Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊, Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)

Toei’s stock in trade through the 1960s had been the ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters set before the war and implicitly in a less corrupt Japan in which jingi could still triumph over the giri/ninjo conflict if at great personal cost to the idealistic hero. By the end of the decade, however, audiences were growing tired of yakuza romanticism particularly in the wake of grittier youth dramas produced by Nikkatsu. Originally conceived as a kind of sequel to Japan Organised Crime Boss, Kinji Fukasaku’s Sympathy for the Underdog (博徒外人部隊,  Bakuto Gaijin Butai) marks a shift towards the jitsuroku or “true account” trend of the 1970s which would come to dominate the genre following the success of his Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle two years later, employing many of the same techniques from onscreen text to shaky handheld photography but doing so within the confines of moody noir as the hero emerges from a 10-year prison sentence into a very different Japan. 

When Gunji (Koji Tsuruta) gets out, he steps into an empty, windswept street his incongruous zori sandals clashing with his smart suit and sunshades and marking him out as a relic of a bygone era. He’s met only two loyal underlings, his gang apparently now disbanded following the death of his boss who refused to take his advice as regards the big name gang from Tokyo attempting to muscle in to their Yokohama territory. Part of the missing post-war generation, Gunji has no illusions about going straight, wandering into their former HQ now a derelict building and calling the guys, who’ve since moved on to more legitimate occupations, back together. He knows he can’t take on Daitokai with his meagre forces and so settles for extracting from them some compensation money to get out of town, later teaming up with Kudo (Noboru Ando) a similarly orphaned former member of a rival Yokohama gang wiped out by Daitokai, and resolving to relocate to Okinawa where he is convinced the post-war gangster paradise is still very much in existence. 

Okinawa was only “returned” to Japanese sovereignty in 1971, having been governed by the Americans since the end of the war, and of course maintains a large American military presence up to the present day. As such to Gunji, and in a yakuza movie trope which persists right into Takeshi Kitano’s Boiling Point, it exists in a permanent post-war present in which the conditions of the occupation are still very much in play. Gunji knows that he and his guys are products of the post-war era, they cannot adapt to the “new” world of corporatising yakuza in which street brawls and petty thuggery have given way to more sophisticated kinds of organised crime, and so they retreat into an Okinawan time warp, determining to steal turf from under two rival gangs who control between them the ports and the red light district mediated by black market booze from the American military.  

Fukasaku was apparently inspired by Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, intending to make a comment on resistance to American imperialism on the mainland though it has to be said that this is extremely ironic given that Japan is itself a coloniser of the Okinawan islands where there has long been a demand for self-determination and recognition of a distinct identity which has often been subject to oppression in the face of conformist Japanese culture. Nevertheless, the film continues the persistent theme that the chaotic post-war era which has come to a close thanks to rising economic prosperity in the time Gunji was inside is inextricable from the American occupation, implying that Okinawa is in a sense the last frontier and the only viable territory for men like Gunji who, like the melancholy ronin of the Edo era, lack the skills to live in time of peace.  

Nevertheless, modernity is also on its way to Okinawa and where there’s money there are gangsters so as expected Daitokai eventually rear their heads on the island pushing Gunji towards the revenge he didn’t want to take. The Okinawa he inhabits is one of loss and nostalgia, taking up with a sex worker who reminds him of the Okinawan woman who left him when he went to prison and perhaps playing into the slightly complicated political dialogue which positions Gunji as an ironic “migrant worker” salmoning back to Okinawa as many Okinawan youngsters are forced to travel to the mainland for work while the islands themselves remain, it’s implied, mired in poverty and crime economically dependent on the American military. Indeed, the head of the dock gang brokers a deal with Daitokai predicated on the fact that there is plenty of cheap labour available at the harbour. “Good place for a long life” he ironically adds, shortly before all hell breaks loose. Shot with typical Fukasaku immediacy, Sympathy for the Underdog looks forward to jitsuroku nihilism but does so through the prism of film noir cool as its fatalistic hero submits himself to his inexorable destiny.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Let Him Rest in Peace (友よ、静かに瞑れ, Yoichi Sai, 1985)

“There are times when you need to stand for something” according to an ultra masculine avenger giving a few lessons in manliness to the already defeated teenage son of a friend. A noirish, stranger in town affair, Yoichi Sai’s Let Him Rest in Peace (友よ、静かに瞑れ, Tomo yo, Shizukani Nemure) locates itself in an awkward frontier landscape, moribund small-town Okinawa seemingly devoid of life now that the Americans have pulled out and moved on. The Americans have, however, been “replaced” by beefed up corporate thugs backed by yakuza muscle and corrupt police. Sometimes you have to take a stand, if only to show them that you won’t be pushed around because if you give in once you’ll never be free. 

Disgraced doctor Shindo (Tatsuya Fuji) has come to Okinawa in search of the Freein, but every time he tries to ask someone for directions, he is met with intense hostility, the last man even telling him “You shouldn’t go there, that place is no good”. This is not because the Freein is mostly home to a collection of brassy sex workers, but because its owner and Shindo’s old friend whom he has come to help has become a local pariah. Sakaguchi (Ryuzo Hayashi) is currently in jail because he apparently went crazy and started waving a knife around at construction magnate Shimoyama (Kei Sato). As Shindo quickly finds out, Shimoyama is in the process of buying up the whole town and Sakaguchi is the last remaining hold out. As such, he is hated by most of the other residents and the subject of persistent harassment by Shimoyama goons who have not only thrown bricks through the windows but gone so far as to kill his son’s dog, later kidnapping the boy to put pressure on the pair of them. 

What’s not lost on Shindo is the extent to which Shimoyama’s corruption has already seeped into the town. Meeting Sakaguchi’s son Ryuta (Makoto Mutsuura) by chance, Shindo takes the boy to see his dad but is again met with hostility by the local bobby, Tokuda (Hideo Murota), who tells him that “Shimoyama Construction is the savour of this town”. “There’s no other company that is so giving”, he goes on, “to have the employees of a company like that working here, I can’t have a wild man like Sakaguchi running about”. According to Tokuda, Sakaguchi is the odd man out, an inconvenience to all those around him who believe in Shimoyama and are trying to save the town. Tokuda looks sheepish when Shindo asks him why he’s so into Shimoyama, confirming the mild suspicion aroused by his improbably fancy watch. 

Tokuda’s warning is however borne out by the townspeople who continue to shun and ignore Shindo while the other kids mercilessly bully Ryuta, calling him the “craziest kid in Japan” and calling for his dad to get the death penalty despite the fact that all he seems to have done is aggressively wave a fruit knife at the wrong person. The local cafe owner describes him as an embarrassment and accuses him of holding out to get more money. After all there’s no future in this tinpot town which seems to exist in the ruins of the post-war era and Shimoyama is already offering triple the going rate so Sakaguchi is only being greedy and selfish. Komiya (Ryoichi Takayanagi), the bellboy, if you could call him that, at Freein, spins it slightly differently, explaining that no one supported Shimoyama in the beginning but they’ve all been harassed themselves and have long since given in. Shindo convinces Ryuta to talk about his kidnapping, but Ryuta tells him that on his return he told his father they should leave, that it was pointless to resist. Shindo asks him if he’s ever been in a fight, but the boy asks what the point is if you know you’re going to lose, “the strong are always strong”. 

That kind of defeatist thinking is anathema to Shindo’s conception of manhood. Despite his father’s incarceration, Ryuta is too afraid of being kidnapped again to go to school. Trying to be nice about it, Shindo calls him a coward for telling his father to leave even though he wants to stay because he allowed himself to be threatened into sumbmission. He tells him that he has to stand up for himself, report his kidnapping to the police. Ryuta tells him he’s crazy, the police are in on it, but Shindo counters that it’s worth trying to get his father out of jail because if they don’t they’ll never know. Ryuta snaps back that he knows already, and indeed bottles his chance when Shindo manipulates Tokuda into “helping” him oppose Shimoyama’s cult-like hold over the town.  

Shindo might not be that much better, he’s prepared to fight dirty, getting hard evidence of Tokuda’s corruption and trying to use it against him but even these methods prove ineffective against such a vast and entrenched mechanism of control. Shindo also realises that Shimoyama’s minion Takahata (Yoshio Harada) is another old university classmate, a member of the boxing club, bringing this widening drama down to the level of three men who went to the same prestigious university but all ended up here, pretty much at rock bottom. Though ironically enough Shindo’s broody silence and dedication to his friend have a few of the women wondering if he might be gay, his preoccupation is with a failure of masculinity. He doesn’t think Shindo was actually capable of threatening anyone, and knows that he had reasons that he might have wanted to try and sort this out sooner rather than later. His son’s words pushed him over the edge. He used his body as a weapon, tried to make Shimoyama damn himself, but his efforts were frustrated. Shindo acknowledges that “saving” his friend might look quite different than one might think, inadvertently teaching young Ryuta a few problematic lessons about what it means to be a man. Still, the town might have been “saved” in one sense at least in being freed of this particular oppressor. A stand has been taken, and a man’s self worth restored, but as Sakaguchi’s wife (Mitsuko Baisho) points out even while fully understanding the codes by which the men around her live, what is to become of those left behind?


TV spots (no subtitles)

Born Bone Born (洗骨, Toshiyuki Teruya, 2018)

Bone Born Bone poster“Is this really Japan?!” asks the bemused boyfriend of the protagonist of Born Bone Born (洗骨, Senkotsu), only to be met with the reply “on paper, at least”. Comedian Toshiyuki Teruya, better known as Gori, returns to his native Okinawa for his second feature but to an island culture of which he was completely unaware. Aguni is one of the last on which the ancient ritual of “Senkotsu” or “bone washing” still takes place.

Beloved matriarch Emiko (Mariko Tsutsui) died four years ago. Now the time for her “senkotsu” is approaching. Daughter Yuko (Ayame Misaki) has come home, but with a secret. She is heavily pregnant and as yet unmarried, a fact she knows will scandalise the still conservative island community. Meanwhile, her her father Nobutsuna (Eiji Okuda) has retreated into drunken reverie, unable to accept his wife’s death or the many disappointments of his life. Yuko is waiting for her brother, Tsuyoshi (Michitaka Tsutsui), to arrive before explaining any further about the baby, but he even he is much less supportive than she hoped he might be and seems to be dealing with some troubles of his own which might explain why his wife and daughter have not accompanied him on this very difficult family occasion.

The island of Aguni practices open air burial, which is to say the bodies are enclosed in a wooden coffin and entombed in cave. Four years later the relatives return, retrieve the body and wash the bones before re-enclosing them in a smaller casket which will then be interred on the island’s “other world”. It is, of course, a difficult and frightening prospect to consider seeing one’s loved ones in such an altered state – so much so that many cannot bear to do it without getting roaring drunk which at least ameliorates the solemnity of the occasion. The human terror is in a sense the point as an exercise not only in memento mori but in acceptance of total loss and the finality of the physical.

Before all that, however, you still have to live and the Shinjos are having a fairly hard time of it. A small island somewhat trapped in the past, Aguni is intensely conservative and so the local old ladies can’t get their heads around Yuko’s unwed pregnancy. Yuko of course knew this would be the case but could hardly refuse to come and has braced herself for the worst of it. However, after the initial shock has worn off, she finds an unexpected ally in her stern aunt Nobuko (Yoko Ohshima) who assures her that if she finds it hard to raise the child on her own she can always come back to the island where she and Nobuko’s daughter will help if needed. Her father Nobutsuna, in boozy fog as he is, is also broadly supportive even if her brother shows little sign of coming round, engaging in unexpected small town conservatism as he accuses his little sister not only of shaming the family but of becoming a burden on it too.

In a motif that will be repeated, it’s the men who struggle to cope with loss while the women get on with life with stoicism and fortitude. Nobutsuna has remained unable to come to terms with Emiko’s death, drinking himself into oblivion while blaming himself for placing undue strain on her after their family business went bust. Nevertheless he is a good hearted man who wants the best for everyone even if his mild-mannered deference has Tsuyoshi sniping at the sidelines for his supposed fecklessness. He too blames his father for his mother’s death, but is also struggling with the elders’ expectation that he will return home to the island to take over as head of the family while there is evidently something else going on in his life which has left him irritable and judgemental.

If nothing else the Senkotsu ritual forces each of them to accept the fact of Emiko’s death, but also of her life and their own place within a great chain of humanity stretching both forward and back. In a sense, as Tsuyoshi puts it, it’s their own bones they’re washing in honour of the undying part of Emiko that exists in all of them and something of her kindly spirit certainly seems to be present on the beach that day as the family slowly repairs itself, emerging from their deep seated grief back to the friendly island solidarity as they resolve to treasure what they have in acknowledgement of what is to come.


Born Bone Born was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nobuhiro Doi, 2006)

tears-for-youComing in at the end of the “pure love” boom, Nobuhiro Doi’s second feature, Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nada So So) is presumably named to tie in with his smash hit debut Be With You, and continues in the same general vein but with a much less satisfying melodrama at its core. A complicated love story centring on a pair of orphaned step-siblings, Tears for You edges into some difficult, perhaps unpalatable, territory but neatly skirts around it with a childish innocence intended to enhance its romantic credentials. Starring the jun-ai icon Masami Nasagawa, the tragic heroine at the centre of Crying Out Love in the Center of the World, alongside the then up and coming leading man Satoshi Tsumabuki, Tears for You is never quite as heartrending as it would like to be but does its best to wring its sorrowful narrative for all of its inherent tragedy.

21yr old Yota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a young man with big dreams but he’s put lots of them on hold in order to take care of his younger step-sister, Kaoru (Masami Nagasawa), who has only him to depend on. Yota’s mother married Kaoru’s father when both the children were small but her new husband soon ran off leaving his daughter behind. The three of them continued as a tightly knit family until Yota’s mother became ill and passed away, making Yota promise to take care of Kaoru no matter what even whilst on her deathbed. The two then moved back to an Okinawan island to live with Yota’s grandmother until Yota came back to Naha for high school. Kaoru is now about to make that same journey but the siblings’ happy reunion also provokes a number of questions about the nature of their relationship and the course each of their lives will take in the future.

This being a “pure love” movie, tragedy is coming though Tears for You does its best to disguise where it’s coming from even if the eventual outcome is quite obviously signposted. The original barrier between Kaoru and Yota is raised by their nature as accidental siblings, not related by blood but raised alongside each other with a familial bond stronger than that of just childhood friends. This, of course, becomes a problem as they grow older and begin to find it difficult to draw the line between their familial love and a possibly romantic one which would allow their family of two to continue forever.

Yota, the self sacrificing older brother has indeed become everything to Kaoru – a brother, father, and friend all in one. Dropping out of high school early, Yota has been sending a pay check home since the age of sixteen, putting his own future to one side in order to provide for Kaoru. Determined that Kaoru should prosper and escape their lowly, poverty stricken island existence through getting to university and into a middle class profession, Yota has been working three different jobs. When it looks as if he’s about to be able to realise his own dream of opening a restaurant, it all comes crashing down around his ears as he realises he’s been duped by a con artist and is now on the hook to a gang of loansharks.

In addition to adding to his financial burdens, causing him embarrassment, and further deepening his worry about providing for Kaoru, the situation also creates instability in his romantic life when the father of his longterm medical student girlfriend finds out about his predicament and offers to help – but only at a price. Keiko (Isao Hashizume), he reminds him, is a middle class girl on track to take over her father’s clinic. Yota is a poor boy with limited expectations. The implications are clear and already known to Yota who has internalised a degree of shame over his lowly origins and lack of education which he overcomes through hard work and enthusiasm. Keiko is not the sort to worry about a petty class difference even if her father is, but his words get to Yota who has always felt Keiko is too good for him. She does, however, care slightly about Yota’s ongoing and complicated relationship with his younger sister whom, she fears, will always eclipse any other woman in his life.

As in all pure love stories, love is an impossibility, surrounded by unassailable walls of culture and fate. Though there is no blood relation between Yota and Kaoru, their familial circumstances make romantic love a taboo which leads the film into a rather odd corner in which the familial side of their relationship is the one which gains the upper hand as the love of a brother and sister eclipses that of a tragic missed opportunity. As such the nature of the heartrending conclusion does not reach the melodramatic heights of other genre hits, even if it adheres to the form in maintaining the “purity” of the love through the final impossibility of its realisation. Doi employs many of the same techniques he used so well in Be With You, artfully shifting between past and present and making the most of repeated motifs to bring home the circularity of the relationship between the pair of tragic lovers but never achieves the same kind of emotional depth. Nevertheless, Tears for You is a suitably melancholy weepy anchored by strong performances from its two leads which does ultimately prove moving even if not quite reaching the degree of melodrama implied by the title.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s the original song, Nada Sou Sou, in its cover version by Rimi Natsukawa which spawned a mini industry of its own encompassing two TV dramas and this standalone film (English translation):

The Catcher on the Shore (やぎの冒険, Ryugo Nakamura, 2011)

catcherMaking a coming of age film when you’re only 14 is, in many ways, quite a strange idea but this debut feature from Ryugo Nakamura was indeed directed by a 14 year old boy. Focussing on a protagonist not much younger than himself and set in his native Okinawa, Catcher on the Shore (やぎの冒険, Yagi no Boken) is the familiar tale of a city boy at odds with his rural roots and the somewhat cosy, romantic relationship people from the town often have with matters of the countryside.

Hiroto is a young boy living with his single mother in the city. He’s supposed to spend the winter holidays with his grandparents in his mother’s home town and feels very grown up making the trip all by himself. He’s obviously spent quite a lot of time with his grandparents on earlier occasions and is eager to visit their two “pet” goats who live in “goathouses” (dog kennels) in the garden. However, it’s traditional in Okinawa to make goat soup at times of celebration and Hiroto’s family are raising the goats for their meat, much as they may seem like pets. Unfortunately, Hiroto wasn’t aware of this and is very distressed when he realises what’s happened to one of his “friends”. From this point on he becomes despondent and withdrawn though also committed to the idea of saving the other goat from the fate that befell its mate.

The divides between town and country prove stark here as Hiroto views the goats as domestic pets, never equating the living animal with the life sustaining meat on the dinner table. Though the other children might be able to tuck into goat soup one minute and marvel at the animal’s cuteness the next, Hiroto’s family have not fully considered that a boy from the city will have significantly different ways of looking at things. Seeing as no one thought it necessary to explain something so commonplace to him, Hiroto is shocked and left feeling as if he’s lodging with a gang of heartless murderers. Not only that, he’s now forced to consider his own place in this – his complicity in the death of other creatures as they become the means which sustains his life in the sacrifice of their own.

To begin with it’s all idyllic country scenes of children playing in lakes though perhaps it’s just different kinds of exploitation as Hiroto has also bought a tank along which is soon enough occupied by a shrimp freshly plucked from the river. It might not be a dinner plate, but even Hiroto’s well meaning desire to look after his new shrimp friend is quite a selfish one – especially as he ends up not being the best guardian, abandoning shrimpy to run off after a goat in danger.

This is a place where the old things are still important and there’s a very specific meaning to being a man. Men kill things. Women and cry babies run away. After Hiroto runs from an unexpectedly violent scene, his former friend brands him a “little girl” for lacking the courage to do something as vital as taking the life of an animal. Leaving aside the obvious sexism inherent in both his statement and the rural world (who do you think is going to deal with all those goat carcasses anyway), Hiroto and the local boy challenge each other’s manliness in the traditional way – with a fight! Which neither of them really win, though they do go on to have more of an in depth dialogue whilst marooned for a long dark night of the soul during their very differently motivated goat related quests.

Nakamura’s achievement shows remarkable assuredness for someone his age. That said, this is hardly a back bedroom affair and he’s had quite a lot of help from more experienced professionals to give him a slick, polished finish that eludes many older or even more established indie directors. Any lack of finesse can be excused by his youth but even so Nakamura’s grasp of quite complex themes is especially nuanced from someone who is still technically coming of age himself. Performances are also strong across the board but particularly from the younger members of cast and Nakamura doesn’t even shy away from Okinawa’s chief political concern as a local parliamentary candidate becomes a brief figure of fun whilst calling out for a military base to be built in the area in the hope of creating jobs and boosting the population. Imperfect, yet impressive, Catcher on the Shore is an interesting and undoubtedly well crafted debut which marks the young Nakamura as an intriguing voice that will hopefully have much to offer in years to come.


English subtitled trailer:

Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, SABU, 2015)

jon_chirashiNo fate but what we make – to steal the lines from another film just as one of the heavenly scriptwriters might in the latest film from the prolific Japanese director SABU (otherwise known as the actor Hiroyuki Tanaka), Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, Ten no Chasuke). Adapting his own novel for the screen (though the book was actually published after the film was completed), Sabu creates a romantic fantasy in which a lowly tea boy from heaven descends to Earth on a quest to save the woman he loves from certain death.

Chasuke (Kenichi Matsuyama) is the tea boy in “heaven” (his name, “Chasuke” literally means “tea assistant”). Here, there is a room full of scriptwriters who draft life stories for the people down below in service to The Man. Their task is a difficult one as each change in one person’s screenplay necessitates a change in all the others. It’s the butterfly effect gone mad. So, when The Man sends in a request for everything to suddenly go “more avant-garde” everyone is a little bit overworked. One writer asks Chasuke’s advice on what this might mean but all he comes up with is moving the action to a karaoke booth which has the unfortunate effect on the scene of getting the man’s proposal of marriage rejected causing him to leave in a mood and callously run Yuri (Ito Ono), whom Chasuke has developed a fondness for, over. Yuri’s screenwriter begs Chasuke to go down to Earth and use his unique powers to save her before it’s too late.

Luckily two of the other scriptwriters have pledged to support Chasuke’s mission from up above so he gets help from a former aspiring actor who now runs a small antique shop (Ren Osugi) and a broken hearted former boxer who now runs a ramen bar (Yusuke Iseya). Co-incidentally, both know and like Yuri who is a regular customer at both of their establishments. Coming from up above, Chasuke is already quite familiar with each of the character’s backstories and is able to fill us in with a touch of storytelling of his own. SABU has a dig here at unimaginative screenwriters who’ve ripped off most of their best ideas from other movies, which is sort of ignoring the fact that someone must have crafted the movies from up above anyway though the thought of screenwriters scripting screenwriters writing scripts about scriptwriters sort of makes your head spin.

Anyway, without venturing too far into spoiler territory, Chasuke’s quest is finished within the first half of the film with the remainder given over to a confused series of episodes featuring him as a celebrity healer committed to correcting all the awful scripts full of misery that his hack friends have come up with. That’s in addition to the constant threats of correction to Chasuke’s edits threatened by the jilted lover and a policeman who’ve both been given white painted faces (to be more “avant-garde”, as requested). Oh, and Chasuke’s memories of a former mortal life also start to return with a fairly surprising backstory of his own.

In truth, it’s all a little messy – almost as if someone were still working on the second draft even as we’re watching it. However, that’s sort of the point – we are watching someone re-writing on the hoof, trying to accommodate for someone else’s notes right as the keys are hitting the paper (or in this case, the ink splashing the parchment). When you come right down to it, life is a messy business and rarely makes any kind of sense during the “live broadcast”. Chasuke’s final message proves something of a riddle as he at once advises you to stick to The Man by living your own life and forging your own destiny whilst also putting his salvation down to the power of prayer which is about as close as you can get to an existential paradox.

Often beautifully photographed with Chasuke’s escape from up above an early highlight, Chasuke’s Journey is certainly a handsome looking film whatever faults it may have. Though the performances are committed, it never quite makes the jump from gentle satire to anything more emotionally engaging undermining the impact of its final sequence. However, for the vast majority of its running time Chasuke’s Journey does prove an interesting, if slightly flippant, take on freewill versus predestination with a hearty dose of social criticism thrown in to boot.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of Chasuke’s Journey includes English subtitles.

(Unsubtitled trailer again though, sorry).