Love’s Twisting Path (多十郎殉愛記, Sadao Nakajima, 2019)

Sadao Nakajima joined Toei in 1959 and worked for the studio throughout its golden age, mostly associated with jidaigeki and gangster movies which were Toei’s stock in trade well into the 1970s and perhaps beyond. Now in his 80s, Nakajima’s last narrative feature was released over 20 years ago. A kind of last hurrah, Love’s Twisting Path (多十郎殉愛記, Tajuro Junai-ki) is a willing throwback to the glory days of chanbara, even bearing a dedication title card to genre giant Daisuke Ito, and doing its best to resurrect the classic Toei programmer magic. 

Appropriately enough, the action takes place at a moment of intense change. As the film opens, the men of Choshu who have left their clan to foster their own brand of revolution in opposing the shogunate in favour of the emperor and a desire to reject Western influence, are hiding out in a shack while bad mouthing soon-to-be-allies Satsuma and the man who seeks to unite them, Sakamoto Ryoma. They are soon discovered by Kyoto’s elite Shogunate police, the Mimawarigumi, and ambushed. Their leader, the famed Katsura Kogoro (Masatoshi Nagase), signals that times have indeed changed by pulling out a pistol and defending himself at distance. 

Meanwhile, Choshu fugitive in hiding Tajuro (Kengo Kora) is trying to make ends meet with his painting, designing patterns for ladies kimonos but seemingly with little success. He has the sunken cheeks, vacant eyes, and slight slowness of someone who drinks too much and hasn’t had a decent meal in a very long time. We learn that he left Choshu with the others on the pretext of revolution, but his real purpose was escape from a restrictive samurai existence and most pertinently from his miserable poverty. Having long since given up the idea of a being a samurai, he’s already sold his sword and is attempting to live under the radar, unaware that similarly troubled bar hostess Otoyo (Mikako Tabe) has fallen in love with him. Otoyo was adopted by the bar’s owner, Omitsu (Yuriko Mishima), a former geisha, who intended to sell her to a geisha house. She eloped with a man she loved instead, but it turned out that he was minded to sell her too so she came back and now runs the bar while taking care of the ageing Omitsu. 

The crisis occurs when men of Choshu arrive in search of Tajuro in the hope that he will rejoin their cause. He doesn’t want to, showing off his samurai skills (and neatly disguising the fact that he has no blade through advanced technique) but pointedly asking for a hefty payment from his former mentor Sanzaemon (Asahi Kurizuka) in belief that it would not be paid. Sanzaemon, however, comes through and leaves a message for Tajuro to meet him behind a nearby shrine. He however spends the entirety of his money getting blind drunk in Otoyo’s bar, during which time Sanzaemon is caught by the Mimawarigumi, breathing his last words to Tajuro’s younger half-brother Kazuma (Ryo Kimura) to the effect that he must reunite with Tajuro and fight for the good of the country. 

On the run and holed up with a patient priest and his beloved wife, Tajuro is asked why it is he’s decided to pick up his sword once again despite his reluctance. Asked if was for country or for money Tajuro shakes his head, leaving the priest to correctly guess that it was for love. Tajuro has fallen in love with Otoyo, the only person who either doesn’t believe he is a failed samurai and drunken fool, or doesn’t care. The world however is still too chaotic for romance, and so their pure love will have to wait. 

Tajuro’s fate is in many ways the direct result of his attempt reject his responsibility as a samurai, daring to live as a common man with all of the freedoms and burdens that entails. The force which constrains him in both worlds is poverty. Whatever else he is, he is too poor for love, unable to feed himself let alone a wife either as a low wage samurai or a ronin. The price he pays is in his desire to cross borders. The samurai world is not done with him yet and while the denizens of this small backwater worry about paying their rent paying little mind to what’s going on in the capital, political intrigue is not something that he can go on ignoring. After all, not picking a side is in a sense also picking a side. The Mimawarigumi pride themselves on not being as savage as the Shinsengumi (which largely consists of ronin, lower ranked samurai, and commoners whereas the Mimawarigumi are elite samurai and direct retainers to the Shogunate), but their job is still to bring in fugitive rebels like Tajuro and his bid for “freedom” may be doomed to failure in a world still constrained by the law of the samurai. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Fable (ザ・ファブル, Kan Eguchi, 2019)

The Fable poster 2It’s easy to become a victim of your own success when you’re a top assassin. Being the best only makes you target, and over exposure can prove fatal. If you’ve lived by taking the lives of others, can you ever really go back to being just like everyone else? The hero of Kan Eguchi’s The Fable (ザ・ファブル) tries to do just that, but then “back” might not quite be the best way to think about it in his case. Silly slapstick humour meets fast and furious gun fu but always with a soulful heart as our heroes try to figure out how to live “normally” while inhabiting a very abnormal world.

“The Fable” (Junichi Okada) is Tokyo’s top assassin, as he proves effortlessly taking out a room full of yakuza at a wedding reception. He is not, however, heartless, letting the gangster’s pregnant wife alone unlike the next bunch of goons to turn up. In any case, Fable has been far too successful, which is why his handler (Koichi Sato) hands him an unusual new mission – to live as a “normal” person in Osaka for a whole year without killing anyone at all. Along with his assistant posing as his sister under the cover ID “Yuko” (Fumino Kimura), and a pet parrot, Fable becomes “Akira Sato” and begins his new life as a “normal” man nominally under the aegis of the local mob.

The problem is “Sato” never had much of a “normal” life. As a child, he was abandoned in the mountains with only a pocket knife to toughen him up for a life of killing. He didn’t go to school, has never had a job, and struggles with social situations. He is however extremely dedicated and committed to fulfilling his mission which means he is very keen to figure out what “normal” people do so he can do that too, quickly noting that “normal” people don’t usually eat the skin on edamame beans or the rind on watermelon so doing either of those things in public will instantly arouse suspicion. Meanwhile, he takes a minimum wage job at small printshop working alongside the lovely Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) who was nice enough to offer him some tissues when he let himself get beaten up by thugs to prove how “professional” he could be in maintaining his cover.

That’s something that might be easier said than done given the rapidly unfolding yakuza drama all around him. Recently released thug Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is stirring up trouble everywhere he goes, exacerbating a growing division between the big boss (Ken Mitsuishi) and ambitious underling Sunagawa (Osamu Mukai) who is already fed up with Kojima’s antics while two crazed admirers are also hot on Sato’s trail hoping to knock him off the top spot.

Meticulous and efficient, Sato is still in many ways a child trying to learn to live in the “normal” world. Somewhat arrested in having missed out on a normal childhood, his “childish” drawings of zoo animals become an unexpected hit with the print shop crew, while his justice loving heart also has him subtly undermining the office pervert who has a habit of installing illicit spy cams targeting female employees. Despite his icy profession, Sato is a goodnatured guy and deep down just wants to help and protect people. Thus he is very invested in his mission and actively tries to become “normal” while bonding with Misaki and taking care of his pet parrot (a Le Samouraï reference and ironic mentor in mimicry) as he navigates the difficult waters of interpersonal interaction.

Frustrated male relationships are indeed key from Sato’s with his boss who orders him not to die but then says he’ll kill him if he fails his mission, to the homoerotic tension between Sato’s contact Ebihara (Ken Yasuda) and the relentlessly psychotic Kojima. Sato’s boss and Ebihara acknowledge they will have to accept responsibility for their respective charges and if necessary take preventative measures in order to ensure they don’t cause trouble, but they do so with heavy hearts in service of their codes. Silly slapstick humour quickly gives way to slick action set pieces as Sato steps back into his element, ably assisted by his sake-loving “sister” who has committed to her cover ID almost as deeply as Sato. Sweet and affecting, Kan Eguchi’s adaptation of the much loved manga is a charmingly surreal one in which his fish out of water hero figures out how to live in a new pond thanks to unexpected kindnesses and honourable yakuza ethics.


The Fable screens on 2nd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)