The Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Akira Ikeda, 2021)

“Just shoot where you’re told and you’ll be fine” a veteran advises an unusually curious newbie when asked who exactly it is they’re shooting at, beginning to question for the first time everything he’s been told. Continuing in the same vein as his 2017 surrealist drama Ambiguous Places, Akira Ikeda’s Blue Danube (きまじめ楽隊のぼんやり戦争, Kimajime Gakutai no Bonyari Senso) follows a more linear though meandering path in its timely anti-war message as the brainwashed hero comes to contemplate the tenets of his society thanks to a naive young man and the healing power of music. 

The small town of Tsuhiramachi has been at war with Tawaramachi across the river for so long no one can remember why it is that they’re fighting, least of all perpetually absent-minded mayor Natsume (Renji Ishibashi) who can’t even remember his own son’s name. Soldier Tsuyuki (Kou Maehara) is woken every day by a marching band, meeting friend and colleague Fujima (Hiroki Konno) in the street and walking over to the barracks where he changes into his uniform and then spends all day firing a rifle across the river. His identical days are disrupted when former thief Mito (Hiroki Nakajima) is conscripted into their group and Fujima is injured in seemingly the only instance of returned fire. Tsuyuki is then transferred to the marching band and begins practicing his trumpet by the water only to be surprised when he begins hearing someone joining him from the other side. 

Everyone in Tsuhiramachi walks with automaton rigidity and talks with an almost ritualistic austerity in which dialogue is repeated endlessly and conversation loops are common. The townspeople dress as if they were stuck in the 1940s though the uniforms are more European than Japanese while Tsuyuki and Fujima wear identical blue suits when travelling to and from their homes. The thief, Mito, meanwhile dresses in a less formal brown shirt and trousers, apparently engaging in stealing from the local simmered food stand for reasons of poverty while his friend, mayor’s son Heiichi (Naoya Shimizu), does so because he can. When the stall owner’s wife catches them, Heiichi allows his father to think he valiantly chased a thief and is made a police officer for his pains continuing to extort food and generally abuse his authority largely conferred through feudal dynastic privilege. 

There is certainly something in Mito’s tendency to frame each of his statements as a questions, asking “Am I a soldier now?” Or “My name is Mito?” when questioned. The lady who runs the diner where Tsuyuki frequently lunches is extremely proud of her son away fighting up river and resents being questioned by Mito, shovelling extra rice into the men’s bowls when impressed by something they’ve said and then taking it back when disappointed. Mito wants to know why it is they’re fighting and who the people across the river really are. Shiroko (Hairi Katagiri) doesn’t approve of asking such taboo questions and affirms that she doesn’t need to meet the residents of Tawaramachi to know that they’re “barbaric”, “horrible” people. Even the owner of the simmered food stall who insists he knows “everything” insists he’s no interest in knowing about Tawaramachi. 

Yet they’re always being told that the “threat” from across the river is increasing even if the mayor has forgotten what the threat exactly is. Meanwhile, an elite troop will soon be arriving to take part in the trials for a brand new super weapon. A disapproving Shirako asks Tsuyuki how music is useful for the war, but he doesn’t know, he’s merely following orders. Music however, along with Mito’s awkward questions, begins to open his eyes as he contemplates whether the trumpeter from across the water can really be so different from himself. He disapproves of Heiichi’s abuse of his authority, of civil servant Kawajiri’s apparent replacing of his wife with another woman because he believes she cannot bear children, and of the army’s treatment of a friend now struggling to find employment having lost his arm for the good of the town. Shiroko insists that dying in war is better than being injured, but the young universally agree that no, it isn’t. In this strangely Kafka-esque world of crypto-militarism and the feudal mentality, Tsuyuki finds freedom and escape in his trumpet but not even these it seems are enough to call the “meaningless” and internecine violence to a halt. Filled with a strangely poignant poetry, Ikeda’s absurdist drama takes aim at lingering authoritarianism but suggests that music may be panacea for human conflict if only we’d stop a little and listen. 


The Blue Danube streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Great Yokai War: Guardians (妖怪大戦争 ガーディアンズ, Takashi Miike, 2021)

An anxious little boy struggling with his growing responsibility finds himself charged with saving the world in Takashi Miike’s return to the realms of folklore, Great Yokai War: Guardians (妖怪大戦争 ガーディアンズ, Yokai Daisenso Guardians). Not quite a sequel to the 2005 supernatural drama, Guardians once stars a child hero trying to come to terms with his place in the world, but this time takes on another dimension as the pint-sized hero determines to embrace his “humanity” through the very qualities the yokai fear are largely absent among those who “kill and cheat their own kind”. 

Young Kei (Kokoro Terada) has recently lost his father and as the oldest child has gained an additional responsibility especially towards his younger brother, Dai (Rei Inomata). The other children meanwhile think of him as a scaredy-cat, a small gang of them exploring a disused shrine from which they each pick a fortune from a small box, Kei’s being an ominous red sheet otherwise blank. While Kei had hesitated to enter, Dai did as he was told and waited outside but longed to be included, excited rather than frightened by the creepy old buildings. Later that night, Kei is woken up by a scary yokai leaning over him in bed, covering up one eye so he can see him. Running away in fright the boy finds himself in another world, surrounded by dozens more scary yokai who tell him he’s the descendent of a legendary Edo-era yokai hunter and it’s time for him to accept his destiny by helping the yokai avoid disaster. It just so happens that a bunch of sea creatures trapped underneath a fault line have banded together in a huge ball of resentment that is currently barreling towards Tokyo. The yokai are particularly worried that the monster which they’ve named “Yokaiju” (see what they did there?) will break the seal over the city and release a nameless evil. 

The yokai first tried asking for help among themselves at the “Yammit” or Yokai Summit recently held in Beijing at which supernatural monsters from across the world including vampires, mermaids, and even Bigfoot meet, but were roundly rebuffed. Japanese yokai rarely carry weapons, and they’ve already tried asking Yokaiju nicely not to destroy Tokyo, so they need some help. The yokai that that Kei encounters are mostly of the harmless kind like the guy who just stands around holding tofu or the one who creepily washes azuki beans at inappropriate moments, what they want Kei to do is help them wake up General Bujin, the god war, though others fear the cure may be worse than the disease. Some yokai are even of the opinion that letting Yokaiju run riot is no big deal because humans are generally awful anyway and so deserve little sympathy. 

Little Kei, however, is a counter to their argument. They constantly ask him if he really has the courage to carry his mission through, even at one point taking his brother Dai instead, while Kei struggles with himself understandably afraid of his new destiny. Back in the “real” world, he is of course entirely anxious about his responsibilities as a “big brother” now that his father’s no longer around and especially as his mother is a nurse meaning she often has to work late helping other people. He is however determined to keep his promise to look after Dai, mustering all his courage to push through the scary world of monsters to save him from being sacrificed to General Bujin. He also acts with kindness and generosity of spirit, even on being betrayed by a yokai expressing only sympathy that he’s glad the lonely monster turned out to have more friends than he thought, while also making a point of stopping to save even the bad demons who were trying to kill him after they’re trapped by rockfall because “you can’t just leave a suffering person”. 

Kei’s solution is, ultimately, love not war. Faced with the giant resentment monster he chooses to soothe its pain, teaching the yokai a thing or two about themselves as they rediscover their ancient capacity for compassion and forgiveness. It’s the brothers’ love for each other which eventually saves the world, leading even the most cynical of yokai to hope that the spirit of kindness in this generation might be enough to bring about a human revolution. A good old-fashioned family adventure, Guardians’ charmingly grotesque production design and childlike view of the twilight world of spirits and demons carries genuine magic while its wholesome messages of kindness, acceptance, and personal responsibility can’t help but warm the hardest of hearts. 


The Great Yokai War: Guardians screens on Aug. 28 and Sept. 1 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Amagi Pass (天城越え, Haruhiko Mimura, 1983)

There’s no statute of limitations on guilt an ageing policeman laments in Haruhiko Mimura’s adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto mystery, Amagi Pass (天城越え, Amagi-Goe). Co-produced by Yoshitaro Nomura and co-scripted by Tai Kato, Amagi Pass arrives at the tail end of the box office dominance of the prestige whodunnit and like many of its kind hinges on events which took place during the war though in this case the effects are more psychological than literal, hinging on the implications of an age of violence and hyper masculinity coupled with sexual repression and a conservative culture. 

In a voiceover which doesn’t quite open the film, the hero, Kenzo (Mikijiro Hira / Yoichi Ito), as we will later realise him to be, likens himself to that of Kawabata’s Izu Dancer though as he explains he was not a student but the 14-year-old son of a blacksmith with worn out zori on his feet as he attempted to run away from home in the summer of 1940 only to turn back half-way through. In the present day, meanwhile, an elderly detective, Tajima (Tsunehiko Watase), now with a prominent limp, slowly makes his way through the modern world towards a print shop where he orders 300 copies of the case report on the murder of an itinerant labourer in Amagi Pass in June, 1940. A wandering geisha was later charged with the crime but as Tajima explains he does not believe that she was guilty and harbours regrets over his original investigation recognising his own inexperience in overseeing his first big case. 

As so often, the detective’s arrival is a call from the past, forcing Kenzo, now a middle-aged man, to reckon with the traumatic events of his youth. Earlier we had seen him in a doctor’s office where it is implied that something is poisoning him and needs to come out, his illness just as much of a reflection of his trauma as the policeman’s limp. Flashing back to 1940 we find him a young man confused, fatherless but perhaps looking for fatherly guidance from older men such as a strange pedlar he meets on the road who cheekily shows him illustrated pornography, or the wise uncle who eventually tricks him into buying dinner and then leaves. His problems are perhaps confounded by the fact that he lives in an age of hyper masculinity, the zenith of militarism in which other young men are feted with parades as they prepare to fight and die for their country in faraway lands. Yet Kenzo is only 14 in 1940 which means he will most likely be spared but also in a sense emasculated as a lonely boy remaining behind at home. 

He tells the wise man who later tricks him that he’s run away to find his brother who owns a print shop in the city because he hates his provincial life as a blacksmith, but later we realise that the cause is more his difficult relationship with his widowed mother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) whom, he has recently discovered, is carrying on an affair with his uncle (Ichiro Ogura). Returning home after his roadside betrayal he watches them together from behind a screen, a scene echoed in his voyeuristic observation of the geisha, Hana (Yuko Tanaka), with the labourer plying her trade in order to survive. Described as odd and seemingly mute, the labourer is a figure of conflicted masculinity resented by the other men on the road but also now a symbolic father and object of sexual jealously for the increasingly Oedipal Kenzo whose youthful attraction to the beautiful geisha continues to mirror his complicated relationship with his mother as she tenderly tears up her headscarf to bandage his foot, sore from his ill-fitting zori, while alternately flirting with him. 

Yet his guilt towards her isn’t only in his attraction but in its role in what happened to her next even as she, we can see, protects him, their final parting glance a mix of frustrated maternity and longing that has apparently informed the rest of Kenzo’s life in ways we can never quite grasp. Amagi Pass for him is a barrier between youth and age, one which he has long since crossed while also in a sense forever trapped in the tunnel looking back over his shoulder towards Hana and the labourer now on another side of an unbreachable divide. The policeman comes like messenger from another time, incongruously wandering through a very different Japan just as the bikers in the film’s post-credit sequence speed through the pass, looking to provide closure and perhaps a healing while assuaging his own guilt but finding only accommodation with rather than a cure for the traumatic past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Neither Seicho Matsumoto’s original novel or the film adaptation are directly related to the well-known Sayuri Ishikawa song of the same name released three years later though the lyrics are strangely apt.

Graveyard of Honor (新・仁義の墓場, Takashi Miike, 2002)

In Kinji Fukasaku’s 1975 jitsuroku eiga Graveyard of Honor, a collection of voices open the film musing on whether the hero was corrupted by the times in which he lived or merely born crazy. Like most jitsuroku or true account gangster movies of the ‘70s, Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor is a post-war story about a man who failed to adapt himself to the rules of his society which was of course in constant flux though the rules of the yakuza are perhaps as fixed and timeless as any. Inspired by the same source material Takashi Miike’s comparatively subdued, contemplative Graveyard of Honor (新・仁義の墓場, Shin Jingi no Hakaba) maintains the moody, noirish feel of the ‘70s gangster drama complete with melancholy jazz score but updates the legend of Rikio Ishikawa to late 20th century Japan which again finds itself in crisis, floundering for direction and filled with despair. The bubble has burst in more ways than one as the young in particular awaken to the fact they have been deceived by the false promise that the good times of the Bubble years were cost free and would last forever leaving them abandoned in a world they no longer recognise as their own. 

Unlike Rikio Ishikawa who, we are told, always wanted to be a gangster, Rikuo Ishimatsu (Goro Kishitani) falls into the gokudo world by chance, his life thereafter one long fall until the bloody suicide with which the film opens. A bleach blonde dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant, he gets an offer he can’t refuse when he calmly defuses a would be assassin by hitting him on the head with a chair, earning the eternal gratitude of boss Sawada (Shingo Yamashiro) who takes him on and makes him his protege. This meteoric rise in the yakuza ranks, however, is not without its drawbacks especially in that it destabilises the internal politics of the Sawada gang with old retainers instantly resentful that this young upstart has leap frogged them to sit at the boss’ side while they’ve patiently put the work in only to be sidelined. 

A stretch in prison for avenging the boss’ honour brings him into contact with Imamura (Ryosuke Miki), later his sworn brother but also his opposing number, possibly the last honourable yakuza. “A yakuza without honour isn’t worth shit” Imamura’s boss later remarks, instructing him that Rikuo is a liability he’ll have to take responsibility for, but in this graveyard of honour that kind of responsibility is the one that will get you killed. Honourable yakuza can no longer survive in the world of corporatised thuggery that is the modern gokudo existence. Later we realise that the tale is being narrated by Rikuo’s former underling, Kikkawa, who reminds us that “even yakuza are human beings” existing within a social structure with clearly defined rules which must be followed, yet the rules themselves are largely superficial and Kikkawa survives because he subverts them, abandoning the reckless Rikuo for the certainty of Sawada and setting himself on the traditional gokudo path of sucking up to the boss in the constant hope of advancement. 

Kikkawa is, in a sense, the grovelling salaryman to Rikuo’s frenzied maverick, one as much they symptom of the age as another. Rikuo’s rise occurs against the economic boomtown of Japan in the ‘80s which is as much a paradise for gangsters as for anyone else but also a kind of twilight, the yakuza as an institution relegated to the Showa era and the post-war past. Gangsters forced out of their families like the desperate ronin of the feudal era further destabilise an already chaotic environment which, like that of the post-war years, is filled with despair and disillusionment only to be further disrupted by the advent of natural disaster and economic collapse. 

Like the yakuza of the jitsuroku, those of Miike’s Graveyard of Honor struggle to reorient themselves in a changing society, no more equipped to deal with economic stagnation than their forbears were for the end of occupation and the increasing irrelevance of gangsterdom in a world of economic prosperity. Increasingly paranoid and anxious, Rikuo sees betrayal in all quarters and remains essentially powerless, eventually imprisoned in what appears to have been previously used as a child’s bedroom. He seeks escape in drugs which he finds by chance, and then in romance with an equally powerless woman who bizarrely seems to have fallen in love with him after he brutally raped her though their strange, drug-fuelled quasi-wedding ceremony is the tenderest, most vulnerable we ever see them. Yet as the opening scene implied, all there is is futility. Knowing what he knows, Kikkawa meditates on his memories of happier days when he was just a minion at Rikuo’s side. In this graveyard of honour only the slippery survive and the only way to be free is to fall, and fall hard. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日, Kinji Fukasaku, 1992)

“It’s never over for men like me” laments the hero of Kinji Fukasaku’s infinitely zeitgeisty 1992 action thriller The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日,  Itsuka Giragira Suru Hi), though the director might as well be talking for himself. Fukasaku is most closely associated with the jitsuroku gangster genre which he helped to create at Toei in the mid-1970s with the hugely influential yakuza cycle Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Through the difficult ‘80s, he’d sustained his career with a series of commercial projects and critically acclaimed prestige pictures, which is perhaps why he felt secure enough to go all in with an absurdist take on the death spiral of the Bubble Era. 

As the film opens, a trio of veteran crooks commits a series of flawless armed robberies which makes them all very wealthy. In an age of excess, crime is perhaps for them more a way of life than a means of survival save for one, Imura (Renji Ishibashi), who has massive debts from loansharks and is living with a constant sense of anxiety that his failures as a man and as a father may result in his beloved wife (Kirin Kiki) and daughter leaving him (for which he wouldn’t blame them). Kanzaki (Kenichi Hagiwara), the veteran gangster, enlists his girlfriend Misato (Yumi Takigawa) along with Imura to scout a possible new job their “boss” Shiba (Sonny Chiba) is planning up in Hokkaido. When they get there it turns out that Shiba has taken up with an extraordinarily irritating much younger woman, Mai (Keiko Oginome), and through her has befriended a young guy, Kadomachi (Kazuya Kimura), who’s come up with a plan to rob the takings from a nearby resort which he has heard run to 200 million yen transported in cash by car via remote mountain road. 

Kadomachi, who later claims he was once a police officer, is an annoyingly entitled young punk with bleach blond hair who wants the money to open a live music venue in order to support real rock and roll. So manic he seems to be on something, it’s a surprise that the guys agree to work with him though after a quick hazing they apparently decide he’s OK only to bitterly regret their decision when it turns out he was mistaken about the amount being transported. As veteran pros, the trio know that it’s better to just be happy with what you can get and move on, but they had each hoped this job might be the last and the disappointment proves too much for Imura who flips out and points a gun at his friends intending to take the lot but is calmly talked down only for Kadomachi to grab a gun and start shooting, making off with the whole 50 million. 

Deliberately down with the kids with his pulsing club score, Fukasaku seems to be taking a swipe at the Bubble generation who want everything now and fully expect to get it. Shiba pays the price, essentially, for refusing to act his age, trying to be young and hip like Mai and Kadomachi, while Imura is perhaps the opposite unable to escape from the post-war era with its poverty and vicious loansharks while also facing discrimination as a zainichi Korean which further deepens his anxiety for his teenage daughter. Yet getting her hands on the money Mai confesses that she has absolutely no idea what to do with 50 million yen, spending 50,000 on a handkerchief just because while even Kadomachi is eventually struck by a sense of futility in realising the money has corrupted him though he knows that it will eventually slip through his fingers. “People, life, they pass us by” he muses sadly while Mai confesses all she wanted was for someone to “notice” her, which they eventually perhaps do only it’s in the context of a nationwide manhunt. 

The vacuous youngsters are finally slapped down by the calm and collected Kanzaki whose lack of ostentation serves him well in the ensuing war on two fronts as he goes up against not only Kadomachi but the loanshark he was in debt to in an attempt to get his hands on the money. Fukasaku takes the jitsuroku and turns it inside out for a tale of Bubble-era excess filled with increasingly elaborate action sequences culminating in a high octane car chase and a shoot out with the entire garrison of the Hokkaido police force, yet as before crime only yields futility, the money floating away in Hakodate harbour, while we end on a trademark note of irony that shows us banks on every street corner, money is literally everywhere. What does crime mean now, what is the point of such ceaseless acquisition in an age of plenty? For Kanzaki, perhaps it just spells opportunity and well you can’t argue with that. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999)

Shinya Tsukamoto made his name as a punk provocateur with a series of visually arresting, experimental indie films set to a pounding industrial score and imbued with Bubble-era urban anxiety. Inspired by an Edogawa Rampo short story, 1999’s Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Soseiji Gemini) is something of a stylistic departure from the frenetic cyberpunk energy of his earlier career, marked as much by stillness as by movement in its strikingly beautiful classical composition and intense color play. Like much of his work, however, Gemini is very much a tale of societal corruption and a man who struggles against himself, unable to resist the social codes which were handed down to him while simultaneously knowing that they are morally wrong and offend his sense of humanity. 

Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) is a war hero, decorated for his service as a battlefield medic saving the life of a prominent general during the first Sino-Japanese War. He’s since come home and taken over the family business where his fame seems to have half the well-to-do residents of the area inventing spurious excuses to visit his practice, at least according to one little boy whose mum has brought him in with a bump on the head after being beset by kids from the slums. “They’re just like that from birth” Yukio later tells his wife echoing his authoritarian father, “the whole place should be burned to the ground”. A literal plague is spreading, but for Yukio the slums are a source of deadly societal corruption that presents an existential threat to his way of life, primed to infect with crime and inequity. His home, which houses his practice, is hermetically sealed from those sorts of people but lately he’s begun to feel uneasy in it. There’s a nostalgia, a sadness, a shadowy presence, not to mention a fetid stench of decay which indicates an infection has already taken place, the perimeter has been penetrated. 

The shadowy presence turns out to belong to his double, Sutekichi whose name literally means “abandoned fortune”, a twin exposed at birth as unworthy of the family name owing to his imperfection in the form of a snake-like birthmark on his leg and raised by a travelling player in the slums. Having become aware of his lineage, Sutekichi has returned to make war on the old order in the form of the parents who so callously condemned him to death, engineering their demise and then pushing Yukio into a disused well with the intention of stealing his identity which comes with the added bonus that Yukio’s wife, Rin (Ryo), was once his. 

Rin’s presence had already presented a point of conflict in the household, viewed with contempt and suspicion by Yukio’s mother because of her supposed amnesia brought on by a fire which destroyed her home and family. Yukio had reassured her that “you can judge a person by their clothes”, insisting that Rin is one of them, a member of the entrenched upper-middle class which finds itself in a perilous position in the society of late Meiji in which the samurai have fallen but the new order has not quite arrived. In Rin modernity has already entered the house, a slum dweller among them bringing with her not crime and disease but a freeing from traditional austerity. In opposing his parents’ will and convincing them to permit his marriage, Yukio has already signalled his motion towards the new but struggles to free himself from the oppressive thought of his father. He confesses that as a battlefield physician he doubted himself, wondering if it might not have been kinder to simply ease the suffering of those who could not be saved while his father reminds him that the German medical philosophy in which he has been trained insists that you must continue treatment to the very last. 

This is the internal struggle Yukio continues to face between human compassion and the obligation to obey the accepted order which includes his father’s feelings on the inherent corruption of the slum dwellers which leads him to deny them his medical knowledge which he perhaps thinks should belong to all. The dilemma is brought home to him one night when a young woman is found violently pounding on his door wanting help for her sickly baby, but just as he makes up his mind to admit her, putting on his plague suit, a messenger arrives exclaiming that the mayor has impaled himself on something after having too much to drink. Yukio treats the mayor and tells his nurses to shoo the woman away, an action which brings him into conflict with the more compassionate Rin who cannot believe he could be so cynical or heartless. 

Where Yukio is repressed kindness, a gentle soul struggling against himself, Sutekichi is passion and rage. Having taken over Yukio’s life, he takes to bed with Rin who laughs and asks him why it is he’s suddenly so amorous. She sees or thinks she sees through him, recognising Sutekichi for whose return she had been longing but also lamenting the absent Yukio who was at least soft with her in ways Sutekichi never was. “It’s a terrible world because people like you exist” Sutekichi is told by a man whose fiancée he robbed and killed. Yukio by contrast is unable to understand why this is happening to him, believing that he’s only ever tried to make people happy and has not done anything to merit being thrown in a well, failing to realise that his very position of privilege is itself oppressive, that he bears his parents’ sin in continuing to subscribe to their philosophy in insisting on their innate superiority to the slum dwellers who must be kept in their place so that they can continue to occupy theirs. 

Apart, both men are opposing destructive forces in excess austerity and violent passion, only through reintegration of the self can there be a viable future. Tsukamoto casts the austerity of the medical practice in a melancholy blue, contrasting with the fiery red of the post-apocalyptic slums, eventually finding a happy medium with the house bathed in sunshine and the family seemingly repaired as a doctor in a white suit prepares to minister to the poor. Having healed himself, he begins to heal his society, treating the plague of human indifference in resistance to the prevalent anxiety of the late Meiji society. 


Gemini is released on blu-ray in the UK on 2nd November courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a commentary by Tom Mes, making of featurette directed by Takashi Miike, behind the scenes, make up demonstration featurette, Venice Film Festival featurette, and original trailer.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Kinji Fukasaku, 1988)

Kinji Fukasaku is best remembered for his work in the yakuza genre and most particularly the Battles Without Honour cycles which chronicled the darkness beneath Japan’s progress towards the economic miracle of the post-war era. He was, however, much more varied in output than it might at first seem. Set before the war, A Chaos of Flowers (華の乱, Hana no Ran) positions the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 as the day innocence died, Taisho-era liberalism crushed in a fundamental collapse of the old world which led only to the intensification of militaristic ideology and the subsequent corruption of Japanese imperialism. 

Our guide is legendary poet Akiko Yosano (Sayuri Yoshinaga) who tells the story of pre-war 20th century Japan by recounting her own which begins in 1901 when she fell in love with fellow poet and later husband, Tekkan (Hiroshi) Yosano (Ken Ogata). The situation is complicated firstly because Hiroshi is already married with an infant daughter, and secondly because Akiko’s friend Tomiko (Yoshiko Nakada), another poet who had worked with her on a feminist journal, was also in love with Hiroshi and perhaps her rival. Akiko tricks Hiroshi into seeing him alone on the pretext that Tomiko is coming too, confessing her feelings and discovering that he plans to divorce his wife because she is unsupportive of his work. Full in the knowledge that he is choosing poetry over his daughter, Hiroshi decides to enter a relationship with Akiko because she, as a fellow poet, is more appreciative though it proves harder than expected to separate from his first wife. In any case, Akiko is left with a sense of guilt which continues throughout her married life that she cheated Tomiko to claim Hiroshi. 

During this time, Akiko Yosano becomes one of the most celebrated yet controversial young poets in Japan well known for her explicit, erotic love poetry much of which was inspired by her husband. She has eclipsed him as an artist and is supporting the family while he has fallen into a deep depression. A mother of 13 children, Akiko has begun to feel lonely in her marriage and wonders if someone who has only known one man has the authority to continue writing tracts about love and sex. Meanwhile, thanks to the admiration her poetry has received among the young radicals, she has become an accidental figurehead for the Taisho radicals and finds herself swept up by the movement through her associations with such avant-garde figures as Sakae Osugi (Morio Kazama) and his wife Noe Ito (Eri Ishida), the actress Sumako Matsui (Keiko Matsuzaka) held responsible for a revolution in Japanese theatre, and finally tragic author Takeo Arishima (Yusaku Matsuda) who was also the father of golden age actor Masayuki Mori. 

Arishima is first struck by Akiko when knocks her out of a rickshaw during an anarchist publicity stunt driving a motorcycle and sidecar around outside the theatre where Sumako Matsui is performing one of her most famous roles in a play inspired by Tolstoy’s Resurrection. It turns out that Akiko bears a striking resemblance to his late wife, which is one reason he sends her an extravagant gift of a beautiful Western-style outfit which she first tries to return partly because she only wears kimono and partly because it’s an inappropriately expensive gesture. Arishima is from a wealthy, landed family and like many of his generation uncomfortable with his privilege but struggling to convince himself to abandon it. Drawn to him in the same way she was drawn to Hiroshi, Akiko accepts the dress and later wears it on a picnic she organises where her children and Arisihma’s two sons can play together. The Western clothing becomes a kind of signifier of Akiko’s drive towards the future and away from her husband as she too despite her feminist perspective struggles to free herself of the image of the good wife while inwardly burning with a desire for love and passion which her husband can no longer satisfy. 

That same dilemma is one which plagues her rival, journalist Akiko Hatano (Kimiko Ikegami) who is already involved with Arishima but married to a patriarchal man who sees her as nothing more than a “doll”, something which is supposed to look pretty and live in its box until he chooses to take it out. Akiko Hatano warns Akiko Yosano that Arishima is a man drawn to death and is merely looking for someone to die with in a lovers’ suicide, something of a fad at the time. In meeting Akiko Yosano, however, his desire for life seems to have been reinvigorated. He makes peace with himself by dissolving his estate in Hokkaido and surrendering control of it to a peasants’ committee, but is thrown again into suicidal despair when the secret police turn up to harass the peasants for undermining the social order. 

As Akiko Hatano puts it, Arishima is a man vacillating between life and death, claiming to be in love with Akiko Yosano soon after meeting her and actively rejecting Akiko Hatano as symbolic of his newfound desire to live. Arishima committed a love suicide with Akiko Hatano on 9th June, 1923 which is only a few months before the Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated the city of Tokyo and enabled a roundup of subversive forces such as socialists and anarchists along with Koreans many of whom were massacred by state sanctioned forces after a false rumour circulated that they had been poisoning the wells and preparing an insurrection for Korean independence (Sakae Osugi and Noe Ito along with their 6-year-old nephew were also victims of this pogrom). 

In her voice over, Akiko describes the earthquake as the death of Taisho which in real terms lasted a few more years until 1926, but was perhaps over as far as its liberalising ideals are concerned, the crisis giving the militarists further excuses to increase their powers. Yet like Arishima the Taisho intellectuals had also been obsessed with death and futility of which the love suicides were a part. Arishima, shortly before witnessing Sumako’s very public breakdown over the death of her lover Hogetsu Shimamura (Keizo Kanie) from Spanish Flu, describes her nothing more than a ham actress but also believes that the theatrical revolution of the Taisho era would not have been possible without her. Sumako also committed suicide for love a few months after Hogetsu’s death, unable to go on without him. Tomiko, Akiko’s old friend, contracted TB and painfully faded away with Hiroshi unexpectedly by her side. Catching sight of a couple of Osugi’s comrades being dragged away after the earthquake Akiko chases after them with rice balls, telling them they must survive. She’s watched many of her friends and the finest minds of her generation die, mostly through choice, and is making an active choice to live. 

In essence this choice may not be as positive as it first sounds. One of Japan’s first avowed pacifists, Akiko Yosano turned increasingly towards the right in the years following the earthquake, eventually becoming an enthusiastic supporter of the war in China and actively subverting the words of her previous poems in insisting it was glorious to die for the emperor after all. Her friends died out of a sense of futility, that the social changes they envisaged were not possible or that they were unable to continue living with themselves in such a society. Society changed, and Akiko changed with it, such was the path she found to continue living. Nevertheless, something did die with the earthquake and it was perhaps those youthful dreams of overwhelming romance crushed like Akiko’s hat in the rubble of a world which was already collapsing. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

Blockbuster cinema wades into the anti-nuclear debate in a characteristically ambivalent take from prolific author Keigo Higashino adapted from his 1995 novel. Brought to the screen by blockbuster master Yukihiko Tsutsumi, The Big Bee (天空の蜂, Tenku no Hachi) is less wedded to its anti-nuclear message than it might at first seem, eventually sliding into a more comfortable tale of failed fathers redeemed with a potentially ambiguous coda that perhaps undercuts much of what has gone before . 

The main action takes place on 8th August, 1995 which falls between the 50th anniversaries of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is also a few months after the devastating earthquake in Kobe. Engineer Yuhara (Yosuke Eguchi) is about to unveil the “Big Bee”, Japan’s largest ever helicopter built with state of the art technology. He’s brought along his wife and son, but it’s clear there is discord in the family and neither of them are very impressed that the security guard didn’t even seem to know who he was so perhaps he’s not such a big shot after all. While his wife Atsuko (Kei Ishibashi) takes their son Takahiko (Shota Taguchi) and another boy to get a drink from the vending machine, Yuhara talks things over with a colleague and reveals that his workaholic lifestyle has destroyed his family life. He’s about to be divorced and doesn’t seem particularly cut up about it. Asked what’s going to happen to Takahiko, Yuhara cooly explains that it’s best he stays with his mum because he isn’t capable of being a good father to him. Unfortunately, Takahiko overhears him say that he’s essentially planning to abandon him and runs off to explore on his own, eventually sneaking aboard the helicopter which is then hijacked by a mysterious villain via remote control who flies it over a nuclear power plant and gives the Japanese government the eight hours before the fuel runs out to agree to shut down all the nuclear power plants in Japan. 

Yuhara’s failure as a father is immediately brought home to him when his son manages to throw the other boy, who climbed in with him but got injured, to safety, but doesn’t trust his dad enough to jump himself after hearing him say he was going to abandon him to his mother. Yuhara, meanwhile, was able to jump and grab the ramp of the helicopter but not to climb up and reach his son. He has to accept that his failure as a father and in consequence as a man is complete and total. His quest to save Takahiko is also a quest to redeem himself in the eyes of his society and avoid being branded as a man who sacrificed his family for a career and was finally unable to protect them.

Yet, at the present time, he’s also trying to save a nation while in the place of a father. To his mind, he built the Big Bee as a rescue craft, but its usage is most obviously military. He and his former colleague Mishima (Masahiro Motoki) see themselves as neutral engineers interested in technology but not particularly in its application. The government is reluctant to shut the plants down not only because cutting the power is extremely inconvenient and damaging to the economy, but because they do not wish to reopen the nuclear debate and risk the general populace realising that nuclear power is not entirely “safe”. Of course, this has extreme resonance in light of the Fukushima disaster, the government wilfully putting lives at risk in order to safeguard its own ends in refusing to issue an evacuation order for a potential disaster area covering all of the nation’s major cities right across the centre of the Japanese mainland.

This cavalier approach to human life extends to those working in the plants. We’re quickly introduced to a middle-aged woman whose son died of leukaemia she believes caused by lax safety procedures while the prime suspect is a friend of his (Go Ayano) who may also be suffering from a terminal illness caused by exposure to radiation after working as a cleaner at the power station. He vows revenge on a society which has rendered him “disposable”, thrown away like used tissue and left to fend for himself only because he was born into socio-economic circumstances which left him with no other choice than to take a “dangerous” job for employers that failed to protect him in much the same way Yuhara has failed to protect his son. 

The farmers in the town where the plant has become the major source of employment complain that no one wanted it but everyone needed the money. One leans into the mild message that perhaps we take our electric lives for granted, plugging in our toothbrushes without really thinking of the costs incurred in how we generate our power. Hotels dim their lights and switch off elevators while guests complain of the heat in the absence of aircon, but didn’t we manage OK before the power grid? Perhaps so, but our lives have changed. It might be as well to think again if those changes are really as good for us as we think they are, but you can’t turn back the clock. 

Not even the villain really wants the clock turning back, just better accountability and proper governance that puts the lives of citizens ahead of economic gain. Then again, a lot of this is personal, an act of self harm rebranded as revenge taken in atonement for the failures of a father. In this respect Yuhara may redeem himself, but there’s a note of discomfort in the jump to 2011 and the Fukushima disaster which doesn’t so much shout “I told you so” as over rely on the heroic efforts of the Self Defence Force as they battle a disaster which the powers that be from the government to the power company have failed to prevent. Yuhara wonders if the country is worth dying for and is comforted only in a trick he taught his son to calm his anxiety in the wake of the Kobe earthquake, tapping out “I am here” in morse code as an affirmation of survival which might also serve to say the work goes on even while “fathers” continue to fail in their responsibilities. 


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

Sada (SADA〜戯作・阿部定の生涯, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1998)

Sada poster“Facts can easily become fiction when recounted by someone, even by oneself. But with a bit of sincerity lies can become truth”, our genial guide explains, paradoxically telling us that the heroine, a woman he regards as a loveable kid sister, wants to tell us her story herself. Apologising in advance for her “rudeness”,  he reveals to us that the woman is none other than the “notorious” Sada Abe, a woman who, apparently now forgotten, was once a front page sensation for having killed her lover and cut off his penis to carry him with her always.

Despite the narrator’s claims that Sada’s fame has faded, her story has proved fertile cinematic ground, most famously inspiring Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses which sees her claustrophobic descent into sexual obsession as a reaction to the intense austerity of militarism. Obayashi, however, is keen to remember that that aside from the newspaper headlines, the salaciousness and peculiar romanticism of her story, Sada was a real woman who suffered in an intensely patriarchal society and was perhaps seeking something that the world was unable to give her.

As she reminds us, Sada too had a childhood. Obayashi opens the film with a young Sada innocently throwing hoops over a tall phallic object. Six years later, her life changes when a college boy drags her off the street into a nearby inn and rapes her, claiming that she is well known as a good time girl and that he is perfectly entitled to behave in the way he is behaving. Deed done, the college boy leaves but Sada (Hitomi Kuroki) is rescued by the gentlemanly figure of sickly medical student Okada (Kippei Shina) who has a patch over his eye and a romantic disposition. Okada gives her not only a lifelong and strangely erotic attachment to donuts, but a junai foundation in an eternally unrealisable longing for a pure and innocent love.

Okada, as Obayashi later tells us, is also a “real” person though he has no real evidence that he and Sada ever crossed paths. He gives her the knife she will later use to sever her lover’s penis and tells her to use it to cut out his heart, which belongs to her. Okada, claiming that he will forever watch over her, introduces a secondary theme in that he is a sufferer of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, then thought incurable and “treated” only by exile. Sada loses her pure love and never knows why, but sadly chooses not take his advice to remember that she is an honest girl and refuse to be corrupted by her trauma. Now unable to marry and it remaining a virtual impossibility to enter any other kind of profession, Sada becomes a geisha, later giving that up for the more lucrative world of casual sex work.

Perhaps ironically, it’s through her life as a sex worker that Sada begins to find a degree of freedom amidst the impassioned atmosphere of increasing militarism. While the men are caught up in destructive games of martial glory, Sada is just trying to live her many lives and dreaming her dream of love. It’s that dream of love that brings her to Tatsuzo (Tsurutaro Kataoka), a married, poetic ladies’ man with whom she eventually retreats into an isolationist kingdom of two. Yet their intensely co-dependent relationship is never quite enough for her because it fails to marry her physical need with the emotional, and the figure of Okada, the innocent, romanticised white knight of her youth, lingers in her mind. Sada kills Tatsuzo not quite by accident, attempting to take ownership of something which can never be hers in her fiercely patriarchal world where her clients coldly chide her for not being “polite” enough and despite the earning potential of her profession, she remains dependent on men to escape it.

Sada’s “crime” might not quite be revenge for all she’s suffered but it is a pointed act of rebellion towards a conformist society. She laments that her notoriety soon faded, that if being forgotten is like dying then she died long ago, but for a short time all of Japan was captivated not by the outrageous horror of her transgression but by an idea of “romance” that stood behind it as if Sada had moved beyond double suicide into new territories of eternal love through seeking to possess her lover even in death. The narrator, Sada’s sometime pimp, tells us that few remember Sada now and suggests that Japan is once again in a dark age, stopping only to remark that people were beautiful then too despite or perhaps because of the darkness. Fittingly the figure of the “real” Sada retreats and we’re left again with her legend, an imagined future for a woman who faded into pre-war tragedy as a symbol of its dangerous intensity. Even so, Obayashi is intent to show us that there was indeed a woman named Sada Abe who found herself at the mercy of her times but tried to live all the same, dreaming of impossible love in a world of corruption.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Teruo Ishii, 1969)

yakuza law posterOne of the things that (supposedly) separates the “yakuza” from regular thugs is that they have a “code”. That code means many and various things, but in their grand mission to justify their existence it often means that they stand up for the little guy, all too often oppressed by the powers that be. Of course, a lot of people might feel themselves to be oppressed by yakuza thugs who like to throw their weight around and generally cause trouble for small business holders, but that’s beside the point. Teruo Ishii’s Yakuza Law (やくざ刑罰史 私刑!, Yakuza Keibatsushi: Lynch!) goes one step further and asks if the yakuza are themselves “oppressed” by their own code, or at least the various ways it is used and subverted by all who subscribe to it.

Set in three distinct time periods, Yakuza Law is also fairly unique in that the vast majority of those on the receiving end of its violence are male. The yakuza is an extremely homosocial world after all. Each of the three tales presented is preceded by a title card featuring the particular “laws” the unhappy gangsters are about to break and what kind of punishment they might expect for doing so.

The first and earliest, set in the Edo era, is a typical giri/ninjo tale that places the ideal of the yakuza code against the need to preserve a personal vision of justice. The “rules” here are that a yakuza does not steal and he does not fool around with married women. Our hero, Tsune (Bunta Sugawara), takes the heat for a nervous underling, Shinkichi (Hiroshi Miyauchi), who crumbled in the heat of battle, but incurs the wrath of his boss while a devious footsoldier, Viper (Renji Ishibashi), hides in the bushes and then stabs a corpse numerous times to make it look as if he’s done good service. Viper, not content with his ill-gotten gains, sets up Tsune and his superior Tomozo (Ryutaro Otomo) by implicating them in a gambling scam while Tsune falls for the boss’ girl Oren (Yoshiko Fujita) who is also desperately trying to protect the feckless Shinkichi.

The problem with all of this, it would seem, is not so much that the yakuza “law” has been broken but that’s it’s being misused in all quarters and is clearly in conflict with basic humanity. The boss uses the code to manipulate his underlings and keep a firm grip on his power, while Viper bends it to his own nefarious ways and a third underling, Shohei (Shhinichiro Hayashi), rests on the sidelines playing a little each way but remaining loyal to his brothers even as the axe falls on his head. The punishments meted out are suitably gruesome, escalating from finger cutting to eye gauging and ear removal in a senseless and counterproductive lust for violence which does eventually blow back on the boss who pushes his authority too far over too small a cause.

In tale two, however, which takes place in 20th century pre-war Japan, the “crime” is causing trouble and the punishment exile, but again the problem is not the code but the men who subvert it. Thus, hotheaded foot soldier Ogata (Minoru Oki) sets the cat amongst the pigeons by starting a gang war on his own and is sent to prison for three years during which time his gang prospers because of the movement he started. Even so, they aren’t keen to have him back when he gets out and immediately exile him from their territory. He sticks around waiting for his girl, Sayo (Masumi Tachibana), but she gets picked up by the evil boss who wants her for himself and delays her departure so that Ogata can be captured. Believing he’s dead, she hooks up with another goodhearted yakuza, Amamiya (Toyozo Yamamoto), who saves her from the bad guys only to have a romantic crisis when Ogata suddenly resurfaces. Amamiya and Ogata are, however, both “good” yakuza which means they both really love Sayo and want the best for her, each respecting the other for the old love and the new as they team up to kick the corrupt yakuza out of town and make sure she’s permanently safe whoever it is she eventually ends up with.

By the third tale we’ve reached the contemporary era, but we’re no longer in a traditional “yakuza” world so much as one seemingly ripped from a spy spoof in which the cardinal rule is that if you undermine the organisation you will be eliminated. More thugs than yakuza, this kind have no code and will stoop to the lowest kind of cruelty solely for money. Debonair, 007-esque international hitman Hirose (Teruo Yoshida) accepts a job from shady gangster Shimazu (Takashi Fujiki) to assassinate his boss, only Shimazu offs him first and then frames Hirose (which he finds very irritating). Hirose spends the rest of the picture teaching him a lesson while Shimazu tries to eliminate his competition in increasingly inhuman ways (including having someone crushed into a cube while trapped inside a luxury car).

Bar the third episode which isn’t really even about “yakuza”, what Ishii seems to be saying is that the yakuza are also oppressed because they are forced to live with fragmented integrity, torn between giri and ninjo in their adherence to an arcane set of values which are often overly enforced at the cost of true “justice”. To be fair, that is the idea behind every other yakuza film, but Ishii does is add a more cynical edge in suggesting the issue isn’t the code and conflicting value systems but individualised corruption (which is itself perhaps a kind of “ninjo”) in those who deliberately misuse the “noble” idea of the code for their own ends – something which has intensified since the Edo era though is apparently not a result of post-Meiji internationalism. All of that aside, despite the brutality of the title, Yakuza Law is fairly tame outing for Ishii which tempers its lust for blood with cartoonish irony as its deluded heroes battle themselves in service of a code which has never and will never truly serve them.


Available on blu-ray from Arrow Video in a set which also includes a new audio commentary by Jasper Sharp and a vintage interview with Teruo Ishii, as well as a booklet featuring new writing by Tom Mes.

Original trailer (no subtitles)