Zokki (ゾッキ, Naoto Takenaka, Takayuki Yamada, & Takumi Saitoh, 2020)

“Thanks to secrets carefully kept by people the world keeps turning” according to one of the many heroes of Zokki (ゾッキ), a series of intersecting vignettes adapted from the cult manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge and directed by three of Japan’s most prominent actor-directors, Naoto Takenaka (whose Nowhere Man also adapted Tsuge), Takayuki Yamada and Takumi Saitoh. According to the philosophical grandpa who opens the series of elliptical tales everyone has their secrets and without them you may die though each of the protagonists will in fact share their secrets with us if by accident or design. 

Seamlessly blended, the various segments slide into and around each other each taking place in a small rural town and primarily it seems around 2001 though as we’ll discover the timelines seem curiously out of joint as motifs from one story, a broken school window, an awkward moment in a convenience store, the retirement of a popular gravure model/AV actress etc, randomly appear in another. This is however all part of the overarching thesis that life is an endless cycle of joy and despair in which the intervals between the two gradually shrink as you age before ceasing to exist entirely. 

Or so says our first protagonist, Fujimura (Ryuhei Matsuda), a socially awkward man heading off on a random bicycling road trip in which he has no particular destination other than “south” or maybe “west” as he later tells a potential friend he accidentally alienates. Fujimura’s unspoken secret seems to link back to a moment of high school trauma in which he betrayed one burgeoning friendship in order to forge another by joining in with bullying gossip and eventually got his comeuppance. Meanwhile the reverse is almost true for Makita (Yusaku Mori) who relates another high school tale in which he overcame his loneliness by befriending Ban (Joe Kujo), another odd young man rejected by teachers and the other pupils for his often strange behaviour such as his tendency to shout “I want to die”. Ban claims to have heard a rumour that Makita has a pretty sister and Makita goes along with it, eventually having to fake his sister’s death in order to seal the lie only for Ban to find happiness in his adult life largely thanks to Makita’s act of deception. 

The broken window which brought them together turns up in another tale, that of Masaru (Yunho) whose adulterous father Kouta (Takehara Pistol) took him on a midnight mission to steal a punching bag (and some adult DVDs) from the local high school only to encounter a sentient mannequin/ghost who is later likened to the young woman from Fujimura’s past. Bar some minor embarrassment there’s no real reason the ghost sighting would need to be kept secret, the deception in this case more to do with Kouta’s affair and his subsequent departure from his son’s life only to make an unexpected return a decade later. The affair also makes him a target for fisherman Tsunehiko, the betrayed husband and one of the fisherman celebrating the birthday of a colleague along with an existentially confused Fujimura. Meanwhile, Fujimura’s fed up neighbour secretly writes a rude word on a note to himself instead of the usual “good morning” only to realise it’s been moved when he opens the local video store the next morning. 

Eventually coming full circle, Zokki insists what goes around comes around, everything really is “an endless cycle”, and that in the grand scheme of things secrets aren’t always such a bad thing. They keep the world turning and perhaps give the individual a sense of control in the necessity of keeping them if running with a concurrent sense of anxiety. The criss-crossing of various stories sometimes defying temporal logic hints at the mutability of memory while allowing the creation of a zany Zokki universe set in this infinitely ordinary small town in rural northern Japan. As the various protagonists each look for an escape from their loneliness, unwittingly spilling their secrets to an unseen audience, the endless cycle continues bringing with it both joy and sorrow in equal measure but also a kind of warmth in resignation. Beautifully brought together by its three directors working in tandem towards a single unified aesthetic, Zokki defies definition but rejoices in the strange wonder of the everyday in this “obscure corner of the world”.


Zokki streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 24th October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

NYAFF intro

Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1991)

Shinya Tsukamoto burst onto the scene with indie cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, an avant-garde body horror exploration of dehumanising industrialisation. After performing as a virtual one man band, however, Tsukamoto’s second film, Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ/妖怪ハンター, Hiruko / Yokai Hunter), was his studio first accepting the opportunity to direct a feature adaptation of Daijiro Morohoshi’s Yokai Hunter manga. Some have seen this as a huge stylistic departure, shifting from the punk aesthetics of Tetsuo towards warmly nostalgic summer adventure, but it is in fact perfectly in keeping with Tsukamoto’s earlier 8mm work such as Adventures of Electric Rodboy while also reminiscent of the kind of wistful teen adventures Nobuhiko Obayashi among others had been making throughout the Bubble era. 

Nevertheless, Hiruko’s main lessons seem to relate to the dangers of buried history and its corrupted parental legacy. The franchise protagonist, Reijiro Hieda (Kenji Sawada), is a once promising archeologist ostracised by his peers for his determination to prove the existence of yokai or “goblins”. Still grieving the death of his wife Akane (Chika Asamoto), Reijiro is summoned to her hometown by his brother-in-law, high school teacher Mr. Yabe (Naoto Takenaka), who informs him that he’s found something in a burial mound which he believes was built “by the ancients to appease evil spirts”. Yabe insists that he doesn’t believe in yokai, but thinks it might be a good opportunity for Reijiro to further investigate his theory. By the time Reijiro arrives, however, Yabe has already disappeared along with high school girl Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno) after exploring the tomb alone. 

Though set in the present day, Tsukamoto plays with horror serial gothic motifs such as the creepy tombs, suspicious janitor, and the continually befuddled Reijiro dressed in his old-fashioned white suit while armed with an arsenal of yokai fighting gadgets all contained in the Mary Poppins-like suitcase he continually carries around though at one point he seems to try catching escaped yokai with fly paper and is generally found wielding bug spray. Despite constantly working with dirt, an early joke sees him undone by spotting a creepy crawly in his room. This does not bode well for him, because Hiruko’s end game is convincing its victims to decapitate themselves before attaching their severed heads to weird, spider-like bodies. 

It does this seemingly by locating a pleasant, poignant memory and promising to prolong it forever. Reijiro’s nephew Masao (Masaki Kudou) is almost seduced on seeing an idyllic scene of missing high school girl Tsukishima dressed in white and enjoying a picnic on a summer’s day only to be suddenly brought back by his uncle. The inheritor of a curse, Masao is often struck by fits of furious burning in which his clothes seem to steam while he later displays strange scars on his back which take on the appearance of human faces. His predicament is largely his grandfather’s fault in having kept from his father the truth about the mound, leading him towards an over curious investigation during which it appears he accidentally released a bunch of demons from their eternal imprisonment. Now all Hiruko wants is to find the spell to open the door so they can all escape for good. 

Having been in a sense betrayed by a corrupted parental legacy, Masao nevertheless finds salvation in his history by way of his uncle who has of course memorised the entirety of the “Kojiki”, an ancient chronicle of myth and folklore, and recognises the two passages necessary for opening and closing the stone enclosure one found on a broken stele and the other hidden inside an ancient helmet appropriated by Yabe. Masao can only save himself and lift the curse by learning the truth which had been hidden from him, ironically putting on the helmet while others lose their heads. 

Yet Hiruko itself is also perhaps a manifestation of grief, something which cannot be eliminated but must in a sense be contained. Reijiro is almost tricked by Hiruko on being shown a vision of his late wife, unwittingly revealing the opening spell in return for being able to remain within the memory. Masao is similarly seduced by his vision of Tsukishima, but must then deal with the loss of his father who sacrificed himself trying to save others having realised his mistake in unearthing truths intended to stay buried. The fault lies however with Yabe’s own father whose attempt to keep him safe only endangered him. 

In keeping with much of Tsukamoto’s work, Hiruko’s threat lies in the loss of bodily autonomy and corporeal destruction forcing the victim into an act of mortal self-harm and thereafter repurposing and remaking the physical form in its own image. Tsukamoto’s characteristically elaborate practical effects and use of creepy stop motion add to the sense of the uncanny, horror lurking in dark corners everywhere waiting for the opportunity to strike. Even so, Hiruko is not without its sense of silliness, Tsukamoto playing gleefully with genre archetypes while conforming fully to the summer adventure movie necessarily filled with a sense of wistful nostalgia. Having contained their demons, Masao and Reijiro emerge at summer’s end, but are greeted with another hazy goodbye if each a little more secure in having learned to accommodate their corrupted legacies. 


Hiruko the Goblin streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Akira Ikeda, 2021)

“Just shoot where you’re told and you’ll be fine” a veteran advises an unusually curious newbie when asked who exactly it is they’re shooting at, beginning to question for the first time everything he’s been told. Continuing in the same vein as his 2017 surrealist drama Ambiguous Places, Akira Ikeda’s Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Kimajime Gakutai no Bonyari Senso) follows a more linear though meandering path in its timely anti-war message as the brainwashed hero comes to contemplate the tenets of his society thanks to a naive young man and the healing power of music. 

The small town of Tsuhiramachi has been at war with Tawaramachi across the river for so long no one can remember why it is that they’re fighting, least of all perpetually absent-minded mayor Natsume (Renji Ishibashi) who can’t even remember his own son’s name. Soldier Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara) is woken every day by a marching band, meeting friend and colleague Fujima (Hiroki Konno) in the street and walking over to the barracks where he changes into his uniform and then spends all day firing a rifle across the river. His identical days are disrupted when former thief Mito (Hiroki Nakajima) is conscripted into their group and Fujima is injured in seemingly the only instance of returned fire. Tsuyuki is then transferred to the marching band and begins practicing his trumpet by the water only to be surprised when he begins hearing someone joining him from the other side. 

Everyone in Tsuhiramachi walks with automaton rigidity and talks with an almost ritualistic austerity in which dialogue is repeated endlessly and conversation loops are common. The townspeople dress as if they were stuck in the 1940s though the uniforms are more European than Japanese while Tsuyuki and Fujima wear identical blue suits when travelling to and from their homes. The thief, Mito, meanwhile dresses in a less formal brown shirt and trousers, apparently engaging in stealing from the local simmered food stand for reasons of poverty while his friend, mayor’s son Heiichi (Naoya Shimizu), does so because he can. When the stall owner’s wife catches them, Heiichi allows his father to think he valiantly chased a thief and is made a police officer for his pains continuing to extort food and generally abuse his authority largely conferred through feudal dynastic privilege. 

There is certainly something in Mito’s tendency to frame each of his statements as a questions, asking “Am I a soldier now?” Or “My name is Mito?” when questioned. The lady who runs the diner where Tsuyuki frequently lunches is extremely proud of her son away fighting up river and resents being questioned by Mito, shovelling extra rice into the men’s bowls when impressed by something they’ve said and then taking it back when disappointed. Mito wants to know why it is they’re fighting and who the people across the river really are. Shiroko (Hairi Katagiri) doesn’t approve of asking such taboo questions and affirms that she doesn’t need to meet the residents of Tawaramachi to know that they’re “barbaric”, “horrible” people. Even the owner of the simmered food stall who insists he knows “everything” insists he’s no interest in knowing about Tawaramachi. 

Yet they’re always being told that the “threat” from across the river is increasing even if the mayor has forgotten what the threat exactly is. Meanwhile, an elite troop will soon be arriving to take part in the trials for a brand new super weapon. A disapproving Shirako asks Tsuyuki how music is useful for the war, but he doesn’t know, he’s merely following orders. Music however, along with Mito’s awkward questions, begins to open his eyes as he contemplates whether the trumpeter from across the water can really be so different from himself. He disapproves of Heiichi’s abuse of his authority, of civil servant Kawajiri’s apparent replacing of his wife with another woman because he believes she cannot bear children, and of the army’s treatment of a friend now struggling to find employment having lost his arm for the good of the town. Shiroko insists that dying in war is better than being injured, but the young universally agree that no, it isn’t. In this strangely Kafka-esque world of crypto-militarism and the feudal mentality, Tsuyuki finds freedom and escape in his trumpet but not even these it seems are enough to call the “meaningless” and internecine violence to a halt. Filled with a strangely poignant poetry, Ikeda’s absurdist drama takes aim at lingering authoritarianism but suggests that music may be panacea for human conflict if only we’d stop a little and listen. 


The Blue Danube streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999)

Shinya Tsukamoto made his name as a punk provocateur with a series of visually arresting, experimental indie films set to a pounding industrial score and imbued with Bubble-era urban anxiety. Inspired by an Edogawa Rampo short story, 1999’s Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Soseiji Gemini) is something of a stylistic departure from the frenetic cyberpunk energy of his earlier career, marked as much by stillness as by movement in its strikingly beautiful classical composition and intense color play. Like much of his work, however, Gemini is very much a tale of societal corruption and a man who struggles against himself, unable to resist the social codes which were handed down to him while simultaneously knowing that they are morally wrong and offend his sense of humanity. 

Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) is a war hero, decorated for his service as a battlefield medic saving the life of a prominent general during the first Sino-Japanese War. He’s since come home and taken over the family business where his fame seems to have half the well-to-do residents of the area inventing spurious excuses to visit his practice, at least according to one little boy whose mum has brought him in with a bump on the head after being beset by kids from the slums. “They’re just like that from birth” Yukio later tells his wife echoing his authoritarian father, “the whole place should be burned to the ground”. A literal plague is spreading, but for Yukio the slums are a source of deadly societal corruption that presents an existential threat to his way of life, primed to infect with crime and inequity. His home, which houses his practice, is hermetically sealed from those sorts of people but lately he’s begun to feel uneasy in it. There’s a nostalgia, a sadness, a shadowy presence, not to mention a fetid stench of decay which indicates an infection has already taken place, the perimeter has been penetrated. 

The shadowy presence turns out to belong to his double, Sutekichi whose name literally means “abandoned fortune”, a twin exposed at birth as unworthy of the family name owing to his imperfection in the form of a snake-like birthmark on his leg and raised by a travelling player in the slums. Having become aware of his lineage, Sutekichi has returned to make war on the old order in the form of the parents who so callously condemned him to death, engineering their demise and then pushing Yukio into a disused well with the intention of stealing his identity which comes with the added bonus that Yukio’s wife, Rin (Ryo), was once his. 

Rin’s presence had already presented a point of conflict in the household, viewed with contempt and suspicion by Yukio’s mother because of her supposed amnesia brought on by a fire which destroyed her home and family. Yukio had reassured her that “you can judge a person by their clothes”, insisting that Rin is one of them, a member of the entrenched upper-middle class which finds itself in a perilous position in the society of late Meiji in which the samurai have fallen but the new order has not quite arrived. In Rin modernity has already entered the house, a slum dweller among them bringing with her not crime and disease but a freeing from traditional austerity. In opposing his parents’ will and convincing them to permit his marriage, Yukio has already signalled his motion towards the new but struggles to free himself from the oppressive thought of his father. He confesses that as a battlefield physician he doubted himself, wondering if it might not have been kinder to simply ease the suffering of those who could not be saved while his father reminds him that the German medical philosophy in which he has been trained insists that you must continue treatment to the very last. 

This is the internal struggle Yukio continues to face between human compassion and the obligation to obey the accepted order which includes his father’s feelings on the inherent corruption of the slum dwellers which leads him to deny them his medical knowledge which he perhaps thinks should belong to all. The dilemma is brought home to him one night when a young woman is found violently pounding on his door wanting help for her sickly baby, but just as he makes up his mind to admit her, putting on his plague suit, a messenger arrives exclaiming that the mayor has impaled himself on something after having too much to drink. Yukio treats the mayor and tells his nurses to shoo the woman away, an action which brings him into conflict with the more compassionate Rin who cannot believe he could be so cynical or heartless. 

Where Yukio is repressed kindness, a gentle soul struggling against himself, Sutekichi is passion and rage. Having taken over Yukio’s life, he takes to bed with Rin who laughs and asks him why it is he’s suddenly so amorous. She sees or thinks she sees through him, recognising Sutekichi for whose return she had been longing but also lamenting the absent Yukio who was at least soft with her in ways Sutekichi never was. “It’s a terrible world because people like you exist” Sutekichi is told by a man whose fiancée he robbed and killed. Yukio by contrast is unable to understand why this is happening to him, believing that he’s only ever tried to make people happy and has not done anything to merit being thrown in a well, failing to realise that his very position of privilege is itself oppressive, that he bears his parents’ sin in continuing to subscribe to their philosophy in insisting on their innate superiority to the slum dwellers who must be kept in their place so that they can continue to occupy theirs. 

Apart, both men are opposing destructive forces in excess austerity and violent passion, only through reintegration of the self can there be a viable future. Tsukamoto casts the austerity of the medical practice in a melancholy blue, contrasting with the fiery red of the post-apocalyptic slums, eventually finding a happy medium with the house bathed in sunshine and the family seemingly repaired as a doctor in a white suit prepares to minister to the poor. Having healed himself, he begins to heal his society, treating the plague of human indifference in resistance to the prevalent anxiety of the late Meiji society. 


Gemini is released on blu-ray in the UK on 2nd November courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a commentary by Tom Mes, making of featurette directed by Takashi Miike, behind the scenes, make up demonstration featurette, Venice Film Festival featurette, and original trailer.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Shinji Hamasaki, 2020)

©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

“What’s important is purpose, to live for something. Without it you’re as good as dead” according to the hero of madcap existentialist farce Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Ichido Shinde Mita). The feature debut from ad director Shinji Hamasaki pits a rebellious student against her overly literal, authoritarian dad as the pair begin to come to a kind mutual understanding only once he “dies” after being tricked into taking an experimental drug in order to unmask conspiracy within his own organisation. 

College student Nanase (Suzu Hirose) intensely resents her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the CEO of Nobata Pharmaceuticals which he has long been pressuring her to join. She’s currently the lead singer in death metal band Soulzz only according to a record scout at one of their shows their problem is that they’re all “zz” and no soul. Meanwhile, Nobata has assigned an underling, Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa), to shadow her partly because Matsuoka too has very little presence and is in fact nicknamed “ghost” for his essential invisibility. The trouble starts with the escalation of a corporate feud as Nobata’s old buddy Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada) starts manoeuvring to get his hands on the company’s research into an anti-ageing serum codenamed “Romeo”, planting a mole inside the organisation. As a consequence of his research another of the scientists nicknamed “Gramps” has stumbled on another drug which renders someone temporarily “dead” for a period of two days, naming it “Juliet”. Watabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a consultant Nobata has brought in to streamline the business, convinces him to take the experimental drug in order to flush out the mole while secretly working with Tanabe to take over the company by forcing through a merger while Nobata is out of action. 

A typical socially awkward scientist, Nobata believes that life is about experiment and observation, a belief system which has thoroughly irritated his daughter who still lives at home but has divided the territory in half with clearly marked red tape. Nanase’s animosity towards her father apparently stems back to the death of her late mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura), angry with him that he never left his desk and didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she passed away. “Life’s not a lab experiment” she sings, recalling her childhood during which her overly literal father took away life’s magic by patiently over explaining fairytales, scoffing that Prince Charming probably didn’t revive Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but a transfer of static electricity, while continuing to order her around in fatherly fashion now she’s all grown up. Perhaps still stuck in a petulant adolescence she started the band to vent her frustrations with the world in the form of a death metal “mass”, but she’s growing up. Her bandmates are getting jobs or getting married, she’s still stuck with no real clue about what it is she actually wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want anything to do with Nobuta Pharmaceuticals.  

Once her father “dies”, however, she begins to gain a new appreciation for his life philosophy able to see but not hear his “ghost” while his body lies on a table in the office cafeteria. Nobata went into pharmaceuticals to help people, but has been led on a dark and vacuous path pursuing anti-ageing technology which is in itself a rejection of change and transience. Ending all her sentences with the word “death”, that’s not something Nanase can get behind. She believes in growing old gracefully, that they make drugs not to cheat death but to be able to spend longer with those they love. As her father had advised Matsuoka to do, she begins to find her purpose, rediscovers her soul, and figures out what it is she’s supposed to do with her life.

Matsuoka, however, seems to be permanently “invisible” despite the tentative romance that develops as he and Nanase attempt to subvert the conspiracy to stop them doing her dad in for good, brushing up against the venal Tanabe who seems set to muster all his corporate advantages against them partly because of an old grudge against Nobata. Of course, you have to wonder why the conspirators didn’t just poison him rather than having him go Juliet and then entering a race against time to cremate him before he wakes up, but as Nobata reminds us there are many things which science cannot explain. A cheerfully silly Christmas tale of rediscovering what it means to be “alive” in the presence of death, Not Quite Dead Yet is zany seasonal fun but with plenty of soul as its heroes learn to shake off cynical corporatism for a healthy respect of the values of transience.


Not Quite Dead Yet screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

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.