The Projects (団地, AKA Danchi, Junji Sakamoto, 2016)

danchi posterTimes change so quickly. The “danchi” was a symbol of post-war aspiration and rising economic prosperity as it sought to give young professionals an affordable yet modern, convenient way of life. The term itself is a little hard to translate though loosely enough just means a housing estate but unlike “The Projects” (団地, Danchi) of the title, these are generally not areas of social housing or lower class neighbourhoods but a kind of vertical village which one should never need to leave (except to go to work) as they also include all the necessary amenities for everyday life from shops and supermarkets to bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, aspirations change across generations and what was once considered a dreamlike promise of futuristic convenience now seems run down and squalid. Cramped apartments with tiny rooms, washing machines on the balconies, no lifts – young people do not see these things as convenient and so the danchi is mostly home to the older generation, downsizers, or the down on their luck.

The Yamashitas – Hinako (Naomi Fujiyama) and her husband Seiji (Ittoku Kishibe), moved into the danchi just a few months ago after abruptly closing their herbal medicine business. The couple have integrated into the mini community fairly well, but as newcomers their neighbours remain a little suspicious and stand offish while Hinako and Seiji have their own reasons for moving and mostly want to be left alone. To make ends meet, Hinako is working part-time at the local supermarket but Seiji is mostly left alone in his thoughts and likes to wander through the nearby woodland behind the estate, eventually earning a nomination for head of the housing committee thanks to his calm and reliable character.

Despite being the last thing he wanted Seiji warms to the idea and has quite a few suggestions for improvements to the estate if he gets elected. Sadly, he loses out at the last second when the incumbent decides to stand again. Depressed and humiliated, Seiji decides to hide inside the mini storage compartment under the couple’s kitchen floor, only emerging for meals and to use the bathroom. Seeing as no one has seen Seiji in weeks, the danchi is ripe with gossip. What can have happened to him? Has he run away with his tail between his legs? Found another woman? Disappeared? Another new resident whose husband is a TV reporter has different idea – Hinako must have killed him!

The village mentality is very much alive in the danchi where the dwindling population and host of empty apartments mean that everyone is very invested in everyone else’s business. Thus the gaggle of women who make up the chief gossip society are suddenly convinced they have a murderer in their midst! Hinako, disinterested in her neighbours’ petty chitchat, ignores them and tries to go on with her business whilst putting up with Seiji’s odd antics as best she can. The neighbours’ suspicions are further aroused by the couple’s mysterious visitor, Shinjo (Takumi Saito), who speaks extremely strange Japanese with oddly robotic delivery.

However much the residents like to tell tales about each other, they are still reluctant to get involved in each other’s affairs. Everyone seems to know that the bossy man from across the way is abusive towards his wife and step-son but no one wants to do anything about it. The boy wanders the same woodland as Seiji, loudly singing the Gatchaman theme song with its cheerful chorus of the world being as one, and trying to keep out of his stepfather’s way. Only Hinako, witnessing the man about to inflict some harsh discipline on his step-son is brave enough to say something but her intervention only provides a momentary reprieve.

Though largely played for laughs there are some darker sides to the world of the danchi – the covert affairs, the gossip, the boredom, and the wilful ignoring of other people’s distress, to name but a few. In true Osakan style there is however a warmth to the comedy coupled with an endearing silliness which contrasts nicely with the more melancholy aspects hanging around the edges. Taking in everything from petty local politics to murder accusations and over zealous TV reporting, not to mention aliens, The Projects’ ambitions are wild and the tone oddly surreal but then again, nothing’s impossible in the danchi!


The Projects was screened as part of the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

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)

A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Tatsushi Omori, 2010)

crowd-of-threeTatsushi Omori’s debut feature The Whispering of the Gods proved so controversial that he was left with no choice other than to set up his own temporary cinema to screen it. Five years later he returned with another uncompromising look at modern society which is only a little less grim than its predecessor. A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Kenta to Jun to Kayo-chan no Kuni) takes what has become a staple of quirky indie comedy dramas – a small group of disconnected people taking a road trip to look for something better, and turns it into a depressingly nihilistic voyage to nowhere. Never quite achieving the kind of painful, angst ridden atmosphere of disaffected young men desperately trying to break out of a social straight jacket, A Crowd of Three is an oddly cold film, undercut with a pervasive layer of misogyny and hopelessness which makes its ultimate destination somewhere few will wish to travel.

Kenta (Shota Matsuda) and Jun (Kengo Kora) are young men working dead end construction jobs. Growing up together almost like brothers in the same orphanage the pair share an intense bond but also a shared sense of having been badly let down by life even at such a young age. Their main source of relief seems to be in picking up “loose women” from the street by asking random ladies on their own for their ages. One evening Jun picks up Kayo (Sakura Ando) – a melancholy woman with low self esteem who sleeps around because she is insecure about her own plain looks. After Kenta is assaulted by the foreman, he decides to take revenge by smashing up the office and his boss’ car before taking off on a journey north to see his (biological) brother who is currently in prison.

Kayo tags along with the pair after apparently having fallen in love with Jun who is only interested in her for easy sex and occasional cash tips. Despite the fact that the film’s original Japanese title is “Jun, Kenta, and Kayo’s Country”, Kayo is quickly cast aside by the pair of travellers who think it’s funny to throw all of her stuff out of the window and abandon her at a service station in the middle of nowhere. Getting thrown out of cars and left behind in remote places is something which happens to Kayo repeatedly throughout the film as she tries to follow Jun despite his obvious indifference towards her.

Kayo just wants to feel love, but at least as far as the film goes she’s looking for it in all the wrong places. Even if Jun does start to feel something more genuine for her in the end, it’s born of a kind of shared insecurity as he worries about a repetitive strain injury from using the pneumatic drill which turns his hand white at moments of stress. After literally jilting Kayo, Jun takes up with a vacuous bar hostess who does, indeed, recoil from his pale hand. The bar hostess has very ordinary dreams – a big house, wealthy husband, children. She’s even planned out her own death. These are all things which Jun could never give her, a middle school drop out with no family he already fears he has no future but at least he’s not railroaded onto a pre-determined course and is free to choose his destination even if he feels there is nowhere for him to go.

Kenta expresses this early in the film when he states that there are two kinds of people – those who choose how they’re going to live, and those who don’t. The boys feel as if they’re in the no choice category – unceremoniously kicked out of social care and expected to fend for themselves with no education or contacts, reliant on poorly paid temporary work to get by. In a slightly overworked metaphor, Kenta and Jun’s jobs on demolition projects point to their desire to dismantle their world but the more they smash away at it the less progress they make. Kenta’s literal smashing of the car and office belonging to his boss are his final act of choice but again it gets him nowhere. Even talking to his brother who is in prison for the most heinous of crimes, Kenta finds no encouragement but only cold rejection.

A Crowd of Three goes to some very dark places ranging from work place harassment to child abuse and sexualised violence, but it largely fails to capitalise on its grim atmosphere to make any kind of impact aside from the pervasive melancholia. Omori mostly sticks to a straight forward approach with some interesting editing choices and composition but largely relies on the quality performances of his leading players. Far from youth aflame with nihilistic rage, A Crowd of Three is bleaker than bleak and frozen throughout making the battling of its heroes to transcend their difficult social circumstances a forlorn hope of epic proportions.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Yuki Tanada, 2012)

Cowards who looked to the sky posterThe work of director Yuki Tanada has had a predominant focus on the stories of independent young women but The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky sees her shift focus slightly as the troubled relationship between a middle aged housewife who escapes her humdrum life through cosplay and an ordinary high school boy takes centre stage. Based on the novel of the same name by Misumi Kubo, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Fugainai Boku wa Sora wo Mita) also tackles the difficult themes of social stigma, the power of rumour, teenage poverty, elder care, childbirth and even pedophilia which is, to be frank, a little too much to be going on with.

Told in a non-linear, overlapping structure the central spine of the film follows unfulfilled housewife Satomi who likes to dress up as her favourite character from the retro anime Magic Girl. Whilst dressed as its heroine, Anzu, she spots a high school boy at a convention who looks eerily like the anime’s hero, Muramasa. Takumi is only at the convention with a friend and has no particular interest in anime but as the two live in the same area “Anzu” convinces Takumi to come and try on a Muramasa outfit at her place. One thing leads to another and the pair embark on a proxy affair which takes the form of role-play between the two anime characters carefully scripted by Satomi. However, Satomi’s hitherto disinterested husband begins to notice a change in her behaviour and has spy cameras installed catching the hot cosplay action for all to see. When he uploads the video to the internet it causes a serious problem for the young and impressionable Takumi.

Actually, there’s a third person in Satomi’s marriage to her feckless husband Keiichiro in the form of his overbearing mother. So far, the couple have no children despite having been married for some time and this has distressed Michiko to the point that she’s the one dragging the couple in for IVF treatment and getting upset when it doesn’t work. Her son, Keiichiro, has weak swimmers and actively doesn’t want children but this doesn’t stop Michiko taking all her frustrations out on Satomi whom she brands as “defective” and gives the impression that she’d like to “fire” her if she could. A shy woman and probably quite bored as a stay at home housewife, Satomi retreats into fantasy by cosplaying as the familiar character from her favourite childhood anime Magic Girl. Becoming Anzu and having an affair with Muramasa isn’t quite cheating, after all, and perhaps she even hopes to have the child that her mother-in-law so desperately wants her to have even if her husband and medical science won’t help her.

Among the younger generation, Takumi lives with his mother, Sumiko, in a residential maternity clinic that she runs where pregnant women can come and be looked after in a more natural and homely environment than the comparatively cold and sterile hospital. Takumi is best friends with a boy who lives near by who, like him, has no father but unlike Takumi his mother is also an absent figure too so Ryota must work part-time at the combini whilst also looking after his grandmother who is suffering with dementia.

Sumiko tries to support Ryota by giving him occasional food parcels but as a young man Ryota sometimes finds this a little embarrassing and is offended by the idea of receiving charity. When it comes right down to it, he resents Takumi’s happy relationship with his mother and their relative financial security. The manager at the store brands Ryota a “ghetto kid” and even blames him for the increase in shoplifting by kids from the estate. He has little time to study even if he wanted to, but all he sees for his future is a great big dead end. Another worker at the store who previously worked as a teacher offers to help Ryota improve his grades and maybe even try for a university scholarship but turns out to have a dark side of his own.

Simply put, there are far too many plot strands in rotation here and the screenplay never manages to corral them into any kind of satisfying arrangement. There is a moment of unity where Ryota’s story meets Takumi’s but it’s a fairly brief point of intersection (though a hugely important one both in terms of themes and storyline) leaving Ryota’s entire subplot feeling like a distraction to the main high school boy meets damaged older woman narrative. That’s without all of the goings on at the clinic, the brief appearance of Takumi’s father and the disappearing act of Ryota’s deadbeat mother who makes off with all his savings. The film’s scope and ambition is admirable but it ultimately fails to unify its disparate plot strands into a convincingly focused form.

That said, other than running too long the The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky does have a lot of interesting elements and is always beautifully shot showing off a rarely seen side of suburban Tokyo. The performances are also of a high quality particularly given the film’s frank erotic content which is played with refreshing realism by the veteran former child actress Tomoko Tabata and the comparatively less experienced Kento Nagayama as the confused high school boy caught in the fire of his first affair. At once too superficial and too deep, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky spreads itself too thin to make a lasting impact though does offer enough rewards to justify its lengthy running time.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

 

Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo, Joji Matsuoka, 2015)

mainvisualYaro Abe’s manga Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo) was first adapted as 10 episode TV drama back in 2009 with a second series in 2011 and a third in 2014. With a Korean adaptation in between, the series now finds itself back for second helpings in the form of a big screen adaptation.

Midnight Diner is set in a cosy little eatery which only opens between the hours of midnight and 7am. Presided over by the “Master”, a mysterious figure himself with a large unexplained scar running down one side of his face, the restaurant has only one regular dish on its menu but Master is willing to make whatever his customers want provided he has the ingredients. Regulars and newcomers mingle nightly each with their own, sometimes sad, stories while Master offers them a safe place to think things through coupled with his gentle, all knowing advice.

The big screen movie plays just like a series of connected episodes from the television drama yet manages unify its approach into something which feels consistently more cinematic. Keeping the warm, nostalgic tone the film also increases its production values whilst maintaining its trademark style. The movie opens with the same title sequence as its TV version and divides itself neatly into chapters which each carry the title of the key dish that Master will cook for this segment’s star. A little less wilfully melodramatic, Midnight Diner the movie nevertheless offers its gentle commentary on the melancholy elements of modern life and its ordinary moments of sadness.

Fans of the TV drama will be pleased to see their favourite restaurant regulars reappearing if only briefly, but the film also boosts its profile in the form of some big name stars including a manager of another restaurant in town played by Kimiko Yo who seems to have some kind of history with Master as well as a smaller role played by prolific indie star of the moment Kiyohiko Shibukawa and the return of Joe Odagiri whose character seems to have undergone quite a radical change since we last saw him.

The stories this time around feature a serial mistress and her dalliance with another, poorer, client of the diner; a young girl who pulls a dine and dash only to return, apologise and offer to work off her bill; a lovelorn widower who’s come to Tokyo to chase an aid worker who probably just isn’t interested in him; and then there’s strange mystery of a mislaid funerary urn neatly tieing everything together. Just as in the TV series, each character has a special dish that they’ve been longing for and through reconnecting with the past by means of Master’s magic cooking, they manage to unlock their futures too. As usual, Master knows what it is they need long before they do and though he’s a man of few words, always seems to know what to say. One of the charms of the series as a whole which is echoed in the film is that it’s content to let a few mysteries hang while the central tale unfolds naturally almost as if you’re just another customer sitting at the end of Master’s counter.

Shot in more or less the same style as the TV series favouring long, static takes the film still manages to feel cinematic and its slight colour filtering adds to the overall warm and nostalgic tone the series has become known for. Once again offering a series of gentle human stories, Midnight Diner might not be the most groundbreaking of films but it offers its own delicate insights into the human condition and slowly but surely captivates with its intriguing cast of unlikely dining companions.