Kanikosen (蟹工船, SABU, 2009)

kanikosenBack in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.

As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.

SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.

Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.

Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.

In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.


 

Otakus in Love (恋の門, Suzuki Matsuo, 2004)

koi no monReview of Suzuki Matsuo’s Otaku’s in Love (恋の門, Koi no Mon) first published on UK Anime Network in February 2014.


The word “otaku” is a difficult one to pin down. In the West, it’s often come to be a badge of pride and respect, a label that many fans of what most people would perceive as a niche subculture actively identify with and eagerly apply to themselves. However, the roots of the term are much darker and in its native Japanese, “otaku” can be far from a nice thing to call another person. Of the central couple in this film perhaps only one can be thought of as a traditional “otaku” the other being more of a “tortured artist” whose eccentric behaviour makes it difficult for him to survive in the real world. Well, to be honest finding a base line for “normal behaviour” in this film is a pretty tall order, we run into bizarre anime conventions, cosplay obsessives, broken hearted ex-mangaka (manga) bar owners and a bizarre cult like office environment where the only rule is you must be “happy!” all the time. Otakus In Love is an endearingly odd film that is jam packed full of in jokes and meta references that knows its audience very well and never fails in the humour stakes as a result.

Mon is a down on his luck, in fact totally broke, manga artist. Well, he calls himself a “manga artist” but his work isn’t exactly what most people would expect. In a touch of the avant garde, Mon makes his manga out of rocks. Mon’s “manga” are, in fact, a collection of rocks painted with a single kanji character and arranged inside a custom made wooden box. Needless to say each of Mon’s works is a one off piece and his sales record is not exactly going to get him on the best seller list. He can’t seem to hold down a part time job either due to his extreme reactions to people not taking his art seriously and his strange appearance which is something like a seventies guru come glam rock god whose ragged clothes have an oddly deliberate look to them. One fateful day he has an interview for Tsugino Happy Inc which turns out to be a cult-like office environment which seems to advocate happiness through total subjugation. He lasts about an hour at this job before punching his new boss in the face for failing to appreciate his artistic qualities.

However, on the way there about to pick up a particularly fine looking rock, he meets Koino who turns out to be a colleague of his at Happy Inc. The two go out for drinks which ends up at Koino’s apartment where upon Mon wakes up the next morning to find out he’s been a victim of forced cosplay! Unwittingly dressed up as Koino’s favourite character from Soul Caliber II, he’s quickly posed by Koino for her cosplay wall and dragged into a world of doujinshi, comiket, cosplay and all things geeky. Koino is an amateur manga artist who claims to have made a small fortune selling her home made manga at conventions and is well and truly an otaku. Can two such different people really find love? There’s only one way to find out!

Otakus in Love is based on Jun Hanyunyuu’s manga Koi no Mon (also the original Japanese title of the film) and as such carries over various extremely clever meta visual references. Directed by well known actor Suzuki Matsuo (Ichi the Killer) the film is often about as close as you could get to being a live action manga as Matsuo manages to make standard manga tropes like reaction shots and surreal action scenes work in a totally believable way. In the course of the film we’re treated to full on musical sections and ridiculous comic motifs that resurface at fairly predictable moments which could all end up just being far too much, but under Matsuo’s steady hand the film comes out on the right side of crazy and is never anything less than totally zany fun.

The film isn’t afraid to wear its otaku badge on its sleeve, either. Jam packed with references from video games, anime, and manga, Otakus in Love gets its audience completely and trusts it to understand all of its allusions and homages without needing to repeatedly bash the viewer over the head with tie-ins. It also takes an affectionate side swipe at fan culture with some bizarre interactions with cosplay, conventions and ani-singers which any anime fan can probably relate to. The film also has a fair few cameos from such well known personages as Hideaki Anno, Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike to name but a few.

At a 114 minutes it does run a little long and occasionally feels like it’s going to run out of steam but for the vast majority of its running time Otakus in Love is a genuinely hilarious, truly bizarre, romantic comedy. Full of warmth and exuberance, it’s difficult to image anyone not being swept away by its surreal humour and though it’s certainly on the broader side of comedy it never feels particularly over the top (or at least not in a bad way). Otakus in Love is a romanic comedy that no self confessed otaku should miss out on seeing.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2014.