First Love (初恋, Takashi Miike, 2019)

First love poster 1Taking a deep dive into Showa era nostalgia repurposed for the modern era, Takashi Miike returns to the world of jitsuroku excess with an ironic tale of honour and humanity. Quite literally all about the jingi, First Love (初恋. Hatsukoi) takes a pair of exiled loners betrayed by the older generation, and allows them to escape their sense of futility through simple human connection while the nihilistic gangster underworld slowly implodes all around them.

Sullen boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) is so filled with ennui that nothing really excites him, not even success in the ring. An unexpected KO, however, sends him off to the doctor’s where he is told that he has a possibly inoperable brain tumour and very little time left to live. That is perhaps why he decides to punch a policeman in defence of a young woman running away and desperately pleading for help. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), known as “Monica” to her captors, was sold to the yakuza by her father and has since become dependent on drugs. Little known to either Leo or Yuri, they are about to become embroiled in a long brewing turf war between the local yakuza and the Chinese Triads engineered by jaded underling Kase (Shota Sometani) who has enlisted rogue policeman Ohtomo (Nao Omori) to help in a plan to steal his gang’s drug supply and have Ohtomo sell it on in the same way he does with “confiscated” narcotics while blaming the whole thing on the Chinese.

Abandoned at birth, Leo is a man who doesn’t know his history and so doesn’t know himself. He tells a reporter that there is no particular reason that he boxes save that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, yet the fighter’s all that remains and “boxer” has become his entire identity. A passing fortune teller advises him that he loses because he only fights for himself and if he truly wants to win he needs to learn to fight for someone else, but Leo is used to being alone and believes he has no need of other people. Knowing he’s going to die means, paradoxically, that he has infinite potential because he has nothing left to lose.

Leo punching out the policeman reawakens in Yuri a memory of her “first love”, a high school classmate who tried to defend her against her abusive father whose ghost still haunts her in drug-fuelled hallucinations. The ultimate proof of the yakuza’s ironic lack of “jingi” or “honour and humanity” when it comes to the treatment of women, Yuri was betrayed first by her father and then by the petty street thug who got her hooked on drugs as a means of control and exploited her body for financial gain.

Ironically enough, it’s a Chinese Triad who proves the ultimate heir to “jingi” having come to Japan because of her love for classic Toei gangster hero Ken Takakura only to discover that kind of nobility is something you only see in the movies. While the yakuza lament that they’re at a disadvantage fighting the Chinese because they don’t need to worry about “honour” as dictated by their code, they are quick enough to scream vengeance when Kase convinces them that it was the Triads who offed their street fixer (Takahiro Miura) to get back at recently released gangster Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) who is the reason that the Triad boss is nicknamed One-Armed-Wang. Gondo and Wang are already on a collision course as representatives of their respective ideologies with Gondo perhaps the last true yakuza standing, faithful to his code to the end.

Sensing his strong sense of jingi, the romantic Triad allows Leo to escape with Yuri as if recognising that neither of them belong in this nihilistic world of pointless and internecine violence. Despite proclaiming that he had no need of other people, it’s Leo’s humanity that eventually saves him as he realises that he was always going to die and rediscovers his true strength through fighting to protect someone else. Yuri, meanwhile, finds the will to live again in making peace with the past and laying old ghosts to rest thanks to Leo’s altruistic decision to protect her. Echoing Fukasaku’s classic crime cycle in its severed heads and funky ‘70s jazz score remixing the iconic theme tune, Miike ups the ante with a series of outlandishly idiosyncratic gags as Kase’s nefarious scheme snowballs into a darkly humorous crescendo of ridiculous brutality, but ultimately rejects the futility of a world without jingi in allowing his pure hearted heroes the possibility of escape, saved rather than consumed by their sense of honour and humanity.


First Love was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Takashi Miike, 2018)

Laplace's Witch poster 2Takashi Miike, among Japan’s most prolific of directors, teams up with one of the nation’s most prolific authors, the often adapted Keigo Higashino, for a dose of scientific mystery in Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Laplace no Majo). Responsible for the international smash hit The Devotion of Suspect X and the Galileo series, Higashino too has worked across several genres ranging from the detective novels for which he is best known to children’s books and fantasy. Perhaps in contrast to the director, however, Higashino’s novels tend towards the socially conservative, occasionally cynical if at times perverse. Nevertheless, there is something a little ironic in Miike choosing to adapt this particular title which revolves around the idea of authenticity in art and meaningful legacy.

The unlikely hero of the tale, climate scientist Shusuke Aoe (Sho Sakurai), is called in to investigate the mysterious deaths of a film producer and an out of work actor who appear to have died of hydrogen sulphide poisoning at separate hot springs resorts. Dying of hydrogen sulphide poisoning outdoors is considered a scientific impossibility and Aoe has no real explanation for how it might have occurred but is stunned by policeman Nakaoka’s (Hiroshi Tamaki) assertions that foul play may have been involved.

Nakaoka is not exactly a bumbling policeman, but his certainties – born of policeman’s instinct, are held up for ridicule as he rapidly switches suspects, knee-jerk accusing the film producer’s widow of conspiracy to murder before deciding there must be more involved than a simple attempt at financial gain. He is however eventually correct, quickly figuring out the surprising connection between the two dead men is a famous film producer, Amakasu (Etsushi Toyokawa), who lost his own family in ironically similar tragic circumstances some years earlier and seems to have dropped off the radar ever since.

All of which means, Aoe’s scientific knowledge is increasingly irrelevant. His major contribution to the case at hand is in his strange friendship with a mysterious teenage girl who is engaged in her own missing persons case which may have some overlap with the murders. Aoe quickly notices that Madoka (Suzu Hirose) appears to have preternatural powers which she later alludes to in branding herself the “Laplace Demon” in honour of a scientific theory which suggests that if someone were to know the exact location of each and every atom in the universe then it would be perfectly possible to calculate their courses and trajectories with mathematical certainty and thereby possess absolute knowledge of the future.

Whether one might want such all encompassing knowledge is a bigger question. As one character later puts it, the ability to discern the future may impede one’s ability to dream and therefore hinder the progress of human society. The central message is, however, somewhat banal in pointing out that we are each of us connected, essential parts of a cosmic machine in which each has a specific role to play. By such logic, murder is then not so much a moral failing as one of over engineering in which attempts to tweak the system may lead to its destruction.

Then again, we hear from the depressed Amakazu that what he fears is that life is essentially meaningless and that many go to their deaths without leaving a mark. His central theory is that objective truth is a matter of record, that whatever is shot is “real” because that is what will be “remembered” long after the fact. Through his films, which are amusingly described in a piece of meta irony as dealing with edgy themes which don’t pander to audiences, he attempts to reorder his world by recreating it, improving on its many disappointments by envisioning it differently. Yet he still yearns for authenticity in his work and may have gone to great lengths to get it in a seemingly pointless piece of behind the scenes theatre.

Perhaps it is this sense of fatalistic ennui that Miike is attempting to capture through Laplace’s continually listless aesthetics but it has to be said that the central mystery, filled with plot holes and contradictions as it is, is particularly unengaging and despite the cheerful we’re all one narrative also carries some decidedly unpleasant undertones. Never quite finding the register to unlock its central philosophy, Laplace’s Witch proves a curiously flat outing for the famously out there director which may very well be the point but then again perhaps it’s a strange point to be making. 


Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Takashi Miike, 2013)

mole song under cover agent reiji poserYakuza aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? According to one particular lover of Lepidoptera, that’s all they ever need to be. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo and adapted from the manga by Noboru Takahashi, Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji) is the classic bad spy comedy in which a hapless beat cop is dragged out of his police box and into the field as a yakuza mole in the (rather ambitious) hope of ridding Japan of drugs. As might be assumed, Reiji’s quest does not quite go to plan but then in another sense it goes better than anyone might have hoped.

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) is, to put it bluntly, not the finest recruit the Japanese police force has ever received. He does, however, have a strong sense of justice even if it doesn’t quite tally with that laid down in law though his methods of application are sometimes questionable. A self-confessed “pervert” (but not a “twisted” one) Reiji is currently in trouble for pulling his gun on a store owner who was extracting sexual favours from high school girls he caught shop lifting (the accused is a city counsellor who has pulled a few strings to ask for Reiji’s badge). Seizing this opportunity, Reiji’s boss (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) has decided that he’s a perfect fit for a spell undercover in a local gang they suspect of colluding with Russian mafia to smuggle large amounts of MDMA into Japan.

Reiji hates drugs, but not as much as his new best buddy “Crazy Papillon” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who is obsessed with butterflies and insists everything that happens around him be “funny”. Reiji, an idiot, is very funny indeed and so he instantly gets himself a leg up in the yakuza world whilst forming an unexpectedly genuine bond with his new buddy who also really hates drugs and only agreed to join this gang because they promised him they didn’t have anything to with them.

Sliding into his regular manga mode, Miike adopts his Crows Zero aesthetic but re-ups the camp as Reiji gets fired up on justice and takes down rooms full of punks powered only by righteousness and his giant yakuza hairdo. Like most yakuza movies, the emphasis is on the bonds between men and it is indeed the strange connection between Reiji and Papillon which takes centerstage as Miike milks the melodrama for all it’s worth.

Scripted by Kankuro Kudo (who previously worked with the director on the Zebra Man series), Reiji skews towards a slightly different breed of absurdity from Miike’s patented brand but retains the outrageous production design including the big hair, garish outfits, and carefully considered colour scheme. Mixing amusing semi-animated sequences with over the top action and the frequent reoccurrence of the “Mole Song”, Miike is in full-on sugar rush mode, barely pausing before moving on from one ridiculous set piece to the next.

Ridiculous set pieces are however the highlight of the film from Reiji’s early series of initiation tests to his attempts to win the affections of his lady love, Junna (Riisa Naka), and a lengthy sojourn at a mysterious yakuza ceremony which Reiji manages to completely derail through a series of misunderstandings. At 130 minutes however, it’s all wearing a bit thin even with the plot machinations suddenly kicking into gear two thirds of the way through. Nevertheless, there’s enough silly slapstick comedy and impressive design work at play to keep things interesting even if Reiji’s eventual triumph is all but guaranteed.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 21 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 24 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 March 2018
  • Broadway – 20 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 27 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 28 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Takashi Miike, 2017)

blade of the immortal posterGenerally speaking, revenge tends not to go very well in Japanese cinema. It has the tendency to backfire. When you’re immortal, however, perhaps revenge is risk worth taking – then again, it’s not your life your weighing. Takashi Miike is no stranger to the jidaigeki world, though in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin) he harks back to the angry, arty samurai films of the late 1960s from Gosha’s Sword of the Beast with which the manga features some minor narrative similarities, to Kobayashi’s melancholy consideration of corrupted honour, and the frantic intensity of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom.

The film opens in black and white as a disgraced samurai, Manji (Takuya Kimura), tries to protect his younger sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who has gone mad through grief only to see her murdered by a bounty hunter. Manji enters a state of furious, mindless killing which leaves the bounty hunter’s vast crowd of henchmen lying dead and Manji mortally wounded. Consumed by guilt and having lost the sister who was his sole reason for living, Manji longs for death but a mysterious old woman who calls herself Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) has other ideas and curses Manji to a life of eternal suffering by means of sacred bloodworms which give him the power of infinite, near instant healing.

Fifty years later, the land is at peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate but peaceful times are dull for warriors. The Itto-ryu school of swordsmanship has a mission – to take over all of the nation’s martial arts facilities and restore power to the sword. They have no honour or ideology save that of kill or be killed and are content to use any and all weapons which come to hand. A young girl, Rin (Yoko Yamamoto), is a daughter of one of these schools and has her eyes set on becoming a top swordswoman herself but when the Itto-ryu show up at her door, Rin’s father’s training proves worthless as he’s cut down with one blow while the gang kidnap Rin’s mother. The Itto-ryu’s sole concession to morality is in letting Rin alone, seeing as it’s “vulgar” to toy with children.

Rin vows revenge on the Itto-ryu’s leader, Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), at which point she runs into Yaobikuni who recommends she track down Manji and hire him as a bodyguard. Fifty years of immortality have turned Manji into an isolated, embittered wastrel with rusty swordskills but Rin’s uncanny resemblance to Machi eventually begins to move his heart. Despite generating a master/pupil, big brother/little sister relationship, Manji fails to teach Rin very much of consequence that might assist her in her plan to avenge her family, leaving her a vulnerable young woman beset by enemies and random thugs, and eventually caught up in a government conspiracy. The irony of Manji’s life is that he’s just not very good at the art of protection and all of his attempts to do something good usually provoke an even bigger crisis, in this case leaving his new little sister open to exactly the same fate as the one he failed to save for much the same reasons. Apparently, Manji has learned little during his extended lifetime except how to brood and glare resentfully at the world.

It turns out being immortal is kind of a drag. Manji wants to die because he can’t cope with the burden of his guilt, but another similarly cursed man he meets has lived much longer and lost far more, becoming tired of the business of of living. Manji’s existence has lost all meaning, but as he puts it to another world weary warrior who shares his brotherly grief, he’s not the only hero of a sad story. Rin’s need for vengeance gives him a purpose again – not just in the literal revenge, but in being the protector (though one could argue this is less positive than it sounds and might explain why he fails to teach Rin anything very useful, even if it doesn’t explain why she also forgets all her father’s teachings).

Rin remains conflicted over her mission of revenge, confessing to a similarly conflicted assassin that she agrees killing is wrong but that right and wrong no longer matter when it comes to people you love. A dangerous and dubious assertion, but it does bear out the more positive message that love, or at least learning to live for others, can be a transformative force for good as Manji allows himself to resume his role as the big brother despite his past failings. Violent and visceral, if also humorous, Blade of the Immortal is, oddly enough, a story of love but also of cyclical paths of violence and revenge, and of the general muddiness of assigning the moral high ground to those engaged in a quest for retribution.


Blade of the Immortal was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Entertainment on 8th December.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

The Black House (黒い家, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1999)

black house posterYoshimitsu Morita, though committed to commercial filmmaking, also enjoyed trying on different kinds of directorial hats from from purveyor of smart social satires to teen idol movies, high art literary adaptations and just about everything else in-between. It’s no surprise then that at the height of the J-horror boom, he too got in on the action with an adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel of the same name, The Black House (黒い家, Kuroi Ie). Though tagged as “J-horror” you’ll find no long haired ghosts here and, in fact, barely anything supernatural as the true horror on show is the slow descent into madness taking place inside the protagonist’s mind.

Wakatsuki (Masaaki Uchino) is a nice young man with a good job investigating claims at an insurance office. Unfortunately, this gives him a slightly dim view of humanity as he comes into contact with scamsters and even people willing to maim themselves just so that they can claim on their policies. One day, he receives a strange phone call from a woman who wants to know if her insurance policy will pay out in case of suicide. Wakatsuki, slightly panicked, tells her that it really depends on the circumstances and, jumping to the conclusion she plans to kill herself, urges her to get help and talk things over with someone before doing anything rash.

The next thing he knows, Wakatsuki is despatched to her house to sort things out whereupon he makes an extremely gruesome discovery – the woman’s son, though only a child, has hanged himself in the back room. Obviously extremely shocked and distressed, Wakatsuki heads home with the nagging suspicion that Sachiko (Shinobu Ootake) and her husband Komoda (Masahiko Nishimura) have done something truly dreadful. The couple take turns coming into the office to find out what’s taking so long with their claim and gradually the situation begins to spiral desperately out of control.

Always one for irony,  Morita’s tone varies widely here. There’s an oddly Twin Peaks-like vibe with the jolly jazz score giving way to synths at moments of high tension, not to mention the run down industrial town setting. If that weren’t enough Lynchery, there’s even a moment where a severed hand is found in a patch of grass, crawling with ants just like the ear found by Jeffrey at the beginning of Blue Velvet. Morita seems to be telling us not to take any of this too seriously yet his subjects include parents harming or even murdering their children to claim on an insurance policy as well as bloody violence and dismemberment of corpses.

In fact, the insurance guys don’t spend too long trying to figure out if the boy actually killed himself but Wakatsuki becomes preoccupied by the idea the husband, Komoda, is behind the whole thing (the boy was only his step-son after all) and will now try and kill his wife to claim her insurance too. The couple are certainly both very strange people and the insurance company also have a problem as the policy was signed off on during a campaign drive in which a now dismissed employ made use of a personal connection to try and meet her unrealistic quota. Wakatsuki eventually engages an equally eccentric psychology professor who takes him out on a weird nighttime odyssey to a seedy strip club where he expounds on a epidemic of psychopathy among the younger generation. Even Wakatsuki’s girlfriend, Megumi, has some off the wall ideas based on an essay Sachiko wrote in elementary school (though actually Megumi’s view has some merit).

Things hit a more conventional note from this point on landing us with a familiar slasher villain who begins stalking Wakatsuki, even trashing his apartment before kidnapping his girlfriend and keeping her prisoner in the “Black House”. Wakatsuki heads to the den of evil by himself in the dark (in true horror movie fashion) where he finds a whole bunch of other dismembered corpses (and a few other surprises). He might think he can put his troubles behind him after this extremely traumatic incident, but this is still a horror movie so the killer gets away to strike again by throwing a bright yellow bowling ball at his head through the office toilet window.

Morita is not being serious at all, even for a second, but somehow he still manages to create an oddly threatening atmosphere of suspense despite the extremely weird things which are going on. He creates a complex set of visual cues from the recurring sunflower motif repeated on Sachiko’s shirt to the glistening yellow bowling ball, goldfish (in a toilet bowl if not a percolator), repeated sounds of cockroaches and old fashioned reel printers, and even the green glow from both old fashioned computer systems and the company’s insurance documents. Undoubtedly bizarre, The Black House is mind bending psychological-horror-movie-cum-Freudian-slasher that is primed for both head scratching puzzlement and confused chuckling as Morita has a lot of fun messing with our senses.