Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Eating Women (食べる女, Jiro Shono, 2018)

Eating Women poster 2“Comfort cinema” may be a slightly maligned genre, disregarded for its throwaway pleasures, but it can often be much more subversive than it’s given credit for. Jiro Shono’s adaptation of Tomomi Tsutsui’s novel Eating Women (食べる女, Taberu Onna), refusing to unambiguously reinforce contemporary social norms, it actively undercuts them as it pushes its lonely heroines towards more positive paths of self-fulfilment while remaining unafraid to embrace the sometimes taboo idea of female desire as something entirely normal.

The heroine, however, is someone who’s decided to live without it. Food writer and bookstore owner Atsuko (Kyoko Koizumi) lost the love of her life at 29 and has lived alone ever since. She does, however, have a very committed group of female friends who get together once a month to enjoy a tasty dinner she and her friend Mifuyu (Kyoka Suzuki), who runs the local restaurant, cook for them. Unlike Atsuko, Mifuyu is a sexually liberated older woman, complaining once again that both of her (young, male) apprentices have quit after she seduced them. Keiko (Erika Sawajiri), Atsuko’s editor, has hatched on a different solution in affirming that she has already achieved financial independence and has no real desire for male companionship, preferring to embrace her freedom to live as she chooses while Tamiko (Atsuko Maeda), an assistant TV producer and the youngest of the group, is facing the opposite dilemma – her boyfriend has proposed to her, but she’s unconvinced because he’s just too “nice” to make her heart beat faster.

Though at different points of their lives, the women are always there to support each other while permitting themselves the indulgence of fully enjoying beautifully cooked meals taken with good company. Meanwhile, across town, an American woman, Machi (Charlotte Kate Fox), seems to be content to play the role of a 50s housewife to a grumpy salaryman husband (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) who barges in through the front door and roughly forces himself on her before retreating to the bedroom. The problem in their marriage is, apparently, that Machi can’t cook, providing mostly Western-style microwavable dinners which fail to excite her husband who tells her he’s been having an affair with someone who can make good food. Heartbroken, Machi runs into Mifuyu and eventually ends up living in one of Atsuko’s spare rooms where she slots right in with the other gourmet women as she begins to learn to cook under Mifuyu’s gentle guidance.

It is not, however, a pathway towards regaining her husband or “fixing” a perceived fault so that she can be a “proper” wife, but a way for Machi to rediscover life’s small pleasures along with a sense of independence, rejoicing in her own success as she enjoys a meal she cooked herself made with ingredients that she earned the money to pay for. Tamiko’s barfly friend Akari (Alice Hirose) begins to discover something similar on her own, repeatedly dumped by snooty salarymen boyfriends who objected to her preference for minced meat over whole steak. Akari had a habit of thinking of herself in terms of the meat – quick, cheap, and simple, but finally finds love with a gentlemanly colleague after she gains the confidence to share with him her real self by embracing her love of mince without embarrassment.

The only “misstep” is perhaps in Keiko’s tale in which her bid for solo independence is eventually negated by her loneliness, implying that in the end she did need male companionship after all. Indeed, only Atsuko who rejects sex in favour of vicarious maternity is allowed to live life alone, though conversely Mifuyu’s free spirited pursuit of younger men is never judged negatively nor is she encouraged to settle down even while she ironically advises Tamiko to do just that, and pointedly tells Keiko that she’s running out time to find anyone halfway decent. Yet all of that aside, the ladies are an accepting bunch, emphasising that love is love and refusing to judge others, making sure to offer support to all who need it. We’re never the same people as yesterday, Atsuko writes in her book, we just need to be ourselves. Above all, however, she seems to say you have to be kind to yourself, embracing life’s small pleasures such as the simple joy of well cooked food made with love, and the rest you can figure out later.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック, Kankuro Kudo, 2009)

The Shonen Merikensack posterWhen you spent your youth screaming phrases like “no future” and “fumigate the human race”, how are you supposed to go about being 50-something? A&R girl Kanna is about to find out in Kankuro Kudo’s generation gap comedy The Shonen Merikensack (少年メリケンサック) as she accidentally finds herself needing to sign a gang of ageing never were rockers. A nostalgia trip in more ways than one, Kudo is on a journey to find the true spirit of punk in a still conservative world.

25 year old Kanna (Aoi Miyazaki) is an unsuccessful scout at a major Japanese label which mainly deals with commercial bands and folk guitar outfits. As she’s about to quit any way, Kanna makes a last minute pitch for a punk band she’s found on YouTube, fully expecting to be shown the door for the last time. However, what she didn’t know is that her boss, Tokita (Yusuke Santamaria), is a former punk rocker still dreaming of his glory days of youthful rebellion. With her leaving do mere hours away, Kanna’s contract is extended so that she can bring in these new internet stars whose retro punk style looks set to capture the charts.

Unfortunately, the reason Tokita was so impressed with the band’s authentically ‘80s style is because the video was shot in 1983. The Brass Knuckle Boys hit their heyday 25 years ago and are now middle aged men who’ve done different kinds of inconsequential things with their lives since their musical careers ended. Kanna needs to get the band back together, but she may end up wishing she’d never bothered.

Mixing documentary-style talking heads footage with the contemporary narrative, Kudo points towards an examination of tempestuous youth and rueful middle age as he slips back and fore between the early days of the Brass Knuckle Boys and their attempts to patch up old differences and make an improbable comeback. Kanna, only 25, can’t quite understand all of this shared history but becomes responsible for trying to help them all put it behind them. Her job is complicated by the fact that estranged brothers Akio (Koichi Sato) and Haruo (Yuichi Kimura) made their on stage fighting a part of the act until a stupid accident left the band’s vocalist, Jimmy (Tomorowo Taguchi), in wheelchair.

The spirit of punk burns within them, even if their contemporaries are apt to point and laugh. The Brass Knuckle Boys, when it comes down to it, were successful bandwagon jumpers on the punk gravy train. Craving fame, the guys started out marketing themselves as a very early kind of boy band complete with silly outfits and cute personal branding full of jumpsuits, rainbows, and coordinated dance routines. Yet if the punk movement attracted them merely as the next cool thing, it also caught on to some of their youthful anger and teenage resentment. In the end unrestrained passion destroyed what they had as the ongoing war between the brothers escalated from petty sibling bickering to something less kind.

Twenty-five years later the wounds have not yet healed. Akio is a lousy drunk with a bad attitude, Haruo is an angry cow farmer, drummer Young has a range of health problems, and Jimmy’s barely present. Tokita has become a corporate suit, a symbol of everything he once fought against and his former bandmate is his biggest selling artist – eccentric, glam, and very high concept.

The men are looking back (even those of them who aren’t even really that old), whereas Kanna can only look forwards. Before the Brass Knuckle Boys, she was about to be kicked out of her A&R job and planned to go home with her tail between her legs to help her confused father with his very unsuccessful conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Apparently in a solid relationship with a coffee shop guitarist who keeps urging her to put in a good word for him at the record label with his sappy demo tapes, Kanna’s life is the definition of middle of the road. Neither she not her boyfriend could be any less “punk” if they tried but if they truly want to follow their dreams they will have to find it somewhere within themselves.

At over two hours The Shonen Merikensack is pushing the limit for a comedy and does not quite manage to maintain momentum even as its ending is, appropriately enough, an unexpected anticlimax. Kudo’s generally absurd sense of humour occasionally takes a backseat to a more juvenile kind which is much less satisfying than the madcap action of his previous films but still provides enough off beat laughs to compensate for an otherwise inconsequential narrative.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Crows Explode (クローズ EXPLODE, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2014)

crows explodeToshiaki Toyoda made an auteurst name for himself at the tail end of the ‘90s with a series of artfully composed youth dramas centring on male alienation and cultural displacement. Attempting to move beyond the world of adolescent rage by embracing Japan’s most representative genre, the family drama, in the literary adaptation Hanging Garden, Toyoda’s career hit a snag. Despite the film’s favourable reception with critics, a public drugs scandal cost Toyoda his career in Japan’s extremely strict entertainment industry. Since his return to filmmaking in 2009 Toyoda has continued to branch out but 2014’s Crows Explode (クローズ EXPLODE) throws him back into that early world of repressed male energy as internalised rage and frustration produce externalised violence. Picking up the Crows franchise where Takashi Miike left off, Toyoda brings his unique visual sensiblilty to the material, swapping Miike’s irony for something with more grit but losing the deadpan depth of its adolescent posturing in the process.

The old gods have fallen and new ones must rise. Tough guys graduate, but the battlefields of Suzuran High endure eternally. Suzuran is the ultimate in delinquent schools. None of the boys here are under any misapprehension that the adult world holds any promise for them. Many will drop out without completing high school, condemning themselves to a precarious life of continually uncertain, low paid employment, but even those who do manage to leave with a certificate will be heading into another competition to find a steady job in economically straightened times.

That is, those of them who don’t end up in a gang. The thing at Suzuran is that your fate is determined by your fists. Boys roam the halls looking for a fight, each vowing to become the top dog and de facto leader by proving themselves the best and the strongest of the strapping young men all vying for the title. A new challenger arrives in the form of transfer student, Kaburagi (Masahiro Higashide), whose intense energy upsets the dynamic between presumed number one Goura (Yuya Yagira) and his challenger Takagi (Kenzo) but Kagami (Taichi Saotome), the loner son of a fallen yakuza, seems further set to pose a threat in this knife edge environment.

Toyoda has some interesting points to make about the legacy of violence and the importance of father son relationships as each of these young men is reacting in some sense against a father or just his father’s world. Kaburagi, the film’s protagonist, is nursing a deep wound of double abandonment after witnessing his father’s death and then being deposited in a foster home by his sorrowful mother who promises to return for him soon but makes do with occasional visits and monetary gifts. Kaburagi is an angry young man and like many angry young men, he is eager not to become his father – a situation complicated by the fact that his father was a prize fighter who died in the ring.

His “mirror” Kagami, has a similar problem only his father died in a yakuza turf war. A surrogate presents himself in the form of former Suzuran scrapper “Jarhead Ken” (Kyosuke Yabe), now an ex-yakuza helping out at a friend’s second hand car dealership but unable to escape gangland troubles when it emerges Kagami’s clan are intent on acquiring it in order to turn the place into some kind of “entertainment complex”. Ken, a tough guy but soft hearted, has a talent for paternalism which he turns on the fatherless little boy of the car dealership’s owner to whom he teaches the importance of a hefty punch but also of friendship and loyalty.

Miike’s world was a surreal one, inflected with a wry middle aged eye which sees all of this teenage rambunctiousness for the ridiculous posturing it really is. Toyoda’s attempts to be more in the moment, experiencing the adolescent angst with all of its immediate force but unlike his early protagonists the boys of Suzuran are forced to “explode” rendering that central tenet of repressed anger redundant. Externalising the internal war somehow makes it much less interesting as boys trade blows, mindlessly trying to work out a mental struggle which their ill drawn backgrounds will not support.

The environment which the boys inhabit is a grey and hopeless one. Toyoda paints it with his characteristic visual flair, returning to his trademark sequences of slow motion coupled with indie music, but his energy is very different from Miike’s and its more contemplative rhythm never quite gels with the pugilistic fury of the source material even as it gives way to his more expressionistic imagery. The franchise is feeling a little punch drunk by this point, and Toyoda finds it in a particular puddle of teenage malaise. Still, the fists fly and the boys of Suzuran rise and fall as always providing enough self consciously cool action to sustain interest despite the otherwise insubstantial quality.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Hanging Garden (空中庭園, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2005)

hanging gardenIf you wake up one morning and decide you don’t like the world you’re living in, can you simply remake it by imagining it differently? The world of Hanging Garden (空中庭園, Kuchu Teien), based on the novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, is a carefully constructed simulacrum – a place that is founded on total honesty yet is sustained by the willingness of its citizens to support and propagate the lies at its foundation. This is The Family Game 2.0 or, once more with feeling.

The Kobayashis have one rule – they keep no secrets and no subject is taboo. We can see they take this approach to life seriously when daughter Mana asks her mother about the circumstances of her conception and receives an honest and frank reply. However, this “pretence” of honesty is exactly that – a superficial manifestation of an idea intended to maintain control rather than foster liberty. Each of the family keeps their secrets close be it extra marital affairs, past trauma, or just dissatisfaction with the state of current society. The very idea which binds them together also keeps them forever apart, divided by the charade of unity.

Toyoda crafts his metaphors well. The hanging garden of the title belongs to the matriarch, Eriko, who has created an elegant garden space on the cramped balcony of their small flat on a housing estate. Her swinging hanging baskets give the film its odd sense of off kilter sway as the camera swirls and swoops unsteadily like a rudderless ship adrift at sea. Eriko is carefully rebuilding her world in manner more to her liking, pruning her rosebushes with intense precision both metaphorically and literally.

Eriko’s intense control freakery stems back to her childhood and strained relationship with her currently hospitalised mother, Sacchan. Sacchan is one feisty grandma who may not share Eriko’s tenet of total honesty but nevertheless is inclined to tell it like it is. The central tragedy here is of maternal misconnection, a mother and daughter who refuse to be honest with each other. An encounter with Eriko’s older brother who seems to have an equally difficult relationship with Sacchan makes this plain. However, facing a health crisis and aware of reaching the final stages of her life Sacchan is also in a reflective mood and reveals that she’s recently begun dreaming her memories – revising and improving them as she goes to the point that she’s no longer sure how much of her recollection is how she would have liked things to have been rather than how they really were.

Son Ko is also interested in imagined worlds only more of the technological kind where he’s created a virtual version of his real life on his computer. Something of a dreamer, he wonders if the designers of the tower block deliberately made all the windows face south so that they’d get more sunlight and people would feel happier but he’s quickly shot down with the prosaic explanation that it’s all to do with drying laundry. He’s the only one who tries to explain to his mother that her intense need for “honesty” is, ironically, just another way of avoiding reality but then everyone already knew that – it’s the final truth that underpins the value system which has defined each of their lives.

However, where the family at the centre of The Family Game is shown to be hollow, the Kobayashis’ willingness to go along with this crazy self determined cosmology is driven by genuine feeling. Father Takeshi may be having affairs all over the place and even lying to his boss to facilitate them, but he wouldn’t have stayed at all if it truly meant nothing to him. Eriko plays manipulative goddess, micromanaging the fate of this tiny nation state since its inception with a keen and calculating eye but it’s all in the service of creating for herself something which she’d always felt she’d been denied – unconditional familial love, something which she also seeks to pass on to her children as the ultimate revenge on her mother whom she believes to have been cold and unfeeling.

As useful a tool as honesty may be, Sacchan may have a point towards the end when she says you take your most important secrets with you to the grave. Some things lose their power once you speak them aloud, too much honesty only focuses attention on the self and is apt to make those secretive who would seek to be open. Hanging Garden is a rich and nuanced exploration of human relationships, the shifting nature of memory, and the importance of personal privacy coupled with the veneer of authenticity which makes life in a civil society possible. Take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness – hanging gardens never take root, but they bloom all the same.


 

A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Junji Sakamoto, 2012)

chorus of angelsAs you read the words “adapted from the novel by Kanae Minato” you know that however cute and cuddly the blurb on the back may make it sound, there will be pain and suffering at its foundation. So it is with A Chorus of Angels (北のカナリアたち, Kita no Kanariatachi) which sells itself as a kind of mini-take on Twenty-Four Eyes (“Twelve Eyes” – if you will) as a middle aged former school mistress meets up with her six former charges only to discover that her own actions have cast an irrevocable shadow over the very sunlight she was determined to shine on their otherwise troubled young lives.

Haru has been working as a librarian in the city for the last twenty years and has finally reached retirement age but before that she was a school teacher in Japan’s frozen north. Before she can even think about enjoying her new found freedom, a pair of policeman turn up at her door to ask her a few questions about one of her former pupils, Nobuto, who is a suspect in a murder case. It seems that they found Haru’s address amongst Nobuto’s possessions and are keen to find out what kind of relationship she had with him and anything she might know about his current whereabouts. Haru is shocked to the core but remembers that she always gets a New Year card from one of Nobuto’s classmates, Manami, and decides to return home at long last to try and put to rest some wandering ghosts.

Like much of Kanae Minato’s work, A Chorus of Angels is a perfectly constructed mystery only this time much more of the heart than of the head. Consequently, it would be wrong to reveal too much of the plot but suffice to say that a traumatic incident twenty years ago left a profound effect not only on each of the children but also on their teacher and others in the surrounding area. Re-encountering each of her six pupils again, Haru discovers that each of them has been harbouring a deeply buried sense of guilt and shame, believing themselves to have been responsible for what happened that day. That sense of unresolved trauma has prevented each of them from fully getting on with their lives, as if some part of each of them was frozen in time when they were just primary school children singing in a choir and feeling proud of themselves for the first time in their lives.

Their teacher, Haru, also left a part of herself behind in that snowy northern landscape. Having committed something which some would regard as a sin, she’s hounded off the island – or perhaps allows herself to be, giving in to a punishment that she sees as befitting her own sense of guilt. However, as is customary for Minato, Haru’s “crime” is not such a black and white affair. If she betrayed someone, that person understood and, ultimately, only wanted the best for her. That she sacrificed the things that might have allowed her to go on living a happy life is the kind of tragic irony Minato is known for and the lonely, cold and shut off appearance of Haru’s twenty years of librarianing exile is another perfect example. She didn’t really do anything wrong except for try to live, and yet she’s paid for that with the next twenty years of her life and not only that, in robbing the young children who’d come to see her as something of a guardian angel of her very presence, she’s left them to pay too. Guilt grows like a mountain until it eclipses even the brightest of suns.

Despite its unfeasibly starry cast which radiates around veteran actress Sayuri Yoshinga and includes such young talents as Hikari Mitsushima, Mirai Moriyama, Ryuhei Matsuda, Ryo Katsuji, Aoi Miyazaki and Eiko Koike, A Chorus of Angles is actually fairly ordinary in terms of its directorial style and though it manages to stay on the right side of saccharine, never quite manages to make its tear-jerking set-up quite as moving as it seems to want to be. That said, it does boast some extraordinarily beautiful scenes of the Hokkaido snowscape which is a perfect setting for this chilling, frozen ghost story in which no actual ghosts appear. The children’s childhoods are all blissful blue skies and sunny summer days but in the future there’s only snow and cold winter sunshine. Just stay alive, it would be enough – to live is to suffer, but you have to go on. The important thing to learn is that it’s one thing to forgive everyone else, but there comes a time when you have to forgive yourself, too.


The Hong Kong release of A Chorus of Angels includes English subtitles!

Unsubtitled trailer: