Rolling (ローリング, Masanori Tominaga, 2015)

384f90_4054bb8ba5554cc186f2bce4c6beb853“Weird teacher” is almost becoming a genre now. Even so, the teacher at the center of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling may give them all a run for their money (well, for about five yards before having somekind of bizarre accident, anyway). Gondo is a feckless middle aged man who was fired from his teaching position ten years previously after having been caught secretly filming the girls’ changing rooms. Now he’s back in his old stalking ground after having pulled off an improbable white knight routine by rescuing the young and pretty Mihara from a bad boyfriend in Tokyo. However, his former students have not forgotten him or his pervy ways! It’s not long before the entire town of twenty somethings are on Gondo’s case hoping for a little vengeance for their teenage betrayal.

However, Gondo’s fortunes improve slightly when it’s discovered that some of his secret recordings feature some rather salacious goings on starring a former classmate whose TV career is just about to kick off. Smelling money in the air, Gondo is suddenly everyone’s best friend again. Gondo is…still Gondo though so as you may expect this state of affairs will not last. He’s even lost Mihara to a former student of his, one he even quite likes too…

Despite his failings and protestations to the contrary, what Gondo ultimately remains is a teacher. Yes he’s made some mistakes (understatement of the century), and he’s actually quite unpleasant in a lot of ways but somehow he still wants to protect this ragtag bag of not quite young people that he previously harmed. Coming to the realisation that his actions not only resulted in revulsion and violation of trust but also had a disruptive effect on the educational progress of his students simply resulting from his abrupt dismissal, Gondo does at least want to make amends (in his own way).

However, Gondo’s just the kind of guy things never work out for. “All my students are idiots” he proclaims at one point and he’s not altogether wrong. Attempting to hatch a blackmail plot with a very strange group of a idol managers-cum-gangsters and an ex-policeman, the gang get themselves into a whole world of trouble which is only exacerbated when the almost famous subject of the video comes forward and makes a very surprising request of her old flame and Gondo’s kindly love rival Kanichi.

Darkly comic, Rolling has the air of a film noir B movie with its ever present voice over and thriller trappings including secret video taping, a blackmail plot and trio of business-like gangsters. It is though, also firmly grounded in the now despite its often surreal humour. Also branded an “erotic comedy” Rolling is fairly high on sexual content adding to its generally sleazy feeling. It may well go down as a cult hit simply for the phrase “I’m going to make a milkshake out of your filthy boob juice” which gives you some indication as to the tone.

Far from perfect but oddly touching if sometimes baffling too, Rolling is another strange and surreal adventure from Tominaga. Its slightly vulgar tone may put off some but by and large it gets away with it through sheer cheekiness and absurd humour. Gondo is a dreadful person almost all of the time, selfish and needy yet he also seems to have this yearning for redemption which makes him seem not so bad really, as does the fact that most of his former students have not turned out all that well – even the “hero” Kanichi has his problems. For those that can accept its oddly surreal tone and decidedly old fashioned gender politics, Rolling is a rewarding and delightfully absurd film that does also manage to pack in a decent (if subtle) amount of social commentary.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015.

Review of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling (ローリング) – first published by UK Anime Network.

Obon Brothers (お盆の弟, Akira Osaki, 2015)

Obon BrothersReview of quirky comedy Obon Brothers (お盆の弟 Obon no Ototo) from this year’s Raindance up at UK Anime Network. I was also lucky enough to interview the director, Akira Osaki, while he was at Raindance to introduce the film which you can also read over at UK Anime Network.


Sometimes you think everything is going to be alright, but then several calamities arrive all at once. Down on his luck film director and stay at home dad Takashi has only been able to get one film made so far and it doesn’t look good for another any time soon. Right now he’s spending sometime apart from his wife and daughter as his elder brother Wataru is ill with colon cancer and as his brother never married, both their parents are dead and they have no other family Takashi has gone to look after him. However, Wataru is anything but grateful and proceeds to mope about the house repeatedly asking when Takashi plans to go home.

When he finally does go home, Takashi’s wife realises she liked it better when he wasn’t there and asks for a divorce. With nowhere else to go except back to Wataru’s, a confused and heartbroken Takashi goes home to Gunma where he reconnects with his screenwriting partner who’s finally met a girl through internet dating. Persuaded to come on a double date, Takashi strikes up a friendship with Ryoko despite still harbouring hopes for a reconciliation with his wife. No job, no home, no wife – what does the future hold for a mild mannered man like Takashi?

Like last year’s Raindance highlight And the Mudship sails away, Obon Brothers stars Kiyohiko Shibukawa though this “Takashi” is a little more sympathetic than the completely apathetic character from Watanabe’s film. With a sort of gentleness of spirit, Takashi is the sort of person who enjoys taking care of others like his ailing brother and cute little daughter and is just as happy keeping house as anything else. For his wife, his passivity becomes a major issue as she finds herself taking on a more independent role and comes to feel she needs someone with more drive at her side rather than the meek Takashi who’s content just muddling through.

Indeed, just muddling through ends up becoming an accidental theme of the film. Every morning, Takashi stops at the local shrine, throws a coin in the donation box and prays for everything to work out…and then goes home and waits for things to happen. However, things don’t just happen no matter how much you want and pray for them – at the end of the day you have to put the effort in which goes for all things in life from marriages to friendships and careers. If anybody gets anything at all out of Takashi’s religious practices, it’s ironically the older brother Wataru who thinks all this religious stuff is hokum – even going so far as to urinate into a sacred pond!

Also like Watanabe’s And the Mudship Sails Away, Obon Brothers is shot in black and white with a preference for long takes and static camera. Consequently it has an innately sophisticated indie comedy feeling which, coupled with its naturalistic tone, bring a kind of warmth and familiarity that it’s hard to resist. Though the film touches on some heavy themes – cancer, the breakdown of a marriage, it treats them all with a degree of matter of factness that never lets them overshadow the main narrative. After all, these things happen and life carries on while they do.

A loving tribute to the prefecture of Gunma from which many of the cast and crew originate including the director Akira Osaki, scriptwriter Shin Adachi and leading actor Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Obon Brothers has more than a little autobiographical content though it doesn’t reflect the actual circumstances of any of the creative team’s lives. It’s a gentle comedy, though one with shades of darkness creeping in around the edges, and moves at an equally gentle pace which gives you ample time to see into these characters and their lives. Osaki’s camera is unjudgemental, it gives equal sympathy and understanding to everyone and even the eventual end of Takashi’s marriage is accomplished with the utmost amicability. Whether or not Takashi has actually changed very much by the end of the film or has just gained a little more knowledge about who he is as a person, Obon Brothers gives you the feeling that it’s alright to start all over again – even if you’re just muddling though!


Obon Brothers is getting a UK release from Third Window Films next year(?) – highly recommended, especially if you like gentle, indie comedies!

 

Asleep (白河夜船, Shingo Wakagi, 2015)

asleep posterBased on the third of three short stories in Banana Yoshimoto’s novel of the same name, Asleep (白河夜船, Shirakawayofune) is an apt name for this tale of grief and listlessness. Starring actress of the moment Sakura Ando, the film proves that little has changed since the release of the book in 1989 when it comes to young lives disrupted by a traumatic event. Slow and meandering, Asleep’s gentle pace may frustrate some but its melancholic poetry is sure to leave its mark.

Terako (Sakura Ando) is a young woman who sleeps a lot. Almost all the time, in fact. The kept woman of a married man whose wife, oddly enough, is in a coma following a traffic accident, Terako has been in a kind of limbo since her former roommate and good friend committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Prior to her death, Shiori had taken up an unusual occupation – she lies next to lonely strangers who just want to know that someone is watching over them while they sleep and will be there when they awake. This also meant that she rarely had the opportunity to sleep herself as her occupation demanded keeping a watchful eye over her charges and falling asleep on the job seemed like a lapse of professionalism.

Mr. Iwanaga, Terako’s boyfriend, is an enabler of the first order. He prefers that Terako not work so that she’s available for him whenever he feels the need to call meaning that she’s always at home, sleeping. She sleeps and sleeps but finds no relief from her exhaustion. Even her dates with Iwanaga feel “like the shadow of a dream”. The constant flashbacks and meandering timelines perfectly reflect someone trying to think through the distorted reality of fractured sleep where the boundaries between dream and reality have become impossibly blurred.

There’s an odd sort of triumvirate of sleeping women here – Terako herself who does little but sleep but is still constantly exhausted, Shiori who denied herself sleep until ultimately deciding to take enough sleeping pills to go to sleep forever and Iwanaga’s wife who’s trapped in coma. At one point, in a conversation which either happened some time ago or not at all, Shiori remarks that Iwanaga has Terako “on pause” because he’s afraid to move on from his wife (the fact of his having an affair while his wife is lying in a hospital bed even has Terako labelling him a cold, unfeeling man but then she says she likes that kind of thing anyway). It’s as if she’s waiting for someone to hit the spacebar to wake her up again, though Iwanaga is “on pause” too – torn between the choice of abandoning his wife who will likely never wake up and being labeled heartless, or sacrificing the rest of his life in devotion to a memory.

Help does come, in a way, through the intervention of a either a dream or a kind of cosmic transference – an impossible conversation between two women equally in need of it. Shingo Wakagi’s adaptation is more interested in psychology and existential questioning than it is in hard realities or concrete solutions. A vignette of a moment in a young woman’s life, Asleep gives us little in the way of backstory or explanatory epiphanies, and finally ends in the characteristically ambiguous way many Japanese novellas often do though there is a hint at a possible shift in Terako’s life offered by the final images. A poetic meditation on dream, memory, grief and loneliness, Asleep is beautifully framed, if appropriately distant, look at modern life in limbo.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015

First Published on UK Anime Network in 2015.

Fires on the Plain (野火, Shinya Tsukamoto, 2015)

fires on the plain 2015 posterShinya Tsukamoto is back with another characteristically visceral look at the dark sides of human nature in his latest feature length effort, Fires on the Plain (野火, Nobi). Another take on the classic, autobiographically inspired novel of the same name by Shohei Ooka (previously adapted by Kon Ichikawa in 1959), Fires on the Plain is a disturbing, surreal examination of the effects of war both on and off the battlefield.

Late in the war when it’s almost lost though no one wants to admit it, Corporal Tamura (Shinya Tsukamoto) finds himself suffering with TB on the Philippine island of Leyte where supplies, and tethers, are running short. Shortly after being punched in the face by his commanding officer, he’s given five days’ worth of supplies and ordered to march to the field hospital for treatment as no one wants a sick man weighing down the unit. Only, when he finally arrives at the field hospital, they have their hands full (literally) with the battlefield wounded. Marching back to his unit again, Tamura is ordered back to the field hospital and told to use his grenade to ease the burden on his fellow soldiers if refused. So begins Tamura’s fevered, mostly solitary odyssey across the beautiful landscape of the Philippine jungle suddenly scarred with corpses, the starving and the mad.

Tsukamoto’s adaptation sticks closer to the original novel than Ichikawa’s 1959 version, though both eschew Ooka’s Christianity. Tamura is a man at odds with his fellow soldiers. Formerly a writer he’s “an intellectual” as one puts it, and a little on the old side for a corporal. Coughing and wheezing, he shuffles his way through just trying to survive. Unlike Ooka’s original novel in which the protagonist’s Catholicism makes suicide an unavailable option, it’s the memory of Tamura’s wife which stays his hand on the pin of his grenade. Tamura wants to go home, to escape this hellish island full of the walking dead, hostile locals and hidden clusters of enemy troops.

To get home, to survive, what will it cost? There was barely any food left to start with. The original five days’ worth of rations Tamura was given amounted to a handful of yams. On his second trip to the military hospital he was given nothing at all. There’s no wildlife, even if you manage to find some plant roots they’ll need cooking. Of course, there is one abundant source of food, except that it doesn’t bear thinking about. Tsukamoto’s version takes a less ambiguous approach to the idea of cannibalism than Ichikawa’s which removed Tamura’s moral dilemma by having his teeth fall out through malnutrition and rendering him unable to indulge in “monkey meat” even if he might have succumbed. Death feeds on death and there’s no humanity to be found here anymore where men prey on men like animals.

There’s no glory in dying like this. Half starved, half mad and baking to death in the heat of a foreign jungle abandoned by your country which cared so little for its men that it never thought to conserve them. When you make it home, if you make it home, you aren’t the same you that left. The things you had to do to get there stay with you for the rest of your life, and not just with you – with all of those around you too. Wars don’t end when treaties are signed, they survive in the eyes of the men who fought them.

A timely and a visceral look at the literal horror of war, Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain is a refreshingly frank, if stylised, examination of the battlefield. Limbs fly, heads explode, organs are exposed and brain fragments leak out of ruined corpses. At any other time, Leyte would be a paradise of lush vegetation, colourful flowers and beautiful blue skies but it’s corrupted now by the fruits of human cruelty. This is what it means to go to war. There’s nothing noble in this – just death, decay and eternal grief. Though the film often suffers from its low budget and some may be put off by the stark, hyperreal cinematography, Fires on the Plain is another typically troubling effort from the master of discomfort and comes as a warning bell to those who still think it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

First published by UK Anime Network.