Embalming (EM エンバーミング, Shinji Aoyama, 1999)

“Nothing can last forever” according ironically enough to an embalmer who feels it is her calling to preserve the bodies of the dead she says to help their grieving families, but does that actually help or is she actively preventing them from moving on in enabling their desire to hold on to something beautiful that is already gone? Jumping on the J-horror boom, Shinji Aoyama’s adaptation of the mystery horror novel by Michiko Matsuda Embalming (EM エンバーミング, EM Embalming) is another millennial mediation on the loss of bodily autonomy amid the corruptions of the late 20th century. 

A predominantly Buddhist funerary culture, embalming is rare in Japan which generally favours cremation over burial. As the opening crawl explains to us, the process may be familiar from the ancient Egyptian mummy, but was also put to use during the American Civil War in order to transport bodies of fallen soldiers home to their families. It also says that through technological advances, bodies can now be preserved for up to one hundred years though according to embalmer Miyako Murakami (Reiko Takashima), the best she can do is 50 days or perhaps she’s merely decided that after the the 49th day it’s inappropriate to hold on any longer. Apparently friendly with local policeman Hiraoka (Yutaka Matsushige), Miyako is called in when the 17-year-old son of a local politician, Yoshiki, is found dead on the pavement outside a tall building having fallen from above. Having no reason to suspect foul play, Hiraoka concludes it’s most likely to be a suicide. The reason he’s called Miyako is that the mother is out of her mind with grief and insisting her son be embalmed to preserve him as he was for all eternity though his father does not agree. 

Neither does local priest Jion (Kojiro Hongo) who sends a couple of his goons to pick Miyako up so he can tell her in imposing and ritualistic tones that she must stop the “evil acts” she’s “inflicting” on Yoshiki’s body, insisting that she’s spanner in the karmic wheel of life and death holding up the cosmos by refusing to let nature take its course in returning Yoshiki’s body to the universe. “What you are carrying out is a violation of the silence of Bodhisattva, and is therefore an act of evil!” he explains though Miyako is hardly about to be swayed from her life’s work and as we later realise Jion has motives other than the spiritual in mind. Nevertheless, it’s true enough that even if Miyako insists embalming gives dignity to the dead, Yoshiki has no further say as to what happens to his body or how much longer he remains in this world. There’s no way to know how the bodies Miyako works on would have felt about the prospect of being mummified or if they would be happy with the way their bodies may go on being used after their death. 

“When a human being dies, they become an object. Human flesh becomes food for maggots and bacteria and eventually the bodies disappear completely” according to another embalmer, Dr. Fuji (Toshio Shiba), who works with shady “death dealers” and in Miyako’s opinion betrays the art of embalming by frankensteining his bodies using a series of replacement parts to achieve the appearance of perfection. He seems to regard human bodies dead and alive as inanimate entities to be treated no differently from plant matter, recounting tales of his war trauma which seems to have permanently disconnected him from his humanity. The only reason Miyako has tracked him down is because Yoshiki’s head was severed and stolen in freak burglary and she’s received word he might know where it is. Yet to Dr. Fuji and other death dealers as Hiraoka had previously mentioned, the head is the least valuable part as he proves by simply dropping one in the bin while talking to an unfazed Miyako. 

Miyako may be as some accuse her “possessed by death” and attempting to exorcise her unresolved grief and mortal anxiety through the art of embalming in search of an eternity she does not really believe exists. But then as her assistant Kurome (Seijun Suzuki) reminds her, the dead cannot be brought back to life, “you can only be a flower while alive”. Dr. Fuji hints at a dark history that recalls the crimes of Unit 731, experimentation on living bodies and total disregard for the dignity of the dead, while an even older corruption seems to stem from shady priest Jion, “some rip-off faith healer targeting society’s political and economic echelons” as Hiraoka describes him. At times darkly humorous, Aoyama’s bleak drama is filled with existential dread and a sense of the uncanny as we see corpses twitch and flicker with the absence of life while Miyako meditates on an impossible eternity rejecting her powerlessness in the face of transience in favour of the simulacrum of existence in a world ruled by death. 


Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Yojiro Takita, 2018)

Sakura Guardian in the North posterStill a major marquee star and one of the few golden age actresses regularly playing leading roles in box office hits, Sayuri Yoshinaga has for one reason or another become somewhat synonymous with a brand of quietly patriotic tales of wartime endurance and maternal suffering. Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Kita no Sakuramori), apparently the conclusion of a loose trilogy of “Northern” films which began with Year One in the North in 2005 and led on to Junji Sakamoto’s A Chorus of Angels in 2012, sees her once again engage with post-war trauma as a mother eventually driven out of her mind by the inability to come to terms with the weight of tragedy.

The tale begins on Sakhalin in spring 1945. Despite the intense cold of the frozen North, Tetsu (Sayuri Yoshinaga) – mother to two young sons, Seitaro and Shujiro, has carefully nurtured cherry trees grown from seeds brought from the mainland ensuring that they blossom even here. The family’s happiness will however be short lived. Dad Tokujiro (Hiroshi Abe) is sent off to the war while Tetsu and the children are eventually forced to evacuate to escape the Russian invasion, planning to wait for Tokujiro in Abashiri on the north coast of Hokkaido.

Flashing forward to 1971, we find ourselves in Tokyo with Shujiro (Masato Sakai), now a grown man married to the Japanese-American daughter of an LA hot dog entrepreneur, Mari (Ryoko Shinohara). Having made something of himself in the New World, Shujiro has returned to Japan to open the first branch of his father-in-law’s convenience stores. His plans are disrupted when he gets an unexpected call from Abashiri about his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since she told him to leave her behind and seek his fortune 15 years previously. The public housing shanty town where Tetsu ran her restaurant is being torn down but she’s showing no signs of leaving, and not only that, she’s begun to act strangely.

This Shujiro finds out for himself by visiting her and witnessing Tetsu talk to her own reflection as if it were a long lost friend. His sudden decision to bring his mother back with him to Tokyo without talking to his wife, who has never even met her mother-in-law, places a strain on his marriage on top of the already heavy burden of the store but Shujiro is determined to make it work. Tetsu, however, finds its hard to adjust. Used to living in small country towns where everyone knows everyone, she doesn’t realise you can’t just walk off from stores shouting “put it on my tab”, and annoys the neighbours by starting a smoky fire outside trying to cook rice the old fashioned way. With Shujiro busy with work, the burden falls disproportionately on the patient but exasperated Mari who is forced to apologise when Tetsu walks off in someone else’s shoes after trying on city-style outfits at a department store, and looks on in horror as her new mother-in-law starts an intense conversation with a cherry blossom tree.

Tetsu’s down home charm does, however, begin to give Shujiro some business inspiration as he ponders why his top American hotdogs aren’t selling now the novelty’s worn off. As his staff tell him, maybe they need to think a little more “Japanese” – more fresh veggies and innovative toppings, less ketchup and mustard. Shujiro has another idea – the original Japanese “convenience” food, onigiri, made with rice cooked in a pot and roughly shaped by a loving mother’s hands.

Rice, however, despite its ubiquity in the comparatively comfortable world of 1971 brings with it traumatic memories. Starving after the war, white rice was something Shujiro and Tetsu could only dream of, getting their first taste of it in many moons only when cooked to place on a funeral altar. Meanwhile, rice was also the only reason they survived after running into a slightly dodgy young man who gave them “jobs” helping him to smuggle it for sale on the black market. Shinji (Koichi Sato) helped them in other ways too, eventually putting up the money for Tetsu’s homely eatery, and would have married her if she were not on the one hand loyal to the memory of her absent husband, and so troubled by survivor’s guilt as to believe that she is “a person who does not deserve happiness”.

To punish herself for perceived failures, Tetsu has lived a life of austerity – working hard in the restaurant, dressing in simple ragged clothes, and eating only enough not to starve. She forced Shujiro away to make something of himself, but never spent any of the money he sent home to her nor answered any of his letters. Shujiro, by contrast, has swung the opposite way – determined to live a life of luxury and becoming unforgiving with it. Mari sees an ugly side to him when he’s visited by one of the boys who used to bully him (Ken Yasuda) for being a refugee and a black-marketeer back in Abashiri now fallen on hard times. Superficially polite, Shujiro humiliates him with undignified zeal while wilfully planning to exploit his workforce, quickly silencing an employee who tries to point out violations to the labour code.

Yet like Tetsu, who is somewhat unstuck in time, he begins to find a softer side of himself as the pair of them journey back into the past and revisit the sites of their shared traumas. Yojiro Takita stages Tetsu’s internal confusion somewhat incongruously as an avant-garde stage play offering occasional background info on the exodus from Sakhalin, an experience Shujiro is seemingly shut out from as he tries to reconnect with his mother only to lose her again but rediscovering a better version of himself before he was hardened by the burden of his memories and the hardships of the post-war era. Tetsu keeps the cherry blossoms in bloom in the North, cultivating beauty as a means to connect with her loss, and eventually finding a kind of resolution in the returned ghosts of her past given life once again by the strength of her devotion.


Singapore trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

JK Rock (JK☆ROCK, Shunji Muguruma, 2019)

JK Rock poster 1The heyday of the idol movie may have passed with the Showa era, but the genre proves itself alive and kicking with the infinitely charming JK Rock (JK☆ROCK). Starring the members of Drop Doll – a band formed by the three actresses from director Shunji Muguruma’s previous short Little Performer: The Pulse of Winds, JK Rock is a spunky coming of age tale in which three lost high school girls end up starting band at the behest of a strange old man (Masahiko Nishimura) who owns a rock and roll bar in bohemian Kichijoji and secretly wants to coax reluctant rocker Joe (Shodai Fukuyama) back to the stage.

Joe was once in a promising band, JoKers – a combination of his own name and that of his best friend and bandmate whose initials are also JK. A year earlier, however, he appears to have got cold feet and left music behind him for good in order to concentrate on a law degree. He still has his adoring fans though, these days he’s known as the “purple prince” because he drives round campus in an ostentatious purple Lamborghini. A fateful meet cute brings him into contact with feisty high school girl Sakura (Chihiro Hayama) when she decides to take a middle-aged man to task for queue jumping in a convenience store only for Joe to calmly point out that she’s now the one holding everyone up. Somewhat grateful for Joe’s life lesson, Sakura is non-plussed when he calls her a weirdo as he leaves. It’s no surprise to discover that Sakura is a regular at Teru’s Rock ’n Roll Cafe where Joe used to play and so fate is set in motion.

The film’s name, “JK Rock” is a witty multilayered pun in that it refers both to the multiple “JKs” and to the more obvious “Joshi Kosei” which means “high school girls”. Sakura is joined by two more frequenters of Teru’s – waitress and track star Mao (Yuina) who takes up the guitar, and fabulously wealthy Rina (Yukino Miyake) who practices bass in secret so her ultra ambitious mother won’t stop her doing what she loves. In true idol movie fashion, everyone seems to be fairly well off in an aspirational sense but each has their own problems which run from an inappropriate crush on a supportive teacher to overbearing parents keen to stamp their own view of success on their kids in order to stop them making their own mistakes.

Meanwhile, Joe is battling the usual early life crises as he weighs up following his dreams against the safety of conventionality. “You can’t fire up my rock spirit and then run away!” Sakura angrily tells him in a line that seems oddly filled with subtext, but running away does seem to be Joe’s problem. He didn’t go with his friend to America, and the other Joe is now big international star. Snapped at by the band’s manager that he had no guts and no love for rock, Joe decided he was unworthy for the stage and had no right to play, forcing himself into a dull but conventionally successful life as a lawyer. Consequently, he is a grumpy, empty shell of a man driving round in a stupidly big and colourful car with a superficial girlfriend who assumes she’ll soon be getting married to an independently wealthy professional grade husband. Through jamming with Sakura he begins to rediscover some of his rock spirit and get his mojo back to realise he’s free to play with whoever he wants on his own terms.

A musical coming of age tale, JK Rock does its best to showcase the musical talents of Drop Doll which appear to be vast. JoKers plays only a minor role in brief flashbacks of what might have been (and perhaps could be again) for the dejected Joe while the girlband studies intently under his, originally reluctant, tutorship to become fine musicians in their own right. Of course, when it comes down it, it’s not just music but youthful solidarity and the true power of friendship which eventually show the way as old wounds are repaired and new bonds formed between the variously troubled youngsters who eventually realise that they’re figuring things out and will probably be OK. A charming, sprightly youth movie filled with true punk spirit and genuine warmth, JK Rock is an improbable delight and sure to make stars of its three leading ladies.


JK Rock was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Short version of the music video for the movie’s theme song – Secret Voice

Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Takashi Miike, 2015)

Yakuza-Apocalypse-Quad-HalfSize-NEWBelated review from the 2015 London Film Festival – Yakuza Apocalypse is released in UK cinemas for one day only on 6th January 2016 courtesy of Manga who will also be releasing on home video at a later date.


Takashi Miike shuffles back towards the yakuza plains in the western inspired horror comedy Yakuza Apocalypse (極道大戦争, Gokudo Daisenso) trailing ever more zany humour behind him. Yakuza gungslingers, bloodsucking, high school girls running away from things and, finally, a guy with a magic belly button wearing a frog suit who just happens to be “The World’s Toughest Terrorist”.

We open in media res as vampire yakuza boss Kamiura (Lily Franky) cuts up a storm in settling some local disputes. There’s a handy voice over from our soon to be protagonist, Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara), lamenting the old yakuza world of tough guys and honour codes but things don’t really take off until a very geeky looking guy and a Van Helsing type in 17th century attire suddenly turn up hoping to re-recruit the boss to “The Syndicate”. When he refuses, they fight and the geek twists Kamiura’s head right off. Using his last ounce of strength and in a touch right out of Hausu, Kamiura clamps onto Kageyama’s neck turning him into a vampire. However, in his just turned state, the honourable Kageyama turns a few more vampires of his own – and not only vampires, the bite also transmits yakuzaism too. This increase in bloodsucking gangsters is a bit of a problem for the regular guys as it does mean their pool of victims is being steadily depleted…

Not making much sense is not generally much of a problem in a Miike film. In fact, it’s a pretty much a given at this stage of the prolific director’s career. However, in the case of Yakuza Apocalypse it’s even more pointless than usual to pay any attention at all to any kind of narrative. Looking over Kageyama’s shoulder, we move from set to piece to set piece as, first of all, the non-vampire yakuza guys struggle for power between themselves and then with the vampire variety before the giant frog turns up to ruin everything.

There are some rules, Miike takes a while explaining to us how this yakuza business works with Kamiura as the “good” kind of yakuza committed to protecting his townspeople above all else – essentially, he’s the sherriff around these parts. He’s a vampire, yes, but he only feeds on yakuza who he’s “reforming” by means of an underground knitting circle held prisoner in his basement. Apparently yakuza blood tastes bad and isn’t very good for you but eating civilians is dishonourable and anyway, limited in supply, because when you turn someone they also become a foul mouthed yakuza fighting machine.

The world building is shaky at best, none of this really hangs together making for a fairly disappointing series of one note jokes. There is an attempt at a bit of more sophisticated satire with the regular gangsters suddenly lamenting that there will be no one left for them to prey on if everyone turns yakuza vampire but otherwise it’s crazy piled on crazy. Not a bad thing in itself but somewhat lacking in substance.

Despite that, the film offers some quality performances notably from its lead, Kageyama, played by Hayato Ichihara, as the yakuza who’s so sensitive his delicate skin won’t allow him to get a proper yakuza tattoo. That is, until he becomes a brooding, conflicted vampire mourning the loss of his boss and of those long held tough guy ideals. Lily Franky also offers a high impact though short lived appearance as the honourable vampire boss with a hinted at backstory, though the much publicised cameo of The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian feels a little wasted as he’s just generally hanging around for a handful of fight scenes. That said, the action scenes themselves are extremely impressive, both exciting and often funny too.

Yakuza Apocalypse is not one of Miike’s most well thought out efforts. Its collection of crazy ideas feels thrown together and there’s disappointingly little depth to its world building. Even its media res conclusion looks more like running out of ideas than a deliberate decision. However, that’s not to say it isn’t heaps of fun, which it often is. A crazy frog riding a bicycle who somehow wakes up the giant king of the crazy frog people after some kind of emergency plaster is ripped off his belly button – really, what could be more fun than that? That really is all there is though and those who prefer their absurdist action thrills with a little more substance had best look elsewhere.


Yakuza Apocalypse is in released in UK cinemas for one night only on 6th January 2016. Luckily the film is playing across the UK even if it’s only the one night and you can see if it’s on anywhere near you by checking out this handy link! If it’s not, don’t despair! It’ll also be available in all the normal ways from Manga later in the year.

Reviewed at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival.