Twilight: Saya in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2014)

Japanese cinema has its fare share of ghosts. From Ugetsu to Ringu, scorned women have emerged from wells and creepy, fog hidden mansions bearing grudges since time immemorial but departed spirits have generally had very little positive to offer in their post-mortal lives. Twilight: Saga in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや,  Twilight Sasara Saya) is an oddity in more ways than one – firstly in its recently deceased narrator’s comic approach to his sad life story, and secondly in its partial rejection of the tearjerking melodrama usually common to its genre.

Unsuccessful Rakugo performer Yutaro (Yo Oizumi) met the love of his life during one of his sparsely attended recitations. Saya (Yui Aragaki) was the only one laughing but even she didn’t think he was very funny, she just liked him because he was trying so hard. Eventually, he married her and they had a lovely baby boy but before little Yusuke was even a year old, Yutaro got himself killed in a random traffic accident. Such is life. Still, knowing that Saya had no family of her own and having grown up without a father himself Yutaro feels even worse about leaving his wife and son all alone in such a stupid way. Therefore he decides to delay going to heaven so that he can stick around to help Saya in whatever way he can.

A crisis occurs when Yutaro’s estranged father (Ryo Ishibashi) suddenly turns up at the funeral laying claim to little Yusuke with no thought to the additional emotional ramifications of trying to snatch a baby from a grieving mother right over the coffin of her husband. Possessing the body of another guest, Yutaro manages to convince Saya to run leading her to retreat to her late aunt’s house in the peaceful rural village of Sasara.

Though the premise is a familiar one, Fukagawa neatly sidesteps the more maudlin aspects for a broadly comic approach in which Yutaro recounts the story of his death as if it were a rakugo tale. Possessing various people along the way, Yutaro does indeed help Saya adjust to her new life but eventually discovers that perhaps the reason he hasn’t passed over was one of the past rather than one of the future.

Saya’s arrival in Sasara gets off to a bad start – essentially forced out of the city to escape Yutaro’s father Saya causes unexpected trouble when it emerges that the corrupt local estate agent has been letting out her aunt’s house without telling her. If that weren’t enough, some of her valuables are almost stolen by a local delivery boy but, this being an ageing village, children are a rarity and so little Yusuke quickly captures the hearts of the neighbourhood grannies who eventually become Saya’s friends and staunch supporters. Familial problems are the name of the day from childlessness to children (hopefully) writing down possible signs of dementia or just leaving town and not coming back. Yutaro also helps Saya improve the life of another young woman with a son who doesn’t speak by allowing him to finally voice what he really feels, adding to the circle of female help and support which becomes the family Saya had always longed for.

Orphaned at a young age, raised by her grandmother until she died and having lost her only living relative in her aunt a few years previously, Saya had always wondered what it felt like to have a real family of her own. Yutaro had also lost his mother at a young age through illness and was estranged from his father who refused to visit her even on her deathbed. Yutaro’s untimely death adds to Saya’s ongoing sorrows but also ends the beginnings of the happy family they’d begun to build with each other. As it turns out, Yotaro’s limbo is less about his son and more about his father as he gets a last opportunity to bond with his outwardly harsh and cruel dad and come to a kind of understanding about fatherhood in hearing his side of the story. Life is too short for grudges, and even spirits sometimes need to give up the ghost so that the air can rest a little lighter.

Though there are the expected moments of sadness as Yotaro realises the number of people he can possess is dwindling and his time with Saya will be limited, Fukagawa keeps things light and whimsical with a kind of small town quirkiness aided by Oizumi’s spirited delivery. Adding in frequent rakugo references complete with painted backdrops and sound effects as well as a repeated motif which sees the little town remade as a diorama model, Twilight: Saya in Sarasa has a pleasantly old fashioned feeling which only adds to its wholesome emphasis on an extended family of community coupled with the continuing presence of Yutaro watching from somewhere on high. Warm and funny if a little lacking in impact, Twilight: Saya in Sasara is a rare instance of a ghost bringing people together in love and harmony through helping them get closer to their true emotions but one that is also keen to emphasise that we’re all only here for an unspecified time – better not to waste it with silly things like grudges.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kids Return (キッズ リタ-ン, Takeshi Kitano, 1996)

kids-returnReview of Kitano’s Kids Return first published by UK Anime Network.


Kids Return (キッズ リタ-ン), completed in 1996, marks Kitano’s return to filmmaking after the serious motorcycle accident which almost claimed his life and has continued to have long term effects both personally and in terms of his career. Once again he remains firmly behind the camera but displays a more contemplative, nostalgic approach than had been present in much of his previous work. The tale of two delinquent slackers in small town Japan, Kids Return has an obvious autobiographical quality and even if the future looks bleak, Shinji (Masanobu Ando) and Masaru (Ken Kaneko), like Kitano himself, are not beaten yet.

Beginning with a sequence of the older Shinji delivering rice and sharing a melancholy reunion with school friend Masaru, Kitano then hops back to their carefree school days of slacking off and intermittently trolling the entire institution. Masaru is the leader of the pair, loud mouthed and violent, always trying to big himself up, while Shinji is the classic sidekick – always following dutifully behind and lost without his friend’s leadership. Their paths diverge when Masaru decides to join a boxing club after someone he’d bullied and extorted money from hires a boxer to get revenge on him. Masaru is hopeless in the ring and lacks the dedication it would take to become a serious althete but Shinji shows promise, eventually knocking Masaru out after being forced into a humiliating duel. Masaru ends up joining the yakuza gang which hangs out in his favourite ramen joint and quickly rises through the ranks. Though both boys look to be going somewhere along their chosen paths, they each squander their given advantages through a series of poor decisions and eventually find themselves right back where they started.

Shinji and Masaru are typical of many young men of their generation and social class. They “go to school” but rarely attend lessons and are often to be found riding their bike around the playground or pranking the other students such as in a particularly elaborate plot where they dangle a stick figure of a teacher down from the roof to the classroom window below, joyfully erecting the “penis” they’ve given it by attaching a torch to the middle section complete with wire brush hair and cotton balls. Such tricks may seem like innocent, juvenile behaviour but a more serious side emerges when an obnoxious teacher’s car is set on fire.

The teachers at the school have already written the boys off as not worth saving. Always referring to them as “the morons”, the school seems reluctant to actually expel the pair and has come to view them as amusing inconveniences more than anything else. None of the teachers is interested in reaching out to Shinji or Masaru and, in fact, they appear to be a cynical bunch with no real interest in the children in their care. At the end of the school year the teachers begin discussing their progress and reveal that only a handful of students will be going to university (and only one to a public, rather than private institution) and that those who are have largely achieved it through their own steam. The education system has nothing to offer these students who have already been judged unworthy of advancement and is in no way interested in providing any kind of pastoral care or social support.

Shinji and Masaru are expected to find their own paths, but the film posits that this idea of total, individual freedom of the modern era is at the root of their problems because it leaves them with too many choices and no clear direction. Failed by education, the pair must find new ways to move forward but the opportunities on offer are not exactly appealing. Masaru, the loud mouth of the pair, ends up on the obvious path of the disaffected young man by joining a gang and finding for himself the familial comradeship of the criminal brotherhood rather than that of a traditional family.

Shinji’s path looks more solid as he begins to train as a serious athlete, honing his skills and perfecting his physique. He is, however, still unable to take control of his own life and repeatedly looks for more dominant male role models to follow. This might have worked out OK for him if he’d stuck with the paternal influence of the coaches, but Shinji is easily led and falls under the influence of an embittered older boxer, Hayashi, who is full of bad advice. Under Hayashi’s tutelage, Shinji learns illegal moves and that he can still drink and eat what he likes because you can just throw it all up again afterwards. When even that doesn’t work, Hayashi begins giving him diet pills which exemplify the quick fix approach he’s taking with his life. Needless to say, his training suffers and his previously promising career is soon on the rocks.

It’s not just the two guys either. Their shy friend with crush on the cafe girl leaves school and gets a good job as a salesman but the aggressive boss makes his working life a misery leading him to take a stand with a colleague and quit to become a taxi driver. No good at that either, he experiences exactly the same treatment and is now unable to earn enough money to support both himself and his wife. In fact, the only success story is the manzai standup comedy duo which Masaru mocked in the beginning. Knowing exactly what they wanted to do and working hard to get there, the pair have built a career and an audience through steadfastly sticking to their guns and refusing to listen to the naysayers. If you have direction, progress is possible, but for Shinji and Masaru who have no strong calling the future is a maze of uncertainties.

The kids have returned, not quite as men but in the first flush of failure, ready to start again. When Shinji asks Masaru if it’s really all over for them already, he tells him not to be silly – it hasn’t even started yet. The town goes on as normal, unchanging, kids goof off lessons and melancholy people waste time over coffee. Perhaps nothing will change for Masaru and Shinji and their aimless days of drifting from one thing to the next, looking for guidance and finding none, will continue but there’s fight in them yet and the possibility remains for them to find their way, as difficult as it may prove to be.


Out now on blu-ray (in the UK) from Third Window Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Film Noir (殺し, Masahiro Kobayashi, 2000)

Koroshi-2000Existential tales of hitmen and their observations from the shadows have hardly been absent from Japanese cinema yet Masahiro Kobayashi’s Film Noir (AKA Koroshi, 殺し) perhaps owes as much to Fargo as it does to Le Samouraï. Taking place in the frozen, snow covered expanses of Northern Japan, Kobayashi’s story is an absurdist one filled with dispossessed salarymen leading empty, meaningless lives in the wake of late middle age redundancy.

Hamazaki starts us off with a very Film Noir style voice over in which he likens being alive to be trapped on a long coach tour with strangers. You may fight and scream and argue with them right the way through, but in the end you will crave their understanding. Like many men of the era following the recent economic turbulence, he’s lost his job and, being a cowardly if kindly soul, he’s too afraid to tell his wife about it. Consequently he leaves for work everyday as normal but drives to a near by strip mall and wastes the day away playing pachinko. That is until one fateful morning when he finds the entire area deserted only for a mysterious man to climb uninvited into his car.

This unnamed man has a business proposition for Hamazaki – kill a guy, get a lot of money. As anyone would be, Hamazaki is a little shocked, confused and uncertain but eventually accepts. His first hit (like all of his subsequent hits) is on a man just like him – a middle aged loser who’s lost his job and is hiding out in the pachinko parlour hoping to figure something out before he runs out of money. Hamazaki likes his new line of work, it makes him feel like a man again and even helps him rebuild a bond with his wife (or so he thinks) but when he discovers one of his targets is someone he knows it all starts to go wrong.

Amusingly, the mysterious man gives Hamazaki a number of videos to watch as a kind of instructional guide to killing which includes a fair few from Melville including Army of Shadows and other classics of shady French cinema. This is a well worn tale and we know it isn’t going to end well for Hamazaki but we can also see from his voiceover that he’s consistently at odds with the situation as it is almost as if he’s constructing a film noir-esque reality all of his own.

Hamazaki is an unlikely fit for this kind of work – all the way through he’s berated for being “too nice”, notably in an argument with his former boss towards the end and then again by his wife who, it seems, cares more for her social standing and middle class lifestyle than she does for her kindhearted husband. The couple have a teenage daughter whom they’ve sent abroad to study in America (presumably at great expense) and only seems to contact them to ask for more money. Though she’s apparently only in high school, they seem to treat their daughter with a high level of adulthood – sending the money for her to budget with by herself (the implication is that she runs through quite a bit) and her mother even takes care to remind her of the importance of using a condom (not just the pill – America is the AIDS hub of the world, apparently) which is obviously good advice from an enlightened parent but perhaps a surprisingly frank way of talking to a teenage girl.

In many ways Hamazaki is a man without a place. Now he’s lost his job he’s become quite useless to just about everyone. As the mysterious man tells him, everyone is playing a role, in that case “killer” and “prey” but as it transpires Hamazaki was playing a role all along – that of salaryman husband and father. The couple seem happy, but in having sent their daughter overseas the Hamazakis have already broken their happy family in favour of increasing their social status. Kazuko is perhaps only playing the role of the middle class housewife and may have little use for a man who proves too soft hearted to get ahead. After Hamazaki tragically declares he wants to give up the life of a contract killer because he’s realised the importance of family, he may find that “family” had long ago abandoned him.

In this deserted, snow covered town the hearts of men are as cold as the wind that blows through the depressingly empty expanses. A man’s worth is measured by the money he makes and status he can claim, a man with no job is worth nothing at all. No love, no family, no morality – this is the archetypal film noir world filled with nothing but eternal darkness despite the bright sunshine which bounces lightly off the crisp white snow. As much about the death of the spirit as it is about the taking of life, Film Noir paints an eerily bleak picture of modern society with its rigid social codes which prize only the acquisition of money and status rather than the contents of a man’s soul.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Audition (オーディション, Takashi Miike, 1999)

audition-posterReview of Takashi Miike’s Audition (オーディション) – first published by UK Anime Network.


The world was a much more innocent place back in 1999. Takashi Miike already had 34 films to his name before Audition became his breakout hit even whilst seeing him branded “sick” by a disgusted audience member at the film’s otherwise successful screening at the Rotterdam film festival. Based on the book of the same name by Japan’s master of the nasty psychological thriller Ryu Murakami, Audition is the twisted romantic nightmare to end all twisted romantic nightmares.

Aoyama is a widower with an almost grown-up child. Now that his parental responsibilities are changing, and spurred on by his encouraging son, Aoyama perhaps feels ready to move into another phase of his life by considering the idea of getting married again. However, Aoyama is a sensitive and romantic man who’s actually a little naive when it comes to matters of the heart and obviously hasn’t had much experience in the dating world in the last twenty years. He turns to an old friend who happens to be a casting director and comes up with the novel (if somewhat inappropriate) idea of letting Aoyama sit in on an audition to look for a new wife.

In glancing over the headshot resumés, one catches his eye – that of a former ballet dancer who equates having had to abandon her dream of becoming a professional dancer because of an injury with a sort of spiritual death. This deep sense of loss strikes a chord in the widowed Aoyama and despite his friend’s warnings that she gives him the creeps, Asami is the one he’s set his heart on. However, Asami is not the sweet and innocent girl she first appears to be…

In the intervening 15 years since its original release, Audition has amassed something of a reputation which is to say that viewers will almost certainly be aware of its “extreme” nature. However, Audition arguably works best when seen blind as it begins as a fairly straightforward romantic drama in which a broken hearted widower begins to live again thanks to the attentions of a shy young woman. Of course, Miike is peppering the otherwise anodyne love story with subtle (and not so subtle) clues all the way through, planting doubts in our minds right away. Is Aoyama just an old fool who’s lost his head over a young beauty or is he right to grow suspicious in the face of the ever increasing, yet circumstantial, evidence of Asami’s strangeness?

Is Asami hiding a dark secret, or is Aoyama projecting his fears of romantic entanglements onto her  silhouette and therefore creating, in some sense, a villainess worthy of his anxieties? According to Miike himself, Audition is not a horror movie (Japanese horror movies are linked with the supernatural and Audition’s terrors are very much of the real world) – Murakami in fact wrote the book as a strange kind of “love letter” to a woman he had wronged. Miike sought to envisage her reply and gives her an opportunity to offer a series of extremely dark explanations of her own. Neither Aoyama or Asami have been honest with themselves or each other. Aoyama is looking for a cookie cutter ideal to fit into the pre-made box marked “wife”, and well, it would be better not to go into all the various ways Asami has misrepresented herself but she does have a point when she calls Aoyama on how easy it was to make him fall for her meek and feeble innocent act.

Asami and Aoyama are always working at cross purposes to each other, engaged in a macabre dance where Asami leads by stealth, waltzing Aoyama into her spider’s web of vengeance by neatly subverting his ideas of femininity. However, this is not to cast Asami as a vile temptress or the predatory female born of male fears of emasculation (though these ideas are definitely in play), nor is she an avenging feminist warrior so much as a lonely, damaged woman. At the very end of the film the pair have perhaps reached a kind of understanding as, according to Asami, only in extreme pain does one understand one’s own mind. Left maimed and helpless, each is scarred and broken but alive and, perhaps, at peace at last.


Audition is now re-released on blu-ray in the UK from Arrow Films in a significantly better transfer than the previous US blu-ray from Shout Factory.