Schoolgirl Complex (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Yuichi Onuma, 2013)

Schoolgirl Complex is a popular photo book featuring the work of Yuki Aoyama and does indeed focus on that most most Japanese of fixations – the school girl and her iconic uniform. Aoyama’s book presents itself as taking the POV of a teenage boy, gazing longly from a position of total innocence at the unattainable female figures who, in the book, are entirely faceless. Given a more concrete narrative, this filmic adaptation (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Schoolgirl Complex Housoubu-hen) directed by Yuichi Onuma takes a slightly different tack in dispensing with high school boys altogether for a tale of self discovery and sexual confusion set in an all girls school in which almost everyone has a crush on someone, but sadly finds only adolescent suffering as so eloquently described by Osamu Dazai whose Schoolgirl informs much of the narrative.

About to become head of the broadcast club when the school leavers depart after the culture festival, Manami (Aoi Morikawa) has developed a fascination for Chiyuki (Mugi Kadowaki) whose mysterious figure she finds herself watching from hidden places even though they’ve never met. She is therefore both delighted and alarmed when Chiyuki suddenly joins her broadcast club but becomes flustered enough to tell her she doesn’t need to bother coming to any of the meetings if she doesn’t feel like it – much to the consternation of the other members. Neglecting her best friend Ai (Maaya Kondo), Manami grows closer to Chiyuki whose avoidance of a previous best friend and out of school troubles including a no good older boyfriend are all causes for concern when it comes to her growing feelings. Chiyuki, blowing hot and cold, continues to cause trouble both for herself and everyone else as she finds herself conflicted over who she is and what she really wants.

As in Dazai’s book, there’s a lot of hiding, waiting, watching and suffering at the heart of Schoolgirl Complex. Slightly unusually the school environment does seem to be a strangely progressive one in which same sex attraction is more or less normalised despite the shyness and confusion manifesting among the girls. Love is declared loudly and dramatically in the school corridors with no seeming consequences save perhaps embarrassment and heartbreak for the unlucky girl who finds herself rejected. There are a set of four girls with apparent crushes on each other, returned or otherwise, and there is no further mention of boys or dating outside of Chiyuki’s boyfriend who turns up to steal her away by car but also demands she bring him money. Aside from the general adolescent diffidence, there does not seem to be additional anxiety or personal angst around the idea of same sex love save for Chiyuki’s lament that she can’t make proper friends because everyone turns out to be a lesbian and wants more out the relationship than she can give them.

Rather than the teenage boy POV adopted by the photo book, Onuma’s camera is perhaps intended to capture that of Manami as she finds herself experiencing complicated feelings towards her classmate. Accordingly the camera lingers sensuously over sun beaten, sweaty flesh, and long legs under short skirts as Onuma explores Manami’s burgeoning desires but cannot avoid the tendency towards fetishisation which the title implies.

To its credit, Schoolgirl Complex is not the film which one might presuppose it to be. It’s no schoolgirls gone wild exploitation fest or a shy boy’s yearning for female contact, but its melancholy message that adolescence is difficult for everyone is a somewhat flat one even given its obvious triteness. During the climactic performance at the cultural festival a huge and very public declaration is made but gathers absolutely no reaction save an “I knew it!” from the control booth. Rejections all round seem to reinforce female bonding as the girls continue on in friendship with Dazai’s words that this will all seem funny when they’ve grown up ringing in their ears. The tone of total acceptance is a warm and refreshing one but perhaps a little unrealistic in its uncomplicated approach to a complicated area of personal development. Nevertheless, though Schoolgirl Complex’s attempt to redefine itself as a painful story of youth rings hollow its sympathetic treatment of its suffering teenage romantics is worthy of applause.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fallen Angel (人間失格, Genjiro Arato, 2010)

fallen-angelThe Fallen Angel (人間失格, Ningen Shikkaku), based on one of the best known works of Japanese literary giant Osamu Dazai – No Longer Human, was the last in a series of commemorative film projects marking the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 2009. Like much of Dazai’s work, No Longer Human is semi-autobiographical, fixated on the idea of suicide, and charts the course of its protagonist as he becomes hopelessly lost in a life of dissipation, alcohol, drugs, and overwhelming depression.

Even when we meet him as a small child, Yozo Oba (Toma Ikuta), feels himself set apart from his peers. Unable to connect fully with the people around him, Yozo gets through life by playing the clown. As a teenager, he meets another boy, Takeichi, who can see straight through his mask and encourages him in his artistic pursuits. Eventually, Yozo moves to Tokyo where he meets another artist, Horiki (Yusuke Iseya), who introduces him to the seedier pleasures of the city including drinking and hostess bars.

Yozo still feels adrift and is unable to cement his new found friendship with true connection. After asking Horiki to die with him (which he laughingly refuses to do), Yozo begins an ill-starred romance with a melancholy bar hostess with whom he does actually attempt double suicide. She dies, he doesn’t but his life is changed when he loses access to his familial wealth and is kicked out of university because of the scandal. Yozo has another shot at conventional happiness by briefly forming a family with a single mother and her little girl before leaving them because of problems resulting from his alcoholism. Eventually marrying a kind hearted woman, Yozo kicks the booze for a while and builds a career in manga but sure enough Horiki finds him and ruins his marital bliss by setting him back on the road to dissipation.

Arato makes a few changes to Dazai’s novel, mostly streamlining the book’s tripartite structure by eliding two events into one, but perhaps because of the well known nature of the story, he feels comfortable in making abrupt cuts and wide ranging shifts in terms of time. Dazai’s novel is much more focussed on the mental condition of its protagonist, whereas Arato has opted for a more overt display of the increasingly tense political environment with soldiers lurking in the background, later occupying a train shortly before the scene turns into a surreal segment in which Yozo reacquaints himself with all those he’s wronged throughout the course of the film.

Yozo’s tragedy is his inability to connect with other people even though he leads an ostensibly successful social life. Making himself an amiable presence, Yozo keeps people around him by making himself a figure of fun – a mask which gradually becomes far too heavy to wear. This buffoonish aspect of his personality is not very much in evidence in Arato’s film which focusses much more on his underlying depression than the joviality he uses to try and prevent anyone noticing just how broken he is inside. For this reason it becomes harder to see why everybody lets Yozo get away with his extremely bad behaviour for so long. Toma Ikuta captures Yozo’s listlessness and despair but without the necessary intensity to back them up and, ironically, without his sad clown routine Yozo does not always seem like someone anyone would want to hang out with for any great length of time.

Arato has recreated the novel’s pervading sense of numbness and despair to the letter with the consequence that his film remains resolutely cold. As appropriate as that may be, it makes it harder to achieve the kind of connection forged through Yozo’s first person narrative in the book. This approach brings out Yozo’s unpleasant qualities – his selfishness, weakness, cowardice, and propensity to addiction, but fails to display his better ones which lead to him being characterised as the ruined “angel” of the title. In distancing us from Yozo, Arato encourages us to see him either as a metaphor for the political turmoil taking place in his country during his lifetime, or simply as a someone whose intense self loathing eventually destroys his sense of self. What it does not encourage us to do is see that Yozo’s struggle is our own struggle, his despair is our despair felt to a greater or lesser degree. Too obtuse to be affecting, The Fallen Angel fails to capture the overwhelming nihilism of Dazai’s novel and ironically remains far too distant to achieve true connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Masanori Tominaga, 2009)

Pandora's BoxOsamu Dazai is one of the twentieth century’s literary giants. Beginning his career as a student before the war, Dazai found himself at a loss after the suicide of his idol Ryunosuke Akutagawa and descended into a spiral of hedonistic depression that was to mark the rest of his life culminating in his eventual drowning alongside his mistress Tomie in a shallow river in 1948. 2009 marked the centenary of his birth and so there were the usual tributes including a series of films inspired by his works. In this respect, Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Pandora no Hako) is a slightly odd choice as it ranks among his minor, lesser known pieces but it is certainly much more upbeat than the nihilistic Fallen Angel or the fatalistic Villon’s Wife. Masanori Tominaga had made an impact with his debut film The Pavillion Salamandre and seemed to be a perfect fit for the quirkier, darkly comic Pandora’s Box but perhaps in the end it was too perfect a fit.

Inspired by events from Dazai’s own life, the story centres around a young man at the end of the second world war who has been suffering from tuberculosis for some time but kept quiet about it expecting to die soon and remove the burden on his family. However, when the war finally ends Risuke (Shota Sometani) inherits a new will to live and commits himself to a sanatorium to treat his lung condition. Whilst in the hospital he comes into contact with writers and poets as well as pretty nurses all the while proceeding with his plan to become a “new man” for this “new era”.

At once both hopeful and nihilistic, Pandora’s Box mixes gallows humour and denial in equal measure as the motley collection of inpatients waste their days away in this eccentric establishment which looks after them well enough but promises no real progress in terms of their health. Each of the patients receives a nickname when they enter the sanatorium so Risuke quickly becomes Hibari (sky lark). Tellingly, these nicknames overwrite real world personas – original names are recalled only at the time of death. Deaths do indeed occur but aside from these unhappy events, no one acknowledges the seriousness of their condition or the possibility that they may die from it, never leaving the hospital again. Physical pain and suffering is almost entirely absent though Risuke gives ample vent to his mental anguish through his letters to a fellow patient who has now been discharged back into the unseen chaos of the post-war world.

Indeed, the sanatorium might be a kind of idyll in this era of instability. Well fed and well cared for, the patients are far better off than many left adrift in the starving cities but the outside world rarely impinges on the isolated atmosphere of the sanatorium. Events change slightly when a friend of Risuke’s, Tsukushi (Yosuke Kubozuka), is discharged and a new nurse, Take (Mieko Kawakami), arrives stirring up various different emotions amongst the male patients in Risuke’s ward. Striking up a friendship with the younger nurse, Mabo (Riisa Naka), Risuke finds himself torn between two very different women.

Although its tone is necessarily one of depression and numbness, Pandora’s Box ends on an improbably upbeat note in which Risuke remarks that just like a climbing plant he may not know where he’s going, but it will certainly be a place of bright sunlight. A minor work filled with dark, ironic humour it’s perhaps unfair to expect the same kind of impact as Dazai’s more weighty efforts but Pandora’s Box is a lower budget affair which, although interesting enough in terms of direction, fails to make much of an impression outside of its obvious pedigree. The light jazzy score and deadbeat voice over add to the period feel whilst also lending an air of hopeless yet buoyant resignation to Risuke’s ongoing journey into the post-war world. This, in many ways, is what we’re here for – Risuke, unlike Dazai, has made a commitment to forge a way forward in which he plans to fight for the sun rather sink below the waves.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Kichitaro Negishi, 2009)

Villon's Wife2009 marked the centenary year of Osamu Dazai, a hugely important figure in the history of Japanese literature who is known for his melancholic stories of depressed, suicidal and drunken young men in contemporary post-war Japan. Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Villon no Tsuma: Oto to Tampopo) is a semi-autobiographical look at a wife’s devotion to her husband who causes her nothing but suffering thanks to his intense insecurity and seeming desire for death coupled with an inability to successfully commit suicide.

Beginning in the immediate post-war period of 1946, Sachiko (Takako Matsu) is a fairly ordinary housewife with a young son who generally waits around the house for her husband’s return. Only, she’s married to one of the most brilliant writers of the age, Joji Otani (Tadanobu Asano), whose book on the French poet François Villon is currently a best seller. Despite his obvious literary talents, Otani is a drunkard who spends most of his time (and money) in bars and with other women. When he crashes home one night only to be pursued by two bar owners who reveal that he ran off with their takings (around 5000 yen), Sachiko is not exactly surprised but still embarrassed and eventually takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to offer herself as a “hostage” by working at the bar until the debt is repaid.

“Men and women are equal now, even dogs and horses” says one customer, impressed with this sudden arrival of a beautiful woman in a low life drinking spot. To her own surprise, Sachiko actually enjoys working at the bar, it gives her purpose and proves more interesting than being stuck at home waiting to see what her drunken fool of a husband has got up to next. She’s good at it too – Sachiko is a beautiful and a fundamentally decent and kind person, in short the sort of woman that everyone falls a little bit in love with. That said, she isn’t a saint. She’s perfectly aware of the power she is able to wield over men and is unafraid to make use of it, though only when absolutely necessary.

Otani himself is a fairly pathetic figure. He may be a great artist but he’s a hollow human being. He admits the reason for all of his vices is fear – he’s a afraid to live but he’s also afraid to die. He seems to love his wife, though he’s insecure about losing her and dreads the embarrassment involved in becoming a cuckold. So afraid to face the possibility of failure, Otani satisfies himself in an underground world of drunks and easy women rather than facing his own self loathing as reflected in the faces of his unconditionally loving family.

Perhaps because Villon’s Wife is a commemorative project, the film has been given the prestige picture treatment meaning the darker sides of Dazai’s original novella have been largely excised. The chaos of the post-war city with its starving population, soldiers on the streets and generalised anxiety is all but hidden and some of the more serious travails Sachiko undergoes in devotion to her husband as well as Otani’s tuberculosis (from which Dazai also suffered in real life) have also largely been removed. What remains is the central picture of a self destructive husband and the goodly wife who’s trying to save him from himself but risks her own soul in the process.

The one spot of unseemliness of post-war life that the film lets through is in a brief scene which features a group of pan pan girls hanging around ready to try and snag some passing GIs. Sachiko buys some lipstick from them to use in attempt to convince an ex who is also a top lawyer to try and help her husband after his latest escapade lands him in jail on a possible murder charge. After visiting him, Sachiko wanders out slightly dazed to see the pan pans atop a military jeep cheerfully waving and shouting “goodbye” in English. Sachiko is confused at first but eventually shouts “goodbye” back in a way which is both excited and a little bit sad, perhaps realising she is not so different from them after all. Finally she wipes the lipstick from her face and leaves the small silver tube behind where the pan pans were sitting, hoping to bury this particular incident far in the past.

In actuality the pan pan girls are depicted in a fairly matter of fact way rather than in the negative light in which they are usually shown, just another phenomenon of occupation. At the end of the film Otani calls himself a monster whilst acknowledging that he’s a terrible father who would steal the cherries from his own son’s mouth. Sachiko replies that it’s OK to be a monster – as long as we’re alive, it’ll be alright. Oddly for someone so suicidal, this fits in quite well with Dazai’s tenet of embracing the simple gift of a dandelion. The film ends on an ambiguous note in which there seems to have been some kind of restoration but it’s far from a happy one as the couple remain locked in a perpetual battle between light and darkness albeit with the balance a little more equalised than it perhaps was before.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Villon’s Wife includes English subtitles.