On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Kenji Iwaisawa, 2019)

The high school band movie has a special place in Japanese cinema. From the anxious release of Linda Linda Linda to the laidback charms of K-On, music is that rare thing that both brings people together and enables individual expression. Adapted from the cult manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi, Kenji Iwaisawa’s highly stylised indie animation On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Ongaku) is a psychedelic ode to the transportive qualities of musical performance from either side of the stage as its laconic, tongue-tied heroes rediscover themselves through the art of song. 

Kenji (Shintaro Sakamoto) is perhaps the archetypal hero of another kind of manga, a shaven-headed delinquent stepping straight out of the pages of Crows Zero or a hundred other tales of high school hierarchies mediated through male violence. Known for his “spaghetti fist”, the monosyllabic young man is feared all around town as a ruthless fighter, engaging in petty acts of aggression with boys from neighbouring high schools, such as the mohawked Oba (Naoto Takenaka) and his identically dressed gang of young toughs who seem to be his current nemesis.

Lost in his own little world, Kenji barely notices when he finds himself in the middle of a crime scene as a thief runs past him on the street pursued by a heroic young man who, temporarily liberating himself, thrusts the guitar he is carrying into Kenji’s arms. Bemused by the chaotic scene in front of him, Kenji becomes fascinated by the strange instrument and immediately announces to his two friends, Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa), that they’ll be forming a band, picking up everything they need from the school music room and cheerfully walking off with it. Of course, they have no idea what instruments even are let alone how to play them but then that hardly matters, or as Kenji puts it might just be the “whole point”. 

Asakura comes up with a name for their musical trio, “Kobujutsu”, without quite knowing what it means (classical martial arts), later realising they have a problem because there’s already a similarly named band at school, Kobijutsu (classical fine arts). Asakura has the idea to strong-arm the other guys into changing their monicker, but in place of the expected battle of the bands the two sets of unlikely allies find unexpected common ground in musical appreciation. Kobijutsu, led by introverted music geek Morita (Kami Hiraiwa), is an old school retro folk trio, while Kenji & co are unrefined, avant-garde punk rockers, but each discovers something in the other that speaks directly to them in mutual understanding as “musicians”. 

In fact, “musicians” is how Kenji demands to be identified, explaining to the gang’s female friend Aya (Ren Komai) who was used to referring to them as the “three musketeers”,  that they’re “now obsessed with music” which is why they “don’t have time” to go fight Oba. But Kenji later finds himself depressed, declaring himself “bored” with the band much to the alarm of his two friends who’ve fully embraced their artistic sides. The young men find themselves literally transported by music, Morita seeing himself in a surrealistic scene surrounded by artefacts of misremembered traditional culture pointing to unexpected angles in Kenji’s raw musical expression which later manifest themselves in an unexpected sight gag as he reveals a different side to himself in a musical register which is both refined and naive, while Morita too begins to embrace his inner rebel with psychedelic glee complete with a fresh new look. 

Iwaisawa spent seven years on the project drawing over 40,000 images by hand largely on his own. His designs perfectly mimic the quirky minimalism of Ohashi’s manga, complete with a lowkey deadpan sensibility that is perfectly in tune with the laidback charms of its slacker heroes. Kenji lives in a slightly different temporality, his extended pauses before offering up his idiosyncratically concise replies rendered as perfectly timed still frames while the musical sequences are filled with the raw anarchic energy of something being set free as the youngsters liberate themselves through the joy of music, climaxing in a rotoscoped final concert which unites all in a shared sense of transcendental transformation. Boasting an expertly crafted, nostalgic soundtrack, Iwaisawa’s joyful celebration of the power of making music is an off-beat gem.


On-Gaku: Our Sound is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

Blockbuster cinema wades into the anti-nuclear debate in a characteristically ambivalent take from prolific author Keigo Higashino adapted from his 1995 novel. Brought to the screen by blockbuster master Yukihiko Tsutsumi, The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Tenku no Hachi) is less wedded to its anti-nuclear message than it might at first seem, eventually sliding into a more comfortable tale of failed fathers redeemed with a potentially ambiguous coda that perhaps undercuts much of what has gone before . 

The main action takes place on 8th August, 1995 which falls between the 50th anniversaries of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is also a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe. Engineer Yuhara (Yosuke Eguchi) is about to unveil the “Big Bee”, Japan’s largest ever helicopter built with state of the art technology. He’s brought along his wife and son, but it’s clear there is discord in the family and neither of them are very impressed that the security guard didn’t even seem to know who he was so perhaps he’s not such a big shot after all. While his wife Atsuko (Kei Ishibashi) takes their son Takahiko (Shota Taguchi) and another boy to get a drink from the vending machine, Yuhara talks things over with a colleague and reveals that his workaholic lifestyle has destroyed his family life. He’s about to be divorced and doesn’t seem particularly cut up about it. Asked what’s going to happen to Takahiko, Yuhara cooly explains that it’s best he stays with his mum because he isn’t capable of being a good father to him. Unfortunately, Takahiko overhears him say that he’s essentially planning to abandon him and runs off to explore on his own, eventually sneaking aboard the helicopter which is then hijacked by a mysterious villain via remote control who flies it over a nuclear power plant and gives the Japanese government the eight hours before the fuel runs out to agree to shut down all the nuclear power plants in Japan. 

Yuhara’s failure as a father is immediately brought home to him when his son manages to throw the other boy, who climbed in with him but got injured, to safety, but doesn’t trust his dad enough to jump himself after hearing him say he was going to abandon him to his mother. Yuhara, meanwhile, was able to jump and grab the ramp of the helicopter but not to climb up and reach his son. He has to accept that his failure as a father and in consequence as a man is complete and total. His quest to save Takahiko is also a quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his society and avoid being branded as a man who sacrificed his family for a career and was finally unable to protect them.

Yet, at the present time, he’s also trying to save a nation while in the place of a father. To his mind, he built the Big Bee as a rescue craft, but its usage is most obviously military. He and his former colleague Mishima (Masahiro Motoki) see themselves as neutral engineers interested in technology but not particularly in its application. The government is reluctant to shut the plants down not only because cutting the power is extremely inconvenient and damaging to the economy, but because they do not wish to reopen the nuclear debate and risk the general populace realising that nuclear power is not entirely “safe”. Of course, this has extreme resonance in light of the Fukushima disaster, the government wilfully putting lives at risk in order to safeguard its own ends in refusing to issue an evacuation order for a potential disaster area covering all of the nation’s major cities right across the centre of the Japanese mainland.

This cavalier approach to human life extends to those working in the plants. We’re quickly introduced to a middle-aged woman whose son died of leukaemia she believes caused by lax safety procedures while the prime suspect is a friend of his (Go Ayano) who may also be suffering from a terminal illness caused by exposure to radiation after working as a cleaner at the power station. He vows revenge on a society which has rendered him “disposable”, thrown away like used tissue and left to fend for himself only because he was born into socio-economic circumstances which left him with no other choice than to take a “dangerous” job for employers that failed to protect him in much the same way Yuhara has failed to protect his son. 

The farmers in the town where the plant has become the major source of employment complain that no one wanted it but everyone needed the money. One leans into the mild message that perhaps we take our electric lives for granted, plugging in our toothbrushes without really thinking of the costs incurred in how we generate our power. Hotels dim their lights and switch off elevators while guests complain of the heat in the absence of aircon, but didn’t we manage OK before the power grid? Perhaps so, but our lives have changed. It might be as well to think again if those changes are really as good for us as we think they are, but you can’t turn back the clock. 

Not even the villain really wants the clock turning back, just better accountability and proper governance that puts the lives of citizens ahead of economic gain. Then again, a lot of this is personal, an act of self harm rebranded as revenge taken in atonement for the failures of a father. In this respect Yuhara may redeem himself, but there’s a note of discomfort in the jump to 2011 and the Fukushima disaster which doesn’t so much shout “I told you so” as over rely on the heroic efforts of the Self Defence Force as they battle a disaster which the powers that be from the government to the power company have failed to prevent. Yuhara wonders if the country is worth dying for and is comforted only in a trick he taught his son to calm his anxiety in the wake of the Kobe earthquake, tapping out “I am here” in morse code as an affirmation of survival which might also serve to say the work goes on even while “fathers” continue to fail in their responsibilities. 


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン, Bernard Rose, 2019)

Samurai Marathon posterAfter two and a half centuries of peaceful slumber, Japan was jolted out of its isolation by the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. The sudden intrusion proved alarming to most and eventually provoked a new polarisation in feudal society between those who remained loyal to the Shogun and the old ways, and those who thought Japan’s best hope was to modernise as quickly as possible to fend off a foreign invasion if it did eventually arise as many feared it would. Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa) has a foot in both camps. He has no desire to move against the Shogun, but fears that centuries of peace have made his men soft and complacent. His solution is to institute a “Samurai Marathon”, forcing his retainers to run 36 miles to prepare for a coming battle.

If you’ve spent your life sitting around and occasionally waving a sword at something just to keep your hand in, suddenly trying to run 36 miles might not be the best idea, as many samurai keen to win favour through racing glory discover. There is, however, an additional problem in that, unbeknownst to anyone, samurai accountant Jinnai (Takeru Satoh) is a secret ninja spy for the shogun. Confused by the preparations for the race, he reported that a possible rebellion was in the offing only to bitterly regret his decision on realising Itakura’s anxieties are only related to external, not internal, strife. All of which means, the Shogun’s men are on their way and Itakura’s retainers are sitting ducks.

Helmed by British director Bernard Rose, Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン) plays out much more like a conventional European historical drama than your average jidaigeki. Where samurai movies with an unusual focus tend to be comedic, Rose opts for a strangely arch tone which is somewhere between po-faced Shakespeareanism and post-modern irony. Rather than the stoical elegance which defines samurai warfare, the violence is real and bloody, if somewhat over the top in the manner of a gory Renaissance painting complete with gasping severed heads and gruesome sprays of dark red blood.

A chronicle of bakumatsu anxiety, the film also takes a much more pro-American perspective than might perhaps be expected, taking the view that the arrival of the Americans heralded in a new era of freedom and the origins of democracy rather than the more ambivalent attitude found in most jidaigeki which tend to focus much more strongly on the divisions within samurai society between those who wanted to modernise and those who just wanted to kick all the foreigners back out again so everything would go back to “normal”. Itakura, like many, is suspicious of foreign influence and the gun-toting, yankee doodle humming Shogunate bodyguard is indeed a villain though it’s Itakura himself who will end up firing a gun as if conceding that the future has arrived and the era of the sword has passed. 

Ramming the point home, Itakura is also forced to concede to the desires of his wilful daughter, Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), who wanted to travel and see the world while her society (and conventionally minded though doting father) insisted all there was for her was marriage and a life stuck inside castle walls. Managing to escape and disguising herself by cutting her hair and putting on peasant clothes, Yuki is able to evade detection longer than expected precisely because few people have ever seen her face. She also gets to make use of some of the samurai training she’s received by holding her own out on the road, though it seems improbable that her father would let her ride out alone even if he finally allows her free rein to go where she chooses.

Meanwhile, other ambitious retainers try to use the race to their own advantage though there’s poignant melancholy in one lowly foot soldier’s (Shota Sometani) dreams of being made a samurai considering that in just a few short years the samurai will be no more. The final sepia shift into the present day and a modern marathon may be a stretch, as might the unnecessary final piece of onscreen text informing us that we’ve just watched the origin story for the Japanese marathon, but the main thrust of the narrative seems to be that the samurai were running full pelt into an uncertain future, preparing to surrender their swords at the finish line. An unusual take on the jidaigeki, Samurai Marathon perhaps takes an anachronising view of Bakumatsu chaos in which the samurai themselves recognise the end of their era but finds its feet on the road as its self-interested heroes find common purpose in running home.


Samurai Marathon screens as the opening night gala of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 28 where actress Nana Komatsu will be in attendance to collect her Screen International Rising Star Asia Award.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.

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 is 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)