To Sleep So as to Dream (夢みるように眠りたい, Kaizo Hayashi, 1986)

“I feel so well, as though I am dreaming” a ghostly old woman exclaims, having dealt with her unfinished business or perhaps merely becoming one with the silver screen. Released in 1986 but set ostensibly sometime in the 1950s and recalling the golden age of the silent movie, Kaizo Hayashi’s postmodern odyssey To Sleep So as to Dream (夢みるように眠りたい, Yumemiru Yoni Nemuritai) sends a pair of detectives on the hunt for a missing reel, voyaging through an ethereal dreamscape of mysterious magicians, kidnap and conspiracy, in search of the solution to the “Eternal Mystery”. 

Opening in total darkness, Hayashi pans across to a gas lamp and then to the figure of a woman watching a silent film projected on a screen in her living room. We see only her gloved hands, one wearing an ostentatious ring, somewhere between Miss Havisham and Norma Desmond, while the movie seems to be part of an early serial revolving around the Black Mask ninja who is trying to rescue the kidnapped Bellflower (Moe Kamura) only the princess always seems to be in another castle, as detectives Uotsuka (Shiro Sano) and his sidekick Kobayashi (Koji Otake) will discover. In any case, the film bursts into flames and dissolves at the moment of climax just as Black Mask confronts the kidnappers and declares the mystery “solved”. The old lady, Madame Cherry-blossom (Fujiko Fukamizu), then telephones the Uotsuka Detective Agency and requests their help with a kidnapping, sending her manservant Matsunosuke (Yoshio Yoshida) to the office with a tape recording of the kidnappers’ message which includes the clues to a scavenger hunt the pair must solve if they are to arrive at the drop off point with the money in order to retrieve Bellflower. 

Filming in black and white and in academy ratio, Hayashi maintains a silent film aesthetic adding selected sound effects but rendering all dialogue other than recordings as intertitles. We hear the phone ring and the radio playing, but “live” human speech is presented only as text save for that of the Benshi who appears at the film’s conclusion though even he may also be “on tape”. Meanwhile, he adds in random gags at the guys’ expense such as the “hardboiled” detective’s obsession with hard boiled eggs, while his sidekick Kobayashi is forever riding a rocking horse in the corner of their office while wielding a lasso and wearing a cowboy hat. A live chicken completes the home on the range feel while a series of horse shoes decorate the wall. The two men feel as if they emerged from a 20s noir farce, their slapstick antics eventually leading to a confrontation in which Kobayashi proves himself an unexpectedly skilled martial artist.  

Their world is already absurd even as they head into the abstract in order to chase Bellflower while, just like Black Mask, the kidnappers leave them irritating messages at each checkpoint revealing another clue and that the ransom has now doubled. They are plagued by a series of magicians who turn up in different guises from a man performing a kamishibai version of the Black Mask story for children to some guys running a shell game and posing as a trio of “scientists” led by Prof. Jerowski “of the British Empire” showing off their new gyroscope technology. Yet it’s no coincidence that the kidnappers go by the name Pathé & co, having essentially trapped Bellflower inside the celluloid realm and refusing to set her free. 

While Uotsuka falls for the beautiful, elusive image of Bellflower who begs to be released from “this endless story”, fantasy and reality begin to merge as he finds himself cast in the role of Black Mask. The ironically named “Endless Mystery” is a film with no end, the apparently incomplete debut of a faded star not so much ready for her closeup but desperate for closure and the release of her younger self from 50 years of torment in the reassurance that Bellflower will certainly be rescued by Black Mask at the film’s conclusion which is, after all, how such serials are supposed to end. While others slip ghostlike into the darkness, Uotsuka is left behind another prisoner of cinema chasing the romance of the silver screen yet finally saving his princess by extracting her from it. Operating on several levels, Hayashi expertly recreates both the grainy serials of the early silent era and crafts an absurdist, postmodern homage to its more recognisable evolution as his detective becomes wilfully lost in the labyrinths of cinema. 


To Sleep So as to Dream streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2010)

sketches of kaitan cityYasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, has provided the source material for some of the best films of recent times including Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence but it has to be said that his world view is anything but positive. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri takes on Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kaitanshi Jokei) inspired by a collection of short stories left unfinished on Sato’s death by suicide in 1990. Despite the late bubble era setting of the stories (now updated to the present day), his Kaitan (eerily close to the real life Hakodate) is a place of decline and hopelessness, populated by the disillusioned and despairing.

The first story concerns a brother and sister whose lives have been defined by the local shipbuilding industry. Since their father was killed in a dockside fire, older brother Futa (Pistol Takehara) has been taking care of his little sister Honami (Mitsuki Tanimura) and now works at the docks himself. Times being what they are, the company is planning to close three docks with mass layoffs inevitable. The workers strike but are unable to win more than minor concessions leaving Futa unable to continue providing for himself or his sister.

Similar tales of societal indifference follow as an old lady living alone with her beloved cat is hounded by a developer (Takashi Yamanaka) desperate to buy her home. Across town the owner of the planetarium (Kaoru Kobayashi) is living a life of quiet desperation, suspecting that his bar hostess wife (Kaho Minami) is having an affair. Meanwhile a gas canister salesman (Ryo Kase) is trying to branch out but having little success, and a tram driver dwells on his relationship with his estranged son.

Economic and social concerns become intertwined as increasing financial instability chips away at the foundations of otherwise sound family bonds. Futa’s situation is one of true desperation now that he’s lost the only job he’s ever had and is ill equipped to get a new one even if there were anything going in this town which revolves entirely around its port.

Yet other familial bonds are far from sound to begin with. The gas canister salesman, going against his father’s wishes in trying to diversify with a series of water purifiers he believes will be a guaranteed earner because of the need to replace filters, takes out his various frustrations through astonishing acts of violence against his wife who then passes on the legacy of abuse to his son, Akira (You Koyama). Resentful towards his father and embarrassed by his lack of success with the water filters, the gas canister salesman threatens to explode but unexpectedly finding himself on the receiving end of violence, he is forced into a reconsideration of his way of life – saving one family member, but perhaps betraying another.

The gas canister salesman is not the only one to have a difficult relationship with his child. The planetarium owner cannot seem to connect with his own sullen offspring and is treated like an exile within his own home while the tram driver no longer speaks to his son who is apparently still angry and embarrassed that his mother worked in a hostess bar.

Yet for all of this real world disillusionment, despair takes on a poetic quality as the planetarium owner spends his days literally staring at the stars – even if they are fake. The gas canister salesman’s son, Akira, becomes a frequent visitor, excited by the idea of the telescope and dreaming of a better, far away world only to have his hopes literally dashed by his parents, themselves already teetering on the brink of an abyss. Futa’s lifelong love has been with shipping – the company officials are keen to sell the line that it’s all about the boats and an early scene of jubilation following the launch of a recently completed vessel would seem to bear that out, but when it comes down to it the values are far less pure than a simple love of craftsmanship. Kaitan City is a place where dreams go to die and hope is a double edged sword.

There are, however, small shoots of positivity. The old lady welcomes her cat back into her arms, discovering that it is pregnant and stroking it gently, reassuring it that everything will be OK and she will take care of the new cat family. Signs of life appear, even if drowned out by the noise of ancient engines and the sound of the future marching quickly in the opposite direction. Bleak yet beautifully photographed, Sketches of Kaitan City perfectly captures the post-industrial malaise and growing despair of those excluded from economic prosperity, left with nothing other than false promises and misplaced hope to guide the way towards some kind of survival.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flying Colors (ビリギャル, Nobuhiro Doi, 2015)

flying-colorsBelow average student buckles down and makes it into a top university? You’ve heard this story before and Nobuhiro Doi’s Flying Colors (ビリギャル, Biri Gyaru) doesn’t offer a new spin on the idea or additional angles on educational policy but it does have heart. Heart, it argues is what you need to get ahead (if you’ll forgive the multilevel punning) as the highest barriers to academic success are the ones which are self imposed. Arguing for a more inclusive, tailor made approach to education which doesn’t instil false hope but does help young people develop self confidence alongside standardised skills, Flying Colors is the story of one popular girl’s journey from anti-intellectual teenage snobbery to the very top of the academic tree whilst healing her divided family in the process.

Little Sayaka Kudo (Kasumi Arimura) got off to a bad start in her academic life, bullied and friendless at primary school. After the teachers refuse to help, Sayaka’s doting mother, Akari (Yo Yoshida), manages to get her into a more exclusive middle school which is affiliated with both a high school and a university which means that Sayaka’s academic destiny is fairly secure. However, though she does manage to make friends at her new school, she falls in with the “popular” crowd and begins dying her hair, rolling her skirt up, and wearing an inadvisable amount of makeup. Knowing that their entrance to high school and university is assured, the girls slack off completely and are at the very bottom of the class.

However, it all comes crashing down when Sayaka is caught smoking and threatened with expulsion. Bravely refusing to give up her friends and have them suffer the same fate, Sayaka is the only one who gets suspended but still risks missing graduation and losing her secured place at university. One of the few people to really believe in her, her mother Akari, arranges for Sayaka to attend an unconventional cram school where the well meaning teacher, Tsubota (Atsushi Ito), encourages her to have a goal, and it’s a lofty one – Keio University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Japan.

Despite her dismal academic prognosis, Sayaka is not lacking in ability, just the will and belief to see it through. After being so unhappy in primary school, Sayaka values her friendships and status as one of the popular girls and maintaining that side of her life is much more important than getting good grades. Written off by her teachers, no one is prepared to give her the permission to succeed and so she assumes she’s as dim as everyone says she is.

The situation isn’t helped by her home life in which her embittered father (Tetsushi Tanaka) ignores his two daughters in favour of devoting all his attention to his son, Ryuta (Yuhei Ouchida), whom he wants to become a professional baseball player. Vicariously thrusting his own dream on his unsuspecting son, Sayaka’s father is unprepared for the moment Ryuta realises he’s been denied the right to choose for himself and rebels against him as all young men are apt to do. In fact, many of the cram school students are there because of a grudge against an unfeeling father who has had quite an adverse affect on his child’s sense of self worth.

Tsubota is the first person other than her mother to show faith in Sayaka’s abilities and is able to convince her that she might be able to achieve something if she started to apply herself. Speaking to her in terms she can understand, Tsubota hunts down different kinds of study materials to help her along the way gradually raising her scores as she builds belief in her ability to reach her goal. Tsubota is the only teacher at the school and is able to take the time to get to know each of his pupils individually so he can tailor the course to bring out the potential in each of his charges. While the kids are studying to pass exams, Tsubota is studying pop culture so that he can talk to them on their own level and find out the best ways to keep them motivated.

As much as it’s the story of a persistent underdog finally discovering a well of self belief that will sustain them on a difficult path, Flying Colors is also an indictment on the modern educational system which only caters for the group rather than the individual and is so concentrated around rote learning and standardised tests that it fails to teach young people the critical thinking skills they need to succeed in life. Flying Colors probably is not going to influence public educational policy but it does offer an amiable and inspirational story that might give hope to those struggling under its often unreasonable demands.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lost Paradise (失楽園, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1997)

lost paradiseYoshitmitsu Morita tackled many different genres during his extremely varied career taking in everything from absurd social satire to teen idol vehicles and high art films. 1997’s Lost Paradise (失楽園, Shitsurakuen) again finds him in the art house realm as he prepares a tastefully erotic exploration of middle aged amour fou. Based on the bestselling novel by Junichi Watanabe, Lost Paradise also became a breakout box office hit as audiences were drawn by the tragic tale of doomed late love frustrated by societal expectations.

We meet Kuki (Koji Yakusho) and Rinko (Hitomi Kuroki) about to bid each other goodbye for the day, playfully in love though perhaps self conscious. It’s not until later that we realise they are both already married – just not to each other. Kuki, 50 years old, has reached an impasse in his life. Effectively demoted and sidelined at work, his homelife is not exactly unhappy but has long since lost his interest. His daughter is grown up and married herself, his wife has a career of her own, his mortgage is already paid off. There is really nothing left for him to do. That is until he meets calligraphy teacher Rinko and falls passionately in love for the first time in his life.

Rinko, 38, entered into an arranged marriage at 25 though the kindest way of describing it would be “unfulfilling”. Haruhiko (Toshio Shiba), her husband, is a doctor by profession and cuts a cold and distant figure. Prone to violent outbursts and pettiness, he treats Rinko more as a house keeper than a wife ordering her to buy his favourite kind of cheese (even urging her to travel to a different shop if the first one doesn’t have it) but then not even looking up when she brings it into his study for him. Lasciviously poking a spoon into the soupy mess, he pauses only briefly after savouring his first taste to give Rinko her next set of orders with no word of thanks or even acknowledgement of her success in obtaining this oddly specific cheese related request.

Finally in each other Rinko and Kuki find completeness long after they’d stopped seeking it. Rinko is unhappy in an arranged marriage which offers scant comfort, though Kuki’s problems are more akin to a mid life crisis as he finds himself an unnecessary presence at home whilst also realising that he’s already passed the high point of his career. Though there are no real barriers to Rinko and Kuki simply leaving their spouses and starting again together, it’s never quite that simple as the social stigma of an extra-marital affair continues to undermine their new found romance.

As in many of Morita’s films, the overall tone is one of pessimism as Rinko and Kuki face opposition from all sides whilst falling ever deeper into a whirlwind of self destructive passion. Rinko confides in a recently divorced friend who has guessed her secret and urges her to try and be happy, but Kuki keeps matters to himself whilst listening to the romantic problems of his workmates many of whom state that they too would like to fall madly in love, just once. When one of Kuki’s most valued colleagues falls ill, he laments having lived his life in the straightforward way expected by society. He’s done everything right – spent all his time working hard, built a career which was about to go south anyway. If all that happens is that you get old and die what was it all for – perhaps you’re better off just doing as you please, social expectations be damned.

Eventually the pair get an apartment and indulge in some part-time domesticity though an ill thought out blackmail plot soon changes things for both of them. Haruhiko refuses to divorce Rinko but Kuki’s wife is more sympathetic and open to the idea of sorting things out as quickly as possible. Though he suffers in other ways, Kuki finds it easier to accept the idea of moving on than Rinko who also faces opposition from her own mother who brands her as immoral and someone to be pitied for having given in to weakness and allowed her baser instincts to take over. Soon the couple find themselves thinking about a way to be together for eternity even if it lies in another world than this one.

Likened to the famous case of Sada Abe (also the inspiration for Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses), Rinko and Kuki are consumed by their own passion and ultimately unable to continue living outside it. Morita opts for an artful aesthetic and keeps his eroticism on the classy side rather than descending into exploitation or salaciousness. Making use of frequent handheld camera and odd angles to bring out the giddy, unbalanced mindset of the central couple Morita also experiments with colour often cutting to black and white or sepia mid-scene. The tragedy of this love story is that it occurs at a societally inconvenient time – there is nothing wrong in Rinko and Kuki’s romance save that it started after they were already married to other people. This may not seem such a great problem but in a society which demands conformity and adherence to its rules, those who break them must be prepared to pay a heavy price. Perhaps the last words ought to belong to Kuki’s poetic friend who points out that life if short and rarely rewards those who play by the rules, it may be better to burn out brightly rather than flicker away for an eternity.


Original trailer (no subs)