Kingdom (キングダム, Shinsuke Sato, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Kingdom poster 1The class war arrives in feudal China via modern Japan in Shinsuke Sato’s big budget adaptation of the wuxia-inspired manga by Yasuhisa Hara, Kingdom (キングダム). Set in China’s Warring States period, Kingdom offers a surprisingly progressive message, if mildly tempered by a failure to tackle the system in its entirety, in which the oppressed (which in this case includes the king) rise up against sneering aristocracy fuelled mostly by righteousness and fierce defence of the right to dream.

The tale begins with a fateful meeting between enslaved war orphans Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Xin (Kento Yamazaki) on a small farm somewhere in rural China. The boys, realising there is no way out of their enslavement save the sword, commit themselves to perfecting their martial arts with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s greatest generals. Their intense bond is broken when a mysterious man, Lord Chang . Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima), appears and offers Piao a job at the palace. Though he agonises over leaving his brother behind, Piao seizes his destiny little knowing he has been hired not quite so much for his sword skills as for his resemblance to weakened king Ying Zheng (also played by Ryo Yoshizawa). Sometime later, Piao returns close to death, entrusting Xin with an important mission – go to Ying Zheng and seek his own destiny by restoring rightful rule.

The two boys are about as oppressed as it’s possible to be – orphaned slaves with no prospect of improving their condition save the one they’ve already decided on, fighting in a war. This doesn’t quite explain how they can release themselves from the farm, but Xin’s eventual flight, in which his master does not attempt to stop him, might suggest the first hurdle is not as big as it seems. In any case, Xin finds an unlikely ally in Ying Zheng who has been deposed from the throne by his younger brother for not being royal enough because his birth was illegitimate and his mother was a dancer.

Of course, Ying Zheng’s intention to regain his “rightful” throne is in defence of a necessarily unequal social order, but it’s also a blow against the kind of elitism which mark’s his brother Cheng Jiao’s (Kanata Hongo) philosophy. Cheng Jiao believes that he is the most rightful king because his blood is the most royal. He looks down on Ying Zheng as low born, and has no respect for his subjects or the lower orders. “A peasant in fine clothes is still a peasant” one of his minions intones to intimidate an opponent, but someone with a sword is still someone with a sword no matter their circumstances of birth and provided you have access to acquire one, perhaps swordsmanship is a truly egalitarian art given that it largely depends on how well you wield a blade. Eventually, Ying Zheng makes an ally of another oppressed people – the mountain dwellers subjugated, and previously betrayed, by the powers that be who lend their strength to toppling a corrupt power structure in order to restore something like peace and balance to the land.

Indeed, asked to give a brief manifesto speech, Ying Zheng cooly declares that he aims to create a unified China by eliminating borders and therefore the need for war. Insisting that when a king picks up a sword it ought to be in service of his people, he makes the case for a borderless world, little caring that, as his general points out, history may brand him a tyrant. Nevertheless, he remains a “puppet king” whose status is dependent on the loyalty of key general Wang Yi (Takao Ohsawa) with whom true power lies. Wang Yi, as we later find out seems to be a “good” person who used his troops to protect the innocent and ensure no civilians were harmed during the chaos of the insurrection but he does indeed wield dangerously vast power for just one man. Meanwhile, Ying Zheng may reject the primacy of blood, but does dare to claim his birthright as an oldest son and is of course acting in service of an inherently oppressive system even if he means to make minor improvements towards the kind of meritocracy that allows men like Xin to embrace the power of their dreams.

The power of dreams is indeed the key. Though Cheng Jiao’s hardline mercenary may sneer that “dreams are bullshit” and deny a slave like Xin’s right to have one at all, to men like Xin dreams are all they have. As he says, they get you back on your feet when everything else seems hopeless. Learning that Piao achieved his dream even if it was only for a few moments gives him the strength to pursue his own in service not just of himself but his brother, friends, and kingdom.

Appropriating the aesthetics of wuxia may prove problematic for some, but like many Japanese manga with international settings, Kingdom’s mechanics are essentially home grown which is perhaps why Sato heavily leans on Kurosawa’s legacy, possibly overusing the distinctive side wipe and giving his heroine a look echoing that from Hidden Fortress while other influences seem to feed back from Star Wars in the strangely cute masked mountain elders and gleaming golden armour of bad ass warrior queen Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa). A surprisingly positive, perhaps ironically bold plea for a borderless world and if not actual equality at least a friendly kind of egalitarian nobility, Kingdom hands victory to those who fight hardest for their right to dream while subtly advocating for their right to rebel against an inherently unjust social order in order to claim it. 


Kingdom was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be screened in US cinemas from Aug. 16 courtesy of Funimation.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Yuichi Fukuda, 2017)

psychic kusuo posterMany may bristle at an attempt to label director Yuichi Fukuda an auteur, but you can’t argue with the fact that he’s developed something of a house style. That house style may have just catapulted him to the top of the box office with two successful movies inspired by the gag filled Gintama, but outside of his big budget studio efforts he’s something of an acquired taste. Take Hentai Kamen, for example. For some a hilariously perverse super hero adventure comedy. For others one childish joke stretched out for 90 minutes. Psychic Kusuo (斉木楠雄のΨ難, Saiki Kusuo no Sainan), coming from the same general area as the phenomenally successful Gintama in adapting an absurdist gag manga only this time one by Shuichi Aso, undoubtedly belongs in the latter category.

16-year-old Kusuo Saiki (Kento Yamazaki) is the most powerful esper on Earth. Seeing as he was born to a lovely, hippyish couple who didn’t mind that he was a bit strange, Saiki grew up appreciating his superpowers for what they are but also mindful that they could cause him a problem if they got out of hand. He uses his powers to hypnotise those around him so that they don’t notice his neon pink hair or the antennas in his head which keep his emotions in check and prevent him accidentally destroying all of Tokyo. Nevertheless, it is quite a bother to be burdened by unnatural abilities especially in that it makes life extremely dull not to mention a little stressful when you can hear everything everyone is thinking in every tiny detail.

The big problem is that Saiki is coming up on his first high school culture festival. Saiki is not big into celebrations and hanging out with other people so what he likes about festivals is that no one’s going to miss him so he can escape for a little me time. The last few festivals, however, have each descended into chaos and if it happens again this year they’re going to be cancelled for good. In order to save his precious haven of relaxation, Saiki will have to forgo it this time to make sure no one starts any trouble.

Fukuda began his career writing skits for TV variety shows and the humour in his films is indeed very specific and of the kind familiar to fans of Japanese television comedy, which is to say it is extremely broad and somewhat meta with frequent breaking of the fourth wall. The major antagonist of Psychic Kusuo is conceited high school classmate Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto) who is accounted by all as the school’s number one beauty and knows it. As he’s able to read minds, Saiki knows she’s in no way as pretty on the inside and makes a point of ignoring her. Of course, this only ends up attracting her attention because she’s incapable of accepting that there’s a boy who doesn’t instantly sigh on catching sight of her. In keeping with Fukuda’s over the top approach, Kokomi becomes little more than a collection of preening looks alternating between calculated cuteness and outright bunny boiler villainy.

Meanwhile, Fukuda throws in a series of in jokes and random references to other franchises from Assassination Classroom to Dragon Ball, piling absurdity on top of absurdity through a series of possible crises as yankees from another school threaten to cause a ruckus and the Dark Reunion turn up to prosecute their conspiracy on school grounds. Meanwhile a creepy stage magician and his surprisingly sprightly mother/assistant take credit for all the strange goings on and Saiki accidentally ends up marooned in space.

Yet the problem is that it just isn’t very funny or particularly interesting. It comes to something when the most entertaining part of the movie is Saiki’s extremely nice parents and their unflappable acceptance of the strange goings on which often befall their family. Over reliant on reaction shots and schoolyard humour, Psychic Kusuo may play well to Fukuda’s many fans, those familiar with the anime or manga, and lovers of TV variety skits but anyone else may find themselves scratching their heads at its decidedly lowbrow, scattershot attempt at humour and longing for an end to its considerably dubious charms.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bleach (BLEACH ブリーチ, Shinsuke Sato, 2018)

BL_honpos_setTite Kubo’s Bleach (BLEACH ブリーチ) had the distinction of being one of three phenomenally popular long running manga series (alongside Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece and Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto) which dominated the industry from the early 2000s until its completion in August 2016. The series spans 74 collected volumes and was also adapted into a successful television anime which itself ran for several seasons and spawned a number of animated movies. It might seem like a no brainer to bring the series to the big screen with a live action adaptation but Bleach is no ordinary manga and the demands of recreating its fearsome world of cruel death gods and huge soul sucking monsters are a daunting prospect. Perfectly placed to tackle such a challenge, director Shinsuke Sato (I am a Hero, Inuyashiki) spent more than a year in post-production working on the CGI and has brought his characteristic finesse to the finely crafted world of Kubo’s Karakura.

Our hero, Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi), is a regular fifteen-year-old high school student, save for his fiery orange hair and the ability to see ghosts. He lives with his relentlessly cheerful father (Yosuke Eguchi) and two cute little sisters but is also nursing guilt and regret over the death of his mother (Masami Nagasawa) who died protecting him from a monster when he was just a child. Feeling disconnected from his family, Ichigo likes to put on a front of bravado – taking on petty punks to teach them a lesson though, in a motif which will be repeated, he only escapes an early encounter unharmed thanks to the intervention of his unusually strong friend, Chad (Yu Koyanagi). Ichigo’s life is changed forever when he finds a strange girl, Rukia (Hana Sugisaki), in his room where she despatches a lingering spirit back its rightful destination of Soul Society. That was not, however, her primary mission and a giant “Hollow” suddenly punches a fist through Ichigo’s living room and scoops up his littlest sister. Rukia does her best to defeat the beast but is seriously wounded. Sensing Ichigo’s high psychic ability, she breaks the rules of her own society and transfers her powers to him but later discovers she gave him too much and is unable to return to Soul Society unless Ichigo ups his Soul Reaper rep to the point he is strong enough to survive giving her powers back.

Loosely speaking Sato adapts the “Soul Reaper Agent” (which is eventually attached to the title during the credits sequence) arc, otherwise known as “Substitute Shinigami”, in which Ichigo gets used to his new life as a Soul Reaper. Condensing Kubo’s considerably lengthy manga to a mere 108 minutes is obviously a difficult exercise necessitating a slight refocussing of Ichigo’s essential character arc as well as that of the feisty Rukia. Sato’s streamlined narrative emphasises Ichigo’s ongoing psychodrama as an adolescent young man attempting to deal with the repressed trauma of his mother’s death and his own feelings of guilt and regret in having unwittingly dragged her into a dangerous situation from which he was unable to protect her. Being “the protector” remains a primary concern of the young Ichigo who withdraws from his family but is determined to protect them from harm. His odd friendship with the similarly conflicted Rukia whose upbringing in the austere surroundings of Soul Society has left her also feeling isolated and friendless (but believing these are both “good” things to be) paradoxically returns him to the real world just he’s turned into an all-powerful monster fighting hero.

Yet the important lesson Ichigo learns is through repeated failures. His mother died saving him, his first fight is ended by a friend, and he is finally redeemed once again by an act of selfless female sacrifice. What Ichigo is supposed to learn, is that he doesn’t always need to be the protector and that being protected is sometimes alright because what’s important is the mutuality of protection, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Meanwhile Rukia, having lost her powers, is perhaps sidelined, rendered both vulnerable and empowered as she becomes Ichigo’s mentor in all things Soul Reaper. This quality of restraint is also how she chooses to make use of her power – something beautifully brought out in Sugisaki’s wonderfully nuanced performance as Rukia’s icy Soul Reaper exterior begins to thaw thanks to her unexpected connection with Ichigo.

Rather than get bogged down in exposition, Sato is content to let the world simply exist with occasional explanations offered in the form of Rukia’s improbably cute rabbit drawings in a motif borrowed from the manga. Sato makes sure to include a number of background players including the strong armed Chad and the lovelorn Orihime (Erina Mano) as well the omniscient shop owner Urahara (Seiichi Tanabe) though their role is strictly to add background colour rather than actively participate in the plot. Despite occasional narrative fudging, Bleach succeeds as a high-octane action blockbuster, by turns slick, ironic, and affecting but always grounded in the real even in excess.


Bleach is currently available to stream worldwide via Netflix.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

River’s Edge (リバーズ・エッジ, Isao Yukisada, 2018)

River's Edge poster 2The ‘90s were a strange time to be a teenager, but then what age isn’t? Isao Yukisada, surprisingly making his first manga adaptation, brings Kyoko Okazaki’s cult hit River’s Edge (リバーズ・エッジ) to the big screen, recreating those days of nihilistic despair in which ordinary teens spiralled out of control in the wake the bubble bursting, watching all their possibilities disappear in a cloud of smoke. Set in 1994, River’s Edge is a post-bubble story but it also takes place in the period immediately before everything started to go wrong. In 1995 there was a devastating earthquake followed by terror in Tokyo and somehow it all seemed so dark – something the kids at the centre of River’s Edge already seem to see as they watch time flow, knowing all that awaits them is yet more emptiness.

Haruna (Fumi Nikaido), a spirited tomboy and latchkey kid living with her busy single-mother, is in a lazy relationship with violent popular boy Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi) though in truth she doesn’t seem to like him very much. One of her major problems with Kannonzaki is that he keeps picking on one particular guy, Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), who is rumoured to be gay. Warned by one of Kannonzaki’s minions, Haruna races off to an abandoned storeroom where she finds Yamada trussed up and naked hidden inside a locker. The pair become friends and he offers to show her his “special treasure” which turns out to be a dead body hidden among the reeds near the edge of the river. Yamada, with another friend, Kozue (Sumire) – a model with an eating disorder, likes to come to the river to gaze at the body in an effort to feel alive.

The ‘90s were full of tales of cruel, emotionless youth torturing itself without mercy and there is something of the era’s insensitivity in the detachment of the central trio. Unable to feel alive, the teens of River’s Edge chase sensation and oblivion through indiscriminate sex, drugs, violence, and self harm but rarely find the kind of fulfilment they so desperately crave. Kannonzaki, the rowdy delinquent, blames his broken home for his lack of connection, making a fierce resentment of a perceived rejection his excuse for his dangerously violent proclivities which run not only to venting his rage on the figure of the gay outsider Yamada but also to drug fuelled rough sex with one of Haruna’s classmates, Rumi (Shiori Doi), who is also chasing agency through sexuality but eventually finds herself cornered in the most terrible of ways.

Yamada is indeed gay, but can hardly say so in the environment in which he lives and so has turned in on himself with a near sociopathic detachment. Having given up on the idea of romantic fulfilment he has resigned himself to loving the object of his affection from afar, happy enough that he exists in the world even if he can never declare himself let alone dare to hope his feelings may be returned. Yamada works as a rent boy in the evenings, going to hotels with middle-aged men for money, but has a fake girlfriend at school, Kanna (Aoi Morikawa), whom he uses as a beard. Kanna, seemingly sweet and oblivious, soon becomes jealous of her boyfriend’s friendship with Haruna and is driven into her own kind of despair by Yamada’s continued coldness.

There’s an especial irony in Yamada’s use of Kanna which is almost certainly not lost on him. These kids, like many before them, abhor the fakery of the adult world but are also unable to embrace their own painful truths. Yamada covers up his sexuality through misleading Kanna, while Kannonzaki is resentful towards his parents who put on a front of marital harmony even after his father ran off with his mistress only to come back a week later with his tail between his legs, and Kozue laments the superficiality of her industry in which everyone falls over themselves to declare something ugly beautiful in order to make themselves feel better. There are no responsible adults here, having ruined the future for their kids they no longer have any kind of moral authority that can offer guidance or support to a jaded generation.

Shooting in the classic 4:3 of a ‘90s TV, Yukisada recreates the narrowness of an era in which the kids struggle to see past themselves, blinkered by their own solipsistic perspective and trapped by the shallowness of their perceptions. Permanently dark, gloomy, and lonely their world is one nihilistic despair in which they feel themselves already dead, living in the half-dug grave of a moribund city giving off its last few puffs of toxic industrial smoke before the whole thing collapses in on itself. In one sense nothing changes, there are no answers or cures for adolescent malaise, but something does eventually seem to shift in the genuine connection formed between two detached outsiders standing on the brink, watching the decay of their era flow past them with melancholy resignation.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Liar and His Lover (カノジョは嘘を愛しすぎてる, Norihiro Koizumi, 2013)

liar and his lover posterDespite the potential raciness of the title, The Liar and his Lover (カノジョは嘘を愛しすぎてる, Kanojo wa Uso wo Aishisugiteru) is another innocent tale of youthful romance adapted from a shojo manga by Kotomi Aoki. As is customary in the genre, the heroine is cute yet earnest, emotionally honest and fiercely clear cut whereas the hero is a broken hearted artist much in the need of the love of a good woman. Innocent and chaste as it all is, Liar also imports the worst aspects of shojo in its unseemly age gap romance between a 25 year old musician and the 16 year old high school girl he picks up on a whim and then apparently falls for precisely because of her uncomplicated goodness.

Aki (Takeru Satoh) introduces himself through a film noir-style voice over in which he details his ongoing malaise. Now a ghost member of the band Crude Play, Aki feels conflicted over his artistic legacy as his carefully crafted tunes are repurposed as disposable idol pop and performed by the friends who were once his high school bandmates. His idol girlfriend, Mari (Saki Aibu), has also been seeing the band’s manager in an effort to get ahead leaving Aki feeling betrayed and devoid of purpose.

Soon after, Aki runs into grocer’s daughter Riko (Sakurako Ohara) who is captivated by the song he’s been humming whilst staring aimlessly out to sea. Aki, feeling mischievous, picks Riko up on a whim. He goes to great pains to remind us that he had no real feelings for her and was only in it for the kicks but a later meeting sets the pair off on a complicated romance.

Aki becomes the “liar” of the title when he gives Riko a false name – Shinya, the name of the bassist who has replaced him in his own band. Despite the supposed purity of music as a means of communication, it is, in many ways, another lie. When Aki and his bandmates were offered a contract straight after high school they were overjoyed but it was short lived. Listening to their demo tape, Aki spots the problem right away – it’s not them playing, they’ve been replaced by polished studio session musicians. Saddened, Aki quits the band and is replaced by a ringer but continues to write songs both for Crude Play and other artists while the band’s manager gets the credit.

Music conveys and complicates the romance as it brings the two together but also threatens to keep them apart. Riko, a Crude Play fan, does not know Aki’s true identity and is disappointed when he says he hates girls who sing because she herself is in a high school band. Sure enough, the band get scouted by odious producer Takagi (Takashi Sorimachi) and handed to the villainous Shinya (Masataka Kubota) who threatens to do the same thing to them as they did to Crude Play. Riko, like Aki, is a musical purist but also wants to make her rock star dreams come true.

Like many a shojo heroine, Riko is convinced only she sees the “real” Aki, pushing past his angry, distant persona to a deeper layer of sensitive vulnerability. This being shojo she is more or less right, as Aki tells us in his voice over detailing just how irritating it seems to be for him that he’s falling for this unusually perceptive young woman. Despite realising that almost everything Aki has told her has been a lie (intentional or otherwise), Riko ignores his duplicity precisely because she thinks she already knows the “real” Aki through the “truth” of his music.

Takagi, the band’s unscrupulous manager, prattles on about music not mattering if it doesn’t sell, avowing that it’s all a matter or marketing anyway. Aki’s central concern is the misuse of his artistic legacy, that his art form has been stripped of its meaning and repackaged for mass market consumption. The band is “fake”, a manufactured image based on the ruins of the truth. Aki believes himself to be the same – an empty vessel, devoid of meaning or purpose. His love of music is only reawakened by Riko’s innocent enthusiasm and her surprising promise of “protection”.

The conflict is one of essential truth betrayed by music in all senses of the word as it is used and misused by the various forces in play. Unlike most shojo adaptations, Aki leads the way with Riko a vaguer figure ready to absorb the projected personalities of the target audience but the central dynamic is still one of goodhearted girl and broody boy. The unseemly age gap issue is entirely ignored, as the troubling undercurrent of Riko’s most attractive quality being her all encompassing pureness, undermining the otherwise charming, wistful comedy of the innocent musical romance.


Original trailer (English subtitles)