Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2017)

mukoku posterThe way of the sword is fraught with contradictions. Like many martial arts, kendo is not primarily intended for practical usage but for self improvement, emotional centring, and fostering a big hearted love of country designed to ensure lasting peace between men. Nevertheless, it tends to attract people who struggle with just those issues, hoping to find the peace within themselves though mastery of the sword. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s long and varied career has often focussed on outsiders dealing with extreme emotions and Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU) is no different in this regard as the two men at its centre lock swords at cross purposes, each fighting something or someone else within themselves rather than the flesh and blood opponent standing before them.

Kengo Yatabe’s (Go Ayano) life has been defined by the sword. As a young boy his father, Shozo (Kaoru Kobayashi), began training Kengo intensively but his standards were high, too high for a small boy who only wanted to please his dad but found himself beaten with the weapon he was failing to master. Twenty years later Kengo is a broken man after a long deferred violent confrontation between father and son has left Shozo in a vegetative state, neither dead nor alive, no longer a figure of fear and hate but of guilt and ambivalence. Kengo has given up kendo partly out of guilt but also as a kind of rebellion mixed with self harm and is currently working as a security guard. He spends his days lost in an alcoholic fog, trailing an equally drunken casual girlfriend (Atsuko Maeda) behind him.

Meanwhile, high school boy Toru (Nijiro Murakami) is a classic angry young man working out his frustrations through a hip-hop infused punk band for which he writes the angst ridden poetry that serves as their lyrics. Toru has no interest in something as stuffy as Kendo but when he’s set upon by a bunch of Kendo jocks he decides he’s not going down without a fight. Winning through underhanded street punk moves would normally be frowned upon but the ageing monk who runs the high school kendo club, Mitsumura (Akira Emoto), is struck by his nifty footwork and decides to convince the troubled young man that the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in mastery over the self through mastery of the sword.

The wise old monk pits the self-destructive older man against the scrappy young one, hoping to bring them both to some kind of peaceful equilibrium, with near tragic results. Kengo’s ongoing troubles are born of a terrible sense of guilt, but also from intense self-loathing in refusing to accept that he’s become the man he hated, as broken and embittered as the father who made him that way. Shozo was a kendo master, but as the monk points out, in technique only – his heart was forever unquiet and he never achieved the the true peace necessary to master his art. Knowing this to be the truth only made it worse yet Shozo also knew the burden he’d placed on his son. They say every man must kill his father, but Kengo can’t let the ghost of his go – clinging on to a mix of filial piety and resentful loathing which is slowly turning him into everything he hates.

Toru’s problem’s are pushed into the background but seeing as his enemy is not the flesh and blood threat of an overbearing father but the elements and more particularly water, it will be much harder to overcome. Water becomes a constant symbol for each man – for Toru it’s an inescapable symbol of death and powerlessness, but for Kengo it represents happiness and harmony in rediscovering the good memories he has of his father from joyful family outings to less abusive summer training sessions. Mukoku is the story of three ages of man – the scrappy rebellious teen, the struggling middle-aged man, and the elderly veteran whose own heart is settled enough to see the battles others are waging. The “warrior’s song” as “mukoku” seems to mean changes with each passing season, nudged into tune by the graceful art of kendo.

Kumakiri embraces his expressionist impulses as a young boy finds himself suddenly underwater, vomiting mud and fish while Kengo has constant visions of his father, mother, and younger self ensuring the past is forever present. The ominous score and strange occurrences including ghostly graveyard old women who appear from nowhere in order to offer a lecture on the five buddhist sins lend a more urgent quality to Kengo’s disintegration, though interesting subplots involving a possibly alcoholic girlfriend and a mamasan (Jun Fubuki) at a local bar who might have been Shozo’s mistress are left underdeveloped. Two men face each other to face themselves, trying to beat their demons into submission with wooden swords, but even if the battle is far from over the tide has turned and something at least has begun to shift.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2016)

destruction-babiesPost-golden age, Japanese cinema has arguably had a preoccupation with the angry young man. From the ever present tension of the seishun eiga to the frustrations of ‘70s art films and the punk nihilism of the 1980s which only seemed to deepen after the bubble burst, the young men of Japanese cinema have most often gone to war with themselves in violent intensity, prepared to burn the world which they feel holds no place for them. Tetsuya Mariko’s Destruction Babies (ディストラクション・ベイビーズ) is a fine addition to this tradition but also an urgent one. Stepping somehow beyond nihilism, Mariko’s vision of his country’s future is a bleak one in which young, fatherless men inherit the traditions of their ancestors all the while desperately trying to destroy them. Devoid of hope, of purpose, and of human connection the youth of the day get their kicks vicariously, so busy sharing their experiences online that reality has become an obsolete concept and the physical sensation of violence the only remaining truth.

The rundown port towns of Shikoku are an apt place to stage this battle. Panning over the depressingly quiet harbour, urgent, thrumming electric guitars bring tension to the air as the younger of two brothers, Shota (Nijiro Murakami), catches sight of his only remaining family member, older brother Taira (Yuya Yagira). Currently in the middle of getting a beating from local thugs, Taira signals his intention to leave town, which he does after his boss breaks up the fight and tells him to get lost.

By the time Shota has crossed the river, his brother is already lost to him. A vengeful, crazed demon with strange, burning eyes, Taira has taken the same path as many an angry young man and headed into town spoiling for a fight. Driven by rage, Taira fights back but only to be fought with – he craves pain, is energised by it, and rises again with every fall stronger but a little less human.

As he says, he has his rules (as mysterious as they may be), but Taira’s violent exploits eventually find a disciple in previously cowardly high school boy Yuya (Masaki Suda) who discovers the potential violence has to create power from fear in witnessing Taira’s one man war of stubbornness with the local yakuza. Yuya, a coward at heart, is without code, fears pain, and seeks only domination to ease his lack of self confidence. Taira, random as his violence is, attacks only other males capable of giving him what he needs but Yuya makes a point of attacking those least likely to offer resistance. Proclaiming that he always wanted to hit a woman, Yuya drop kicks schoolgirls and sends middle aged housewives and their shopping flying.

The sole female voice, Nana (Nana Komatsu) – a kleptomaniac yakuza moll who finds her validation though shoplifting unneeded items selected for the pleasure of stealing them, originally finds the ongoing violence exciting as she watches the viral videos but feels very differently when confronted with its real, physical presence and each of the implied threats to her person it presents. Tough and wily, Nana is a survivor. Where Taira staked his life on violence and Yuya on the threat of it, Nana survives through cunning. The victory is hers, as hollow as it may turn out to be.

Mariko’s chilling vision paints the ongoing crime spree as a natural result of a series of long standing cultural norms in which contradictory notions of masculinity compete with a conformist, constraining society. The entire founding principle of the small town in which the film takes place is that men come of age through violence, though the older man who has (or claims to have) provided the bulk of parental input for these parentless brothers describes Taira as if he were the very demon such festivals are often created to expel. Men of 18 years carry the portable shrines, he repeatedly says, but 18 year old Taira is a “troublemaker” and “troublemakers” must leave the town altogether.

If Taira sought connection through violence, Shota continues to seek it through human emotions – searching for his brother, hanging out with his friends, and drawing closer to his brother’s boss who offers him differing degrees of fatherly input. In contrast to his peers, Shota seems to disapprove of the way his cocksure (false) friend Kenji (Takumi Kitamura) treats women though it is also true that Kenji is actively frustrating his attempts to find his brother whilst dangling a clue right before his eyes. Nevertheless, the harshness of this unforgiving world seems determined to turn Shota into the same rage filled creature of despair as his older brother as injustice piles on injustice with no hope of respite.

Destruction Babies is apt name for the current society – born of chaos, trapped in perpetual childhood, and thriving on violence. Taira and Shota were always outsiders in a world which organises itself entirely around the family unit but the force which drives their world is not love but pain, this world is one underpinned by the physical at the expense of the spiritual. Metaphorically or literally, the lives of the young men of today will entail repeated blows to the face while those of the young women will require ingenious sideward motions to avoid them. Oblique, ambiguous, and soaked in blood, Destruction Babies is a rebel yell for a forlorn hope, as raw as it is disturbing.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017 and set for UK release from Third Window Films later in the year.

Original trailer (English subtitles)