Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2017)

mukoku posterThe way of the sword is fraught with contradictions. Like many martial arts, kendo is not primarily intended for practical usage but for self improvement, emotional centring, and fostering a big hearted love of country designed to ensure lasting peace between men. Nevertheless, it tends to attract people who struggle with just those issues, hoping to find the peace within themselves though mastery of the sword. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s long and varied career has often focussed on outsiders dealing with extreme emotions and Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU) is no different in this regard as the two men at its centre lock swords at cross purposes, each fighting something or someone else within themselves rather than the flesh and blood opponent standing before them.

Kengo Yatabe’s (Go Ayano) life has been defined by the sword. As a young boy his father, Shozo (Kaoru Kobayashi), began training Kengo intensively but his standards were high, too high for a small boy who only wanted to please his dad but found himself beaten with the weapon he was failing to master. Twenty years later Kengo is a broken man after a long deferred violent confrontation between father and son has left Shozo in a vegetative state, neither dead nor alive, no longer a figure of fear and hate but of guilt and ambivalence. Kengo has given up kendo partly out of guilt but also as a kind of rebellion mixed with self harm and is currently working as a security guard. He spends his days lost in an alcoholic fog, trailing an equally drunken casual girlfriend (Atsuko Maeda) behind him.

Meanwhile, high school boy Toru (Nijiro Murakami) is a classic angry young man working out his frustrations through a hip-hop infused punk band for which he writes the angst ridden poetry that serves as their lyrics. Toru has no interest in something as stuffy as Kendo but when he’s set upon by a bunch of Kendo jocks he decides he’s not going down without a fight. Winning through underhanded street punk moves would normally be frowned upon but the ageing monk who runs the high school kendo club, Mitsumura (Akira Emoto), is struck by his nifty footwork and decides to convince the troubled young man that the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in mastery over the self through mastery of the sword.

The wise old monk pits the self-destructive older man against the scrappy young one, hoping to bring them both to some kind of peaceful equilibrium, with near tragic results. Kengo’s ongoing troubles are born of a terrible sense of guilt, but also from intense self-loathing in refusing to accept that he’s become the man he hated, as broken and embittered as the father who made him that way. Shozo was a kendo master, but as the monk points out, in technique only – his heart was forever unquiet and he never achieved the the true peace necessary to master his art. Knowing this to be the truth only made it worse yet Shozo also knew the burden he’d placed on his son. They say every man must kill his father, but Kengo can’t let the ghost of his go – clinging on to a mix of filial piety and resentful loathing which is slowly turning him into everything he hates.

Toru’s problem’s are pushed into the background but seeing as his enemy is not the flesh and blood threat of an overbearing father but the elements and more particularly water, it will be much harder to overcome. Water becomes a constant symbol for each man – for Toru it’s an inescapable symbol of death and powerlessness, but for Kengo it represents happiness and harmony in rediscovering the good memories he has of his father from joyful family outings to less abusive summer training sessions. Mukoku is the story of three ages of man – the scrappy rebellious teen, the struggling middle-aged man, and the elderly veteran whose own heart is settled enough to see the battles others are waging. The “warrior’s song” as “mukoku” seems to mean changes with each passing season, nudged into tune by the graceful art of kendo.

Kumakiri embraces his expressionist impulses as a young boy finds himself suddenly underwater, vomiting mud and fish while Kengo has constant visions of his father, mother, and younger self ensuring the past is forever present. The ominous score and strange occurrences including ghostly graveyard old women who appear from nowhere in order to offer a lecture on the five buddhist sins lend a more urgent quality to Kengo’s disintegration, though interesting subplots involving a possibly alcoholic girlfriend and a mamasan (Jun Fubuki) at a local bar who might have been Shozo’s mistress are left underdeveloped. Two men face each other to face themselves, trying to beat their demons into submission with wooden swords, but even if the battle is far from over the tide has turned and something at least has begun to shift.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

over the fence posterNobuhiro Yamashita may be best known for his laid-back slacker comedies, but he’s no stranger to the darker sides of humanity as evidenced in the oddly hopeful Drudgery Train or the heartbreaking exploration of misplaced trust and disillusionment of My Back Page. One of three films inspired by Hakodate native novelist Yasushi Sato (the other two being Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City and Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There), Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス) may be among the less pessimistic adaptations of the author’s work though its cast of lonely lost souls is certainly worthy both of Yamashita’s more melancholy aspects and Sato’s deeply felt despair.

Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) wants nothing to with anything or anyone. His wife has divorced him and he doesn’t see his child but he still wears his wedding ring and feels like a married man, unable to move on from the suspended end of his marriage. Having no place else to go, Shiraiwa has come back to his home town of Hakodate – a run down harbour town on the southern point of Hokkaido. For no particular reason other than it allows him to continue claiming unemployment benefits, he’s enrolled in a back to work scheme at a vocational school which teaches carpentry skills. Keeping himself aloof and explaining to anyone that takes an interest that he’s “human scum” and they’d best keep away, Shiraiwa is eventually convinced to go drinking with fellow student Dajima (Shota Matsuda) at his favourite bar.

Dajima introduces him to a much needed motivating factor in his life, a free spirited hostess girl with the strangely manly name of Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Satoshi argues loudly with customers in the street and dances with wild abandon in the middle of a room of quiet drinkers but on getting to know her better her rapidly changeable moods and occasional fits of violent despair speak of a more serious set of problems which Satoshi herself feels as ill equipped to deal with as Shiraiwa has been with the failure of his marriage.

Failure is something which hangs heavily over the film as the grey dullness and stagnant quality of the harbour town seems to bear out its inescapability. Unsurprisingly, in one sense, everyone at the vocational school is there because they’ve already failed at something else though some of them have more success with carpentry than others. Shiraiwa takes the work seriously even if he doesn’t really see himself heading into a career as a carpenter but there’s an additional reason why the environment is so oppressive and the uniforms not unlike those of a prison. Everyone is here because they have to be and they can’t leave until they’ve completed their re-education. The teacher at the school is always quick to remind everyone how it was when he worked in the field, only he never did, he’s a failure and a prideful fantasist too.

The other men face various problems from age and dwindling possibilities, to intense pressure to succeed leading to eventual mental breakdown, and trying to build a new life after leaving the yakuza, but Shiraiwa is unique among them in the degree to which he has internalised his essential failures. Having convinced himself that he’s “human scum” Shiraiwa wants everyone else to know too as he intentionally refuses any sense of forward motion or progress in his life to reassure himself that there is no possible future for him. Satoshi has convinced herself of something similar though her dissatisfaction and fear of rejection are deeply ingrained elements of her personality which are permanent personal attributes. Pushing Shiraiwa to address the questions he could not bear to face, she helps him towards a more positive position whilst simultaneously refusing any kind of reciprocal self analysis.

There’s an additional cruelty in Satoshi’s manic declaration that Shiraiwa drove his wife insane that’s in part self directed and raises a mutual anxiety between them as Shiraiwa may be falling for a woman who already feels herself to be “mad”. Satoshi’s strange impressions of birds and animals point to her closeness to nature and separation from conventional society but also perhaps of her fear of hurting other people through her periodic descents into self destructive cruelty. As caged as the animals in the zoo where she works, Satoshi decides to try letting them out only to discover that the eagle has no desire to leave his perch.

Hakodate becomes a kind of purgatory for all as they each attempt to conquer their demons and win the right to move on to better and brighter things. Melancholy as it is, Yamashita adds in touches of his trademark surrealist humour but even in its sadness Over the Fence leaves room for hope. Climaxing in an inconsequential yet extremely important softball game the meaning of the film’s title becomes apparent – you’ll never know if you can hit that ball over the fence until you find the courage to take a swing but you may never be able to find it without the help and support of a kindred spirit.


Over the Fence was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Being Good (きみはいい子, Mipo O, 2015)

Being Goog J poster“Being good”. What does that mean? Is it as simple as “not being bad” (whatever that means) or perhaps it’s just abiding by the moral conventions of your society though those may be, no – are, questionable ideas in themselves. Mipo O follows up her hard hitting modern romance The Light Shines Only There by attempting to answer this question through looking at the stories of three ordinary people whose lives are touched by human cruelty.

The film begins with newbie teacher Okano (Kengo Kora) who is still trying to adjust to the extremely stressful life of a primary school teacher in charge of 38 little guys and girls. As he’s young and he’s only just started he’s filled with enthusiasm and is intent on doing his best to make a difference. On the other hand, he’s a young man with a private life of his own to think about and sometimes he’s just too tired to want to be bothered with a bunch of kids intentionally trying to push his buttons. When he notices one of the pupils hanging around the schoolyard everyday long after he should have gone home, he begins to worry about the boy’s life outside of school.

Strand two also features the life of an abused child as stressed out mother Masami (Machiko Ono) struggles to cope with her three year old daughter Ayane while her husband is frequently abroad on business. Having been an abused child herself, Masami enters a vicious cycle of hating herself for treating her daughter the way she does and resenting Ayane even more for making her feel this way. After becoming friends with a cheerful woman who seems completely at ease with her two rowdy kids, there may be a better way out on offer for Masami and Ayane.

The third tale is a little different than the other two as it encompasses themes of lonely older people in Japan’s rapidly ageing society and the position of those who are different from the norm. Akiko lost her entire family during the war and never had children of her own so she’s all alone now. Every evening while she’s sweeping the steps a young boy says “hello, goodbye” to her as he walks past. One day the boy is in a terrible panic because he’s somehow lost his house key but Akiko calms him down and takes him inside until his mother can come and fetch him.

Okano is full of good intentions. He wants to think himself a “good” person and genuinely wants to look after the young lives placed in his care. However, he is still young, inexperienced and a little bit vain so that the slightest bit of criticism niggles at him. Simply put, he just doesn’t really know what to do and several of his ideas backfire quite spectacularly or appear extremely ill-conceived. Some of this is still about him and his own idea of his being a “good person” rather than an altruistic desire to help the children under his care.

The same, however, cannot be said of the elderly lady who still takes such delight in the falling cherry blossoms which waft down from the school to her small suburban house. Akiko might be lonely, but there’s nothing selfish in the warmth she extends to others. When Hyato’s mother, Kazumi, arrives to fetch him, she’s immediately mortified, convinced that her son must have caused immense levels of trouble for this little old lady. Akiko claims not even to have noticed Hyato’s differences but remarks on how polite he is greeting her every evening and that he’s been the perfect houseguest – in fact she was enjoying herself so much she’s a little sorry Kazumi has turned up so quickly. Kazumi is completely overwhelmed by Akiko’s kindness – it’s the first time she’s ever heard anyone say something nice about her son rather than having people criticise him for being different. In fact, sometimes even she begins to forget how “good” he can be.

In the case of Masami and her daughter Ayane, it’s not that Masami is “bad” person but is responding to a cycle of violence that she finds impossible to escape. Masami doesn’t cope well with stressful situations, dislikes noise and disorder and has impossibly high (and arbitrary) standards for her daughter which result in “discipline” through physical violence. Nevertheless, Ayane loves her mother and, even if Masami recoils when Ayane tries to hug her, reacts with horror to cheerful friend Yoko’s joke of adopting her into their family. Ayane wants to be like her mum, taking delight in wearing a matching pair of shoes even if that means she can’t play with the other kids. As Masami was abused, so she abuses – will the cycle continue with Ayane? Luckily, the pair may have found a more gentle solution in the form of the kindly Yoko who proves far wiser than one would suspect.

As Okano’s sister tells him, when you’re nice to children, they’re nice to others. If everyone could be nicer to their children perhaps we could have a nicer world. The young boy whom Okano is trying to save has come to believe that he’s a “bad kid” – proven by the fact that Santa never comes to their house. He can’t bring himself to talk about his step father to his teachers and Okano’s interventions only make things worse for the boy. He needs someone to show him that he’s not at fault and that the world is not a bad place but it will take more than just “good will” to solve the problem. Sometimes, all you can do is knock on the door.


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

This is the original trailer for the film but in my opinion it contains a few spoilers so bear that in mind if you plan on watching in the near future: