Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Shinji Hamasaki, 2020)

©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

“What’s important is purpose, to live for something. Without it you’re as good as dead” according to the hero of madcap existentialist farce Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Ichido Shinde Mita). The feature debut from ad director Shinji Hamasaki pits a rebellious student against her overly literal, authoritarian dad as the pair begin to come to a kind mutual understanding only once he “dies” after being tricked into taking an experimental drug in order to unmask conspiracy within his own organisation. 

College student Nanase (Suzu Hirose) intensely resents her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the CEO of Nobata Pharmaceuticals which he has long been pressuring her to join. She’s currently the lead singer in death metal band Soulzz only according to a record scout at one of their shows their problem is that they’re all “zz” and no soul. Meanwhile, Nobata has assigned an underling, Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa), to shadow her partly because Matsuoka too has very little presence and is in fact nicknamed “ghost” for his essential invisibility. The trouble starts with the escalation of a corporate feud as Nobata’s old buddy Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada) starts manoeuvring to get his hands on the company’s research into an anti-ageing serum codenamed “Romeo”, planting a mole inside the organisation. As a consequence of his research another of the scientists nicknamed “Gramps” has stumbled on another drug which renders someone temporarily “dead” for a period of two days, naming it “Juliet”. Watabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a consultant Nobata has brought in to streamline the business, convinces him to take the experimental drug in order to flush out the mole while secretly working with Tanabe to take over the company by forcing through a merger while Nobata is out of action. 

A typical socially awkward scientist, Nobata believes that life is about experiment and observation, a belief system which has thoroughly irritated his daughter who still lives at home but has divided the territory in half with clearly marked red tape. Nanase’s animosity towards her father apparently stems back to the death of her late mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura), angry with him that he never left his desk and didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she passed away. “Life’s not a lab experiment” she sings, recalling her childhood during which her overly literal father took away life’s magic by patiently over explaining fairytales, scoffing that Prince Charming probably didn’t revive Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but a transfer of static electricity, while continuing to order her around in fatherly fashion now she’s all grown up. Perhaps still stuck in a petulant adolescence she started the band to vent her frustrations with the world in the form of a death metal “mass”, but she’s growing up. Her bandmates are getting jobs or getting married, she’s still stuck with no real clue about what it is she actually wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want anything to do with Nobuta Pharmaceuticals.  

Once her father “dies”, however, she begins to gain a new appreciation for his life philosophy able to see but not hear his “ghost” while his body lies on a table in the office cafeteria. Nobata went into pharmaceuticals to help people, but has been led on a dark and vacuous path pursuing anti-ageing technology which is in itself a rejection of change and transience. Ending all her sentences with the word “death”, that’s not something Nanase can get behind. She believes in growing old gracefully, that they make drugs not to cheat death but to be able to spend longer with those they love. As her father had advised Matsuoka to do, she begins to find her purpose, rediscovers her soul, and figures out what it is she’s supposed to do with her life.

Matsuoka, however, seems to be permanently “invisible” despite the tentative romance that develops as he and Nanase attempt to subvert the conspiracy to stop them doing her dad in for good, brushing up against the venal Tanabe who seems set to muster all his corporate advantages against them partly because of an old grudge against Nobata. Of course, you have to wonder why the conspirators didn’t just poison him rather than having him go Juliet and then entering a race against time to cremate him before he wakes up, but as Nobata reminds us there are many things which science cannot explain. A cheerfully silly Christmas tale of rediscovering what it means to be “alive” in the presence of death, Not Quite Dead Yet is zany seasonal fun but with plenty of soul as its heroes learn to shake off cynical corporatism for a healthy respect of the values of transience.


Not Quite Dead Yet screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

Honnouji Hotel (本能寺ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2017)

According to the opening quote from Otto von Bismark, fools learn from experience and the wise man from history, but in truth you’ll need a little of the former to correctly interpret the latter. The heroine of Honnoji Hotel (本能寺ホテル) is not exactly lacking in life experience, but hers has been of the passive variety. She’s blithely gone along with the path her society laid out for her, but now she’s hit an unexpected bump in the road it’s prompted her into a reconsideration of where it was she was going. Most people wouldn’t meet such a crisis by asking “what would Nobunaga do?”, but that’s where our heroine finds herself after accidentally exiting a hotel lift right into the middle of the Sengoku era. 

20-something Mayuko (Haruka Ayase) is in Kyoto for a short holiday and to meet up with her fiancé to be formally introduced to his family. The problem begins when it transpires that owing to an administrative error, her hotel reservation has been made for the following month and everything is currently fully booked seeing as the city is such a tourist hotspot. After wandering around a while, she stumbles across a dated, slightly musty establishment named the “Honnouji Hotel” which, she realises even given her shaky grasp of history, is a fairly inauspicious name. Everyone knows that 16th century general and noted tyrant Oda Nobunaga committed seppuku at the Honno temple after he was betrayed by one of his retainers who rose against him. Nobunaga had been primed to bring peace to Japan after more than a century of destructive warfare, paving the way for unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate, but is a somewhat ambiguous figure known for his extreme volatility and tendency towards cruel authoritarianism. 

That vision of Nobunaga is indeed the one Mayuko first encounters when she finds herself accidentally thrown back into the Sengoku era after exiting the lift in her hotel. The first person that she meets turns out to be Mori Ranmaru (Gaku Hamada) with whom she bonds over a shared sense of anxiety, she over meeting her boyfriend’s family, and he over an important tea ceremony with life or death consequences. She gives him some modern-day stomach medicine while he warns her that his lord is “cruel and demonic”. Still not quite grasping that things work differently (to a point at least) in the feudal world, she advises him to quit rather than allow himself to be exploited to the point that it’s ruining his health but he exasperatedly reminds her that you can’t simply drop out of samurai society. Mayuko gets another cruel awakening when observing the tea ceremony and witnessing a man, whom she later realises to be Nobunaga (Shinichi Tsutsumi), extorting a tea caddy from a distressed master who tries to protest that he’d only been informed that the caddy would be displayed and is unwilling to give it away. Nobunaga reminds him that the nation will soon be unified under his banner, at which point he will be in control of business affairs, threatening him with economic consequences backed up with the possibility of immediate violence. 

Despite her essential passivity, Mayuko cannot bear injustice and immediately springs into action, handing the caddy back to its original owner and instructing him that he shouldn’t allow himself to be intimidated into giving up his prized possessions. In her own life, however, she’s nowhere near as certain. We find out that she’s only known her fiancé for six months, and is still ambivalent about the idea of marriage. When the company she’d been working for suddenly went bust, she found herself at a loss, told that the teacher’s certificate she’d taken as a backup is largely useless because even teaching is oversaturated in today’s difficult job market. Now, it’s not feudal times anymore, but many people in Japan still expect a woman to give up her career to get married, which is what most of her friends advise her to do especially seeing as she had no particular ambitions or goals in life. Kyoichi’s (Hiroyuki Hirayama) proposal comes at an opportune moment, but she finds herself asking opportune for whom and if this is really what she wants or if she’s just allowing herself to be railroaded into conventional “success” without really thinking it through. 

It might be going too far to read too much in to a similarity between Nobunaga’s dictatorial dynamism and Kyoichi’s domineering manliness, but that’s largely where Mayuko seems to be. Beginning to realise his mistakes, Kyoichi confesses that he cynically took advantage of the situation to manipulate Mayuko into marrying him, believing that she was “insecure and unreliable”, “unable to do anything alone” and in need of his protection. Talking with Kyoichi’s father and beginning to assert herself in opposition to Nobunaga’s injustices, she begins to realise that she can take charge of her own destiny and has a duty to find what it is she wants to do, and do that as best she can.

The lesson is, however, somewhat problematically learned in her realisation both that she can’t change “history” and that she can because history is a consequence of our collective choices. This Nobunaga, apparently wanted a peaceful society for all, one in which class divisions had been eradicated and equality ruled. He sees our world and deems it good enough to sacrifice his life for, but Mayuko by turns becomes enamoured of the past, finding her vocation as a teacher of history in a move which is both progressive in seeing her reject a marriage of “convenience” to strike out under her own steam, but also backward looking in its reevaluation of Nobunaga and his unfinished revolution as if there is no real need for change “now”. Granted, Honnouji Hotel is partly concerned with selling the charms of Kyoto as an unchanging historical centre, but it’s difficult to escape the slightly sour note of conservatism as Mayuko finds her forward path only by embracing the samurai past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.