Colors of Wind (風の色, Kwak Jae-yong, 2017)

colors of windCan there be two people in the world who so exactly resemble each other but have entirely indifferent, interwoven fates? They say that if you meet your doppelgänger one of you will die, that the world cannot permit two such persons to live. Colors of Wind (風の色, Kaze no Iro), the second Japanese language film directed by The Classic’s Kwak Jae-yong is not sure about doppelgänger theory but is certifiably obsessed with dualities and most particularly in the way that they relate to romantic fulfilment and the necessary shifts in identity that it often entails.

In the present, the melancholy Ryo (Yuki Furukawa) has locked himself away for the past 100 days in mourning for his girlfriend who ghosted him and then apparently took her own life in snowy Hokkaido. Yuri (Takemi Fujii) had always had a kind of fragility about her, insisting that she’d soon “disappear” but that there was another girl who looked like her living in Hokkaido who was far happier and far cleverer than she would ever be. After she died and Ryo “cocooned” himself away, he wakes up and walks into his favourite restaurant only to find the old couple that ran it have retired and the place is reopening as a magic club. Not only that, the previous owners were keeping a suitcase for him which they instructed the new barman to pass on with the caveat that Ryo would probably not even remember that he left it there. The case turns out to be full of clues to a life a he never knew – pictures of a girl of who looks like Yuri, a diary, and a handful of other trinkets. Newly taken with the world of magic, Ryo trains himself to become a top magician before setting off for Hokkaido and encountering another Yuri, only calling herself Aya, who thinks that he is returned spirit of her former boyfriend Ryu – a magician who went missing during a complicated magic trick three years previously.

Colors of Wind hinges on the notion of love as the greatest act of magic, by which it presumably means something inexplicable and wondrous rather than an insincere act of ostentation. Love, it seems to say, fundamentally rewrites the identity of the lover but then again, if one is really “in love” perhaps “identity” in any real sense ceases to matter aside from a need for integration that allows the formation of a new self which can accommodate the extreme selflessness which true love requires.

Love as an act of transformation is a motif which recurs throughout. Grief-stricken, Ryo “cocoons” himself away for 100 days as if waiting to emerge as something else, a new man with a clean slate waiting for a new identity. Meanwhile, Aya continues to pine for her missing magician, half convincing herself that Ryo is Ryu while her mind fractures itself in wondering if her new love is a betrayal of her old. Unable to accommodate the romantic impurity of falling in love with two different men, albeit ones who look identical and have much more than that in common, Aya’s loves create two mutually exclusive souls doing battle for headspace while all Ryo can do is watch as he too battles ghosts on all sides, pining for Yuri while falling for Aya as she yearns only for Ryu.

As the magician behind the bar affirms, meeting one’s doppelgänger does not necessarily spell death – there are many ways for two of the same to survive if only you want to find them, but then love often requires a sacrifice and one thing must fall if another is to rise. These “dopplegängers” are of a more spiritual kind, souls which wander and must be brought home, but in order to love the self must be whole. To escape their cycles of melancholy rumination, the pair decide on new identities for their new love, pinching the roles of Leon and Mathilda from the classic hitman movie in an attempt to bid Aya/Yuri and Ryo/Ryu goodbye but a deeper integration of a more authentic self will be necessary for a concrete resolution, requiring a series of choices and selfless, altruistic love.

Shot entirely in Japan and with an entirely Japanese cast, Colors of Wind nevertheless has a recognisably Korean sensibility in its melancholy, philosophy-tinged melodrama which hinges on the ineffabilities of love and identity. Trapped and drowning, Ryo has to literally unchain his heart and open the door to his soul to let the love flood in but does so perhaps at a price, permitting another identity to merge with his own as he prepares to integrate past loves and new into one romantic whole. Beautiful, if occasionally obscure, Colors of Wind fully succeeds in Kwak’s goal of paying tribute to classic melodrama in its tale of love and sacrifice, self and selflessness, and the transformative qualities of romance, but does so with a playful heart as it takes in the picturesque snows of Hokkaido and the contrived charms of man made magic.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Penguin Highway (ペンギン・ハイウェイ, Hiroyasu Ishida, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Penguin Highway posterRandom penguins might be the very opposite of a problem, but what exactly does it all mean? Tomihiko Morimi has provided the source material for some of the most interesting Japanese animation of recent times from Masaaki Yuasa’s wonderfully surreal Tatami Galaxy and Night is Short, Walk on Girl, to the comparatively calmer Eccentric Family. Hiroyasu Ishida’s adaptation of Morimi’s Penguin Highway (ペンギン・ハイウェイ) may be a far less abstract attempt to capture the author’s unique world view than Yuasa’s anarchic psychedelia, but preserves the author’s sense of every day strangeness as an ordinary primary school boy’s peaceful life is suddenly derailed by the appearance of random penguins in a small town way in land in the middle of a hot and humid Japanese summer.

Aoyama (Kana Kita) is, as he tells us, “very smart”. He thinks its OK to tell us this because unlike some of his classmates he isn’t conceited, which is what makes him so great. He’s absolutely positive that he’s going to become an important person in the future and can’t wait to find out just how amazing he’s going to be once he’s grown up. Aoyama is also sure that crowds of girls will be lining up to marry him, but they’re all out of luck because he already has a special someone in mind – the friendly young receptionist from the dentist’s (Yu Aoi) who has been coaching him at chess and just generally hanging out with him chatting about life.

Everything begins to change one day when random penguins start appearing all over town. Penguins are, after all, cold climate creatures and this is a glorious summer in Southern Japan so even if these are rogue penguins who’ve managed to escape from a zoo, it’s anyone’s guess how they’ve managed to survive. Being the scientifically minded young man he is, Aoyama becomes determined to solve the penguin mystery, especially as it seems to have something to do with the young lady from the dentist’s who he can’t seem to get out of his mind.

Aoyama is, despite his opening gambit, a fairly conceited young man who thinks himself much cleverer than those around him – not only his schoolmates but the adults too (possibly with the exception of the lady from the dentist’s who is after all teaching him how to be better at chess). With an intense superiority complex, Aoyama has few friends (not that that bothers him, particularly) and is often bullied by the class bruiser, Suzuki (Miki Fukui), and his minions, all of which he takes in his stride. He is, however, slightly thrown by the presence of an extremely bright girl in his class, Hamamoto (Megumi Han), who regularly beats him at chess and is interested in black holes among other areas of scientific endeavour Aoyama had earmarked as his own.

Despite suspecting that Hamamoto might be “even more amazing” than he is, Aoyama is not resentful or jealous but remains seemingly oblivious to her attempts to make friends with him. Aoyama, as an intensely “rational” person, is also sometimes insensitive and remains entirely unable to pick up on social cues unlike his more perceptive friend/assitant, Uchida (Rie Kugimiya), who is well aware of the reason Suzuki keeps picking on Hamamoto, but is unable to convey his instinctual understanding of human nature to the logical Aoyama. Armed with this new fragment of information from Uchida, Aoyama uses it in a predictably “rational” fashion by suddenly bringing it up in front of both Hamamoto and Suzuki in “advising” him that liking someone isn’t “embarrassing” and Suzuki should just say what he means rather than making passive aggressive attempts to get attention by being unpleasant. All of which is, ironically enough, quite awkward.

Through carrying out his investigation into the penguin phenomenon, Aoyama is forced to confront his less rational side, eventually affirming that he’ll live his life based on a “personal belief” rather than a scientific principle. Getting a glimpse of the edge of the world and coming to accept that not matter how much fun you’re having there will always come an end, Aoyama decides to live his life in haste anyway running fast towards an inevitable conclusion in the hope of a longed for reconciliation. Sadly, his discoveries don’t seem to have made him any less conceited but he is at least good hearted and eager to help even if he remains determined to walk his “Penguin Highway” all alone while concentrating on becoming a better person. Beautifully animated and tempering its inherent surrealism with gentle whimsy, Penguin Highway is a promising start for Studio Colorido, mixing Ghibli-esque charm with Morimi’s trademark surrealism for a moving coming of age tale in which a rigid young man learns to find the sweet spot between faith and rationality and pledges to live his life in earnest in expectation of its end.


Penguin Highway was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Hungry Lion (飢えたライオン, Takaomi Ogata, 2017)

Hungry lion posterRumour has a strange power. A baseless lie, no matter how innocuous, can quickly derail a life but the power of lie with a tiny grain of, if not truth exactly but circumstantial evidence, can prove ruinous when there are vested interests at play which make belief an attractive prospect. The heroine of Takaomi Ogata’s The Hungry Lion (飢えたライオン, Ueta Lion) finds herself at the centre of such a storm through no fault of her own, becoming a victim not only of her country’s restrictive social codes, tendency towards victim blaming, and reluctance to deal openly with “unpleasant” topics, but also more directly of the latent jealousy lurking in her closest friends which finds a convenient home in someone else’s scandal. Nobody will come to her rescue, her “disgrace” has exiled her from the group and she finds herself abandoned as a lonely a sacrifice to the hungry lion that feeds on social shame.

High school teacher Mr. Hosono is not exactly popular with his students. He is strict with the boys but less so with the girls, as he proves greeting one tardy student who blames a train accident for his late arrival by berating him about his regulation busting necklace while allowing a female student, Hitomi (Urara Matsubayashi), who arrives a couple of minutes later to take her seat unharrassed. Midway through the register, Mr. Hosono is called away and eventually arrested in connection with the viral video all the kids were looking at before he arrived which appears to show him in a compromising position with a student. For one reason or another, a rumour spreads that Hitomi is the girl in the video. She isn’t, but few believe her strenuous denials and her life becomes one of constant strife not only because of the bullying itself, or the injustice of being falsely accused and then disbelieved by those closest to her, but by the way she is made to feel embarrassed and shamed for causing trouble to others even though she herself has done nothing wrong.

A “relationship” between a teacher and a student is never appropriate, and Mr. Hosono has at least been removed from his position at the school, but no one seems very interested in identifying the girl in the video in order to help her, only to spread ruin and rumour. Hitomi is not the girl in the video, but even if she had been there is no support on offer to her as a person who has been abused by someone in a position of power she should have been able to trust, nor are there any measures in place to ensure her academic life will not be unduly damaged by becoming involved in such a traumatic incident. Aware of the rumours, the school accepts Hitomi’s assertion that she is not the girl but still suspends her to avoid “awkwardness” and protect their own reputation. Likewise, her own mother and sister are far from supportive, berating her for bringing shame on the family and creating problems for them in making the family a target rather than standing by her in her ordeal whether she had been the girl or not.

The rumour itself seems to spring from persistent shaming and stigmatisation of atypical families. Hitomi is 18 and she has a boyfriend who a little older. He has some shady friends and likes to push buttons as he does by causing mild embarrassment to Hitomi by taking her into the curtained off “adult” section of the local video store in an attempt to shock her. Nevertheless the pair eventually make their way to a love hotel (where they are not age checked) and he films her in a compromising position. Girls talk and Hitomi’s friends all know about her relationship which is also plastered all over her social media on which she is something of a star. Some of her friends are jealous but also harbour a degree of disapproval and the mere fact that she is already sexually active ties her to the girl in the video and casts her in an “impure” light in the cute and innocent world of high school girls. Similarly, her boyfriend’s estimation of her drops after she consents to sleep with him while his leering friends make lewd comments and regard her as an “easy” girl who has lost the right to refuse their advances.

Ostracised for essentially becoming a “fallen woman”, Hitomi is left entirely alone with no one to turn to for support. Later, authorities are keen to stress that it’s important to speak out if you’re suffering because adults will always help children but like everything else they are just empty words. The school give out a pamphlet on the importance of prudence when using social media, but refuse to accept their responsibility in failing to protect their students. The news meanwhile becomes obsessed with tearing apart Hitomi’s family, laying the blame at their feet, insisting that Hitomi’s downfall is in someway a result of her parents’ divorce even blaming her mother for having the audacity to find a “boyfriend” before her children were fully grown. The image we had of Hitomi is suddenly reversed. No longer is she a “slutty schoolgirl” involved in an illicit relationship with her teacher, but a neglected child damaged beyond repair by “liberal modern society”.

Reputation is what matters, but reputation is easily manipulated and rewritten, muddy even when objective truth is revealed. Ogata shoots in brief vignettes, each severed from the next by a stark black screen which forces us to examine the objectivity of each scene as distinct from the others, assembling our own versions of “objective” truth which are in fact guided by Ogata’s carefully crafted editing. Fake news has an agenda, truth does not, but it’s often much easier to believe the lie especially if the lie benefits us much more than the truth or enables us to feel superior to someone we secretly think needs taking down a peg or two. Society is a hungry lion which feeds on shame, externalised and internalised, as those who find themselves on the wrong sides of a series of social taboos become unwilling sacrifices to its unkind, unforgiving, and unrelenting hunger for suffering.


Screening at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 30th June, 2.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Manhunt (追捕, John Woo, 2017)

Manhunt30 years ago John Woo was one of Hong Kong’s most bankable directors. The father of heroic bloodshed, Woo’s bullet ballet sent shockwaves through action cinema not only in his home country but around the world. Unsurprisingly Hollywood came calling and Woo was one of the first Asian directors to enjoy mainstream US success with ‘90s hits Broken Arrow and Face/Off before his overseas career began to stall and he eventually returned to Hong Kong directing period epics Red Cliff and The Crossing. Manhunt (追捕, Zhuībǔ) is intended as a kind return to source as Woo gets back into the groove of his beautifully choreographed ‘80s action hits but intentionally or otherwise he sails dangerously close to self parody with a mix of Big Pharma conspiracy and wrong man thriller.

Chinese corporate lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is a trusted employee of a Japanese pharmaceuticals company but is shortly to be transferred overseas, much to CEO Sakai’s (Jun Kunimura) displeasure – Du knows too much about the company’s less than transparent operations. Sakai sets up a honey trap to convince Du to stay but before it can spring Du is accosted by another woman, Mayumi (Qi Wei), who wants to talk to him about a difficult case three years previously in which an employee ended up committing suicide. After talking with Mayumi, Du goes home but the next thing he remembers is waking up in bed next to a dead woman. Du does the right thing and calls the cops, but the cops are working for Big Pharma and soon he finds himself on the run while maverick police chief Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and two female assassins (Ha Ji-won & Angeles Woo) try to track him down.

Manhunt is inspired by the 1976 film starring Ken Takakura which was one of the first non-native movies to open in China following the Cultural Revolution. Woo apparently made the film as a kind of tribute to the actor after he passed away in 2014, but he takes his cues from the source novel by Juko Nishimura rather than the Takakura film and the 2017 Manhunt shares little in common with the 1976 version other than a general plot outline involving a man on the run and unethical practices in the pharmaceuticals trade. Du Qiu is not a stuffy, by the book, prosecutor but a compromised employee of a shady organisation who is oblivious to his own complicity in its extremely unpalatable way of doing business.

Despite this, Du Qiu is just as lucky as Takakura’s Morioka in that everyone he meets immediately wants to help him. Even sworn enemies with their hearts set on revenge eventually wind up joining team Du as they each descend on the pharmaceuticals research laboratory where the deadly secrets will be revealed. Woo returns to his heroic bloodshed roots in allowing dogged policeman Yamura and the increasingly confused Du to form an odd couple buddy duo which begins with spiky one liners and ends with becoming one as each places his uncuffed hand on the same pistol to take down a few bad guys through the power of togetherness.

Woo’s action credentials remain unchanged as he races from set piece to set piece from the opening surprise massacre to Du’s subway chase escape, jet ski race, and mansion showdown before getting anywhere near the endgame of the research lab. Perfectly choreographed, the sequences bear out Woo’s distinctive sense of humour while also poking fun at his back catalogue through a series of homages including an entire coop full of white doves just waiting for their chance to fly.

Set entirely in Japan, Manhunt shifts between Japanese and Mandarin though it has to be said that the film suffers from its reliance on English which is often poorly delivered and deliberately stylised to ape classic action movie one liners the like of which have been out of fashion for two decades. Woo neatly sends himself up with an opening discussion of “old movies” allowing one of the film’s two female assassins to develop an odd fascination with Du which leads to her eventual awakening from company brainwashing, but he also pays his dues with the theme music to Sato’s 1976 version playing over the first scene of mass bloodshed. Woo may have slipped into self parody with his deliberately over the top theatrics, but he has fun doing it and his gleeful self skewering proves extremely hard to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2004)

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who swing and those who…don’t – a metaphor which works just as well for baseball and, by implication, facing life’s challenges as it does for music. Shinobu Yaguchi returns after 2001’s Waterboys with a film that’s…almost exactly the same only with girls instead of boys and concert halls instead of swimming pools, but it’s all so warm and charming that it hardly matters. Taking the classic sports movie formula of eager underdogs triumphing against the odds but giving it a teen comedy drama spin, Yaguchi’s Swing Girls (スウィングガールズ) is a fitting addition to the small but much loved high school girls vs music genre which manages to bring warmth and humour to its admittedly familiar narrative.

It’s summer and it’s hot and sunny but the school is filled with yankis and dreamers, forced to spend this lovely day indoors. While one group is busy ignoring their maths teacher, the school band is getting ready to accompany the baseball team on an important match. Unfortunately, the bus leaves before the bento boxes they’ve ordered are delivered so enterprising high school girl Tomoko (Juri Ueno) suggests they blow off the maths class and show solidarity with those representing the school by making sure their fellow students are well fed. Unfortunately, they fall asleep and miss their stop on the train meaning by the time they get there it’s a very late lunch and these bento boxes containing fish and eggs etc have all been in the hot sun for a fair few hours. After nearly killing all their friends, the girls are forced to join the band in their stead, despite having almost no musical experience between them.

As might be expected, the girls start to get into their new activity even if they originally dismiss sole boy Takuo’s (Yuta Hiraoka) interest in big band jazz as the uncool hobby of pretentious old men. However, this is where Yaguchi throws in his first spanner to the works as the original band recover far sooner than expected leaving our girls oddly heartbroken. This allows us to go off on a tangent as the girls decide they want to carry on with their musical endeavours and form their own band but lack the necessary funds to do so. Being a madcap gang of wilful, if strange, people the schemes they come up with do not go well for them including their stint as supermarket assistants which they get fired from after nearly setting the place on fire, and a mushroom picking trip which leads to an encounter with a wild boar but eventually holds its own rewards.

The girls’ embittered maths teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), who just happens to be a jazz aficionado offers some key advice in that it’s not so much hitting the notes that matters as getting into the swing of things. It might take a while for the Swing Girls (and a boy) to master their instruments, but the important thing is learning to find their common rhythm and ride the waves of communal connection. Tomoko quickly takes centre stage with her largely self centred tricks which involve pinching her little sister’s games system to pawn to buy a saxophone, and almost messing up the all important finale through absentmindedness and cowardice. Other characters have a tendency to fade into the background with only single characteristics such as “worried about her weight”, or “hopelessly awkward”, or even with “folk duo in love with punk rockers”. Other than the one girl lusting after the baseball star and the two punk rockers annoyed by their earnest suitors, Yaguchi avoids the usual high school plot devices of romantic drama, fallings out, and misunderstandings whilst cleverly making use of our expectation for them to provide additional comedy.

What Swing Girls lacks in originality it makes up for with warmth and good humour as the band bond through their recently acquired love of music, coming together to create a unified sound in perfect harmony. Ending somewhat abruptly as the gang win over their fellow musicians after having overcome several obstacles to be allowed to play, the finale does not prove quite as satisfying as might be hoped but is certainly impressive especially considering the music really is being provided by the cast who have each learned to play their intstruments throughout the course of the film just as their characters have been doing. Warm, funny and never less than entertaining, Swing Girls lacks the necessary depth for a truly moving experience but does provide enough lighthearted fun to linger in the memory.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Heat Wave (陽炎, Hideo Gosha, 1991)

heat-waveHideo Gosha had something of a turbulent career, beginning with a series of films about male chivalry and the way that men work out all their personal issues through violence, but owing to the changing nature of cinematic tastes, he found himself at a loose end towards the end of the ‘70s. Things picked up for him in the ‘80s but the altered times brought with them a slightly different approach as Gosha’s films took on an increasingly female focus in which he reflected on how the themes he explored so fully with his male characters might also affect women. In part prompted by his divorce which apparently gave him the view that women were just as capable of deviousness as men are, and by a renewed relationship with his daughter, Gosha overcame the problem of his chanbara stars ageing beyond his demands of them by allowing his actresses to lead.

Heat Wave (陽炎, Kagero), which was to be the director’s penultimate feature, is a homage to late ‘70s gangster movies with a significant nod to Toei’s Red Peony Gangster series. Set in 1928, the action follows cool as ice professional itinerant gambler Rin Jojima (Kanako Higuchi) whose high stakes life becomes even more complicated when she accidentally runs into her adopted little brother, apparently on the hook to some petty gangsters. Dropping her commitments to help him out of his sticky situation and recover the family restaurant, Rin comes face to face with the yakuza who killed her father in a gambling dispute more than twenty years previously but vengeance is just one of many items on her to do list.

The title Heat Wave was apparently selected for the film to imply that Gosha was back on top form and ready to burn the screen with thrilling action but when producers saw his rushes they knew that their hopes were a little misplaced. Gosha was already seriously ill and was not able to direct with the fire of his youth. Heat Wave is undoubtedly a slow burn as Rin figures out the terrain and designs her campaign with the opposing side coming up with a counter plan, but the gradual acceleration begins to pay off in the film’s elaborate smoke and flames finale as Rin takes a bundle of dynamite to the disputed territory and then fights her way out with sword and pistol aided by an unlikely ally. Downbeat but leaving room for the hoped for sequels, Heat Wave is very much in the mindset of Gosha’s heyday in which, as Rin laments, the good die young and the bad guys win.

In keeping with many gambling films much of the action is taken up with tense games of hanafuda which may prove confusing to the uninitiated and are not particularly engaging in any case, though Gosha does not overly rely on the game to fill the screen. This may be early Showa, but save for the trains the action could almost be taking place a hundred years previously. Rin may have an unusual degree of autonomy as an unmarried woman travelling alone and earning her money through back alley gambling but her world is still a traditional one in which the honour of the game is supposed to matter, even if it is ignored by the unscrupulous who would be prepared to undercut their rivals away from the gaming table by attacking their friends and allies. Rin gains and then loses, reduced to an endgame she never wanted to play and which she fully intends to win by destroying herself only to be saved by her greatest rival.

Gosha’s reputation for vulgarity was not quite unjustified, even if perhaps overstated. Rin apparently inhabits the male world of her profession in a full way as an odd scene in which she’s taken to an inn to watch a live lesbian sex show seems to demonstrate though there is no dramatic purpose to its inclusion save to emphasise Rin’s impassive poise. Though nudity is otherwise kept to a minimum, Rin’s yakuza tattoos are on full show as a clear indication of her position in the underworld. The appearance of such extensive tattooing on female gangsters is a rare sight and Gosha does his best to make the most of its transgressive qualities.

When the producers realised Gosha was not as filled with intensity as they’d hoped, they hatched on the idea of attaching a hard rock song to the end to give the film more edge (apparently much to the consternation of the composer). This might explain the strange entry to the credits sequence which is accompanied by a very up to the minute burst of synthesiser music accompanied by computer graphics loading the faces of the stars across the screen in strips. Perhaps meant to bring the ‘70s inspired action into the present day the sudden entry of the modern world is jarring to say the least though perhaps it kept viewers in their seats long enough to enjoy the post credits sting of Rin giving it her best “you shall perish”, presumably to whet appetites for a sequel. Even if not quite as impressive as some of Gosha’s previous work, Heat Wave makes up for its flaws in its exciting finale which brings all of his choreographical and aesthetic abilities to their zenith as Rin basks in both victory and defeat with the legacy of the good people who took her in burning all around her.


Selection of scenes from the the film (no subtitles)

Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Masayuki Suo, 2014)

lady-maikoWhen Japan does musicals, even Hollywood style musicals, it tends to go for the backstage variety or a kind of hybrid form in which the idol/singing star protagonist gets a few snazzy numbers which somehow blur into the real world. Masayuki Suo’s previous big hit, Shall We Dance, took its title from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song featured in the King and I but it’s Lerner and Loewe he turns to for an American style song and dance fiesta relocating My Fair Lady to the world of Kyoto geisha, Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Maiko wa Lady) . My Fair Lady was itself inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion though replaces much of its class conscious, feminist questioning with genial romance. Suo’s take leans the same way but suffers somewhat in the inefficacy of its half hearted love story seeing as its heroine is only 15 years old.

Country bumpkin Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) arrives in the elegant Kyoto geisha quarters with only one hope – to become a maiko! However, despite the scarcity of young girls wanting to train, Haruko’s hopes are dashed by the head geisha who finds it impossible to understand anything she’s saying thanks to her extraordinarily rare accent which is an odd mix of north and south country dialects. Luckily for her, a linguistics professor who has an unhealthy obsession with rare dialectical forms overhears her speech patterns and is instantly fascinated. Striking up a bet with another tea house patron, Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa) takes on the challenge of training Haruko to master the elegant Kyoto geisha accent in just six months.

The teahouses and the culture which goes with them are a part of the old world just barely hanging on in the bright new modern era. Haruko first became infatuated with all things maiko thanks to an online blog kept by the teahouse’s only current star, Momoko (Tomoko Tabata) – the daughter of the proprietor still only a maiko at age thirty precisely because of the lack of candidates to succeed her. Despite this intrusion of the modern, the way of the geisha remains essentially the same as it has for centuries with all of the unfairness and exploitation it entails. Hence, most of the women working in the teahouses are part-timers brought in for big events with only rudimentary training and even those who have spent a significant amount of time learning their craft lament that they don’t get paid a real salary and even their kimono and accessories technically belong to the teahouse.

Despite being on the fringes of the sex trade, as the professor’s assistant takes care to warn Haruko, there’s still something glamorous about the the arcane teahouse world bound up in ancient traditions and complicated rituals of elegance. Haruko faces a steep learning curve as a clumsy country girl who doesn’t even know how to sit “seiza” without her legs going numb. Learning to speak like a Kyoto native may be the least of her worries seeing as she has to learn how to dress in kimono, play a taiko drum and shamisen, and perform the traditional dances to perfection.

This is a musical after all and so the maiko dance routines eventually give way to more conventional choreography and large scale broadway numbers. The title song is particularly catchy and resurfaces at several points though the score as a whole is cheerful and inventive, incorporating a classic broadway sound with modern twist fused with the traditional music of the teahouse. Naoto Takenaka makes a typically creepy appearance displaying a fine voice for a comic number dedicated to the art of being a male maid to a geisha house but the big set piece is reserved for a comic take on the “Rain in Spain” in which the linguistics professor oddly wonders where all the water goes when it’s “pissing it down in Kyoto”. Unfortunately much of this revolves around linguistic jokes which are impossible to translate though the scene as a whole does its job well enough in introducing us to Haruko’s travails in the world of elocution. Other routines featuring the backstories of some of the minor characters also have a pleasantly retro quality inspired by period cinema complete with painted backdrops and old fashioned studio bound cinematography.

Though charming enough, Haruko’s progress is perhaps too conventional to move Lady Maiko far beyond the realms of cheerful fluff. Though Suo wisely keeps the romance to a minimum, Haruko’s growing feelings for the professor as well as a possible connection with his assistant are a little uncomfortable given her youth and the age differences involved even if the professor remains completely unaware. Unlike the source material Haruko’s passage is otherwise presented without complication (save for brief forays into the darkside of the geisha trade) as the country girl makes good, achieving her goals through hard work, perseverance, and the support of the community. In the end it’s all just far too nice, but then that’s not such a bad problem to have and there are enough pretty dance routines and warmhearted comedy to charm even the most jaded of viewers.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)