Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

Sharaku (写楽, Masahiro Shinoda, 1995)

SharakuEvery once in a while an artist emerges whose work is so far ahead of its time that the audience of the day is unwilling to accept but generations to come will finally recognise for the achievement it represents. So it is for Sharaku – a young man whose abilities and ambitions are ruthlessly manipulated by those around him for their own gain. Brought to the screen by veteran new wave director Masahiro Shinoda, Sharaku (写楽) is an attempt to throw some light on the life of this mysterious historical figure who comes to symbolise, in many ways, the turbulence of his era.

The Edo of 1791 is a world of extreme austerity. All art is suspect and all “pornography” outlawed. Any sign of extravagance is frowned on, including the “frivolous” arts leading to a decline in the world of classic entertainment as kabuki artists struggle to survive. Tombo (Hiroyuki Sanada) was one such kabuki performer but after an onstage accident leaves him with a damaged foot he joins a rag tag group of street performers. Whilst there he begins drawing bringing him to the attention of an art seller, Tsutaya (Frankie Sakai), who has an idea to create prints of famous actors as a way of promoting local theatre shows.

Rechristened with the artist’s name of Sharaku, Tombo’s artwork creates a sensation with its never seen before style which places a new emphasis on realism rather than flattery. Popularity brings its own problems as Sharaku finds himself a virtual prisoner of Tsutaya whose demands are ever expanding, as well as facing the intense opposition of Tsutaya’s former cash cow – renowned artist Utamaro, who is prepared to go to great lengths to ensure his traditional painting style is the one that wins out.

This is a time of extreme conservatism and Sharaku’s work is a risky proposition as it rejects accepted stylisation in favour of undoctored reality. Dynamically posed, his portraits of kabuki actors display no pandering but reflect all of the subject’s less flattering qualities. Striking and unusual, Sharaku’s insistence on capturing internal truth is entirely at odds with the need for compliance with the “truths” handed down by the government. The public aren’t ready for such radically honest art and even champions of a more naturalistic style such as the universally lauded Utamaro also reject it (though largely out of fear and self interest).

Sharaku is, of course, an artist’s name and not a man’s and therefore is easily manipulated. Held a virtual prisoner by Tsutaya, Tombo begins to resent his new life of exploitation by his master who wants him to work in a more commercial fashion yet took him on precisely because of the novel, aggressive nature of his untrained drawing. Sharaku’s commitment to artistry over conformity is at odds with the era which is entirely founded on everyone obeying the accepted order of things. The times are changing, but not fast enough for Sharaku.

Shinoda paints an exciting vision of Edo era Tokyo filled with colour and energy despite the supposed austerity of the times. He brings kabuki out into the streets with beautifully balletic street brawls and strange acrobatic feats that appear extremely incongruous in the off stage world. However, Sharaku attempts to juggle a number of themes and subplots which never manage to coalesce into something whole. The side story of a depressed geisha and her star crossed love for Tombo even whilst she finds herself the favourite misteress of Utamaro is the most interesting but is never satisfactorily resolved.

After beginning with some oddly old fashioned on screen graphics, Shinoda opts for a stately directing style though makes frequent use of freeze frames and dissolves. The film takes on an appropriately etherial quality with sudden interruptions of theatre and the rhythms of classical drama yet even the free floating dream-like atmosphere can’t quite makeup for its central lack of coherence. Tombo himself, as played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is too much of a cypher to lead the picture yet the attempt to branch out into an ensemble drama doesn’t take hold either. A late, flawed effort from an old master, Sharaku has a lot to say about the nature of art, about artists, about reception and legacy, and also about its era but much of the message is lost in the faded paper on which it is painted.


Unsubbed trailer:

Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (シコふんじゃった, Masayuki Suo, 1992)

sumo do sumo don'tConsidering how well known sumo wrestling is around the world, it’s surprising that it doesn’t make its way onto cinema screens more often. That said, Masayuki Suo’s Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (シコふんじゃった, Shiko Funjatta) displays an ambivalent attitude to this ancient sport in that it’s definitely uncool, ridiculous, and prone to the obsessive fan effect, yet it’s also noble – not only a game of size and brute force but of strategy and comradeship. Not unlike Suo’s later film for which he remains most well known, Shall We Dance, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t uses the presumed unpopularity of its central activity as a magnet which draws in and then binds together a disparate, originally reluctant collection of central characters.

We begin with a lecture given by Professor Anayama (Akira Emoto) in which he recounts the brief mention of sumo in the work of Jean Cocteau. It seems that Anayama is something of a sumo fanatic and had previously been a champion wrestler in his student days. Shuhei Yamamoto (Masahiro Motoki) is currently registered for Anayama’s class but he’s here on a party mandate and never attends classes – he even has someone raise their hand for him at registration. Shuhei already has a job offer for when he leaves so he needs to graduate – Anayama makes him a proposition, join the currently moribund sumo club and he’ll forget about the lack of attendance problem and fill his credits up too.

Actually, the sumo club has only one member – fanatical sumo fan and mature student, Aoki (Naoto Takenaka). Aoki takes tradition very seriously and it’s not long before he’s got Shuhei in a traditional “mawashi” sash (don’t call it a fundoshi!) and parading about the campus trying to find others they might be able to coerce into the club so they can compete in the next competition. Luckily they run into shy student Hosaku (Hiromasa Taguchi) who’s quickly convinced to help them keep the sumo club open, before also recruiting Shuhei’s younger brother Haruno (a refugee from the regular wrestling team), and even a foreign student, George Smiley, who only joins up to save on his rent. Together, they face an uphill battle but can they really conquer this demanding game with so little experience between them?

At heart, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is a standard sports comedy in which a rag tag collection of amateurs attempt to triumph over adversity whilst finding out more about themselves and each other.  No one, other than Aoki, really wanted to be in the sumo club with its embarrassing attire and total lack of social kudos. Shuhei is only there because he needs the grades, but after seeing how much Aoki cares about his sport he becomes determined to support his new found friend. Similarly, Hosaku had been leading quite a lonely life but enjoys being part of a team where his friends enthusiastically cheer him on.

By bringing in the foreign student (supposedly an English rugby player but played by an American with an unusually gung-ho attitude) Suo attempts to define sumo and, in a roundabout way, other aspects of Japanese culture from a more detached view point. “You Japanese never think things through” he’s fond of saying after asking a perfectly logical question that no one seems able to answer such as why they have a shrine to a household god in their clubhouse when this is a Christian university or why it’s frowned upon for him to wear shorts underneath his mawashi. Later, the group get a hanger on in the form of Masako (Ritsuko Umemoto) who has taken a liking to sumo, and more particularly to Haruno. Women aren’t allowed in the sumo ring but this is one aspect of tradition that it seems even the sumo diehards are prepared to let go. Far from the serious and rarified sumo world, the sumo club is a strictly equal opportunities enterprise built on mutual trust and acceptance. No one who loves the beautiful art of sumo is getting turned away.

Perhaps with less serious intent that some of Suo’s later works, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is a prime example of the ensemble comedy drama. The essence of the humour is physical leaning mainly on slapstick but with a side serving of wit and irony. Suo keeps things simple and straightforward, allowing the gentle comedy to emerge organically underpinned by strong characterisation and performances. Unashamedly feel good yet never tipping over into the mawkishly sentimental, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is the best kind of sports comedy where the outcome itself is almost irrelevant in light of the greater game that’s been in play right the way through.


Unsubbed trailer:

Tokyo Fist

tokyo-fist_still_7First published on UK Anime Network in November 2013.


Following on from their excellent remastered Tetsuo set and the more recent Kotoko, Third Window Films have again brought us another classic film from the back catalogue of one of Japan’s most underrated auteurs – Shinya Tsukamoto.

Tsuda (played by Shinya Tsukamoto himself) is a hard working insurance salesman in mid ‘90s Tokyo. He lives with a beautiful fiancée in a pretty nice flat and everything seems to be going pretty well for him except that he’s been so unbearably tired lately. Then, one fateful day a colleague asks him to deliver some money to a boxing club (which sounds kind of dodgy in itself) where he’s spotted by an old acquaintance, Kojima (played by Shinya Tsukamoto’s boxer brother Koji). Though it’s clear Tsuda doesn’t wish to resume a friendship with Kojima, somehow he still manages to worm his way into his life. This unwanted intrusion from the past begins to deeply unsettle the civilised life Tsuda and Hizaru had been living up to this point and sets them on a path of atavistic disintegration.

When you look at Tsuda at the beginning of the movie, it’s easy to think he’s ‘happy’ because the life he seems to be living is ‘normal’. He works hard, he lives with a woman he intends to marry and they seem settled and well matched. However, if you look more closely, you can see the cracks are all there even before Kojima turns up. His ‘tiredness’ is perhaps a symptom of the dissatisfaction he might not even realise he’s feeling with his boring, ordinary city life. When Hizaru, his girlfriend, asks him sensitively about his tiredness and suggests maybe he’s overworking and that she wouldn’t mind continuing to work even after they get married Tsuda’s reaction is quite telling. He doesn’t say anything particularly, he doesn’t argue, but it’s clear that he resents the suggestion and is clearly annoyed by it. This, and her subsequent comments to Kojima regarding Tsuda’s physique further undermine his masculinity and you can see that even before the catalyst of Kojima’s arrival, Tsuda’s mental state is quite fraught and his rage is already simmering quietly beneath thin layer of civility that is city life.

When Kojima finally does arrive, he does so like a pathogen infecting Tsuda first at the boxing club. Tsuda brings him home (inadvertently) to his girlfriend who is then also infected with a new strain of individualism. When Tsuda visits Kojima’s apartment to confront him about making a pass at Hizaru, what he finds is a lithe, glistening, insect-like physical force. His movements are uncanny, seemingly too fast for a human yet slightly jerky and lacking in grace. Despite the fact that everyone at the gym thinks Kojima is a terrible boxer (even when he actually wins a fight everyone seems bored) he possesses  the physical strength to knock Tsuda not only across the room but through a wall. The exaggerated, manga-like violence only further intensifies Kojima’s total dominance over Tsuda. Hizaru looks on with a curious expression which seems part way between wonder and disgust at Kojima’s increasingly bug-like appearance.

As a couple, Tsuda and Hizaru seem to have a fondness for watching old, subtitled European movies of an evening – Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Both films, of course, that have something to say about ‘the city’. In The Third Man, Harry Lime’s crimes are only possible because of the unique situation of post-war Vienna. In Metropolis, famously, the city is an organism worked by an underclass of slave workers who are little more than cogs in the machine. The city assumes part of your own personality, strips you of your individuality and replaces it with a job title. It numbs you to the finer emotions and the only way left to re-assert your existence is to open yourself up to pain. In Tokyo Fist, the city is of course Tokyo, but really it could be any city any time. Living in such a codified way etches away at your humanity until barely a husk remains as you live out the day to day demands a city makes of its people. By the end of the film, the three central characters have been through an extended battle with this ‘city tax’ but whether the result is a death of the soul or a recovery is perhaps a matter for debate.

Tokyo Fist certainly a very rich film which repays repeat viewings and is open to a great number of interpretations. Like his earlier Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the film often works on a purely sensory level and needs to be experienced rather than considered but that isn’t to say it’s without plot or action. The fight scenes are intense and frenetic, captured in Tsukamoto’s trademark style, yet the boxing scenes do also have a very authentic ring to them. Tokyo Fist is a masterpiece of modern Japanese cinema that has long been underserved by sub quality releases. This remastered HD presentation from Third Window Films, supervised by Tsukamoto himself, finally restores the film to its rightful position with a truly outstanding blu-ray release. Tokyo Fist is a hugely intriguing and important film which richly deserves a place in any collection.


Available now on blu-ray in the UK from Third Window Films!

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