Golden Orchestra! (オケ老人!, Toru Hosokawa, 2016)

ƒIƒP˜Vl_ƒeƒBƒU[ƒ`ƒ‰ƒV•1C³_ƒAƒEƒg‚È‚µIt might never be too late to follow your dreams, but if following your dreams makes you very unhappy perhaps you need to spend some more time figuring out what they are. Golden Orchestra (オケ老人!,  Oke Rojin!) is one in a long line of Japanese fish out of water / underdog comedies, but addresses some very contemporary concerns from the ageing society to a perceived loss of community in the face of soulless commercialism. Our stuck-up school teacher is about to learn a few lessons, chief among them being that it’s much better just having fun with nice people than being caught up in a vicious and unwinnable game of elitism with a bunch of permanently scowling snobs.

20-something school teacher Chizuru (Anne Watanabe) harbours a longstanding dream of playing in an orchestra but gave up the violin when she got a job. A visit to a classical music concert in provincial Umegaoka reignites her musical passion and she quickly becomes determined to dust off her instrument and ask for an audition. However, as she was so excited she can’t quite remember the orchestra’s name and, assuming there couldn’t be two in this tiny town, signs up for the wrong one. Only realising her mistake when a bunch of old people turn up instead of the well turned out collection of musicians she was expecting, Chizuru tries to back out but the old people are so happy to have her that she can’t quite work up the courage to tell them no.

As it happens there’s a People’s Front of Judea situation going on between Ume-sym and Ume-phil. The conductor of Ume-sym, Nonomura (Takashi Sasano), is also the owner of a family-run electronics shop – a relic of a bygone era made all the more lonely by the flashy electronics superstore that’s been set up right next door. The owner of the electronics superstore, Osawa (Ken Mitsuishi), used to be a member of Ume-sym but stormed out to form his own orchestra – Ume-phil, so he’s betrayed Nonomura twice over and there’s bad blood between them which isn’t helped by Osawa’s constant overtures to Nonomura’s son about buying up the shop in order to close it down.

Chizuru is, it has to be said, a somewhat clueless woman approaching middle age who is also a bit of a snob. She’s harboured musical dreams ever since she can remember, giving them up because, after all, that’s what you’re supposed to do in order to accept a conventional, ordered life. If playing music was all she wanted to do, there was nothing stopping her doing it at home in her free time, but Chizuru wants to be among the best. She looks down on the old people in the orchestra – firstly because they’re “old” and therefore “bothersome” (as she notes turning off a tap left running by an absent-minded older lady), and then because they’re just not any good, and finally because their aim isn’t really becoming a successful orchestra so much as it is participating in a community activity. The old ladies have brought snacks which must be indulged and appreciated, while the old men all enjoy the after practice drinking sessions perhaps more than they do the music.

Turning her back on this anarchic friendliness, Chizuru practices night and day to get into Ume-phil, but Ume-phil isn’t about love of music either, it’s just about being superior and giving yourself an excuse to look down on people. Chizuru finds out for herself how stressful and unpleasant it can be as a “member” of just such a community when they grudgingly grant her a spot. Ume-phil runs on a survival of the fittest policy – not everyone gets to play, only whoever is deemed most worthy. When push comes to shove, Osawa buys himself success by hiring a world-famous French conductor for the biggest concert of the year. Only the professional conductor is true music lover and quickly quits Osawa’s ersatz orchestra, charmed by the down-home wisdom of Mr. Nonomura who manages to fix his treasured cassette player when Osawa advised him to throw it out and buy something more up-to-date. Some people just can’t see what’s really important.

As expected, Chizuru finally realises that it’s just much nicer (not to mention less stressful) having fun making music with the old people rather than putting up with the soulless rigour of the Osawa brigade for whom nothing will ever be good enough. In the end Ume-sym decides to practice Dvorak’s Largo which is, as anyone who’s seen a Japanese film knows, an instantly warm and nostalgic tune familiar as the inspiration for (in some cities at least) Japan’s five ‘o clock chimes (British viewers may well experience the same surge of wistful melancholy thanks to the same tune’s iconic use in a series of Hovis adverts from the ‘70s and ‘80s). It’s an apt choice for a film which harks back to a simpler time when people took care of each other and rejoiced in ordinary pleasures like home-made pickles and fixing things that were broken rather than throwing them out to buy new ones. In true community spirit, it’s not so much that one side wins and another loses, so much as that the joy of sharing a dream with others becomes infectious, producing a rapprochement between the old and the new which allows a peaceful coexistence of the two. Cosy cinema at its finest, Golden Orchestra may not offer anything new to a well-worn formula but in many ways that is the point and its harmonious charms prove hard to resist.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The original Hovis ad from 1973 (which was directed by Ridley Scott)

Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2017)

wilderness posterWhen Shuji Terayama published his only novel in 1966, Japan was riding high – the 1964 Olympics had put the nation back on the global map and post-war desperation was beginning shift towards economic prosperity. In adapting Terayama’s jazz-inspired avant-garde prose experiment for the screen, Yoshiyuki Kishi updates the action to 2021 and a slightly futuristic Tokyo once again feeling a mild sense of post-Olympic malaise. Terayama, like the twin heroes of Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Ah, Koya), got his “education” on the streets of Shinjuku, claiming that more could be learned from boxing and horse races than any course of study. Both damaged young men, these lonely souls begin to find a place for themselves within the ring but discover only emptiness in place of the freedom they so desperately long for.

Shinji (Masaki Suda), abandoned to an orphanage by his mother after his father committed suicide, has just been released from juvie after being involved in a street fight which left one of his best friends paralysed. Discovering that his old gang won’t take him back he’s at a loss for what to do. Meanwhile, shy barber Kenji (Yang Ik-june) who stammers so badly that he barely speaks at all, is battling the possessive stranglehold his drunken, violent ex-military father weilds over him. Raised in Korea until his mother died and his father brought him back to Japan, Kenji has always struggled to feel a part of the world he inhabits. The two meet by chance when Shinji decides to confront the man who attacked his gang, Yuji (Yuki Yamada) – now an up and coming prize fighter. Shinji is badly injured by the professional boxer while Kenji comes to his rescue, bringing them to the attention of rival boxing manager Horiguchi (Yusuke Santamaria) who manages to recruit them both for his fledgling studio.

The Tokyo of 2021 is, perhaps like its 1966 counterpart, one of intense confusion and anxiety. Plagued by mysterious terrorist attacks, the nation is also facing an extension of very real social problems exacerbated by a tail off from the temporary Olympic economic bump. As the economy continues to decline with unemployment on the rise, crime and suicides increase while social attitudes harden. In an ageing society, love hotels are being turned into care homes and wedding halls into funeral parlours. The elder care industry is in crisis, necessitating a controversial law which promises certain benefits to those who commit to dedicating themselves either to the caring professions or to the self defence forces.

Yet nothing much of this matters to a man like Shinji who ignores the crowds fleeing in terror from the latest attack in favour of “free” ramen left behind by the man who recently vacated the seat next to him out of a prudent desire to make a speedy escape. Shinji takes up boxing as way of getting public revenge on Yuji but also finds that suits him, not just as an outlet for his youthful frustrations but in the discipline and rigour of the training hall as well as the camaraderie among the small team at the gym. Kenji, by contrast, is kind hearted and so shy he can barely look his opponent in the eye. He comes to boxing as a way of finally learning to stand up for himself against his bullying father, but eventually discovers that it might be a way for him achieve what he has always dreamed of – connection.

Asked why he thinks it is we’re born at all if all we do if suffer and long for death, Kenji replies that must be “to connect” though he has no answer when asked if he ever has. For Kenji boxing is a spiritual as well as physical “contact sport” through which he hopes to finally build the kind of bridges to others that Shinji perhaps builds in a more usual way. Shinji tells himself that the only way to win is to hate, that in boxing the man who hates the hardest becomes the champion but all Kenji wants from the violence of the ring is love and acceptance. Shinji’s friend, Ryuki (Katsuya Kobayashi), has forgiven the man who crippled him and moved on with his life while Shinji is consumed by rage, warped beyond recognition in his need to prove himself superior to the forces which have already defeated him – his father’s suicide, his mother’s abandonment, and his friend’s betrayal.

While Shinji blusters, shows off, and throws it all away, Kenji patiently hones his craft hoping to meet him again in the boxing ring and “connect” in the way they never could before. There’s something essentially sad in Kenji’s deep sense of loneliness, the sketches in his notebook and strange relationship with an equally sad-eyed gangster/promoter (Satoru Kawaguchi) suggesting a hankering for something more than brotherhood. Nevertheless what each of the men responds to is the positive familial environment they have never previously known, anchored by the paternalism of coach Horiguchi and cemented by unconditional brotherly love.

Caught at cross purposes, the two young men battle each other looking for the same thing – a sense of freedom and of being connected to the world, but emerge with little more than scars and broken hearts, finding release only in a final transcendent moment of poetic tragedy. Kishi’s vision of the immediate future is bleak in the extreme, a nihilistic society in which hope has become a poison and death its only antidote. A tragedy of those who want to live but don’t know how, Wilderness is a minor miracle which proves infinitely affecting even in the depths of its despair.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Interview with director Yoshiyuki Kishi conducted at the Busan International Film Festival (Japanese with English subtitles)

Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High (帝一の國, Akira Nagai, 2017)

teiichiBack in the real world, politics has never felt so unfunny. This latest slice of unlikely political satire from Japan may feel a little close to home, at least to those of us who hail from nations where it seems perfectly normal that the older men who make up the political elite all attended the same school and fully expected to grow up and walk directly into high office, never needing to worry about anything so ordinary as a career. Taking this idea to its extreme, elite teenager Teiichi is not only determined to take over Japan by becoming its Prime Minister, but to start his very own nation. In Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High (帝一の國, Teiichi no Kuni) teenage flirtations with fascism, homoeroticism, factionalism, extremism – in fact just about every “ism” you can think of (aside from altruism) vie for the top spot among the boys at Supreme High but who, or what, will finally win out in Teiichi’s fledging, mental little nation?

Taking after his mother rather than his austere father, little Teiichi (Masaki Suda) wanted nothing more than to become a top concert pianist. Sadly, his father finds music frivolous and forces his son towards the path he failed to follow in becoming a member of the country’s political elite. Thus Teiichi has found himself at Supreme High where attendance is more or less a guaranteed path to Japan’s political centre. If one wants to be the PM, one needs to become student council president at Supreme High and Teiichi is forging his path early by building alliances with the most likely candidates for this year’s top spot. The contest is evenly split between left and right. Okuto Morizono (Yudai Chiba) – a nerdy, bespectacled shogi champ proposes democratic reforms to the school’s political system which will benefit all but those currently enjoying an unfair advantage. Rorando Himuro (Shotaro Mamiya), by contrast, is the classically alluring hero of the right with his good looks, long blond hair and descent from a long line of previous winners.

Teiichi follows his “natual” inclinations and sides with Rorando but a new challenger threatens to change everything. Dan Otaka (Ryoma Takeuchi) is not your usual Supreme High student. A scholarship boy, Dan comes from a single parent family where he helps out at home taking care of his numerous younger siblings. From another world entirely, Dan is a good natured sort who isn’t particularly interested in politics or in the increasingly tribal atmosphere of Supreme High. What he cares about is his friends and family. Principled, he will do what seems right and just at the expense of the most politically useful.

For all of its posturing and petty fascist satire, there’s something quite refreshing about the way Battle of Supreme High posits genuine niceness as an unlikely victor. Teiichi, a politician through and through, has few real principles and is willing to do or say whatever it takes to play each and every situation for its maximum gain. Finding Morizono’s old fashioned socialism naive and wishy washy, he gravitates towards Rorando’s obviously charismatic cult of personality but Dan’s straightforward goodness eventually starts to scratch away at Teiichi’s attempt to put up a front of amorality.

The fascist overtones, however, run deep from the naval school uniforms to the enthusiastic singing of the school song and highly militarised atmosphere. Played for laughs as it is, the school’s defining characteristic is one of intense homoerotism as pretty boys in shiny uniforms flirt with each other in increasingly over the top ways. Teiichi does have a girlfriend (of sorts) who protects, defends, and comforts him even while able to see through his megalomaniacal posturing to the little boy who just wanted to play piano but he’s not above exploiting the obvious attraction his underling, Komei (Jun Shison), feels for him as part of his grand plan.

Teiichi has its silliness, but its satire is all too convincing as these posh boys vie for the top spots, reliving the petty conflicts of their fathers and grandfathers as they do so. No one one has much of a plan or desire to change the world, this is all a grand game where the winner gets to sit on the throne feeling smug, but then Teiichi’s nimble machinations hopping from one front runner to the next rarely pay off even if he generally manages to keep himself out of the line of fire. Rather than cold and calculating politics, the force most likely to succeed becomes simple sincerity and the unexpected warmth of a “natural” leader.


Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Innocent15 (イノセント15, Hirokazu Kai, 2016)

innocent-15Innocence is a fairly nebulous concept and one often misused but if you were expecting an “innocent” tale of youthful romance, Hirokazu Kai’s Innocent15 (イノセント15) is out to wrong foot you from the get go. Kai does not shy away from the darker sides of human nature in examining abusive parenting and forced prostitution as well as the damage done when a secret is broken after long years of being unable to be honest about who you really are. This is a bleak tale, but one with with hope shining round the edges, even if uncertainly.

Narumi (Sara Ogawa) and Gin (Riku Hagiwara) are ordinary middle school students living in small town not far from the capital. When Narumi plucks up the courage to confess her love to her friend, she receives the kindest of brush offs but Gin is left confused. His two drop out friends who spend their days skateboarding around the neighbourhood can’t understand his decision to turn down such a pretty girl though they remember that he’s done the same thing before. Gin himself doesn’t quite know why, but even if he feels sorry for not returning Narumi’s feelings, he is unable to accept them.

Though Narumi may seem like the perfect high school girl – quiet, studious, and refined, if a little sad, her home life is anything but ordinary. Saddled with an aggressive woman child for a mother who demands Narumi abandon her homework to cook her dinner while she plays on her gameboy, Narumi keeps her head down and makes the best of things. After putting up with her mother’s regular beatings, she finally decides to leave when she learns that her mother has sold her virginity to her boyfriend for 100,000 yen.

Meanwhile, Gin’s life is turned upside-down when he learns his father is in love with another man. Already in a state of confusion about his own adolescent feelings, Gin is unable to comprehend this sudden bombshell and lashes out at all around him. Therefore when Narumi arrives and tells him she’s leaving for Tokyo to look for her father he immediately says he’ll come with her. However, their youthful ideas of going it alone in the big city are quickly dashed.

Gin’s problems are of a more immediate kind but Narumi has endured long term suffering at the hands of her abusive mother. When she belittles Narumi’s studying and remarks that she’s no need to go to high school because the world always needs more hookers, it seems like an instance of cruel sarcasm but it turns out she really is intent on prostituting her own daughter to her no good boyfriend.

When her mother’s boyfriend viciously attacks Gin, Narumi is left with nowhere else to go. The tragedy is that intense social pressures and her already existing isolation make it impossible for Narumi to confide in someone about the abuse she’s suffering at home. Being only 15, even if she were to simply walk out of her mother’s house she would have no way to support herself, leaving her with little choice between possible starvation on the streets and allowing her mother to sell her to her cruel and violent boyfriend.

Narumi’s “innocent” love for Gin becomes her last lifeline and his rejection a crushing end to her dreams of being saved. By contrast, Gin’s problems are much easier to solve. His resentment towards his father is more likely driven by the shock of the revelation rather than directly because he has fallen in love with another man. Gin may have temporarily rejected his father, but his father has not rejected him. Guilt and embarrassment over his actions aside, Gin is always welcome to return home where his father would welcome him with open arms. All of Gin’s problems are internal as he struggles with his adolescent confusion. All of Narumi’s problems are external – when Gin spots the scars and bruises on her shoulder, she tells him that she was able to put up with her mother’s cruelty because it only hurt her body and never touched her soul. Narumi’s interior is solid, but she’s trapped in a desperate situation from which there is no obvious way to escape.

Mirroring each other, Gin and Narumi try to run away from their problems but are each unable to escape. Kai opts for a series of reverses towards the film’s conclusion which offer hope only to dash it again and the final scene with only the sound of a motorbike’s flooded engine and eventual kickstart adds a note of anxious ambivalence in which there is a chance for the pair to ride away together but no further evidence that this attempt will be any more successful than the last. The general tone is one of gritty realism though Kai also admits the existence of life’s strange coincidence’s such as in the repeated appearance of a “weird lady” on a pink mobility scooter whose eccentric driving style has disastrous consequences. A necessarily bleak tale highlighting the plight of children in danger in their own homes and left with nowhere else to go coupled with a tentative, innocent teenage love story, Innocent15 is a tense, often horrifying experience filled with outrage but is careful to leave at least the possibility of a better way out, however far off it may be.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English subtitles)