Bad City (バッド・シティ, Kensuke Sonomura, 2022)

V-Cinema legend Hitoshi Ozawa returns in a tale of big city corruption helmed by Hydra’s Kensuke Sonomura. Scripted by Ozawa himself and apparently created in part as a celebration of his 60th birthday, Bad City (バッド・シティ) is a clear homage to the classic yakuza dramas of the early ’90s while boasting some of the best action choreography in recent Japanese cinema performed by the likes of Tak Sakaguchi along with Ozawa himself who performs all of his own stunts. 

According to dodgy CEO Gojo (Lily Franky) who has just inexplicably been acquitted of extortion and colluding with the yakuza, Kaiko City is riddled with crime and violence which is why he’s announcing his candidacy for mayor. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a mysterious assassin (Tak Sakaguchi) is cutting swathes through the Sakurada gang who dominate the city’s western district which Gojo has earmarked for a redevelopment project he claims will improve the lives of citizens but is in reality just an excuse to build a massive casino complex intended to enrich himself and his company. The previous mayor had won a landslide victory thanks to his opposition to the redevelopment plan which enjoys little support from the local population but Gojo isn’t exactly interested in winning hearts and minds in the community. 

Really just another gangster himself, Gojo’s machinations are also destabilising the existing underworld equilibrium in seducing treacherous minions from other gangs including vicious Korean gangster Kim Seung-gi whose loyalty to ageing gang boss Madam Kim is clearly waning. Then again, an enemy’s enemy is a friend allowing unexpected alliances to emerge between previously warring factions especially given that the sudden offing of a high status gang boss is frowned upon in the gangster play book. 

With police and judicial collusion the only possible explanation for Gojo’s miraculous escape from justice, an earnest prosecutor sets up a secret task force under the command of Public Security agent Koizumi (Mitsu Dan) and led by veteran officer Torada (Hitoshi Ozawa) who is currently in prison awaiting trial on suspicion of offing Mrs Kim’s only son, Tae-gyun. Torada is an unreconstructed violent cop operating under the philosophy that if you beat up a good guy that’s violence but if he’s bad then it’s justice. He has perhaps learned to see the world as morally grey, not believing himself to be necessarily on the side of right so much as resisting the forces of darkness by doing whatever it takes to survive in this city which is indeed already quite corrupt. Partnered up with two veterans and a junior female officer from violent crimes who were assigned to investigate the Sakurada boss’ murder, the gang do their best to trap Gojo legally by uncovering incontrovertible evidence of his dodgy dealings they can use to nail him in court, or failing that the court of public opinion, that cannot be swept aside by his friends in high places. 

Sonomura opens as he means to go on with a series of bloody assassinations culminating the massacre of the Sakurada gang in a bathhouse, while building towards the final mass confrontation in which Ozawa and his team face off against hordes of foot soldiers trying to fight their way towards a confrontation with Kim Seung-gi. Dynamically choreographed, the action sequences are surprisingly bloody and heavy on knife action but crucially also displaying a high level of characterisation and dramatic sensibility as the earnest cops square off against amoral gangsters willing even to sacrifice their own. 

Though there might be something uncomfortable in setting up the major villain as a rogue Korean gangster, the film paints his defection in part as a reaction to Mrs Kim’s initial loathing of the Japanese while in the end allowing a kind of cross-cultural solidarity to emerge as the Sakurada gang become accidental allies and Mrs Kim receives a lost letter from her son that allows her to change her way of thinking while helping to take down the destabilising force of Gojo, restoring a kind of order at least to the streets of Bad City Kaiko. Ozawa may be an equally dangerous extra-judicial force, but at least for the moment he’s standing in the light where everyone can see him taking out the trash and leaving those like Gojo no quarter in an admittedly violent place.


Bad City screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Eating Women (食べる女, Jiro Shono, 2018)

Eating Women poster 2“Comfort cinema” may be a slightly maligned genre, disregarded for its throwaway pleasures, but it can often be much more subversive than it’s given credit for. Jiro Shono’s adaptation of Tomomi Tsutsui’s novel Eating Women (食べる女, Taberu Onna), refusing to unambiguously reinforce contemporary social norms, it actively undercuts them as it pushes its lonely heroines towards more positive paths of self-fulfilment while remaining unafraid to embrace the sometimes taboo idea of female desire as something entirely normal.

The heroine, however, is someone who’s decided to live without it. Food writer and bookstore owner Atsuko (Kyoko Koizumi) lost the love of her life at 29 and has lived alone ever since. She does, however, have a very committed group of female friends who get together once a month to enjoy a tasty dinner she and her friend Mifuyu (Kyoka Suzuki), who runs the local restaurant, cook for them. Unlike Atsuko, Mifuyu is a sexually liberated older woman, complaining once again that both of her (young, male) apprentices have quit after she seduced them. Keiko (Erika Sawajiri), Atsuko’s editor, has hatched on a different solution in affirming that she has already achieved financial independence and has no real desire for male companionship, preferring to embrace her freedom to live as she chooses while Tamiko (Atsuko Maeda), an assistant TV producer and the youngest of the group, is facing the opposite dilemma – her boyfriend has proposed to her, but she’s unconvinced because he’s just too “nice” to make her heart beat faster.

Though at different points of their lives, the women are always there to support each other while permitting themselves the indulgence of fully enjoying beautifully cooked meals taken with good company. Meanwhile, across town, an American woman, Machi (Charlotte Kate Fox), seems to be content to play the role of a 50s housewife to a grumpy salaryman husband (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who barges in through the front door and roughly forces himself on her before retreating to the bedroom. The problem in their marriage is, apparently, that Machi can’t cook, providing mostly Western-style microwavable dinners which fail to excite her husband who tells her he’s been having an affair with someone who can make good food. Heartbroken, Machi runs into Mifuyu and eventually ends up living in one of Atsuko’s spare rooms where she slots right in with the other gourmet women as she begins to learn to cook under Mifuyu’s gentle guidance.

It is not, however, a pathway towards regaining her husband or “fixing” a perceived fault so that she can be a “proper” wife, but a way for Machi to rediscover life’s small pleasures along with a sense of independence, rejoicing in her own success as she enjoys a meal she cooked herself made with ingredients that she earned the money to pay for. Tamiko’s barfly friend Akari (Alice Hirose) begins to discover something similar on her own, repeatedly dumped by snooty salarymen boyfriends who objected to her preference for minced meat over whole steak. Akari had a habit of thinking of herself in terms of the meat – quick, cheap, and simple, but finally finds love with a gentlemanly colleague after she gains the confidence to share with him her real self by embracing her love of mince without embarrassment.

The only “misstep” is perhaps in Keiko’s tale in which her bid for solo independence is eventually negated by her loneliness, implying that in the end she did need male companionship after all. Indeed, only Atsuko who rejects sex in favour of vicarious maternity is allowed to live life alone, though conversely Mifuyu’s free spirited pursuit of younger men is never judged negatively nor is she encouraged to settle down even while she ironically advises Tamiko to do just that, and pointedly tells Keiko that she’s running out time to find anyone halfway decent. Yet all of that aside, the ladies are an accepting bunch, emphasising that love is love and refusing to judge others, making sure to offer support to all who need it. We’re never the same people as yesterday, Atsuko writes in her book, we just need to be ourselves. Above all, however, she seems to say you have to be kind to yourself, embracing life’s small pleasures such as the simple joy of well cooked food made with love, and the rest you can figure out later.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)