Wild Berries (蛇イチゴ, Miwa Nishikawa, 2003)

wild berries posterThe family drama was once the representative genre of Japanese cinema. In the turbulent post-war world, the one unchanging, unbreakable touchstone was the bonds between parents and their children even if it must also be realised that those bonds will necessarily change over time. Tiny cracks might have been visible even in Ozu’s Tokyo Story in the growing disconnection between the old folks in the country and their city kids, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s when Japan’s economic recovery had fully taken hold that the family itself began to come under fire. Yoshimitu Morita’s The Family Game kickstarted a trend of family implosion movies which implied that familial bonds were more social affectation than genuine connection, but post-bubble the tables turned again. These days, Hirokazu Koreeda has picked up the family drama mantle, depicting broadly positive pictures of normal family life. It is then all the stranger that his protege, Miwa Nishikawa, should be the one to ask again if family really is all it’s cracked up to be.

An ordinary breakfast in the Akechi household. Grandpa (Matsunosuke Shofukutei ) is dipping his toast in the coffee again while salaryman dad Yoshiro (Sei Hiraizumi) reads his paper. Schoolteacher Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki) barely has time to look at her breakfast before her mother, Akiko (Naoko Otani), reminds her that today is “Wednesday” – not only does she need her PE kit, but it’s also the day that her fiancé, Kamata (Toru Tezuka), is coming round to tea to meet the folks. The atmosphere is pleasant, genial, but why has Yoshiro had his mobile phone cut off and is the bald spot Akiko has just discovered on the top of her head really anything to worry about?

The Akechis are the archetype of a modern middle-class family, living a comfortable life in a nice home while dad goes out to work and mum does everything else. It is not, however, quite as it seems. Yoshiro’s phone has been cut off because he hasn’t paid the bill. He hasn’t paid the bill because he’s lost his job. He hasn’t told his wife he’s lost his job because he’s too ashamed, so he’s taken out vast loans from gangsters rather than trying to find a more honest solution. Mum Akiko plays the dutiful housewife, cooking, cleaning, putting up with Yoshiro’s imperious behaviour and looking after grandpa who has advanced dementia and thinks he’s still at war. In reality she’s bored and resentful, tired of the burden of looking after her husband’s ungrateful father and longing to have some time for herself. The only uncorrupted member of the family is schoolteacher Tomoko who finds herself giving a strange lesson on the evils of lying to her class of small children. Tomoko is perhaps too uncorrupted, prim as a schoolmarm but dull with it.

When grandpa meets an unfortunate end, the longstanding family secret is revealed – Tomoko is not an only child, she had an older brother, Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who had been expelled from the family for his immoral ways – i.e, lying, cheating, and stealing. In fact, Shuji’s return was an accident – his main job is stealing the condolence money from funerals and he just happened to be at the one next door. Shuji’s conman credentials might be just what the family needs, but could they and should they let him save them and is “saving” the family that rejected him really a part of Shuji’s grand plan?

Japan’s rapid economic recovery is usually blamed for the collapse of the family, sending sons away from the villages and prizing the commercial over the spiritual. Tomoko’s fiance, Kamata, has a slightly different take on the problem. After his first meal with the Akechis he’s touched by the warm and friendly family atmosphere, comparing them favourably with his own upperclass family which he feels to be cold and austere. The class difference and Kamata’s obvious discomfort surrounding it is one problem as is his problematic characterisation of Tomoko’s family as earnest and hardworking as, perhaps, he thinks people without inherited wealth ought to be is another, but the real irony is reserved for Kamata’s eventual reaction to discovering the truth. Yoshiro didn’t take to Kamata because he thought him “unconventional” with his unkempt hair and pretentious tastes, but Kamata proves himself the most conventional of all in his cruel rejection of his fiancée over what he sees as a betrayal by her family.

Wild berries, once they take root, quickly take over, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Secrets, and the need to keep them, have eaten away at the foundations of the Akechi family but which is the best way to repair them – starting all over again and working hard to put things right, as Tomoko would have it, or opting for Shuji’s dishonest quick fix? The youngsters battle it out amongst themselves for the soul of the family unit while mum and dad are just too world weary to even care anymore. Faith in the family may be running at an all time low, but Nishikawa at least manages to mine the situation for all of its bleak irony, laughing along knowingly with each dark revelation or small tragedy.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Getting Any? (みんな~やってるか!, Takeshi Kitano, 1995)

getting any? posterDespite his reputation for violent gangster dramas and melancholy arthouse pieces, Takeshi Kitano is one of Japan’s most successful comedians and began his career as half of an irreverent and anarchic “manzai” comedy double act. 1995’s Getting Any? (みんな~やってるか!Minna – yatteruka!) is his first big screen comedy and loosely takes the form of a series of variety-style skits in which a lonely, hapless middle-aged man tries on various different personas in the pursuit of his goal but remains an isolated bystander in the surreal events which eventually engulf him. Part bawdy, sleazy sex comedy and satire on the death of materialism in the post-bubble world, Getting Any? is a cineliterate journey through Showa era pop culture peppered with gratuitous nudity and absurd running jokes.

After watching a very 1980s “aspirational” movie in which a good looking, wealthy young salaryman type gives a young lady a lift in his flashy convertible in which they later end up having sex, Asao (Dankan), watching at home in his pants with his grandpa sitting behind him, decides the reason he hasn’t got any luck with women is that he doesn’t have a car. So, he goes and gets one from a very strange salesman but as he doesn’t have much money the car he gets is, well, it’s unlikely to get stolen, and he still isn’t getting anywhere. He tries a convertible too but that’s no good. Then he starts fantasising about air hostesses, decides to become an actor, gets mistaken for a top yakuza hitman, and comes into contact with a pair of mad scientists who want to turn him invisible.

Asao has only one goal – to have sex with a lady (preferably in a car), but he never stops to think of his potential partners as anything more than a receptacle for his desires. Consequently, he refuses to look at himself or consider the ways he might be getting in the way of his own needs, but constantly chases a quick fix thinking that the reason women don’t want him is because of something material that he lacks. He thinks the path to sexual success lies in cars, money, status, and finally technology, but none of these things really matter while Asao remains Asao.

As part of his journey, passive as it is, Asao does not always remain Asao, or at least the Asao he was for very long. Having failed to be the sort of man who can woo with car, he tries acting – literally playing a part, at which he seems quite good except for going “overboard”. An incident on an aeroplane sees him mistaken for a top yakuza which he is less good at but every mistake only ever works out in his favour. Thanks to his involvement with the mad scientists whom he allows to experiment on him so that he can go peeping in the women’s baths, Asao will finally become another kind of creature entirely, literally reduced to feeding off the excrement his nation has recently produced.

Kitano works in just about every element of almost “retro” pop-culture he can think of from the amusing soundtrack of Showa era hits and references to famous unsolved crimes to a hitman named “Joe Shishido” (star of Branded to Kill), the Zatoichi series, a Lone Wolf and Cub ventriloquist dummy duo, the Invisible Man, Ghostbusters, The Fly, and finally Toho’s tokusatsu classics culminating a lengthy skit inspired by Mothra including the iconic Mothra song given new lyrics and the same old dance performed by two full-sized ladies. Though most viewers will be able to spot the joke even without quite understanding it, some knowledge of Japanese pop-culture from the ‘70s and ‘80s will undoubtedly help.

The central joke revolves around Asao’s fecklessness as he repeatedly fails at each of his schemes, only occasionally succeeding and then by accident, and not for very long. A charmless literalist who lacks the imagination to achieve his goals in a more natural way, Asao fails to learn anything at all, engulfed by one surreal situation after another. It does however give Kitano the excuse to indulge Asao’s flights of fancy as his sexual frustration sends him off into a series of bizarre reveries involving topless women desperate to make love to the suave male stand-in Asao has imagined. Filled with silly slapstick humour and frequent nudity, Kitano’s subtle satire may get lost but even if the joke begins to wear thin just as “flyman” finally lands on his object of desire, there is plenty of amusement on offer for fans of lowbrow humour.


Getting Any? is released on blu-ray by Third Window Films on 16th October, 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1978)

the killing gameFollowing the success of The Most Dangerous Game, the second in what was to become a trilogy arrived within the year and once again stars Matsuda as the ice cold hitman Narumi. Sunnier in outlook, The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Satsujin Jiken) unfolds along the same pattern as the first instalment as Narumi is dragged out of the shadows to intercede in a gang war only to find himself surplus to requirements.

Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) has been retired from the killing game for the last five years and now lives a life of poverty and dissipation. Gone are his swanky apartment and stylish suits, now he lives in a bare hovel which is covered in dust and cobwebs, and he dresses like a farm boy in a white vest and jeans with a straw hat hanging on his back. He’s trying to lie low, but gets pulled into the kind of hostess bar he can’t really afford where he meets the first of two familiar faces which threaten to send him back into the middle of chaos. Akiko (Kaori Takeda), now a hostess at Bar Tako, is the daughter of the chairman Narumi bumped off in his last job before retiring but far from bearing a grudge against him, Akiko is grateful to have been set free. The second familiar face belongs to the same chairman’s former secretary/mistress, Misako (Yutaka Nakajima), who is now a mama-san at a bar popular with the local goons. All those years ago Narumi let Misako go in a moment of weakness and now regrets it but attempting to “reconnect” is going to land him right back in the thick of things.

Murakawa begins with a prologue which takes place in the noirish urban darkness of The Most Dangerous Game, but shoots in dreamy soft focus to emphasise that this is all memory before jumping forward five years. Exactly why Narumi has decided to give up a career in assassination is not revealed, nor is what he’s been doing the last five years, but he has apparently got himself an annoying sidekick who, in contrast to Narumi’s intense reserve, does not shut up. The first half of the movie is Narumi and his buddy trying to get by as outlaws including one humorous skit where they get themselves a van with a nudie pinup on the front plus a loudspeaker to humiliate debtors into paying up.

Things take a darker turn when Narumi runs into Misako – a chance meeting that seems almost like fate. Gradually the old Narumi begins to reappear. Deciding to pay Misako a visit he runs into her new man, gang boss Katsuda (Kei Sato), who figures out who he is and wants him to bump off another old gang boss. Narumi needs to get back in shape which he does via the tried and tested method of a training montage, lifting weights and running through the town with his trademark perm returning to its stylish buoyancy. This time around Narumi has buddy to help out, even if he only ends up being a liability, but the same strange dichotomy occurs – he may be an ace hitman, but Narumi is a mess without a gun in his hand.

Perhaps weathered by his experiences, Narumi is also much less cocky and much more unwilling to take a chance on trust. Once again he is betrayed by clients who’d rather not pay up and forced to play a “dangerous game” to bring the whole saga to a close in such a way as to keep both his life and the money. Rather than the surprising and largely inexplicable devotion of Dangerous’ Kyoko, Narumi finds himself torn between two women – the youthful Akiko who is grateful to Narumi for releasing her from an overbearing father, and the jaded Misako whose feelings for Narumi are complex, mingling fear, gratitude, attraction, and resentment into an irresistible storm of ambivalence. Again Narumi’s cool, animalistic aggression seems to be the key to his mysterious sex appeal but this time around there are no flickers of response as there were for the devoted Kyoko, these “relationships” are opportunistic and transactional.

Ironically titled, The Killing Game makes plain that Narumi will never be able to escape his chosen profession even if he wanted to. Without a gun in his hand Narumi is a pathetic wastrel, playing around at tuppenny schemes with his rather dim but talkative friend, and trying to play the big shot by buying out a hostess bar he is entirely unable to afford despite his recent windfall. The setting may be brighter, but Narumi’s word is still a nihilistic one in which he’s conditioned to expect betrayal and the only remaining vestiges of his humanity are his strange friendship with his bumbling sidekick and his ongoing fecklessness at coping with everyday life. Matsuda is as cool as ever in his effortless ability to cope with any given situation and kill with ruthless efficiency, but as Narumi edges ever closer to machine it is clear there is only one way to beat The Killing Game.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

At Noon (正午なり, Koichi Goto, 1978)

at noonKoichi Goto’s Art Theatre Guild adaptation of Kenji Maruyama’s 1968 novel At Noon (正午なり, Mahiru Nari) begins with a young man on a train. Forlornly looking out of the window, he remains aboard until reaching his rural hometown where he makes a late entry to his parents’ house and is greeted a little less than warmly by his mother. The boy, Tadao, refuses to say why he’s left the big city so abruptly to return to the beautiful, if dull, rural backwater where he grew up.

There’s little work here for a young man, which is why Tadao left in the first place. After using some family connections to try and find a job, he finally decides to make use of his abilities by fixing radios and TV sets for a local electronics store. To begin with he doesn’t want to see his old friend, Tetsuji, perhaps out of a sense of shame at having returned home but the pair later strike up their old friendship – that is, until Tetsuji suddenly announces his plans to run away with a local bar hostess.

It’s never quite revealed what happened to Tadao in Tokyo but it seems to have been something serious enough to change the course of his entire life and send him reeling back home depressed and angry. In many ways he’s a typical young man, if slightly sullen, but he’s developed a serious number of sexual hangups which have turned him into some kind of repressed, misogynistic, pervert. He appears to have made a deliberate decision to dislike the idea of women, or at least the idea of women with sexual appeal. He thinks women are trouble, that no good comes of love, but can’t stop himself from spying on the female tourists staying in an upper room. He’s always looking, staring invasively, but resolved not to touch.

Tadao has already been to the city and evidently found it not quite to his liking but his friend, Tetsuji, feels bored in the village and trapped by his parents who need his help in their orchards. When Tadao realises Tetsuji is taking the hostess with him when he skips town, he asks for the money he just agreed to lend him back and tells him to forget about running away and just to go home. Unfortunately for Tetsuji, Tadao’s advice proves sound as his city dreams don’t work out the way he planned either. To end his frequent attempts to escape, Tetsuji’s family float the idea of an arranged marriage which originally horrifies both boys but after meeting his prospective bride, Tetsuji changes his mind. Tadao doesn’t approve, but after meeting the girl in question and seeing that she is quite lovely changes his mind too and is happy for his friend – that is, until he realises Tetsuji has only introduced him to her as a pretext of getting her on her own to enact his marital rights a little ahead of schedule. This breach of morality proves the final straw for Tadao who does not like the idea of his wayward friend deceiving and then ruining this innocent young flower who’s far too good for him anyway.

Tadao’s fascination with another damaged bar girl, Akemi, continues as the two find themselves both looking at the sad figure of a tethered eagle imprisoned at the local zoo. Akemi says she likes to look at the bird as she feels perhaps somehow that helps him escape. She feels like a caged bird too – trapped in a bad relationship with a useless boyfriend who has a vague plan of turning manure into an energy source while she supports them both by working at a hostess bar and hating every second of it. Tadao feels trapped in a hundred different ways, by his town, by his parents, by whatever happened in Tokyo, and by his own pent-up frustrations. By this point, he’s a one man powder keg ready to explode and after blowing his final safety caps, tragedy is the only possible outcome.

At Noon begins with its epilogue, but uncomfortably frames its protagonist’s despicable final actions with an odd kind of heroism as his head eclipses the sun leaving him with a radiant halo. He may have satisfied himself in some way, put to rest some of that inner turmoil, but what he’s done is something truly dreadful and driven by an intensely animalistic instinct. At Noon may have something to say about the dangers of frustrated young men with no work to go to, no ambition to follow, and no luck with the ladies but displays an oddly ambivalent attitude to its deranged protagonist that makes for often uncomfortable viewing.


By the way, After Noon has music by Ray Davis of The Kinks!

Unsubbed Trailer:

Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Akira Ogata, 2009)

noribenIt used to be that movies about marital discord typically ended in a tearful reconciliation and the promise of greater love and understanding between two people who’ve taken a vow to spend their lives together. These endings reinforce the importance of the traditional family which is, after all, what a lot of Japanese cinema is based on. However, times have changed and now there’s more room for different narratives – stories of women who’ve had enough with their useless, deadbeat man children and decide to make a go of things on their own.

So it is for the heroine of Noriben: The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Nonchan Noriben). Inspired by Kiwa Irie’s popular manga, Noriben follows the adventures of Komaki – a woman in her early 30s who gets her daughter dressed for school one morning but secretly takes her to the train station instead where they board a train headed for Komaki’s hometown. Having left her husband who has literary aspirations and consequently no job (the couple were living off, and with, his parents), Komaki has no firm plans other than moving back in with mother. Used to living off scraps and leftovers, she knows how to make her food go further and is also an excellent cook so the unusual layered bento boxes she makes for her little girl, Noriko, prove a big hit with the kids, and later the staff, at the local school.

Hooking back up with a former crush and now local photographer, Komaki ends up tasting the best meal of her life at a tiny eatery and suddenly hatches on the idea of opening a mini bento shop of her own. Of course, it’s a steep learning curve especially for a woman in her thirties with almost no work experience and no real knowledge of how to set up and run a business which is completely leaving aside the need to hone her cookery skills. If there’s one thing you can say about Komaki, it’s that once she’s set her mind on something she will make it happen and so her new life in her old town is just beginning.

Noriben addresses a lot of themes which are becoming fairly common at the moment including the “boomerang daughter” who suddenly arrives home following the breakdown of a marriage. Komaki’s soon to be ex-husband is not an enticing proposition and it seems that most, if not all, of what she says about him is true. He’s a layabout whose dreams of becoming an author are very unlikely to come true and, as his parents seem content to go on supporting him, his promises of getting a real job are most likely hollow too. There’s no real idea of the couple reconciling and when the husband suddenly turns up and starts behaving in an irresponsible way the situation ends in a bizarre marital street fight which does at least seem to clarify for the pair that their marriage really is well and truly over.

Komaki begins a tentative romance with her high school crush Takeo who took over his family’s photography studio though with the advent of digital technology and home printing the shop’s days are numbered. However, Komaki’s uncertain marriage status and Takeo’s diffidence both prove stumbling blocks to the path of romantic bliss and the film seems to imply that Komaki’s own headstrong character is also a problem when it comes to building relationships. Here, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Perhaps wanting to emphasise Komaki’s strides towards becoming a truly independent woman, it has her side step romantic entanglements but it also seems to declare the need for choice where there isn’t one.

In essence Noriben is a perfectly pleasant, if slightly bland, film that meanders its ways towards a bittersweet ending. Presumably intended to be a celebration of female empowerment as this ordinary woman makes a break from an unrewarding relationship to prove that she can do better on her own, the film only partly fulfils this message as it also comes with an air of sadness and sacrifice where Komaki also has to give up on various other parts of life in order to pursue her dream. That said, Noriben does offer a degree of playful comedy and down home style wisdom that make it a fairly enjoyable, if forgettable, experience.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.