Dynamite Wolf (おっさんのケーフェイ, Kohei Taniguchi, 2017)

dynamite wolf posterBack in the day, lucha libre-style wrestling was hugely popular in Japan. Tiger Mask, a manga set in the world of Japanese pro-wrestling remains a firm favourite and its eponymous hero has also become a byword for altruistic philanthropy as well-meaning anonymous donors donate expensive gifts such as Japanese school backpacks to orphanages in Tiger Mask’s name. Sadly, pro-wrestling is no longer as high-profile as it once was and has left mainstream television screens far behind even if it still maintains a small but dedicated fanbase. Kohei Taniguchi’s Dynamite Wolf (おっさんのケーフェイ, Ossan no Kefei) is out to change all that by shining a spotlight on this almost forgotten phenomenon of crazy outfits, killer moves, and camp showmanship.

Middle schooler Hiroto is the most ordinary of little boys. He has two good friends, but no particular, hopes, dreams, talents, or aspirations. When his teacher assigns the class a special project in which they are supposed to come up with some kind of act they can do before the class to showcase a special skill, Hiroto is at a loss. His friend Takuto is going to whilstle whilst recent transfer student from Tokyo, Naoya, is going to show off his English but neither of them have any suggestions to help Hiroto figure out what his special talent is. Things only get worse when his mother catches sight of another boy, Teruo, on television being showcased on the news because of his dedication to dance, and insists Hiroto go to dance classes too which he is not really interested in. On the way back however his life changes when he spots a man in a strange shiny suit standing outside smoking. Invited inside, Hiroto witnesses the last ever fight of the legendary wrestler Dynamite Wolf and becomes instantly hooked on Japanese pro-wrestling.

Times being what they are, pro-wrestling is not the coolest of hobbies but Hiroto is undeterred. Running into an old man he thinks might by the real Dynamite Wolf, Hiroto starts training to become a wrestler and roping Takuto and Naoya in to practice too. As Naoya points out, anyone seeing three young kids wrestling around with a 50-year-old man would probably call the police but Mr. Sakata really is just interested in spreading the love of wrestling to the younger generation.

Despite the anti-wrestling sentiment, there’s something quite refreshing about the boys who like boyband-style dancing being the bullies and not the bullied. Teruo is a nasty piece of work and a spoilt brat thanks to the fact his dad is the head of the PTA but his love of dance is never questioned or mocked and is even favoured over the comparatively more “manly” hobby of wrestling.

Like any good kids movie, Dynamite Wolf is equally about the power of friendship as it is about reviving pro-wrestling. Teruo starts out as a little thug, behaving with impunity and making Hiroto’s life a nightmare simply because he’s not quite like them. However, once he learns some unpleasant stuff about his dad his world crumbles and he reforms to become a wrestling ally and all round better person.

Hiroto proves far more mature than his mentor who has repeatedly failed to achieve his dreams and now exists in a strange kind of perpetual childhood, trapped inside his own delusions. Unfairly branded a liar, Sakata does like a few tall tales and remains embittered about his lack of his success. His life has been about wrestling, but the ring has never accepted him and now he spends all his time beating up a blow-up doll on the beach and visiting sex workers for lucha libre workouts. His desire to mentor the boys is a noble one in the service of wrestling, but then again are wrestling skills really worth anything when outsiders simply ignore the rules and go for a one punch knock out?

Taking on a Rocky vibe, the question stops being about winning or losing but about finding your passion and then giving it your all even if it doesn’t end in the predictable fashion. Pro-wrestling might be over the top and campy, more about showmanship and ritual than signature moves technical skill but the friendships, loyalties, and sense of fair play are values which deserve to be fought for – mask on or off.


Dynamite Wolf was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Poolsideman (プールサイドマン, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2016)

poolsidemanAround halfway through Poolsideman (プールサイドマン), the director himself playing an overly chatty colleague of the film’s protagonist, embarks on a lengthy rant about encroaching middle-age which is instantly relatable to those who find themselves at a similar juncture. He’s sure the world seemed better when he was a child, there wasn’t all of this distress and anxiety – everything just seemed like it would go on forever but time has inexplicably sped up with a series of rapid changes packed into recent years. The life of a poolsideman is improbably intense, or at least it is for Mizuhara (Gaku Imamura) whose days are all the same but filled with tension and the low simmer of something waiting to explode. Loosely inspired by the real life case of a man who left Japan for the Middle East with the idea of joining Isis, Poolsideman wants to explore why such a surreal thing might happen but finds it all too plausible.

Mizuhara lives his life to strict routine. He gets up, turns on his radio to listen to the latest current events which mostly have to do with atrocities in the Middle East, eats breakfast and goes to work where he checks the lockers, patrols the pool, writes down various readings from the boiler system, and avoids his colleagues at break times by sitting outside or eating shortbread in his car before leaving for the day. He then goes to a local cinema where he is generally the only audience member and watches a violent film full of shooting, explosions and screaming, before grabbing a McDonald’s dinner and going home to bed.

His precious routine is broken when one of his colleagues informs him that they’re both being sent to a different pool to help out with staff shortages and asks if it would be possible to give him a lift because the pool is kind of far and he is only a “paper driver” – he has a license, but in reality doesn’t drive. It’s not as if Mizuhara can refuse, and so the pair drive together to another pool where they do the same job only in different surroundings.

The first hour or so of this two hour film is entirely taken up with Mizuhara repeating his near identical days while different news reports play recounting various international atrocities. Mizuhara never says anything and runs through each of his tasks with robotic precision but there’s something burning somewhere just behind his eyes. He looks at his colleagues with disdain as they gossip raucously in the rec room before taking himself outside to smoke or enjoy his daily shortbread alone in his car listening to more reports of terrible things happening abroad. Despite his apparent calmness, Mizuhara does indeed seem like the type who may just snap but deciding to join Isis is not necessarily the result most would have predicted.

Poolsideman’s main position is that blanket news coverage of horrific events may have strained Mizuhara’s already tense mind, leading him to believe the world is a worse place than it really is. Later, he switches his radio preferences but sticks with international politics as the world swings right – Trump, at that point still a candidate, suggests using nuclear weapons against “enemy” forces in the Middle East (something particularly worrying to the only nation so far with direct experience of nuclear attack) while Obama and Clinton attempt to talk sense. Britain votes for Brexit, against expectation and its own interest which, the commentator explains, is expected to lead to the destabilisation of Cameron’s government, extreme economic chaos, and political turmoil (on point, as it seems). Mizuhara carries on as before, cereal, toothbrushing, the pool, the cinema, and McDonald’s but there’s always the feeling that he’s standing on the edge about to jump and there’s no way to know how he might do it.

Less ostensibly humorous than And The Mudship Sails Away, Poolsideman still finds room for comedy though mostly through the amusing monologues delivered by Watanabe to the ever silent Mizuhara. Ranting about modern life from an inability to connect with the young to the noise pollution of hipster karaoke bars and ramen restaurants that make you book a ticket in advance, Watanabe’s observations are all too true but at least he works out his frustration with friendliness and good humour rather than internalising some kind of barely suppressed rage which threatens to boil over at any second. A kind of state of the nation address, Poolsideman gestures at the enemy within – the ignored, frustrated, and angry young man whose mind is ripe for hijacking when assaulted by a constant barrage of violence and political disturbance. Ending on a note of ambiguous tension Poolsideman wonders where all of this leads, or if it leads anywhere at all, but offers no easy answers for the problem of Japan’s disillusioned youth.


Poolsideman was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Projects (団地, AKA Danchi, Junji Sakamoto, 2016)

danchi posterTimes change so quickly. The “danchi” was a symbol of post-war aspiration and rising economic prosperity as it sought to give young professionals an affordable yet modern, convenient way of life. The term itself is a little hard to translate though loosely enough just means a housing estate but unlike “The Projects” (団地, Danchi) of the title, these are generally not areas of social housing or lower class neighbourhoods but a kind of vertical village which one should never need to leave (except to go to work) as they also include all the necessary amenities for everyday life from shops and supermarkets to bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, aspirations change across generations and what was once considered a dreamlike promise of futuristic convenience now seems run down and squalid. Cramped apartments with tiny rooms, washing machines on the balconies, no lifts – young people do not see these things as convenient and so the danchi is mostly home to the older generation, downsizers, or the down on their luck.

The Yamashitas – Hinako (Naomi Fujiyama) and her husband Seiji (Ittoku Kishibe), moved into the danchi just a few months ago after abruptly closing their herbal medicine business. The couple have integrated into the mini community fairly well, but as newcomers their neighbours remain a little suspicious and stand offish while Hinako and Seiji have their own reasons for moving and mostly want to be left alone. To make ends meet, Hinako is working part-time at the local supermarket but Seiji is mostly left alone in his thoughts and likes to wander through the nearby woodland behind the estate, eventually earning a nomination for head of the housing committee thanks to his calm and reliable character.

Despite being the last thing he wanted Seiji warms to the idea and has quite a few suggestions for improvements to the estate if he gets elected. Sadly, he loses out at the last second when the incumbent decides to stand again. Depressed and humiliated, Seiji decides to hide inside the mini storage compartment under the couple’s kitchen floor, only emerging for meals and to use the bathroom. Seeing as no one has seen Seiji in weeks, the danchi is ripe with gossip. What can have happened to him? Has he run away with his tail between his legs? Found another woman? Disappeared? Another new resident whose husband is a TV reporter has different idea – Hinako must have killed him!

The village mentality is very much alive in the danchi where the dwindling population and host of empty apartments mean that everyone is very invested in everyone else’s business. Thus the gaggle of women who make up the chief gossip society are suddenly convinced they have a murderer in their midst! Hinako, disinterested in her neighbours’ petty chitchat, ignores them and tries to go on with her business whilst putting up with Seiji’s odd antics as best she can. The neighbours’ suspicions are further aroused by the couple’s mysterious visitor, Shinjo (Takumi Saito), who speaks extremely strange Japanese with oddly robotic delivery.

However much the residents like to tell tales about each other, they are still reluctant to get involved in each other’s affairs. Everyone seems to know that the bossy man from across the way is abusive towards his wife and step-son but no one wants to do anything about it. The boy wanders the same woodland as Seiji, loudly singing the Gatchaman theme song with its cheerful chorus of the world being as one, and trying to keep out of his stepfather’s way. Only Hinako, witnessing the man about to inflict some harsh discipline on his step-son is brave enough to say something but her intervention only provides a momentary reprieve.

Though largely played for laughs there are some darker sides to the world of the danchi – the covert affairs, the gossip, the boredom, and the wilful ignoring of other people’s distress, to name but a few. In true Osakan style there is however a warmth to the comedy coupled with an endearing silliness which contrasts nicely with the more melancholy aspects hanging around the edges. Taking in everything from petty local politics to murder accusations and over zealous TV reporting, not to mention aliens, The Projects’ ambitions are wild and the tone oddly surreal but then again, nothing’s impossible in the danchi!


The Projects was screened as part of the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death Note: Light Up The NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

Death Note- Light up the NEW WorldTsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata’s Death Note manga has already spawned three live action films, an acclaimed TV anime, live action TV drama, musical, and various other forms of media becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. A return to cinema screens was therefore inevitable – Death Note: Light up the NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World) positions itself as the first in a possible new strand of the ongoing franchise, casting its net wider to embrace a new, global world. Directed by Shinsuke Sato – one of the foremost blockbuster directors in Japan responsible for Gantz, Library Wars, and the zombie comedy I am a Hero, Light up the NEW World is a new kind of Death Note movie which moves away from the adversarial nature of the series for a more traditional kind of existential procedural which takes its cues from noir rather the eccentric detectives the franchise is known for.

Ten years after Kira, the Shinigami are bored out of their minds and hoping to find themselves a new puppet to play with and so they drop six notebooks at different places across the world and wait to see who picks them up. The first is a Russian doctor who uses it out of curiosity and compassion when faced with the desperate pleas of a suffering, terminally ill man. Others are not so altruistic, as a young girl with reaper eyes goes on a mass random killing spree in the busy Shibuya streets while the police attempt to cover their faces so they can’t fall victim to her relentless writing. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) of the special Death Note task force hesitates, uncertain whether he should disobey orders and shoot the girl to end her killing spree, but his dilemma is solved when a strangely dressed masked man appears and shoots her for him. He is special detective Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) – L’s successor, and a crucial ally in discovering the Shinigami’s intentions as well as the counter plan to obtain the six books and lock them away to permanently disable the Death Note threat.

As in the original series, Kira has his devotees including the cybercriminal Shien (Masaki Suda) who is intent on frustrating the police’s plan by getting his hands on the books and using them to complete Kira’s grand design. This time around, there’s less questioning of the nature of justice or of the police but at least that means there’s little respect given to Kira’s cryptofascist ideas about crime and punishment. At one point a very wealthy woman begins to voice her support of Kira because something needs to be done about “the poor” and all their “crimes” but she is quickly cut down herself as her well dressed friends attempt to rally around her.

The focus is the police, or more specifically their internal political disputes and divisions. Mishima, described as a Kira geek, heads a special squad dedicated to Death Note related crimes, where he is asssited by the flamboyant private detective Ryuzaki who is apparently the last remaining inheritor of L’s DNA. Mishima remains distrustful of his colleague but the bond between the rest of the team is a tight one. In order to frustrate possible Death Note users, none of the squad is using their real names which places a barrier between comrades in arms when it comes to building trust and solidarity in addition to leaving a backdoor open for unexpected secrets.

Sato’s focus, as it has been in the majority of his career, is genre rather than character or exploring the wider themes of the Death Note franchise from the corrupting influence of absolute power to vigilante justice and the failings of the judicial system. The new Death Note world is a more conventional one loyal to the police procedural in which dogged detectives chase mad killers through whatever means necessary whether on foot or online.

The action, however, is generally exciting as the police engage in a cat and mouse game with Shien even if not as complex as that between Kira and L. The Death Notes are an unstoppable force, corrupting otherwise fair-minded people and turning them into vengeful killing machines acting like gods in deciding who should live and who die. Moving away from the series trademark, Light up the NEW World is, essentially, the generic thriller spin-off to the main franchise but is no less fun for it even if it necessarily loses a little of itself in the process.


Death Note: Light up the NEW World was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Parks (PARKS パークス, Natsuki Seta, 2017)

parks posterParks are a common feature of modern city life – a stretch of green among the grey, but it’s important to remember that there has not always been such beautiful shared space set aside for public use. Natsuki Seta’s light and breezy youth comedy, Parks (PARKS パークス), was commissioned in celebration of the centenary of the Tokyo park where the majority of the action takes place, Inokashira. Mixing early Godardian whimsy with new wave voice over and the kind of innocent adventure not seen since the Kadokawa idol days, Parks is a sometimes melancholy, wistful tribute to a place where chance meetings can define lifetimes as well as to brief yet memorable summers spent with gone but not forgotten friends doing something which seems important but which in retrospect may be trivial.

Student Jun (Ai Hashimoto) begins the story with a meta voiceover declaring her intention to begin among the cherry blossoms – letting us know right away that this will be an ephemeral sort of tale. She’s young, in love, and carefree – too carefree, actually, she’s already got a job lined up for after uni but has forgotten to do any of the work needed to graduate. Then, disaster strikes. Dumped by her boyfriend, Jun finds a letter from the university reminding her that she’s way behind and in a lot of trouble (the letter is dated six months previously).

On top of all of this, she bumps into the strange and dreamlike Haru (Mei Nagano) who barges into her apartment which apparently was once home to the lost love of her late father in the 1960s (he was evidently quite an aged dad). Chasing the leads they find in a collection of love letters and photographs the girls track down some of the pair’s old friends and eventually the grandson of the woman in question, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who discovers a reel-to-reel tape among his late grandmother’s effects which contains the remnants of the love song Haru’s father and Tokio’s grandmother were creating together. Seeing as the tape is damaged the trio decide to finish the song which will also form a part of the thesis Jun is supposed to be writing to graduate university.

Light, bright, and breezy like a spring day in a beautiful park, Parks is necessarily slight but filled with all the whimsical nostalgia of the no longer young. Celebrating the park’s 100th birthday, Seta apparently wanted create something which tied the various ages together – hence the 1960s focus, though her 1960s is much more French New Wave and postmodern silliness than it is student protests or economic anxiety. Romance is in the air as lovers meet in the park vowing never to part, only they do for reasons which Haru is desperate to know even if no one else particularly cares about the background to their ongoing project.

The interplay between the three accidental friends is the heart of the drama as they find themselves pulled in various different directions. Shota Sometani’s oddly spirited Tokio with his city boy accent and nerdy attempt at cool wants more Twitter followers and has his eyes set on musical fame where as poor Jun just wants to be left alone to finish Uni while Haru is swept up in the romantic love story of her much missed father.

Or is she? Seta throws in a few meta gags leaving us unsure of who or what Haru really is or if any of this is real. Taking a decidedly Lynchian detour with strange and surreal scenes focussing on a mysterious door, she lends this world an odd sort of charm through, like her New Wave inspiration, often refuses to follow the trail to its conclusion. Flitting between past and future, allowing the two to mingle and overlap and Haru to become a friend of her father as a young man, Parks is a sweet summer daydream filled with gentle music and warm air fit to blow away on the breeze.

The song itself, a characteristically whimsical composition by Tokumaru Shugo (who also has a brief cameo in the film), is a beautifully innocent ‘60s folktune which is then corrupted by the conflicting modern dreams of the easily swayed realists Tokio and Jun while the idealistically romantic Haru listens in horror before Jun finally remembers what all of this was about and tries to fix things before they get any more broken. Some songs are intended to float away on the breeze, like summer adventures and casual friendships and Parks is such a one, though a pleasant way to dream away a warm afternoon.


Parks was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles available by clicking subtitle button)

The Sower (種をまく人, Yosuke Takeuchi, 2016)

the sower stillWhen tragedy strikes the one thing you ought to be able to rely on is your family, but when the tragedy occurs within that sacred space which exits between you what is to be done? Yosuke Takeuchi’s The Sower (種をまく人, Tane wo Maku Hito) attempts to provide an answer whilst putting one very ordinary, loving and forgiving family through a series of tests and tragedies. Lies, regret, and despair conspire to ruin the lives of four once happy people but even in the midst of such a shocking, unexpected event there is still time to turn towards the sun rather than continuing in the darkness.

Mitsuo has just been released from a mental hospital where he received treatment for a nervous breakdown suffered as a direct result of his time as a relief worker after the Tohoku earthquake. Returned to the home of his brother Yuta and his wife Yoko, Mitsuo’s family welcome him with open arms and he is delighted to become reacquainted with his niece Chie as well as meet her younger sister, Itsuki, for the first time. Yoko’s mother was supposed to be coming to help out with the children but has let them down once again. Uncle Mitsuo seems like the perfect solution but tragedy strikes when he leaves the girls on their own to use the bathroom and comes back to discover that Chie has dropped her sister causing her to hit her head on a curb stone surrounding the play area. Mitsuo rushes to the hospital but Itsuki sadly passes away. Chie, overcome with guilt and fear hastily blurts out that her uncle dropped her sister while Mitsuo remains silent.

Chie’s claim sparks a series of consequences, the most serious being the intervention of the police investigating the case who are very keen to poke into each and every dark corner of this ordinary family. Despite the fact that Mitsuo has only been staying with them a few days, the police almost push Chie into accusing Mitsuo of abuse of herself or her sister, trying to paint him as some kind of deranged threat to children everywhere. Feeling guilty about her lie and fearing discovery Chie wisely says nothing, refusing to further incriminate her uncle save for a brief indication that he dropped Itsuki on purpose.

The police are confused, there is no evidence to support the idea of Mitsuo having behaved suspiciously towards either of the girls or anyone else for that matter. There would seem to be no motive for him to intentionally harm his niece, though they don’t want to accuse a grieving little girl of making things up, either. Conscious that making Chie give evidence in court, especially if she is going to lie, may have terrible consequences for her future the police urge Yuta to talk seriously with his daughter and try to get to the truth through more gentle means.

The swarm of tragedy has, however, already begun to drive a wedge between husband and wife. Even at the funeral, Yoko’s mother, forgetting that much of this is her fault for letting the family down in the first place, overtly criticises their decision to take in someone just released from a mental hospital and then leave him in charge of small children. Yuta loves his brother unconditionally, knows he is a good person and does not blame him for his daughter’s death. Yoko cannot bring herself to understand her husband’s reaction, accusing him of choosing his brother over their little girl. Mitsuo’s mental state is repeatedly offered as an explanation for what happened despite the fact that his condition is down to an excess of compassion rather than any violent or destructive impulses.

This same kindness means that he never speaks out or tries to appeal to Chie to tell the truth, shouldering the burden of her guilt and perhaps feeling responsible for having left her alone with her sister even if it was only for a few short minutes. Chie, terrified and remorseful, deeply regrets her original lie but is too afraid to tell the truth. When she finally does decide to confide in someone she is instantly told to keep quiet about it, placing an additional burden on this already fragile little girl in asking her to keep two terrible secrets perhaps for the rest of her life.

As the family falls apart, Mitsuo retreats to the woods, planting sunflowers which Itsuki loved in every conceivable place. Literally trying to plant the seeds of hope, Mitsuo spreads his sunflowers far and wide bringing colour and life to a landscape of desolation but it may take more than flowers to light the way out of this hellish, inescapable tragedy.


The Sower was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2017)

dawn of the felines poster largerTowards the end of the 60s and faced with the same problems as any other studio of the day – namely declining receipts as cinema audiences embraced television, Nikkatsu decided to spice up their already racy youth orientated output with a steady stream of sex and violence. The Roman Porno line took a loftier approach to the “pink film” – mainstream softcore pornography played in dedicated cinemas and created to a specific formula, by putting the resources of a bigger studio behind it with greater production values and acting talent. 40 years on Roman Porno is back. Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Mesunekotachi) takes inspiration from Night of the Felines by the Roman Porno master Noboru Tanaka but where Tanaka’s film is a raucous comedy following the humorous adventures of its three working girl protagonists, Shiraishi’s is a much less joyous affair as he casts his three lonely heroines adrift in Tokyo’s red light district.

Masako (Juri Ihata), Rie (Michie), and Yui (Satsuki Maue) are best friends, though they don’t even know each other’s real names. They each work for a shady escort agency in Tokyo’s red light district where they’re ordered and dispatched by their two-bit hustler of a manager Nonaka (Takuma Otoo) and driven around by the assistant who it turns out has been secretly filming them and posting the videos on YouTube as a kind of exposé on the sex trade.

Each of the women “has their tale to tell” as one puts it but none of them are particularly unhappy in their work, prostitution is simply their way of life and to that extent completely normalised. It does, however, interfere with their ability to form relationships, not just practically but emotionally. For unclear reasons possibly connected to debt collection Masako is technically homeless despite the large amounts of money she can earn, sleeping in cheap motels or all night manga cafes and carting all of her worldly possessions around with her in a tiny carry on size suitcase on wheels. One of her regulars, a millionaire shut in (Tomohiro Kaku), offers to let her stay with him but their relationship is strange and strained – somewhere between business and pleasure with the lines permanently unclear.

Rei, by contrast, is saddled with an elderly client who usually just wants to talk but eventually takes things in an extreme direction. Her path into prostitution is in a sense more positive even if it stems from a kind of vengeance in that the feeling of being needed and providing a valuable service gives her life meaning.

Yui looks for meaning through romance but rarely finds it thanks to the various potential mates she meets through her work. Yui’s young son Kenta has worrying bruises on his face, arms and torso, rarely speaks, and is frequently abandoned by his mother who pays a shady guy to look after him while she spends her time looking for love.

Working for a lenient agency the girls are more or less free agents rather than abused street walkers trapped by debt-bondage and could quit any time they wanted. Yui and Masako may be looking for an escape from this dead-end world – Yui at least is conscious of her age and the declining bookings, but neither names that as something that they are actively pursuing. Rei, by contrast, has made her escape already but has travelled in the opposite direction – from stifling bourgeois life to Belle du Jour liberation, but her eventual destination may be a much darker one than she’d anticipated.

This darkness hovers round the edges as the threat of violence is only ever indirectly expressed or fetishised as in a sequence led by Yui’s possible new partner and the bondage club he works at as one half of a warmup manzai act. Only towards the end does its reality finally surface, making plain how vulnerable and unprotected the women remain whilst on the job. Far from the liberated laughter of Night of the Felines, Shiraishi’s film traps its women with their own despairs as they wallow in an inescapable well of loneliness, satisfying the needs of others but unable to satisfy their own. Bleak but subtly ironic, Dawn of the Felines finds no joy in the sun rising, only the relief of the end of a working day as its three stray cats wander the streets looking for their place to belong.


Dawn of the Felines was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yuya Ishii, 2017)

tokyo night sky posterLearning to love Tokyo is a kind of suicide, according to the heroine of Yuya Ishii’s love/hate letter to the Japanese capital, The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (夜空はいつでも最高密度の青色だ, Yozora wa Itsudemo Saiko Mitsudo no Aoiro da). This city is a mess of contradictions, a huge sprawling metropolis filled with the anonymous masses and at the same time so tiny you can find yourself running into the same people over and over again. Inspired by the poems of Tahi Saihate, The Tokyo Night Sky is at once a meditative contemplation of city life and an awkward love story between two lost souls who somehow find each other in its crowded backstreets.

The heroine, Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), works as a nurse by day and supplements her income by night as a bar tender in a “girls bar” (basically a normal bar where all the bartenders are female and you have to pay an entrance fee on top of your overpriced drinks). Depressed and anxious, she wanders the city with a poetic interior monologue expressing her constant loathing for its indifferent soullessness. Meanwhile, Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a casual day labourer working on various projects in the run up to the 2020 Olympics. He describes himself as odd and is over sensitive about being blind in one eye. Unlike his friends and colleagues, Shinji prefers literature to parties and solitude to company.

The two first catch sight of each other in a crowded bar where Mika is trying to buy time before having to head back to a dull double date with her drunken friend and the lewd guys she’s invited to come along, and Shinji is trying to read away from the noise and chaos of his lodging house. They meet again when one of Shinji’s colleagues suggests going to the girls bar, and then seem to be constantly running into one another for no particular reason.

Though romance would seem to be the natural outcome of the “pointless miracle” of their repeated meetings, the process is a slow one. It’s obvious the pair share a deep, innate understanding of each other but they each have various problems which conspire to keep them apart. Shinji, describing himself as odd and assuming he’s annoying, is prone to nervous babbling which Mika correctly guesses is less down to a love of his own voice than a fear of awkward silence. For her part Mika is anxious all the time, brittle and insecure she instinctively rejects attempts at intimacy but somehow warms to Shinji responding to his confession of oddness with a comforting “well then, you’re just like me.”

The pair advance and retreat as they wander around the city they both claim to hate but as much as they keep each other at a distance their lives begin to overlap and run in parallel. Mika receives a text from an ex (Takahiro Miura) with a confused declaration of love while Shinji receives one from an old high school classmate (Ryo Sato) with much the same effect. Mika insists that love makes you boring, that you’ll never find someone who is prepared to love the most pitiable part of you, and that there is no such thing as love on this planet, but her protestations point more towards a kind of soul-searching and buried hope than they do of active rejection.

Ishii marries the romantic undercurrent with an ambivalent portrait of the stratified city. Mika, a nurse by profession, needs to take a second job to make ends meet while the more traditionally working class Shinji is a sensitive intellectual relegated to dangerous and insecure employment. As a day labourer he gets no employment benefits like sick pay or insurance – hence when he’s injured on the job he avoids letting anyone know for as long as possible because it means both loss of wages and a doctor’s bill. An older friend (Tetsushi Tanaka) has ruined his back through long years of overwork and is now left with nothing while a Filipino migrant worker (Paul Magsign) pines for home and the wife and child waiting for him there.

Shinji’s anxieties are partly economic – trapped in insecure employment which may well, as his older friend points out, dry up once the Olympics rolls around but the greater problem is inertia. During their journeys around the city, Shinji and Mika run into the same busker (Yoshimi Nozaki) who is always singing the same strange song about her underarms sweating which seems to echo their shared anxiety. Yet the song she offers them also provides a note of hope as she enthusiastically reaches the “Ganbare!” chorus, cheering the pair of frightened lovers on and encouraging them to pursue their dreams and desires rather than waiting around for something to happen.

Waiting has been Mika’s problem. Saddled with intense abandonment issues stemming from childhood trauma, Mika is always sure something bad is about to happen. Shinji partly shares her anxiety often claiming that he has “a bad feeling” about something or other but conversely, he begins to believe that the “something” could be good as well as bad. Rather than try and argue with her, Shinji concedes most of Mika’s points, nobody knows what will happen in the future, nobody can make any promises, and everything ends someday but that’s OK – it’s only life.

Ishii’s Tokyo is a soulless place filled with the melancholy and the empty but there’s beauty here too, if only people would look up from their smartphones every now and then to see it. Mika is afraid of being swallowed by the city and becoming one of its faceless masses but her listlessness and depression stand for the city itself as she refuses and rejects the process of living with all of its attendant risks. Ishii paints the city in all the colours of the night, but for all of its beautiful sadness it’s also a place of noise and chaos where existence is exhausting and the price of living high. It is, however, also a place of ordinary miracles offering hope to the hopeless if only they are willing to accept it.


The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Yamato (California) (大和(カリフォルニア), Daisuke Miyazaki, 2016)

yamato (california) posterWhen you think of the American military presence in Japan, your mind naturally turns to Okinawa but the largest mainland US base is actually located not so far from Tokyo in a small Japanese town called Yamato which is also the ancient name for the modern-day country. The US has been a constant presence since the end of the second world war prompting resistance of varying degrees from both left and right either in resentment at perceived complicity in American foreign policy, or the desire to reform the pacifist constitution and rebuild an independent army capable of defending Japan alone. Daisuke Miyazaki’s second feature, Yamato (California) (大和(カリフォルニア) dramatises this long-standing issue through exploring the life of hip-hop enthusiast and Yamato resident Sakura (Hanae Kan) who idolises an art form born of political oppression in a country which she also feels oppresses her as a Japanese citizen living on the other side of the fence from land which technically still belongs to the US government.

As the camera pans around a ruined landscape which turns out to be a junkyard, it eventually finds Sakura as she sits alone atop a pile of rubbish rapping about her existential misery, the hopelessness of her life, and her constant anxiety. Sakura has left high school but has no hopes, aspirations or plan. She works part-time at the eel restaurant owned by a family friend but he rarely has enough custom to need her help. Still living at home with her single mother (Reiko Kataoka) and older brother Kenzo in a cramped apartment where space is divided by a series of hanging sheets, Sakura is put out to learn that the half-Japanese daughter of her mother’s American G.I. boyfriend will be coming to stay. When Rei (Nina Endo) finally arrives, Sakura makes a point of ignoring her but the two eventually bond over a shared love of hip-hop and an awkward sense of recognition.

Tellingly, Rei’s (late) mother was from Okinawa – another reminder of the wider American presence, but her long absent father, Abby Goldman, is as distant a protector as America itself. Communicating only through handwritten letters, Abby is neither seen or heard but somehow believed in like an invisible god. Strangely, Rei asks Sakura what her father was like as if she’d never met him only for Sakura to awkwardly answer that he was somewhere between a bother, a friend, and a father but that she’s also grateful to him for introducing her to her beloved hip hop. Later she takes her mother to task on this same issue, Abby hasn’t visited in years and doesn’t even provide for them anymore yet he dispatches the daughter he rarely sees himself for them to care for instead. Abby, like America, offers little and takes much, at least in Sakura’s increasingly hotheaded assessment.

Sakura is quite clearly in a state of depression. Sullen and angry, she lashes out at all around her but is mostly at war with herself and understandably anxious about her future. Her mother and brother both understand this about her and are patient and understanding, naturally cheerful people faced with adversity. With no work to go to and the prospect of finding any slim, Sakura spends her time perfecting her rap technique and hanging out alone in an abandoned trailer in the woods. Despite dressing in the accepted rapper style of loose grey tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie Sakura is a poor fit for the world she’s chosen. Lyrical writing more suited to performance poetry or, as she later puts it, the avant-garde, doesn’t gel with the aggressive, mostly male posturing she sees from her peers yet Sakura is determined to make her way into this arena as a means of self-expression rather than any deluded idea of fame and fortune.

Rei, her American friend, eventually sparks an epiphany following a fiery argument during which she accuses Sakura of being nothing more than an American copycat, adopting a foreign art form to mask an insecurity in her own fragile identity. Rei, trying to get through to her knew friend, has pushed too deep and hit all the wrong nerves leading to a surreal sequence which finally sets Sakura off on a voyage of self discovery and results in a concerted vow of “independence” but also of rejoining the world, accepting others rather than refusing to engage, and stepping forward together but on an equal footing with no leaders and no followers.

Miyazaki’s balanced view does not shy away from the less pleasant aspects of his own society from the protest group which wanders through the frame carrying banners calling for the immediate expulsion of migrants from Asia, to a group of yankees throwing rocks at the homeless, and Kenzo’s straightforward remark that he’s only interested in meeting Rei if she’s pretty – according to him mixed-race Japanese girls often aren’t. Grey mixes with green as brutalist shopping malls break through the vegetation leaving even an errant pagoda entirely intact in the central square. Like Sakura’s own soul this is a land of contradictions and uneasy cross-pollinations but it doesn’t need to be as defeatist and unimaginative as a dated shopping mall, wasei hip-hop just might be the next big thing.


Yamato (California) was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Happiness (ハピネス, SABU, 2016)

happiness still“Memories are what warm you up from the inside. But they’re also what tear you apart” runs the often quoted aphorism from Haruki Murakami. SABU seems to see things the same way and indulges an equally surreal side of himself in the sci-fi tinged Happiness (ハピネス). Memory, as the film would have it, both sustains and ruins – there are terrible things which cannot be forgotten, no matter how hard one tries, while the happiest moments of one’s life get lost among the myriad everyday occurrences. Happiness is the one thing everyone craves even if they don’t quite know what it is, little knowing that they had it once if only for a few seconds, but if the desire to attain “happiness” is itself a reason for living could simply obtaining it by technological means do more harm than good?

A man gets off a country bus carrying a large, mysterious looking box. He stops into the only visible building which happens to a be a “convenience” store housing a wizened old woman who tells the man to just take the bottle of water he is trying to buy because once she gets rid of everything in the shop she can finally die and escape her misery. The man leaves the money anyway and exits the shop, only to make a swift return, take a large helmet studded with old-fashioned round typewriter keys out of his box and place it on the old woman’s head. After the man makes a few adjustments the old woman is thrown into reverie, remembering a time when she was just a small child and her mother greeted her when she arrived home all by herself. Overwhelmed with feeling her mother’s love, the old woman comes back to life and rediscovers a zest for living which she’d long since given up.

So begins the strange odyssey of Kanzaki (Masatoshi Nagase) who finds himself in one of Japan’s most depressed towns where everyone hangs around listlessly, sitting in waiting rooms waiting for nothing in particular, passing the time until it runs out. Suggesting one of the women in the strange waiting area might like to try on the helmet, Kanzaki gets himself arrested but after the police try it out too he comes to the attention of the mayor who invites him to stay hoping the “happiness machine” can help revitalise the dying community and stop some of the young people blowing out of town looking for somewhere less soul-destroying to call home. Kanzaki’s request to access the town census, however, hints at an ulterior motive and it’s as well to note that a happiness machine could also be a sadness machine if you run it in reverse.

SABU’s long and varied career has taken him from men who can’t stop running to those who can’t start, but the men and women of Happiness are impeded by forces more emotional than physical manifesting themselves through bodily inertia. Like many towns in modern Japan, the small village Kanzaki finds himself in is facing a depopulation crisis as the old far outweigh the young and the idea of the future almost belongs to the past. Those who don the happiness helmet regain access to a long-buried memory which reminds them what it feels like to live again. Almost reborn they start to believe that true happiness is possible, that they were once loved, and that their lives truly do have meaning. Yet they can experience all of this joy only because of the intense collective depression they’d hitherto been labouring under. Happiness is only possible because of sorrow, and so the two must work in concert to create a kind of melancholy equilibrium.

Melancholy is a quality which seems to define Kanzaki, inventor of a machine he says can make people happy. As it turns out, his motives were not exactly all about peace and love but a means to an end, his own sorrows run deep and his solution to easing them is a darker one than simply becoming lost in his happy memories. Turning his own machine against itself, he forces a man to relive what he claims is the worst night of his life – one which he could not forget, and one which plagues him every night before he tries to go to sleep. Showing him happy memories too only seems to deepen the pain, though the explanation they eventually offer for his subsequent actions makes him a victim too, betrayed by those who should have protected him and eventually taking his revenge on innocents whose only crime was to be a happy family in front of a man from an unforgiving one.

Painting his world in an almost comforting green tint which can’t help but recall the dull but calming colours of a hospital, SABU channels Roy Andersson by way of David Lynch in his deadpan detachment which becomes humorous precisely because of its overt lack of comic intent. The clues are planted early from a flash of Kanzaki’s wedding ring but refusal to answer question about his family to his hangdog expression and general air of someone who carries a heavy burden, but SABU neatly changes gear surreptitiously to explore what the true explanation is for Kanzaki’s strange machine and improbable arrival in such a small, uninteresting town. Memory is a cruel burden, offering both joy and sorrow, but there can be no happiness without suffering and no life without a willingness to embrace them both the same.


Happiness was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Busan trailer (no subtitles)