My Friend “A” (友罪, Takahisa Zeze, 2018)

My Friend A posterThe Japanese justice system is founded on the idea of confession and atonement, that if you admit your crime and show remorse you will be forgiven. The truth, however, is much more complex and those whose lives have been tainted by transgression are often rejected by a still unforgiving society. Director Takahisa Zeze describes his adaptation of Gaku Yakumaru’s novel My Friend “A” (友罪, Yuzai) as a picture of the world he longs to see at the end of the Heisei era, one which is less judgemental and more compassionate where the bonds between people can perhaps overcome the traumatic past.

In the present day, two very different men – failed journalist Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and the sullen and mysterious Suzuki (Eita), are inducted as probationary workers at a small factory. Suzuki’s determination to keep himself to himself does not endear him to the other workers who become convinced that he is hiding something from them. Suzuki is indeed hiding something, though his reasons for avoiding human contact are various and complex. When a young child is found murdered nearby in a method which echoes a notorious killing from 17 years previously, Masuda is contacted by an old colleague (Mizuki Yamamoto) investigating the case and begins to wonder if the secret Suzuki seems to be burdened by might have something to do with one crime or both.

In actuality, Masuda does not seem to believe that Suzuki is involved with the recent killing even if he comes to the conclusion that he is almost certainly the teenager convicted of the earlier crime. Nevertheless, he develops an awkward “friendship” with him which is partly exploitative as he ponders writing an exposé on the injustice that allows someone who committed such heinous acts, even in childhood, to start again with a new identity. “Injustice” becomes a persistent theme as seen in the melancholy tale of taxi driver Yamauchi (Koichi Sato) who is carrying the heavy burden of being the father of a son (Hoshi Ishida) who killed three children as a joy riding delinquent. Hounded by one parent, and accidentally harassing the others through his relentless attempts to apologise for his son’s transgression, Yamauchi has ruined his family through his own need for personal atonement. Having divorced his wife and lost touch with his son, he is enraged to learn that he plans to marry and will soon be a father. Even if his wife-to-be knows of his past and accepts it, Yamauchi believes his son has lost the right to live as other people live and finds it extraordinarily offensive that a man who took the lives of children would have a child of his own.

Yamauchi seems to want to put his family back together but only succeeds in tearing it apart. Corrupted families loom large from the mysterious photograph of the smiling boy surrounded by the scratched out faces of his parents and sibling found among Suzuki’s belongings, to the reform school boy taunted with the accusation that he might not have turned to drugs if only his parents had loved him more. Suzuki fixates on his reform school teacher Shiraishi (Yasuko Tomita), but she in turn has neglected her own daughter in her fierce desire to save the souls of these violent young men many of whom have become the way they are because they believe that they are worthless and no one cares about them. Meanwhile, Miyoko (Kaho) – a young woman drawn to Suzuki’s silent solidarity, struggles to escape her own traumatic past partly because she was shamed in front of her family who then were also shamed by her inescapable transgression.

Unlike Suzuki, Miyoko has committed no crime but is haunted just the same. As is Masuda though his guilt is real enough if of a more spiritual kind as he struggles to accept his role in the death of a friend who committed suicide when they were just children. Then again, Masuda’s struggle, like Yamauchi’s, is perhaps a solipsistic one in which what he is really mourning is not his friend but the vision of his idealised self. On visiting his late friend’s mother, Masuda bristles when she talks about his journalistic career and her hope that he is still “strong and just” like the teenage boy she believes stood alongside her lonely son when the truth is that he abandoned his friend when he needed him most because he was too cowardly to risk becoming a target himself. Despite his high ideals, Masuda had been working at a scandal rag and his only real piece of ethical journalism was a confessional about the destructive effects of high school bullying. He remains conflicted in his friendship with Suzuki not quite because he fears his dark past but because he fears his own moral cowardice – something he is reminded of when a housemate points out that no-one likes Suzuki and that if Masuda sides with him, no one will like him either. 

The question that is asked is whether discovering someone’s dark secret necessarily changes who they are now and if it is ever really possible for those who have in some way transgressed to return to society. As Suzuki puts it to Masuda in reflecting on their unavoidable commonality, they’re each men who rarely unpack their suitcases, always on the run from an unforgiving present. Yet there is perhaps hope despite Masuda’s ongoing diffidence in his eventual (self) confession and belated solidarity with a man he later recognises as a “friend” in acknowledgement of the unconditional bonds of genuine friendship.


My Friend “A” was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Last Winter, We Parted (去年の冬、きみと別れ, Tomoyuki Takimoto, 2018)

Last Winter we Parted posterAmong the most promising young writers of Japan, the work of Fuminori Nakamura is, it has to be said, extremely dark. Adapted by Grasshopper’s Tomoyuki Takimoto, Last Winter We, We Parted (去年の冬、きみと別れ, Kyonen no Fuyu, Kimi to Wakare) is as poetic an exploration of the dark side of desire as its title implies. Parting is, it turns out, not so much sweet sorrow as a wrenching act of existential dissonance that requires an absenting of the self and the creation of a new dark entity rising from the ashes of a once pure soul.

The tale begins in flames as a blind model, Akiko (Kaho Tsuchimura), burns to death in the studio of a respected photographer, Kiharazaka (Takumi Saito). Kiharazaka claims the fire was an accident and that he tried to save the victim but was not able to. Others claim that Kiharazaka had kidnapped Akiko and held her prisoner before deliberately setting fire to her in order to photograph a body burning alive. Released on a suspended sentence, Kiharazaka remains the focus of media attention which is where freelance writer Yakumo (Takanori Iwata) enters the picture. He is convinced Akiko’s death was not an accident and fascinated by an eerily oppressive photograph taken by Kiharazaka has approached a mainstream news organisation with a pitch for a book profiling the famously enigmatic figure with the ulterior motive of exposing the darkness of his soul.

The exposure of the authentic is the concern that binds Yakumo and Kiharazaka in a mutually destructive act of artistic inquiry. Kiharazaka’s most famous and only real success of a photograph features a whirl of butterflies that feels oddly like drowning as if pulled towards something dark and oppressive. Like the butterflies he observed, Kiharazaka instils fear while beguiling, a good looking man who seems to make a habit of luring vulnerable women into his web of destruction with a promise of intimate recognition, that he alone is able to truly see them and bring their true selves to the surface in act of artistic connection. Inspired by Akutagawa’s Hell Screen, he photographs only what he sees but craves darkness and violence, eventually, as Yakumo fears, allowing his need for fiery visions of hellish brutality to push him into heinous acts of human cruelty.

Meanwhile, Yakumo searches for an explanation behind Kiharazaka’s unsettling nature, trying to expose his own true face through (ostensibly) less violent means. He discovers that Kiharazaka and his sister Akari (Reina Asami) were orphaned after a violent attack in their home during which they were also injured. He hears that they may have endured years of abuse and cruelty at the hands of their father and that both are in some way warped, locked into an incestuous world of pain and suffering. A high school friend warns him that Kiharazaka has a magpie-like tendency to steal the things of others and that Akiko probably had a boyfriend which is what made her sparkle to Kiharazaka’s monstrous eyes. Still, Yakumo dangles his own fiancée, Yuriko (Mizuki Yamamoto), in front of the dangerous man as if daring him to take her while Kiharazaka declares himself captivated by her failure to know her “true self” which only he can expose.

Of course, not all is as it seems and there are several layers of “truth” in play as Yakumo continues his investigation and becomes further entangled in the spiderweb of Kiharazaka’s warped existence. Later, hearing from Akiko, she reminds us that there are other ways of “seeing” and that in the end she was not the one who was “blind” to the reality. Akiko’s boyfriend lost her precisely because he feared doing so, became over protective and patronising, and ruined their true connection through an over anxious preoccupation with unseen threat. Love can constrain as well as liberate, it makes people do dark things in its name and provokes chaos and confusion in place of happiness and harmony. Like the butterflies it can beguile while instilling fear.

Yet that same darkness also fuels art as in Kiharazaka’s distressing photographs and Yakumo’s all encompassing need to fulfil his “dream” of becoming an author. Vengeance takes many forms but all of them are destructive and in order to achieve it, one must enact a murder of the self leaving nothing behind other than a burnt out husk once the bloody business is done. A wretched tale of inescapable torments, the legacy of violence, frustrated loves, and the dark side of desire, Last Winter, We Parted is a suitably poetic exploration of the nihilistic despair in the hearts of its corrupted heroes living for love but only through a spiritual death.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Night’s Tightrope (少女, Yukiko Mishima, 2016)

night's tightrope japanese posterKanae Minato is known for her hard-hitting crime stories from Confessions to Chorus of Angels, The Snow White Murder Case, and Penance but in adapting her second novel, Shojo (少女), Yukiko Mishima has moved away from the mystery for a no less penetrating look at the death of childhood in the story of two best friends each dealing with traumatic pasts and presents. Childhood is a place of tightly controlled powerlessness, but adulthood offers little more than corruption and selfishness with its predatory teachers, abusive parents, and dirty old men so obsessed with school uniforms they barely see the girl inside them. Adolescent anxiety provokes a fascination with the idea of death which perhaps reflects this transitionary stage, but at its centre is the fracturing of a friendship which has endured all else.

The film opens with a strange avant-garde play being performed in a church by a group of girls in austere school uniforms. The monologue offered by the collective reads like an instruction booklet for the birth of fascism with its calls for genetically engineered test tube babies and universal childcare in which each child is “equal” and receives “exactly the same” education and resources. The girls are students at a strict Christian fundamentalist school where they’re also expected to participate in strange rituals including dancing round the maypole (incongruous as that may seem).

Atsuko (Mizuki Yamamoto) – a former kendo champion with a limp, and Yuki (Tsubasa Honda) who has a large scar across her hand resulting from domestic abuse, have been lifelong friends but have recently begun to drift apart. Given the overriding survival of the fittest atmosphere in the school, it’s not surprising that the other girls have turned on Atsuko and proceeded to make her life a misery by telling her to die either in person, on line, or in one particularly grim episode by shoving a sanitary towel into her locker with the message written on it in blood. Yuki is trying to help her but doesn’t know how and has taken to writing everything down in a book instead.

The world of teenage girls can often be a vicious one but there’s a strange kind of mania in the way Atsuko’s schoolmates set about pushing her towards the edge. Formerly a top kendo player, Atsuko has vivid, panic attack inducing flashbacks to her life changing accident in which she recalls her teammates prentending to comfort her but secretly hurling accusations under their breaths while Yuki looks on in horror from the stands.

Yuki has been writing their story in the form of a novel she calls Night’s Tightrope but the completed manuscript goes missing. The girls’ teacher who has longstanding dreams of literary stardom steals it, sends it to a magazine, and even wins a prestigious literary prize for brand new novelists. Yuki’s revenge is swift but has terrible, unforeseen consequences which add to her obsession with death and dying, eventually culminating in the worrying desire to see someone die in order to fully understand the nature of the “phenomenon”.

While Yuki develops a friendship with a boy she met in a library while she was destroying copies of the teacher’s stolen story, Atsuko goes in a different direction by falling under the spell of troubled transfer student Shiori (Ryo Sato). Recently witnessing a dead body herself, Shiori is just as death obsessed as the other girls but her vision is darker. Shiori introduces Atsuko to her world of blackmail and exploitation, pulling her into a high school girl scam in which they accuse a nearby salaryman of groping them and then blackmail him. Shiori may think she’s taking revenge on venal older men who lust after school uniforms – there are plenty of these on offer from skeevy old men luring school girls to abandoned houses and then trying to get them to do laundry, to teachers visiting love hotels with their students – but actions have consequences and ramifications can be severe.

The girls are caught in a kind of limbo, walking a tightrope into adulthood but doing it blind and alone. Splitting up they take similar paths with Atsuko volunteering at an old people’s home, and Yuki spending time with terminally ill children but soon enough their death obsession changes form as their twin causes eventually overlap. Stepping away from Minato’s sometimes nihilistic pessimism, Night’s Tightrope leaves a space for hope in the reconciliation of the protagonists who rediscover their shared pasts once the message buried in the novel is finally delivered. The adult world may be mired in the dark of night but the girls have recaptured the sunlight, taking solace in the depth of their friendship and stepping off the tightrope and into the world of adulthood hand in hand.


Original trailer (English subtitles)