Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2010)

sketches of kaitan cityYasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, has provided the source material for some of the best films of recent times including Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence but it has to be said that his world view is anything but positive. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri takes on Sketches of Kaitan City (海炭市叙景, Kaitanshi Jokei) inspired by a collection of short stories left unfinished on Sato’s death by suicide in 1990. Despite the late bubble era setting of the stories (now updated to the present day), his Kaitan (eerily close to the real life Hakodate) is a place of decline and hopelessness, populated by the disillusioned and despairing.

The first story concerns a brother and sister whose lives have been defined by the local shipbuilding industry. Since their father was killed in a dockside fire, older brother Futa (Pistol Takehara) has been taking care of his little sister Honami (Mitsuki Tanimura) and now works at the docks himself. Times being what they are, the company is planning to close three docks with mass layoffs inevitable. The workers strike but are unable to win more than minor concessions leaving Futa unable to continue providing for himself or his sister.

Similar tales of societal indifference follow as an old lady living alone with her beloved cat is hounded by a developer (Takashi Yamanaka) desperate to buy her home. Across town the owner of the planetarium (Kaoru Kobayashi) is living a life of quiet desperation, suspecting that his bar hostess wife (Kaho Minami) is having an affair. Meanwhile a gas canister salesman (Ryo Kase) is trying to branch out but having little success, and a tram driver dwells on his relationship with his estranged son.

Economic and social concerns become intertwined as increasing financial instability chips away at the foundations of otherwise sound family bonds. Futa’s situation is one of true desperation now that he’s lost the only job he’s ever had and is ill equipped to get a new one even if there were anything going in this town which revolves entirely around its port.

Yet other familial bonds are far from sound to begin with. The gas canister salesman, going against his father’s wishes in trying to diversify with a series of water purifiers he believes will be a guaranteed earner because of the need to replace filters, takes out his various frustrations through astonishing acts of violence against his wife who then passes on the legacy of abuse to his son, Akira (You Koyama). Resentful towards his father and embarrassed by his lack of success with the water filters, the gas canister salesman threatens to explode but unexpectedly finding himself on the receiving end of violence, he is forced into a reconsideration of his way of life – saving one family member, but perhaps betraying another.

The gas canister salesman is not the only one to have a difficult relationship with his child. The planetarium owner cannot seem to connect with his own sullen offspring and is treated like an exile within his own home while the tram driver no longer speaks to his son who is apparently still angry and embarrassed that his mother worked in a hostess bar.

Yet for all of this real world disillusionment, despair takes on a poetic quality as the planetarium owner spends his days literally staring at the stars – even if they are fake. The gas canister salesman’s son, Akira, becomes a frequent visitor, excited by the idea of the telescope and dreaming of a better, far away world only to have his hopes literally dashed by his parents, themselves already teetering on the brink of an abyss. Futa’s lifelong love has been with shipping – the company officials are keen to sell the line that it’s all about the boats and an early scene of jubilation following the launch of a recently completed vessel would seem to bear that out, but when it comes down to it the values are far less pure than a simple love of craftsmanship. Kaitan City is a place where dreams go to die and hope is a double edged sword.

There are, however, small shoots of positivity. The old lady welcomes her cat back into her arms, discovering that it is pregnant and stroking it gently, reassuring it that everything will be OK and she will take care of the new cat family. Signs of life appear, even if drowned out by the noise of ancient engines and the sound of the future marching quickly in the opposite direction. Bleak yet beautifully photographed, Sketches of Kaitan City perfectly captures the post-industrial malaise and growing despair of those excluded from economic prosperity, left with nothing other than false promises and misplaced hope to guide the way towards some kind of survival.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2011)

scabbard samuraiA samurai’s soul in his sword, so they say. What is a samurai once he’s been reduced to selling the symbol of his status? According to Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Sayazamurai) not much of anything at all, yet perhaps there’s another way of defining yourself in keeping with the established code even when robbed of your equipment. Hitoshi Matsumoto, one of Japan’s best known comedians, made a name for himself with the surreal comedies Big Man Japan and Symbol but takes a low-key turn in Scabbard Samurai, stepping back in time but also in comedic tastes as the hero tests his mettle as a showman in a high stakes game of life and death.

Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) is a samurai on the run. Wandering with an empty scabbard hanging at his side, he pushes on into the wilderness with his nine year old daughter Tae (Sea Kumada) grumpily traipsing behind him. Eventually, Nomi is attacked by a series of assassins but rather than heroically fighting back as any other jidaigeki hero might, he runs off into the bushes screaming hysterically. Nomi and Tae are then captured by a local lord but rather than the usual punishment for escapee retainers, Nomi is given an opportunity to earn his freedom if only he can make the lord’s sad little boy smile again before the time is up.

Nomi is not exactly a natural comedian. He’s as sullen and passive as the little lord he’s supposed to entertain yet he does try to come up with the kind of ideas which might amuse bored children. Given one opportunity to impress every day for a period of thirty days, Nomi starts off with the regular dad stuff like sticking oranges on his eyes or dancing around with a face drawn on his chest but the melancholy child remains impassive. By turns, Nomi’s ideas become more complex as the guards (Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) begin to take an interest and help him plan his next attempts. Before long Nomi is jumping naked through flaming barrels, being shot out of cannons, and performing as a human firework but all to no avail.

Meanwhile, Tae looks on with contempt as her useless father continues to embarrass them both on an increasingly large stage. Tae’s harsh words express her disappointment with in Nomi, berating him for running away, abandoning his sword and with it his samurai honour, and exposing him as a failure by the code in which she has been raised. She watches her father’s attempts at humour with exasperation, unsurprised that he’s failed once again. Later striking up a friendship with the guards Tae begins to get more involved, finally becoming an ally and ringmaster for her father’s newfound career as an artist.

Tae and the orphaned little boy share the same sorrow in having lost their mothers to illness and it’s her contribution that perhaps begins to reawaken his talent for joy. Nomi’s attempts at comedy largely fall flat but the nature of his battle turns out to be a different one than anyone expected. Tae eventually comes around to her father’s fecklessness thanks to his determination, realising that he’s been fighting on without a sword for all this time and if that’s not samurai spirit, what is? Nomi makes a decision to save his honour, sending a heartfelt letter to his little girl instructing her to live her life to the fullest, delivering a message he was unable to express in words but only in his deeds.

Matsumoto’s approach is less surreal here and his comedy more of a vaudeville than an absurd kind, cannons and mechanical horses notwithstanding. The story of a scabbard samurai is the story of an empty man whose soul followed his wife, leaving his vacant body to wander aimlessly looking for an exit. Intentionally flat comedy gives way to an oddly moving finale in which a man finds his redemption and his release in the most unexpected of ways but makes sure to pass that same liberation on to his daughter who has come to realise that her father embodies the true samurai spirit in his righteous perseverance. Laughter and tears, Scabbard Samurai states the case for the interdependence of joy and sorrow, yet even if it makes plain that kindness and understanding are worth more than superficial attempts at humour it also allows that comedy can be the bridge that spans a chasm of despair, even if accidentally.


Currently streaming on Mubi

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Miwa Nishikawa, 2016)

long excuse posterSelf disgust is self obsession as the old adage goes. It certainly seems to ring true for the “hero” of Miwa Nishikawa’s latest feature, The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Nagai Iiwake) , in which she adapts her own Naoki Prize nominated novel. In part inspired by the devastating earthquake which struck Japan in March 2011, The Long Excuse is a tale of grief deferred but also one of redemption and self recognition as this same refusal to grieve forces a self-centred novelist to remember that other people also exist in the world and have their own lives, emotions, and broken futures to dwell on.

Sachio Kinugasa (Masahiro Motoki) is a formerly successful novelist turned TV pundit. As his hairstylist wife, Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu), gives his hair a trim he angrily turns off the television on which one of the programmes he appears on is playing and returns to petulantly needle his wife about perceived slights including “deliberately” using his real name in front of important publishers “to embarrass him”. Upset but bearing it, Natsuko takes all of this in her stride though her husband is in a particularly maudlin mood today, reminding her once again about his intense feelings of self loathing. Shortly after finishing Sachio’s haircut, Natsuko throws on a coat and grabs a suitcase – she’s late to meet a friend with whom she is going on a trip. Sachio barely waits for the door to close before picking up his phone and texting his mistress to let her know that his wife is away.

Later, Sachio figures out that at the moment his wife, her friend Yuki (Keiko Horiuchi), and a busload of other people plunged over a guard rail on a mountain road and into a frozen lake, he was rolling around in his marital bed with a much younger woman. Now playing the grieving husband, Sachio seems fairly indifferent to his recent tragedy but writes an improbably literary funeral speech which boils down to wondering who is going to cut his hair, which he also makes a point of checking in the rear view mirror of the funeral car, now that his wife is gone.

So self obsessed is Sachio that he can’t even answer most of the policeman’s simple questions regarding the identification of his wife – what was she wearing, what did she eat for dinner, is there anything at all he can tell them to confirm the identity of his wife’s body? The answer is always no – he doesn’t remember what she wore (he was busy thinking about texting his mistress), ate dinner separately, and didn’t even know the name of the friend Natsuko was going to meet. The policeman tries to comfort him with the rationale that it’s normal enough to have grown apart a little over 20 years, but the truth is that Sachio was never very interested in his wife. As a funeral guest points out, Natsuko had her own life filled with other people who loved her and would have appreciated the chance to pay their respects in the normal fashion rather than becoming mere guests at Sachio’s stage managed memorial service.

Sachio’s lack of sincere reaction to his wife’s passing stands in stark contrast to the husband of her friend, Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), who is a wailing, broken man and now a widowed single father to two young children. Yoichi is excited to finally meet Sachio about whom he heard so much from “Nacchan” his wife’s best friend and the children’s favourite auntie. Sachio knew nothing of this important relationship in his wife’s life, or much of anything about her activities outside of their home.

When Natsuko left that last time, she paused in the doorway somewhat finally to remind Sachio to take care of the house in her absence but neither of these two men know how to look after themselves from basic household chores like using the washing machine to cooking and cleaning, having gone from a mother to a wife and left all of the “domestic” tasks to their women. Eventually feeling low, Sachio decides to respond to Yoichi’s suggestion they try to ease their shared grief by taking the family out for dinner, only he invites them to a fancy, upscale place he goes to often which is neither child friendly nor particularly comfortable for them seeing as they aren’t used to such extravagant dining. Yoichi, otherwise a doting father but often absent due to his job as a long distance truck driver, neglects to think about his daughter’s dangerous crab allergy and necessity of carrying epinephrin just in case, never having had to worry about something as basic as feeding her.

Hearing that Yuki’s son Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) is quitting studying for middle school exams because he needs to take care of his sister, Sachio makes the improbable suggestion that he come over and help out while Yoichi is away on the road. Becoming a second father to someone else’s children forces Sachio into a consideration of his new role but his publicist cautions him against it. Whipping out some photos of his own, he tells Sachio that kids are great because they make you forget what a terrible person you are but that it’s just the ultimate act of indulgence, basking in adoration you know you don’t deserve. Sachio frequently reminds people that he’s no good, almost making it their own fault that he’s hurt them through his constant need for external validation and thinly disguised insecurity. Sachio’s personal tragedy is that his attempts at self-deception largely fail, he knows exactly what he is but that only makes it worse.

The Long Excuse, such as it is, is the title of Sachio’s autobiographical story of grief and an attempt to explain all of this through a process of self discovery and acceptance. Though appearing indifferent to his wife’s death, Sachio’s reaction is one informed by his ongoing self delusions in which he tries to convince himself to ignore the issue and attempt to simply forget about it and move on. Yoichi, by contrast, feels differently – he can’t let his wife go and wants to keep her alive by talking about her all the time but his bighearted grief is too much for his sensitive son who has more than a little in common with Sachio and would rather hit the pause button to come back to this later. The best way out is always through, however difficult and painful it may turn out to be. Making The Long Excuse is Sachio’s way of explaining himself and learning to reconcile the person he is with the one he would like to be, and even if he’s still talking to himself he’s at least moving in the right direction.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)