Tokyo Ghoul S (東京喰種 トーキョーグール【S】, Kazuhiko Hiramaki & Takuya Kawasaki, 2019)

tg2_poster_3校B_ol_6In Tokyo Ghoul, regular university student Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota) had to learn to accept the parts of himself he didn’t like in order to become the kind of man he wanted to be. Of course, the situation was more complicated than that faced by most young men because Ken Kaneki’s darkness was born of being seduced by a beautiful woman who turned out to be a “ghoul” – a supernatural being craving human flesh, something he later became himself when they were both injured in a freak accident after which he got some of her organs. The sequel, Tokyo Ghoul S (東京喰種 トーキョーグール【S】) finds him in a more centred place, having accepted his new nature as neither human nor ghoul but a bridge between the two. Now he has a series of different questions to face in trying help others accept themselves in the same way as they too wonder if there are some parts of themselves so dark that if they revealed them they could never be loved.

While Ken goes about his regular student life working part-time at ethical ghoul cafe Anteiku, a ghoul serial killer known as “The Gourmet” (Shota Matsuda) has been making the news after targeting a high profile model (Maggy) whom he stalked and killed simply to taste her heterochromatic eyes. Tsukiyama, as we later learn his name to be, is a dandyish fopp living in a Western-style country house complete with servants who serve him only the finest meals well presented to hide their dark genesis. On catching a whiff of Ken’s unique human/ghoul scent, he knows he must taste him and puts a nefarious plan in motion in order to lure him to a mysterious ghoul-only restaurant where humans are butchered live for show while the clientele salivate over scenes of intense cruelty.

That’s all too much for poor Ken. He can’t understand how anybody could act with so little regard for life. The cafe owner pointedly asks him if he feels pity when looking at the butchered flesh of an animal, which he of course does not. The ghouls feel much the same, humans are their prey – they can’t help what they are, but living under the intense fear of discovery in an obviously hostile world has made them cruel and resentful to the extent that they no longer understand the value of life. The ghouls that Ken knows, the ones which frequent Anteiku, are different. They have resolved to live ethically and respect lives both human and ghoul equally.

Ken’s friend and colleague Touka (Maika Yamamoto), however, is beginning to have her doubts. In the first film we saw her pursue a touching friendship with classmate Yoriko (Nana Mori) whose cooking she made a point of eating solely as a means of connection despite the fact that human food makes her ill. Now she fears she’s doing the wrong thing, that it will only hurt more if her friend finds out her secret and rejects her, or worse that she may put her in danger. Therefore, she counsels Ken to distance himself from his overly cheerful friend Hide (Kai Ogasawara) and the human world in general, threatening that she herself will kill Hide if he discovers that Ken is a ghoul. As expected, Ken ignores her advice but is mildly shaken by it. Deciding to intervene when his sometime enemy Nishiki (Shunya Shiraishi) is being beaten up in the street, he discovers a better future on learning that Nishiki is living with a human woman who knows he is a ghoul, but loves him anyway.

Though Kimi’s (Mai Kiryu) justifications that she can live with the fact her boyfriend kills people and eats them so long as he leaves her friends and family alone is a little worrying, it is a touching example of the film’s positive message that there is no secret so terrible that it means someone can’t be loved. Kimi accepts Nishiki’s nature as a ghoul, aware of the fact he can’t help what he is and that if she had been born a ghoul she would be the same. Touka fears rejection, but on catching sight of her bright red wings Kimi utters the single word “beautiful”, seeing only goodness without fear or hate.

Tsukiyama meanwhile seems to have gone in the opposite direction, pursuing his desires to the point of obsession in a quest for ever greater sensation. He stalks and murders the model to devour her eyes in an especial piece of irony, while his pursuit of Ken takes on an intensely homoerotic quality. Using the same tactics as Tokyo Ghoul‘s Rize, Tsukiyama picks Ken up through bonding over books, invites him to “dinner” and later sends him an invitation accompanied by a single red rose. Despite the romanticism, however, he soon reverts to type in blaming Ken for his actions. “You’re making me this way”, he insists, “take responsibility”, like every abuser ever simultaneously accepting that his behaviour is inappropriate and justifying it as a consequence of someone else’s actions. In the end, Tsukiyama’s illicit desires consume him, while Ken’s act of self-sacrifice once again allows him to be the human/ghoul bridge combatting Tsukiyama’s rapacious cruelty with an open-hearted generosity which pushes Touka to the fore so that she too can learn that peaceful co-existence is possible when there is trust and understanding on both sides.

Nishiki tells Ken his problem is that he’s too nice, but that’s not a bad thing to be because he just might “save somebody someday”. Niceness as a superpower might be an odd message for a movie about flesh eating monsters almost indistinguishable from regular humans, but perhaps that’s what will save us in the end, a generosity of spirit that makes it possible for us each to accept each other’s darkness in acknowledgement of our own. Less stylistically interesting than the first instalment, Tokyo Ghoul S may be a kind of bridge movie in a possible trilogy (a sequel is teased in a brief mid-credits sequence featuring a mysterious character who makes several unexplained appearances throughout the film), but nevertheless does its best to further the Tokyo Ghoul mythology as its hero finds his strength in difference and mutual understanding.


Tokyo Ghoul S screens in the US for three nights only on Sept. 16/18/20 courtesy of Funimation. Check the official website to find out where it’s playing near you!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, Makoto Nagahisa, 2019)

Little Zombies poster“Reality’s too stupid to cry over” affirms the deadpan narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ), so why does he feel so strange about feeling nothing much at all? Taking its cues from the French New Wave by way of ‘60s Japanese avant-garde, the first feature from the award winning And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool director is a riotous affair of retro video game nostalgia and deepening ennui, but it’s also a gentle meditation on finding the strength to keep moving forward despite all the pain, emptiness, and disappointment of being alive.

The “Little Zombies”, as we will later discover, are the latest tween viral pop sensation led by bespectacled 13-year-old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya). Recounting his own sorry tale of how his emotionally distant parents died in a freak bus accident, Hikari then teams up with three other similarly bereaved teens after meeting at the local crematorium where each of their parents is also making their final journey. Inspired by a retro RPG with the same title, the gang set off on an adventure to claim their independence by revisiting the sites of all their grief before making themselves intentionally homeless and forming an emo (no one says that anymore, apparently) grunge band to sing about their emotional numbness and general inability to feel.

Very much of the moment, but rooted in nostalgia for ages past, Little Zombies is another in a long line of Japanese movies asking serious questions about the traditional family. The reason Hikari can’t cry is, he says, because crying would be pointless. Babies cry for help, but no one is going to help him. Emotionally neglected by his parents who, when not working, were too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to him, Hikari’s only connection to familial love is buried in the collection of video games they gave him in lieu of physical connection, his spectacles a kind of badge of that love earned through constant eyestrain.

The other kids, meanwhile, have similarly detached backgrounds – Takemura (Mondo Okumura) hated his useless and violent father but can’t forgive his parents for abandoning him in double suicide, Ishii (Satoshi) Mizuno) resented his careless dad but misses the stir-fries his mum cooked for him every day, and Ikuko (Sena Nakaijma) may have actually encouraged the murder of her parents by a creepy stalker while secretly pained over their rejection of her in embarrassment over her tendency to attract unwanted male attention even as child. The kids aren’t upset in the “normal” way because none of their relationships were “normal” and so their homes were never quite the points of comfort and safety one might have assumed them to be.

Orphaned and adrift, they fare little better. The adult world is as untrustworthy as ever and it’s not long before they begin to feel exploited by the powers intent on making them “stars”. Nevertheless, they continue with their deadpan routines as the “soulless” Little Zombies until their emotions, such as they are, begin inconveniently breaking through. “Despair is uncool”, but passion is impossible in a world where nothing really matters and all relationships are built on mutual transaction.

Mimicking Hikari’s retro video game, the Zombies pursue their quest towards the end level boss, passing through several stages and levelling up as they go, but face the continuing question of whether to continue with the game or not. Save and quit seems like a tempting option when there is no hope in sight, but giving in to despair would to be to let the world win. The only prize on offer is life going on “undramatically”, but in many ways that is the best reward one can hope for and who’s to say zombies don’t have feelings too? Dead but alive, the teens continue their adventure with heavy hearts but resolved in the knowledge that it’s probably OK to be numb to the world but also OK not to be. “Life is like a shit game”, but you keep playing anyway because sometimes it’s kind of fun. A visual tour de force and riot of ironic avant-garde post-modernism, We Are Little Zombies is a charmingly nostalgic throwback to the anything goes spirit of the bubble era and a strangely joyous celebration of finding small signs of hope amid the soulless chaos of modern life.


We Are Little Zombies was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makoto Nagahisa’s short And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool

Music videos for We Are Little Zombies and Zombies But Alive

Dynamite Graffiti (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Masanori Tominaga, 2018)

Dynamite Graffiti posterThe division between “art” and “porn” is as fuzzy as the modesty fog which still occasionally finds itself masking “obscene” images in Japanese cinema, but for accidental king of the skin rag trade Akira Suei it’s question he finds himself increasingly unwilling to answer even while he employs it to his own benefit. Back in the heady pre-internet days of the 1980s, Suei was the public face behind a series of magazines along differing themes but which all included “artistic” images of underdressed women in provocative poses alongside more “serious” content provided by such esteemed figures as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki in addition to stories and essays penned by “legitimate” authors and the more scurrilous fare written by Suei himself. Inspired by one of Suei’s essays “Dynamite Graffiti” (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Sutekina Dynamite Scandal), Masanori Tominaga’s ramshackle biopic has the informal feel of a man telling his sad life story to a less than attentive bar girl as he takes us on a long, strange walk through the back alleys of ‘70s Japan.

The entirety of Suei’s (Tasuku Emoto) life is lived in the wake of a bizarre childhood incident in which his mother (Machiko Ono), suffering with TB and trapped in an unhappy marriage to a violent drunk, chose to commit double suicide with the young man from next door. Perhaps there’s nothing so strange about that in the straightened Japan of 1955, but Suei’s mother chose to end her life in the most explosive of ways – with dynamite stolen from the local mine. Carrying the legacy of abandonment as well as mild embarrassment as to the means of his mother’s dramatic exit, Suei finds himself a perpetual outsider drifting along without the need to feel bound by conventional social moralities as symbolised by the “ideal” family.

What he longs for, by contrast is freedom and independence. Bored by country life he dreamt of moving to the city to work in a factory, but the problem with factories is that they’re mechanical and turn their employees into mere tools with no possibility of personal expression or fulfilment. Spotting an advert for courses in “graphic design”, Suei’s world begins to open up as he embraces the bold new possibilities of art even as it wilfully intersects with commerce.

Taken with the new philosophy of design as the message, a means of “exposing” oneself and ultimately enabling true human connection, Suei remains frustrated by the limitations of his role as a draughtsman for local advertisers and, inspired by a friend’s beautiful poster, finds himself entering the relatively freer creative world of the “cabaret” scene as a crafter of signboards and flyers. The cabaret bars are little better than the factories, exploiting the labour of women who themselves are the product, but Suei’s distaste is soon worn down by constant exposure. From the clubs and cabarets it’s only a natural step towards erotic artwork, nudie photographs, and finally a vast magazine empire of “literary” pornography.

Suei’s accounts of his youth are filled with a lot of high talk about the possibilities of art, of his desire to remove the masks which keep us divided so that we might all know “true” human love. Whether his adventures in adult magazines can be said to do that is very much up for debate. They are, as he freely admits, expressions of male fantasy – exposing a perhaps unwelcome truth about the relationships between men and women even as they continue to exploit them. Yet Suei’s own desire to find something more than a potential for titillation in his work continues to dwindle as he finds himself engaged in increasingly complicated schemes to avoid censure from the police while simultaneously insisting that his magazines are both “artistic” and not.

His insistence that the photographs are “artistic” becomes his primary weapon in getting sometimes vulnerable young women to agree to take their clothes off. Abandoning his loftier aspirations, Suei sinks still further into the smutty morass whilst still maintaining the pretension that his magazines are not like the others. He neglects his wife (Atsuko Maeda) to chase fleeting affections with unsuitable or unstable women, one of whom eventually descends into a mental breakdown which provokes in him only the realisation that his desire for her was a romantic fantasy which her illness has now dissipated. Art is an explosion, Suei claims, but his mother was the explosive force in his life, blowing him off course and leaving him too wounded to embrace the reality he so desperately claims to crave but continues to reject in favour of the same kind of male fantasies his magazines peddle.

Everyone around Suei seems to be damaged. Nary a face in the red light district is without a bandage or bruise of some sort. These are people who’ve found themselves at the bottom of the ladder and are desperately trying to scrap their way up. Times change and Suei’s empire implodes. Porn is swapped for pachinko as the exploitable pleasure of choice paving the way for yet another reinvention which sees him throw on a kimono to rebrand himself as his own mother and self-styled pachinko expert. You couldn’t make it up. Still, perhaps there is something more honest in Suei’s pachinko persona than it might first appear even if his present “art” is unlikely to enlighten us to the true nature of love.


Dynamite Graffiti is screening as the opening night movie of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)