Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン, Bernard Rose, 2019)

Samurai Marathon posterAfter two and a half centuries of peaceful slumber, Japan was jolted out of its isolation by the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. The sudden intrusion proved alarming to most and eventually provoked a new polarisation in feudal society between those who remained loyal to the Shogun and the old ways, and those who thought Japan’s best hope was to modernise as quickly as possible to fend off a foreign invasion if it did eventually arise as many feared it would. Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa) has a foot in both camps. He has no desire to move against the Shogun, but fears that centuries of peace have made his men soft and complacent. His solution is to institute a “Samurai Marathon”, forcing his retainers to run 36 miles to prepare for a coming battle.

If you’ve spent your life sitting around and occasionally waving a sword at something just to keep your hand in, suddenly trying to run 36 miles might not be the best idea, as many samurai keen to win favour through racing glory discover. There is, however, an additional problem in that, unbeknownst to anyone, samurai accountant Jinnai (Takeru Satoh) is a secret ninja spy for the shogun. Confused by the preparations for the race, he reported that a possible rebellion was in the offing only to bitterly regret his decision on realising Itakura’s anxieties are only related to external, not internal, strife. All of which means, the Shogun’s men are on their way and Itakura’s retainers are sitting ducks.

Helmed by British director Bernard Rose, Samurai Marathon (サムライマラソン) plays out much more like a conventional European historical drama than your average jidaigeki. Where samurai movies with an unusual focus tend to be comedic, Rose opts for a strangely arch tone which is somewhere between po-faced Shakespeareanism and post-modern irony. Rather than the stoical elegance which defines samurai warfare, the violence is real and bloody, if somewhat over the top in the manner of a gory Renaissance painting complete with gasping severed heads and gruesome sprays of dark red blood.

A chronicle of bakumatsu anxiety, the film also takes a much more pro-American perspective than might perhaps be expected, taking the view that the arrival of the Americans heralded in a new era of freedom and the origins of democracy rather than the more ambivalent attitude found in most jidaigeki which tend to focus much more strongly on the divisions within samurai society between those who wanted to modernise and those who just wanted to kick all the foreigners back out again so everything would go back to “normal”. Itakura, like many, is suspicious of foreign influence and the gun-toting, yankee doodle humming Shogunate bodyguard is indeed a villain though it’s Itakura himself who will end up firing a gun as if conceding that the future has arrived and the era of the sword has passed. 

Ramming the point home, Itakura is also forced to concede to the desires of his wilful daughter, Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), who wanted to travel and see the world while her society (and conventionally minded though doting father) insisted all there was for her was marriage and a life stuck inside castle walls. Managing to escape and disguising herself by cutting her hair and putting on peasant clothes, Yuki is able to evade detection longer than expected precisely because few people have ever seen her face. She also gets to make use of some of the samurai training she’s received by holding her own out on the road, though it seems improbable that her father would let her ride out alone even if he finally allows her free rein to go where she chooses.

Meanwhile, other ambitious retainers try to use the race to their own advantage though there’s poignant melancholy in one lowly foot soldier’s (Shota Sometani) dreams of being made a samurai considering that in just a few short years the samurai will be no more. The final sepia shift into the present day and a modern marathon may be a stretch, as might the unnecessary final piece of onscreen text informing us that we’ve just watched the origin story for the Japanese marathon, but the main thrust of the narrative seems to be that the samurai were running full pelt into an uncertain future, preparing to surrender their swords at the finish line. An unusual take on the jidaigeki, Samurai Marathon perhaps takes an anachronising view of Bakumatsu chaos in which the samurai themselves recognise the end of their era but finds its feet on the road as its self-interested heroes find common purpose in running home.


Samurai Marathon screens as the opening night gala of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 28 where actress Nana Komatsu will be in attendance to collect her Screen International Rising Star Asia Award.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Aya Igashi, 2018)

A Crimson Star posterFalling in love is, perhaps, like standing too close to the sun and for the young heroine of Aya Igashi’s debut feature A Crimson Star (真っ赤な星, Makkana Hoshi), it means nothing unless it burns. Set in the otherwise serene environment of a rural Japanese summer, full of blue skies and green fields bursting with life, A Crimson Star is the story of two ostensibly very different women in very different places who nevertheless develop an essential and inescapable bond in their shared sense of loneliness and isolation, but their relationship is also a problematic one in which the familial and the romantic have become inextricably linked.

14-year-old Yo (Miku Komatsu), undergoing a lengthy period of hospitalisation for an undisclosed illness, develops an intense fondness for her kindly nurse, Yayoi (Yuki Sakurai). On her discharge, however, Yo is stunned to learn that Yayoi has abruptly resigned and all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Yo’s family life continues to deteriorate. Her disinterested mother has got a new boyfriend who is often drunk and violent. In order to escape him, Yo takes a trip to the corner shop and makes a surprising discovery in a street of parked cars which turns out to be (as yet unknown to the the naive Yo) the secluded byroad used for secret assignations seeing as this is such a one horse little town that there isn’t even a love hotel. Yayoi has become an embittered sex worker and her lonely degradation breaks Yo’s heart. When her mother’s boyfriend eventually begins molesting her, it’s to Yayoi that Yo turns looking for care and support from a woman who had nursed her but is no longer a nurse.

The “crimson star” of the title most obviously refers to the wings of the paraglider gazed at so often by the earthbound Yo, but it is also echoed in the tiny scars and wounds which define the relationship between the two women. In the first scene of the film, the hospitalised Yo has a prominent bruise on her foot apparently caused by Yayoi nicking a vein when taking a blood sample. Even so, Yo leans in tell her that she is her favourite nurse – words which bring tears to Yayoi’s eyes and perhaps precipitate her decision to leave the hospital. For Yo, who is emotionally neglected by her mother and has never known true care and affection, the bruise becomes an odd kind of proof of love which she has come to associate with pain. Later, Yo spots an odd mark on Yayoi’s neck – she is of course too young to know what it is. Yayoi shows her, literally, by biting her slightly below the shoulder and creating another kind of “crimson star”.

Yo’s early attraction to the 27-year-old Yayoi has a distinctly maternal quality in which she looks for the same kind of compassionate care she experienced in hospital and which her mother refuses to give her. There is also, however, a nascent sexual attraction which provokes intense jealousy as Yo attempts to get closer to Yayoi but finds herself unable to achieve the kind of all encompassing love she is seeking. Given Yo’s extreme youth, the relationship is in many ways extremely inappropriate and infinitely confused, a combination of familial, platonic, and romantic longings which appear to be unbreakable but remain unresolved. Yo, almost becoming the thing she wants to find, begins to take care of the depressed, broken Yayoi – tidying the apartment, folding washing, and repairing external signs of damage, while Yayoi becomes care taker rather than care giver presenting her with an opportunity to reexamine her self-destructive tendencies including a dead end relationship with married paraglider Kengo (Katsuya Maiguma).

Kengo becomes a particular point of contention for Yo, not just for reasons of jealousy but because he causes Yayoi to suffer. Early on she spots him on his bike with his small daughter, every inch the doting dad which is, of course, something she never had. Kengo is also a symbol of familial betrayal as he undermines his seemingly happy family by continuing to string Yayoi along on what is, ironically enough, a no strings basis. Family has betrayed both women who find themselves adrift and alone with no clear anchor except perhaps each other.

Yet what Yo wants is to escape – to soar in the quiet skies high above all, free of earthly constraints like the paraglider she so often sees, but paragliders are crafts built for two and Yo wants to go with Yayoi, strapped together enveloped in a private world into which nothing else may enter. The “crimson star” then becomes the unattainable feeling of closeness and total connection that continues to elude her, furthering her view that love is pain and the pain she feels must be love. Backed by a crimson sky, the future is both hopeful and filled with light, but perhaps also tethered and marked by a melancholy resignation. Beautifully composed, Igarashi’s debut is a raw, often uncomfortable examination of an elemental bond forged between two lonely, damaged women each seeking impossible connection as an escape from a loveless existence.


A Crimson Star made its World Premiere at the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Nobuo Mizuta, 2013)

The Apology King.jpgThere are few things in life which cannot at least be improved by a full and frank apology. Sometimes that apology will need to go beyond a simple, if heart felt, “I’m Sorry” to truly make amends but as long as there’s a genuine desire to make things right, it can be done. Some people do, however, need help in navigating this complex series of culturally defined rituals which is where the enterprising hero of Nobuo Mizuta’s The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Shazai no Ousama), Ryoro Kurojima (Sadao Abe), comes in. As head of the Tokyo Apology Centre, Kurojima is on hand to save the needy who find themselves requiring extrication from all kinds of sticky situations such as accidentally getting sold into prostitution by the yakuza or causing small diplomatic incidents with a tiny yet very angry foreign country.

Kurojima promises to know an even more powerful form of apology than the classic Japanese “dogeza” (falling to your knees and placing your head on the ground with hands either side, or OTL in internet lingo), but if you do everything he tells you to, you shouldn’t need it. His first case brings him into contact with Noriko (Mao Inoue) whose awful driving has brought her into contact with the yakuza. Not really paying attention, Noriko has signed an arcane contract in which she’s pledged herself to pay off the extreme debts they’ve placed on her by entering their “employment” at a facility in Osaka. Luckily, she’s turned to Kurojima to help her sort out this mess, which he does by an elaborate process of sucking up to the top brass guys until they forget all about Noriko and the money she owes them in damages. Impressed, Noriko ends up becoming Kurojima’s assistant in all of his subsequent cases, helping people like her settle their disputes amicably rather allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

Mizuta begins with a neat meta segment in which Kurojima appears in a cinema ad outlining various situations in which you might need to apologise including allowing your phone to go off during the movie, or attempting to illegally film inside the auditorium etc ending with a catchy jingle and dance routine pointing towards the contact details for his apology school. Kurojima’s instructions are also offered throughout the film in a series of video essays in which he outlines the basic procedures for de-escalating a conflict and eventually getting the outcome you’re looking for.

Of course, all of this might sound a little manipulative, which it is to a degree, but the important thing to Kurojima lies in mutual understanding more than “winning” or “losing” the argument. The second case which comes to him concerns a young man who has some very outdated ideas and has, therefore, been accused of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, Numata (Masaki Okada) is a classic sexist who only makes the situation worse for himself and completely fails to understand why he was at fault in the first place. Even following Kurojima’s expertly crafted instructions, Numata further insults his female boss whilst attempting to apologise meaning Kurojima has to come up with an even more elaborate plan to smooth the situation which involves pretending to be the ghost of a man who threw himself under a train after being accused of harassing a young woman at work who did not return his affections. This seems to do the trick and the relationship between Numata and his boss appears to have improved even if Numata still has a long way to go in the person stakes, though it does perhaps make light of a serious workplace problem.

Numata follows all of Kurojima’s instructions but still gets everything wrong because he refuses to understand all of the various social rules he’s broken and therefore why and how the apology process is intended to make amends for them. Understanding and sincerity are the keys to Kurojima’s ideology but Numata, after a quick fix, fails to appreciate either of these central tenets and so is unable to work things out for himself. Similarly, in another case the parents of an actor are required to make a public apology when their son is captured on CCTV getting into a street fight. Only, being actors, they find genuine sincerity hard to pull off on the public stage either resorting to chewing the scenery or overdoing the dignified act, not to mention plugging their latest appearances at the end of the speech. The public apology is an important part of the Japanese entertainment industry though it might seem odd that the famous parents of a “disgraced” celebrity would be expected to apologise to the nation as a whole, but as it turns out all that was needed to settle the matter was a quick chat between the people involved, fully explaining the situation and reaching a degree of mutual understanding.

The innovative structure of Apology King neatly weaves each of the cases together as they occur in slightly overlapping timeframes but each contribute to the final set piece in which Kurojima becomes an advisor during a diplomatic incident caused when a film director unwittingly offends the small nation of Mutan by accidentally turning their crown prince into an extra in his film. Mutan is a nation with many arcane rules including a prohibition on filming royalty as well as on drinking and eating skewered meat, all of which the crown prince is seen doing in the movie. Matters only get worse when the film crew travel to Mutan to apologise but make even more faux pas, especially when it turns out that Japanese dogeza is actually incredibly rude in Mutanese culture. Revisiting elements from each of the previous cases, Kurojima is only able to engineer a peaceful solution by convincing the Japanese authorities to utter a set phrase in Mutanese which means something quite different and very embarrassing in their own language. Apologies are, of course, always a little humiliating, but then that is a part of the process in itself – placing oneself on a lower level to those who’ve been wronged, as symbolised in the dogeza.

Full of zany, madcap humour and culminating in a gloriously unexpected pop video complete with dancing idols of both genders exhorting the benefits of a perfectly constructed (and sincere) apology, The Apology King is a warm and innocent tribute to the importance of mutual understanding and its power to ease even the deepest of wounds and most difficult of situations. Hilarious but also heartfelt, The Apology King is a timely reminder that unresolved conflicts only snowball when left to their own devices, the only path to forgiveness lies in recognising your own faults and learning to see things from another perspective. Kurojima’s powers could be misused by the unscrupulous, but the most important ingredient is sincerity – empty words win no respect.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flying Colors (ビリギャル, Nobuhiro Doi, 2015)

flying-colorsBelow average student buckles down and makes it into a top university? You’ve heard this story before and Nobuhiro Doi’s Flying Colors (ビリギャル, Biri Gyaru) doesn’t offer a new spin on the idea or additional angles on educational policy but it does have heart. Heart, it argues is what you need to get ahead (if you’ll forgive the multilevel punning) as the highest barriers to academic success are the ones which are self imposed. Arguing for a more inclusive, tailor made approach to education which doesn’t instil false hope but does help young people develop self confidence alongside standardised skills, Flying Colors is the story of one popular girl’s journey from anti-intellectual teenage snobbery to the very top of the academic tree whilst healing her divided family in the process.

Little Sayaka Kudo (Kasumi Arimura) got off to a bad start in her academic life, bullied and friendless at primary school. After the teachers refuse to help, Sayaka’s doting mother, Akari (Yo Yoshida), manages to get her into a more exclusive middle school which is affiliated with both a high school and a university which means that Sayaka’s academic destiny is fairly secure. However, though she does manage to make friends at her new school, she falls in with the “popular” crowd and begins dying her hair, rolling her skirt up, and wearing an inadvisable amount of makeup. Knowing that their entrance to high school and university is assured, the girls slack off completely and are at the very bottom of the class.

However, it all comes crashing down when Sayaka is caught smoking and threatened with expulsion. Bravely refusing to give up her friends and have them suffer the same fate, Sayaka is the only one who gets suspended but still risks missing graduation and losing her secured place at university. One of the few people to really believe in her, her mother Akari, arranges for Sayaka to attend an unconventional cram school where the well meaning teacher, Tsubota (Atsushi Ito), encourages her to have a goal, and it’s a lofty one – Keio University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Japan.

Despite her dismal academic prognosis, Sayaka is not lacking in ability, just the will and belief to see it through. After being so unhappy in primary school, Sayaka values her friendships and status as one of the popular girls and maintaining that side of her life is much more important than getting good grades. Written off by her teachers, no one is prepared to give her the permission to succeed and so she assumes she’s as dim as everyone says she is.

The situation isn’t helped by her home life in which her embittered father (Tetsushi Tanaka) ignores his two daughters in favour of devoting all his attention to his son, Ryuta (Yuhei Ouchida), whom he wants to become a professional baseball player. Vicariously thrusting his own dream on his unsuspecting son, Sayaka’s father is unprepared for the moment Ryuta realises he’s been denied the right to choose for himself and rebels against him as all young men are apt to do. In fact, many of the cram school students are there because of a grudge against an unfeeling father who has had quite an adverse affect on his child’s sense of self worth.

Tsubota is the first person other than her mother to show faith in Sayaka’s abilities and is able to convince her that she might be able to achieve something if she started to apply herself. Speaking to her in terms she can understand, Tsubota hunts down different kinds of study materials to help her along the way gradually raising her scores as she builds belief in her ability to reach her goal. Tsubota is the only teacher at the school and is able to take the time to get to know each of his pupils individually so he can tailor the course to bring out the potential in each of his charges. While the kids are studying to pass exams, Tsubota is studying pop culture so that he can talk to them on their own level and find out the best ways to keep them motivated.

As much as it’s the story of a persistent underdog finally discovering a well of self belief that will sustain them on a difficult path, Flying Colors is also an indictment on the modern educational system which only caters for the group rather than the individual and is so concentrated around rote learning and standardised tests that it fails to teach young people the critical thinking skills they need to succeed in life. Flying Colors probably is not going to influence public educational policy but it does offer an amiable and inspirational story that might give hope to those struggling under its often unreasonable demands.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2015)

Her GranddaughterRyuichi Hiroki has one of the most varied back catalogues of any Japanese director currently working. After getting his start in pink films and then moving into V-Cinema, Hiroki came to prominence with 2003’s Vibrator – an erotically charged exploration of modern alienation, but recent years have also proved him adept at gentle character drama. Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Otoko no Isshou), though coming with its own degree of strangeness, is another venture into the world of peaceful, if complicated, adult romance.

Tsugumi, a still youngish woman with a good job in IT in Tokyo returns to her rural hometown to look after her ailing grandmother. When her grandmother unfortunately passes on, Tsugumi inherits her house and begins to consider not going back to her old life but staying and taking over her grandmother’s hand dyed fabric business.

Feeling a little alone after the funeral, she’s shocked to encounter a slightly abrasive older man who apparently has a key to the annex given to him by the grandmother. Confused, Tsugumi can’t exactly throw him out (much as she’d like to), but gradually the two start to form a tentative relationship.

Her Granddaughter is indeed based on a best selling manga by Keiko Nishi, which might go some distance to explaining some of its more unusual plot elements. Though in essence it’s a fairly innocent tale of May to September love between a lonely, unfulfilled young woman looking for a simpler way of life, and a sensitive if difficult older man with a complicated past, there’s more to it than that. Specifically, the grandma problem. The question whether or not to pursue a man who may have previously dated your grandmother, is not one that many young women will be faced with.

Tsugumi herself is obviously grief stricken after her grandmother’s death and has also left a messy situation behind her in Tokyo. The lack of desire to return may be partly to do with this same unresolved question, though the idea of a slower, more traditional way of life obviously appeals to her. Even when the possibly ex-boyfriend of her grandmother, Kaieda, abruptly moves in, she reverts to classic gender roles by doing his washing and cooking for him, expecting him to perform the more “manly” tasks like chopping wood and making sure the fire is in for the bath. According to her friend visiting from Tokyo, this is something Tsugumi tends to do which marks her as a little out of step with her more progressive city friends.

Kaieda is an outwardly abrasive, chain smoking philosophy professor who appears to be nursing a life long broken heart. He aims for a classically cool persona with his affected ennui yet, despite his gruffness, he is a pretty good judge of character able to nudge people in the direction they should be heading but might be about to miss such as when a gauche local politician with a longstanding crush on Tsugumi might be about to accidentally rebuff the attentions of a shy but pretty girl from the municipal office who is clearly interested in him.

A later scene sees Kaieda and Tsugumi becoming a temporary family with a little boy mysteriously dropped on their doorstep. Kaieda often harshly indicates to the boy that his mother has abandoned him and won’t be coming back. Lonely childhoods of rejected children become something of a running theme as the resultant certainly of abandonment leaves each of our now adult protagonists looking for a premature exit from any potentially serious relationship. For all his aloof exterior, Kaieda is sensitive soul, though one easily read after discovering the key to all his insecurities.

One of Hiroki’s softer efforts, Her Granddaughter is nevertheless a warm and gentle character driven romantic tale. Full of beautiful country landscapes and refreshing summer breezes, the circularity of all things comes to the fore as Tsugumi in some senses becomes her grandmother and sees herself in the sad little boy as he climbs on a stool to wind a clock just as she had done in her own childhood. An interesting, resolutely old fashioned tale of modern romance which, though shrouded in several taboos neatly side steps them and encourages us to do the same, Her Granddaughter is a gentle gem from Hiroki which proves rich both in terms of theme and of emotion.


English subtitled trailer:

100 Yen Love (百円の恋, Masaharu Take, 2014)

165856_02Actress of the moment Sakura Ando steps into the ring, literally, for this tale of plucky underdog beating the odds in unexpected ways. It would be wrong to call 100 Yen Love (百円の恋, Hyaku Yen no Koi) a “boxing movie”, it’s more than half way through the film before the protagonist decides to embark on the surprising career herself and though there are the training sequences and match based set pieces they aren’t the focus of the film. Rather, the plucky underdog comes to the fore as we watch the virtual hikkikomori slacker Ichiko eventually become a force to be reckoned with both in the ring and out.

Ichiko Saito is a 32-year-old woman with no job who still lives at home in her parents’ bento store where she also refuses to help out. With unkempt hair, slobbish pyjamas and a bad attitude, she stays in all day playing video games with her nephew other than running out to the 100 yen store late at night for more cheap and nasty snacks. Her sister has recently moved home after a divorce and to put it plainly, the two do not get on. Finally the mother decides the sister is the one most in need and more or less throws Ichiko out onto the streets. She gets herself a little apartment and a job in the 100 yen store where she’s perved over by a sleazy colleague and amused by a crazy old lady who turns up each night to help herself to the leftover bento.

Ichiko also becomes enamoured with a frequent customer who they nickname “Banana Man” because he just comes in, buys a ridiculous number of bananas, and leaves without saying anything. He’s even more awkward than Ichiko though he seems to kind of like her too. Banana Man is an amateur boxer and eventually ends up staying in Ichiko’s apartment following a rather complicated chain of events. When this too goes wrong, Ichiko decides to try her hand at boxing herself, hoping to make the next set of matches before she passes the age threshold.

We aren’t really given much of a back story for Ichiko, other than that her polar opposite sister thinks she’s too much like their father who also seems to be a mildly depressed slacker only now in early old age. Her mother is at the end of her tether and her sister probably just has problems of her own but at any rate does not come across as a particularly sensitive or sympathetic person. Getting kicked out at this late stage might actually be the best thing for Ichiko though it’s undoubtedly a big adjustment with her family offering nothing more than possible financial support.

Working in the 100 yen store isn’t so bad but it doesn’t really suit Ichiko with her isolated shyness and lack of work experience. Mind you, it seems like it doesn’t suit anyone very well as her manager quits right away and her only co-worker is a lecherous criminal who literally will not stop talking or take no for an answer. Ichiko’s only real relationship is with Banana Man but even this is strange with Ichiko becoming infatuated and coming on too strong for the rather immature amateur boxer who’s just hit the end of his career. If Ichiko is going to get anywhere she’ll have to do it on her own and on her own terms, no one is going to help her or be on hand to offer any kind of life advice.

That is, until she starts boxing where she gets some coaching, if only inside the ring. The gloves give her a purpose, in getting to a real match before the age limit passes (it’s 32 and she is already 32) she finally has something concrete to work towards and strive for. She just wants to win, once, after all the awful and humiliating things that have happened to her, she just wants to hit back. Even if she falls at the final hurdle, these seemingly small elements have caused a sea change within her. No longer holed up at home, too fearful to engage with anything or anyone, Ichiko has her self respect back and can truly stand on her own two feet.

Indeed, the film might well be called sympathy for the loser – what attracts Ichiko to the sport to begin with is the mini shoulder hug at the end between the victorious and the defeated. With the idea that it’s OK to lose, there are no hard feelings between athletes and even a mutual respect for those who’ve done their best even if they didn’t quite make it, this moment of catharsis seems to give Ichiko the connection she’s been craving. However, the film’s ending is a little more ambiguous and where this rapid transformation of the “100 yen kind of girl” might take her may be harder to chart.


100 Yen Love is Japan’s submission for the 2016 Academy Awards.