are found to be “insane” though a person who commits a crime during a period of “diminished responsibility” can be held accountable and will receive a reduced sentence. Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1999 courtroom drama/psychological thriller Keiho (39 刑法第三十九条, 39 Keiho Dai Sanjukyu Jo) puts this very aspect of the law on trial. During this period (and still in 2016) Japan does nominally have the death penalty (though rarely practiced) and it is only right in a fair and humane society that those people whom the state deems as incapable of understanding the law should receive its protection and, if necessary, assistance. However, the law itself is also open to abuse and as it’s largely left to the discretion of the psychologists and lawyers, the judgement of sane or insane might be a matter of interpretation.

The case at the centre of the film centres around a young actor, Masaki Shibata, who has confessed to the murder of a pregnant woman and her husband after he argued with the woman at her place of work. Shibata acts strangely and makes a point of asking for the death penalty before spouting off about angels and demons and later displays evidence of a split personality. Everyone seems convinced he’s suffering from MPD and committed the murders during a dissociative episode but the assistant psychologist is convinced he’s faking. At the same time, one of the lead policemen on the case also thinks there’s more to this. On investigating further, he discovers the strange irony that the murdered man himself escaped prosecution by reason of insanity after committing a horrifying crime that lead to the death of a six year old girl.

The film may be about a murder but what’s really on trial here is the law itself. The murdered man, Hatada, committed a heinous crime but was a child himself at the time so received only a brief sentence served in a hospital. He was released, went to university, got a good job and got married – a normal life. The family of the little girl he killed, by contrast, will never be able to return to normality and will continue to live in torment for the rest of their lives knowing the man who so brutally took their child from them is still out there living just like one of us. The film does not go into why Hatada committed the original crime or the reasons he was later declared fit to return to society, but the film wants to question the idea of releasing back into the world someone who has done something as horrifying as the rape, murder and dismemberment of a child.

The case at hand is a complicated one which has so many layers coupled with twists and turns that it becomes unavoidably confusing. Playing with several literary allusions from the frequent quotations from the “mad prince” Hamlet to naming the assistant psychologist “Kafuka”, Keiho also wants to delve deep into human psychology with its questions of identity and self realisation. Both the accused and the psychologist have deeply buried memories of trauma the suppression of which has cast a shadow through the rest of their lives. Both of them are, in a sense (even if not quite in the way it originally appears), haunted by a shadow of themselves.

When it comes to the procedural aspects, the final “twist” is a step too far and perhaps undermines the groundwork which has gone before it. Something which is presented as an elaborate revenge plot against both the state and the original instigator of a crime also appears to originate with a clumsy motion of self preservation. The state’s failure to properly deal with the criminal in the first case has resulted the death of another innocent bystander, all of which might have been avoided if Article 39 had not come into play.

Kafka-esque is, in fact, a good way to describe the circularity of the narrative as the notion of an insanity plea becomes a recurrent plot device. Backstories are constructed and discarded, identities are shed and adopted at will and the past becomes a thorn in the side of the future that has to be removed so everyone can comfortably move on. Morita relies heavily on dissolves to create a floating, dreamlike atmosphere as memories (imaginary or otherwise) segue in and out like tides but he also shows us images reflected in other surfaces such as the Strangers on a Train inspired sequence which literally shows us events through someone else’s eyes as we’re watching them reflected doubly on the lenses of a pair of sunglasses.

Difficult, complicated and ultimately flawed Keiho proves an elusive and intriguing piece that is put together with some truly beautiful cinematography and interesting editing choices. Fascinating and frustrating in equal points Keiho is another characteristically probing effort from the wry pen of Morita which continues to echo in the mind long after the credits have rolled.


Keiho is available with English subtitles via HK R3 DVD as part of Panorama’s 100 Years of Japanese Cinema Collection.