Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Yasuzo Masumura, 1978)

Love Suicides at Sonezaki posterAfter spending the vast majority of his career at Daiei, Yasuzo Masumura found himself at something of a loose end when the studio went bankrupt in the early ‘70s. Working as a freelance director for hire he made the best of what was available to him, even contributing an instalment in former Daiei star Shinataro Katsu’s series of period exploitation films, Hanzo the Razor: The Snare. There is, however, a particular shift in the famously fearless director’s point of view in these later films as his erotically charged grotesquery begins to soften into something more like an aching sadness in the crushing sense of defeat and impossibility which seems to consume each of his heroes. Maintaining the contemporary groove of Lullaby of the Earth – an uncharacteristically new age inflected tale of a naive orphan from the mountains tricked into the sex trade through a desire to see the sea, Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Sonezaki Shinju, AKA Love Suicides at Sonezaki / Double Suicides of Sonezaki, Double Suicide in Sonezaki) is a melancholy exploration of the limitations of love as a path to freedom in which the demands of a conformist, hierarchical society erode the will of those who refuse to compromise their personal integrity on its behalf until they finally accept that there is no way in which they can possibility continue to live inside it.

Ohatsu (Meiko Kaji), the geisha, has fallen in love with a client – Tokubei (Ryudo Uzaki), who is a humble man taken in by an uncle with the intention that he take over his soy-sauce shop. No longer the relationship between a prostitute and a customer, Ohatsu refuses to take Tokubei’s money which begins to cause friction with her “master” at the brothel to whom she still owes a significant debt. Tokubei does not possess the resources to redeem her, nor is he ever likely to. Matters are forced to a crisis point when each of them is offered what would usually be thought the best possible option for their respected social paths. Tokubei is offered the hand in marriage of his aunt’s niece and the chance to set up his own shop in Edo but it isn’t what he wants because he wants Ohatsu. Similarly, Ohatsu is sought by a wealthy client who wants to buy her and take her home as a mistress – she tries to refuse but has to play along given her relative lack of agency, longing to be with Tokubei or no one at all. Tokubei is thrown out by his uncle for refusing the marriage and finds himself the difficult position of having to reclaim dowry money from his greedy step-mother only to be conned out of it by an unscrupulous “friend”, Kuheiji (Isao Hashimoto), who later frames him to make it look like Tokubei cheated him. Beaten and ostracised, Tokubei sees no escape from his shame other than through an “honourable” death and Ohatsu sees no life for herself without her love.

Inspired by Chikamatsu’s world of double suicides, Masumura adopts a deliberately theatrical method of expression in which the cast perform in a heightened and rhythmic style intended to evoke the classical stage of Japan. Yet he also makes a point of scoring the film with contemporary folk and jazz as if this wasn’t such an old story after all. Times may be more permissive, but perhaps there’s no more freedom in love than there ever was and the pure dream of happiness in romantic fulfilment no more possible.

The forces that keep Tokubei and Ohatsu apart are only partly those unique to the feudal world – debt bondages and filial obligations being much weakened if not altogether absent in the post-war society, but are almost entirely due to their lack of individual agency and impossibility of freeing themselves from the various systems which oppress them. Tokubei is a poor boy from the country whose father has died. He has been taken in by an uncle and trained up as an heir – something he is grateful for and has worked hard to repay, but will not sacrifice his individual desire in order to accept the path laid down for him.

Ohatsu, in a more difficult position, is oppressed not only by her poverty but by her gender. Sold to a brothel she is subject to debt bondage and viewed only as a commodity, never as a person. When she intervenes to stop Tokubei being beaten by Kuheiji’s thugs, her patron panics but only because he will lose his money if she is “damaged”. Similarly, the brothel owner complains for the same reason after some ruckus at the inn. Neither of them are very much bothered about Ohatsu in herself but solely in her functionality as tool for making money or making merry respectively.

“Money is better, money means everything” claims Tokubei’s angry step-mother and she certainly seems to have a point as both of our lovers struggle through their lack of it. In the end it’s not so much money but “shame” which condemns them to a sad and lonely death as they realise they can no longer live with themselves in this cruel and unforgiving world which refuses them all hope or possibility for the future. An honourable man, Tokubei cannot live with such slander – men die for honour, and women for love, as Ohatsu puts it. Ironically enough there was a chance for them but it came too late as Kuheiji’s machinations begin to blow back on him and Tokubei’s uncle begins to regret his overhasty disowning of his nephew, but the world is still too impure for such pure souls and so they cannot stay.

Unlike some of Masumura’s earlier work, there’s a sadness and an innocence implicit in Double Suicide at Sonezaki that leaves defiance to one side only to pick it up again as the lovers decry their love too pure to survive in an impure world. The world does not deserve their love, and so they decide to leave it, freeing themselves from the “shame” of living through the purifying ritual of death. Softer and sadder, the message is not so far from the director’s earlier assertions save for being bleaker, leaving no space for love in an oppressive and conformist society which demands a negation of the soul as the price for acceptance into its world of cold austerity. 


Opening (no subtitles)

Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Kazuyuki Izutsu, 1984)

fine with occasional murders posterIn Japan’s ailing late ‘70s cinema market, studios were taking extreme decisions to get the public away from their TV sets and back into movie houses, yet one enterprising would-be media mogul had another idea. Haruki Kadokawa, a man with a publishing house and cinematic ambitions hit on a then innovative marketing strategy which amounted to a perfect storm for his own particular capabilities. Amassing a small stable of idols, he resurrected the studio system to produce a steady stream of youth movies adapting novels he also published and featuring title songs which his idols sang and he released on his record label. Hitting their heyday in the early to mid-1980s, Kadokawa’s idol films are a perfect time capsule of their pre-bubble setting in which, unlike the “seishun eiga” of twenty years before, upperclass young girls solved crimes and defied authority all whilst remaining prim, elegant and innocent. Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Hare, Tokidoki Satsujin) is a prime example of this gentle yet somehow dangerous world as its heroine returns home from studying abroad only to become embroiled in a conspiracy lodged firmly within her own home.

As the film opens, a middle-aged man and woman pay a nighttime visit to the site of a new factory, reminiscing about their youth and the small soap business they started thirty years ago which is now a full scale plastics film. The woman catches sight of someone leaving and stops to wish him goodnight only to suddenly wonder why he’s there in the first place. The reason becomes apparent when she steps forward a little and discovers the body of a young woman lying against her fence post. As if that weren’t worrying enough, factory owner Mrs. Kitazato (Mitsuyo Asaka) then starts getting threatening letters telling her she must go to the police and confirm that an innocent man is the killer or her daughter, Kanako (Noriko Watanabe), studying overseas, will be in danger. Mrs. Kitazato frets and worries but goes along with the killer’s demands to save her daughter only to be confronted with the dead body of the patsy as it lands right at her feet after being thrown from a police station window.

Suffering from a heart condition, Mrs. Kitazato remains unwell until Kanako comes home but then lasts only long enough to impart two important secrets – one being that the man Kanako assumed was her father may not have been, and secondly the whole story with the threatening letters and her belief that they were sent by someone in the family from whom she received a New Year card written in the same handwriting.

As usual Kanako is left to deal with all of this on her own, though slightly less usually remains within her own family home for the vast majority of the picture. Paid a visit by the police, Kanako comes into contact with their prime suspect in the first murder, Kamimura (Yosuke Tagawa) – a young man who had been a high school friend of the victim and had given her a place to stay while she was trying to escape her career as a hotel hooker. Kamimura becomes Kanako’s innocent love interest as she hides him in the secret room her mother had built behind a dresser in the dining room. Together the pair try to investigate the strange goings on in the Kitazato household whilst also exploring their very different backgrounds. 

Like many of Kadokawa’s idol movies (often adapted from the novels of Jiro Akagawa) the setting is both dark and hopefully innocent as Kanako is burdened with the knowledge that someone close to her is a murderer but faces her situation with cheerful resilience and determination. Whilst pursuing her spiky relationship with Kamimura, she’s also being haunted by the spectre of an arranged marriage to the dreadful son of a business associate, Masahiko (Akihiro Shimizu), who attempts to rape her with her mother’s body still still lying on the bed in the same room, and is also having an affair with their maid, Mari (Mariko Miike). Masahiko is also revealed as a prime suspect in the murders when another body is discovered in the living room with Masahiko standing red handed over it. The murder scenes (and there are more than you’d expect), are nasty, bloody and violent. Despite the innocence of Kanako’s wide open world, misogynistic killers lurk round every corner as do corrupt businessmen, untrustworthy servants, and enemies masquerading as friends.

As darks as it gets, the tone is always one of irony filled with bumbling policemen who form an odd double act in their humorous black and forth, running jokes about hard contact lenses and improbably large sandwiches, and the general whimsy of a young man’s dream of building a real flying bicycle. Despite being one of Kadokawa’s new “Sannin Musume” (alongside Hiroko Yakusushimaru and Tomoyo Harada), Noriko Watanabe played fewer leading roles than her two compatriots. Fine with Occasional Murders (released in the same year as Someday, Someone Will Be Killed), is her first big idol movie lead for which she also sings the theme song which has an almost identical title. She is, however, the archetypal Kadokawa heroine – steadfast, strong, confident, kind, and noble, calmly solving the mystery behind her own mother’s death mere days after losing her, figuring out that poor boys are probably OK, and that awful CEOs and their sons will always be awful. Valuable lessons indeed for increasingly wealthy 1980s teens. 


TV Commercial

And the song itself which has the same title as the movie only the last two characters are read differently – Hare, Tokidoki Kirumi

Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2017)

hamon posterConventional wisdom states it’s better not to get involved with the yakuza. According to Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ Hamon: Futari no Yakubyogami), the same goes for sleazy film execs who can prove surprisingly slippery when the occasion calls. Based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s Naoki Prize winning novel and directed by Shotaro Kobayashi who also adapted the same author’s Gold Rush into a successful WOWWOW TV Series, Hamon: Yakuza Boogie is a classic buddy movie in which a down at heels slacker forms an unlikely, grudging yet mutually dependent relationship with a low-level gangster.

Ninomiya (Yu Yokoyama), a classic slacker, makes ends meet by acting as a kind of liaison officer between the normal world and the yakuza one. His contact, Kuwahara (Kuranosuke Sasaki), is a scary looking guy but as yakuza go not so bad to work with. Following the government’s organised crime crackdown, Ninomiya finds himself at more of a loose end and so when an elderly film director, Koshimizu (Isao Hashizume), comes to him and asks to meet a yakuza first hand, Ninomiya sets up a meeting. Yakuza and movies can be a dangerous mix but somehow or other Koshimizu manages to charm the pair and even gets Kuwahara’s boss, Shimada (Jun Kunimura), to invest some of his own money.

Unfortunately, this is when things start to go wrong. Koshimizu’s pretty “daughter” is really his mistress (as Kuwahara suspected) and the wily old bugger has taken off for the casino paradise of Macao with both the beautiful woman and suitcase full of yakuza dough. Kuwahara is now in a lot of trouble and ropes in Ninomiya to help him sort it out but in their pursuit of Koshimizu they eventually find themselves caught up in a series of turf wars.

Yakuza comedies have a tendency towards unexpected darkness but Hamon’s key feature is its almost childish innocence as Ninomiya and Kuwahara go about their business with relatively few genuinely life threatening incidents. Though the pair bicker and argue with Ninomiya always secretly afraid of his big gangster buddy and Kuwahara fed up with his nerdy friend’s lack of know how, the relationship they’ve developed is an intensely co-dependent one which fully supports the slightly ironic “no me without you” message. Eventually growing into each other, Ninomiya and Kuwahara move increasingly into the other’s territory before finally re-encountering each other on more equal footing.

These are less rabid killers than a bunch of guys caught up in a silly game. Shady film director Koshimizu turns out to be some sort of cartoon hero, perpetually making a sprightly and unexpected escape despite his advanced age while the toughened gangsters hired to keep him locked up find themselves one hostage short time after time. Ninomiya’s worried cousin Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) keeps trying to talk him into a more ordered way of life which doesn’t involve so much hanging round with scary looking guys in suits, but Ninomiya is reluctant to leave the fringes of the underworld even if he seems afraid for much of the time. Kuwahara is a yakuza through and through, or so he thinks. This latest saga has left him in an embarrassing position with his bosses, not to mention the diplomatic incident with a rival gang, all of which threatens his underworld status and thereby essential identity.

Still, all we’re talking about here is having a little more time for solo karaoke, not being bundled into the boot of a car and driven to a remote location. Filled with movie references and slapstick humour this is a yakuza tale inspired by classic cinematic gangsters rather than their real world counterparts but it still has a few things to say about human nature in general outside of the fictional. An odd couple, Ninomiya and Kuwahara couldn’t be more different but besides the fact they don’t quite get along, they make a good team. No me without you indeed, solo stakeouts are boring, even if you do bicker and fuss the whole time it’s good to know there’s someone who’ll always come back for you (especially if you tell them not to) ready to take the wheel.


Hamon: Yakuza Boogie was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Injured Angels (傷だらけの天使, Junji Sakamoto, 1997)

injured-angelsDespite having started his career in the action field with the boxing film Dotsuitarunen and an entry in the New Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, Junji Sakamoto has increasingly moved into gentler, socially conscious films including the Thai set Children of the Dark and the Toei 60th Anniversary prestige picture A Chorus of Angels. Injured Angels (傷だらけの天使, Kizudarake no Tenshi) marries both of aspects of his career but leans towards the softer side as it finds genial private detective Mitsuru (Etsushi Toyokawa) accepting a request from a dying man to ensure the safe passage of his young son to the boy’s mother in Northern Japan.

Reluctantly taking on an assignment to question the last remaining tenant of an office block, Mitsuru discovers the man inside already mortally wounded. During their conversation, the man offers him all the money he has left to take his young son to his estranged wife, currently living in a small town in the North of Japan. Mitsuru doesn’t really want this kind of hassle but feels sorry for the man and his son and eventually decides to make sure the boy, Hotaru, gets to someone who can take of him. The pair set off on a kind of road trip eventually joined by Mitsuru’s partner Hisashi (Claude Maki) meeting friends old and new along the way.

Inspired by the 1970s TV series of the same title, Injured Angels adopts an oddly jokey tone throughout as Mitsuru has various strange adventures whilst trying to guide a small child to someone willing to take him in. At one stage, the film goes off on a long and improbable tangent in which Mitsuru runs into an old friend who is currently wearing a lucha libre mask “for work”. The pair then board the bus with the wrestlers before Mitsuru himself ends up in the ring. Though fun, the sequence has little to do with the ongoing plot other than adding to the already absurd atmosphere.

Predictably, when Mitsuru reaches the address he’s been given, Hotaru’s mother has already moved on but even when they eventually find her, the reaction is not the one you’d expect. Soon to be married again, Hotaru’s mother (Kimiko Yo) is not keen to resume custody of her son (or rather, her husband to be has no desire to raise another man’s child and even goes so far as to use physical violence on Mitsuru to show the strength of his feeling). Hotaru starts to grow attached to the two detectives who are probably giving him the most normal kind of family life that he has known for a very longtime. The guys seem to know they can’t keep him indefinitely and are intent on finding another relative but the mini family they’ve formed may be painful to break up.

While all of this is going on, Mitsuru also has a series of meetings with a woman from Tokyo, Eiko (Tomoyo Harada), who keeps bumping into him. Though an obvious attraction develops, Eiko is also fleeing her own kind of trouble and the pair seem content to leave things up to fate and possible drinks in Tokyo at an unspecified point in time, but this oddly integrated plot strand fails to have a real impact within the narrative as a whole. It does, however, add to Mitsuru’s ongoing existential dilemma as he begins to reexamine his life and relationships after bonding with Hotaru. Ultimately he opts for asking his partner, Hiasashi, to move in with him when they get back to Tokyo but at the same time Mitsuru seems to know he may be headed for another destination entirely.

This tonal strangeness is a serious weakness where would expect a more nihilistic atmosphere as Mitsuru’s journey begins to take shape but the inconsequential humour and mildly absurdist approach continues right until the anticlimactic ending. Perhaps feeling a need to recreate the feeling of the TV series, Sakamoto fails to reconcile these differing levels of seriousness into a convincing whole in allowing for the kind of light and breezy action in which everything is definitely going to be OK by next week’s episode. For what’s actually a look at neglected, abandoned children coupled with intense friendships and romantic dilemmas, the bouncy, ridiculous tone is an odd fit and robs the piece of its dramatic weight. Nevertheless, despite the structural problems, Injured Angels is often a fairly enjoyable, if odd, character drama even it ultimately fails to amount to very much as a whole.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Grasshopper (グラスホッパー, Tomoyuki Takimoto, 2015)

grasshopperThe best revenge is living well, but the three damaged individuals at the centre of Tomoyuki Takimoto’s Grasshopper (グラスホッパー) might need some space before they can figure that out. Reuniting with Brain Man star Toma Ikuta, Takimoto moves away from the more overtly sci-fi elements but maintains a level of everyday strangeness that adds weight to this standard B-movie affair. A revenge thriller in which revenge itself is shown to be a fallacy, Grasshopper manages to mix its grimy grind house violence aesthetic with an oddly hopeful view of human nature.

One tragedy connects three very different people. Halloween, Shibuya – a crazed man at the wheel of a 4×4 receives a phone call instructing him to “crush all those bugs”, because he’s “the saviour”. The man obeys and plows into the holiday revellers crushing them like insects under his wheels. One victim, Yuriko (Haru), who died pushing a child out of harm’s way happened to be the fiancée of middle school science teacher, Suzuki (Toma Ikuta). Revisiting the spot where she fell, Suzuki unexpectedly receives a letter informing him that the events which occurred at Halloween were not as straightforward as the media asserts and he should set about investigating the father and son working at “Fraulein”. His mind burning with thoughts of vengeance, Suzuki abandons his old life and launches himself headlong into the criminal underworld in search of answers.

Meanwhile, the evil kingpins at the centre of things have sent their ace hitman with a difference, Kujira (Tadanobu Asano), to silence a troublesome reporter. Kujira’s unusual assassination method involves a kind of hypnosis in which he forces his victims to acknowledge their darkest sins and eventually commit suicide. Though this sounds like the ideal plan for evading detection, the gangsters are nervous that Kujira has learned to much through his near death conversations with his targets and send a duo of slightly less competent killers on his trail. This leads us to our third strand – sociopathic blade wielding killer, Semi (Ryosuke Yamada), and his stray cat rescuing handler, Iwanishi (Jun Murakami).

Suzuki finds himself out of his depth in the murky, crime ridden underworld. Talking to yet another hitman he crosses paths with, Suzuki is offered the grasshopper analogy which lies at the centre of the film. Pusher (Hidetaka Yoshioka) tells him that unlike regular migratory locusts which are generally green, there is a mutant breed which undergoes a “swarm phase” in which their wings grown darker and longer, becoming ever more destructive in the quest to feed themselves in a crowded environment. People, Pusher claims, are no different. The film is filled with these mutant insects, crushing their fellow humans like roaches under boots, yet there’s something to be said for the migratory guys who keep moving and oppose the mutant breed through stealth and cunning.

Each of the three men is looking for a kind of revenge even if it’s ultimately self inflicted. Unusual hitman Kujira has hit the assassin’s version of angel wings in that he can see the faces of all the men and women he has killed, quite literally haunting his every move and offering a running commentary on his life. Setting out for vengeance against the men who’ve ordered his death, Kujira knows he’s nearing the end of his path yet before he gets there he will have to face off against Semi with whom he has no particular quarrel despite having just given Semi a reason to seek vengeance against him. Semi’s quest for revenge is pointed at Kujira but their mutual need for satisfaction will destroy each of them whilst also bringing them together as equals.

Everything prior to the fateful Halloween is bathed in golden light where warm colours predominate in Suzuki’s fond memories of his fiancée, but everything after is dark, reds and blacks tinged with insect green as grasshoppers swarm like harbingers of a great evil. Revenge itself is constantly frustrated and ultimately swept away from each party by shadowy forces secretly working against the darkness. Nothing is quite as it seems, no one is quite telling the truth. Yet as deep as the original conspiracy goes, the counter conspiracy consistently exceeds it.

Filled with impressive action sequences from Semi’s well choreographed balletic knife displays to large scale crowd scenes and good old fashioned fist fights, Grasshopper owns its down and dirty origins but reinvigorates them with a degree of modern sophistication. Yuriko, a soup chef, insists that the true secret ingredient in her cooking is genuine emotion – that this is what’s left behind when everything else is gone. Suzuki could choose to dive inside his cocoon of unresolved vengeance for the rest of his life but that would not have been what Yuriko wanted for him. In this anti-revenge drama, vengeance is the fallacy that detracts from the truth – that the ultimate form of revenge is learning to live with the past rather than wasting time settling scores.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Antenna (アンテナ, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2004)

AntennaScarring, both literal and mental, is at the heart of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s third feature, Antenna (アンテナ). Though it’s ironic that indentation should be the focus of a film whose title refers to a sensitive protuberance, Kumakiri’s adaptation of a novel by Randy Taguchi is indeed about feeling a way through. Anchored by a standout performance from Ryo Kase, Antenna is a surreal portrait of grief and repressed guilt as a family tragedy threatens to consume all of those left behind.

Philosophy student Yuichiro (Ryo Kase) is currently working on a project which aims to reevaluate how pain is felt through attempting to identify with the pain of others. To do this he plans to investigate the S&M scene but before he can get started, a painful episode from his past is reawakened by current events. Yuichiro’s younger sister, Marie, has been missing since failing to return home from school one day when she was only eight years old. When news reports appear that another girl around the same age has been held captive in a nearby apartment complex since around the time Marie went missing hopes are sparked only to be dashed. Still no closer to discovering what happened to his younger sister, Yuichiro carries the guilt of having been unable to protect her as well as the inability to remember exactly what happened on that fateful day.

Matters come to a head when Yuichiro’s younger brother (their mother was pregnant with him at the time of the disappearance) turns up on his doorstep. Yuya (Daisuke Kizaki) repeatedly claims that Marie is about to return as he can feel her through his “antenna” (“like the horns of a snail”) and has a full scale fit aboard the train back. Things being what they are, the doctors advise Yuichiro to spend sometime at home as his distracted mother is no shape to cope with Yuya’s increasingly odd behaviour. A dutiful son, Yuichiro does what he can for what’s left of his family but his childhood home is far from a good environment for him.

Soon after Marie’s disappearance, both Yuichiro’s father and his uncle Shige who’d lived with them both died, leaving only Yuichiro’s mother and baby brother behind them. Unable to come to terms with Marie’s disappearance, Yuichiro’s mother has found religion, hosting Buddhist prayer sessions at the house and bringing in Feng Shui experts to try and heal the lingering sense of tragedy still present in the house. She has also become convinced that her second son, Yuya, is in fact the returned spirit of her daughter, raising him as a girl and dressing him in Marie’s clothes. This may explain some of Yuya’s conflicting behaviour and repeated insistence that his sister is “returning” in so much as something of her personality has become the ghost in his machine.

Once back in the house, Yuichiro’s mental state becomes ever more precarious as his memories of his sister’s disappearance begin to flicker to the surface. Overcome with repressed guilt, Yuichiro once again begins self harming by slashing his chest with a box cutter. Easing the mental pain with the physical, Yuirichiro finally begins to address some of his long buried trauma through repeated meetings with the dominatrix he was interviewing for his project. Undergoing a kind of S&M lead sex therapy, Yuichiro is slowly guided back through his memories to events he was too young to understand at the time and only now is fully able to comprehend.

Throughout his flashbacks Yuichiro is always sidelined, perched behind barriers or shut away by closed doors as the adults argue and loudly discuss things they claim are not suitable for children to hear. Crucial moments find him peaking through keyholes and seeing something he knew was not quite right but without knowing why. These incomplete and incomprehensible memories are the ones which haunt him, unresolvable but still trailing the guilt behind them of having seen yet done nothing.

Told in a slight non-linear fashion through frequent flashbacks, the film adopts a dreamlike tone and surreal imagery to make sense of the more extreme elements. The final sequence itself is either a hallucination or a dream that takes on a magical realist quality as the past is finally allowed to drift away from its lodging place, freeing up a space for light to return to the otherwise darkened house.

An intense exploration of buried trauma and childhood guilt, Antenna is a dark tale but does offer a glimmer of hope after all its hellish meandering. Kumakikri keeps things straightforward but his considered compositions have a strange kind of beauty despite the ugliness of the narrative. Embracing a number a taboo subjects coupled with strong emotion and explicit content, Antenna is not an easy watch but rewarding for those who can brave its extremes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2012)

ninkyo helperIn old yakuza lore, the “ninkyo” way, the outlaw stands as guardian to the people. Defend the weak, crush the strong. Of course, these are just words and in truth most yakuza’s aims are focussed in quite a different direction and no longer extend to protecting the peasantry from bandits or overbearing feudal lords (quite the reverse, in fact). However, some idealistic young men nevertheless end up joining the yakuza ranks in the mistaken belief that they’re somehow going to be able to help people, however wrongheaded and naive that might be.

The hero of Hiroshi Nishitani’s Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Ninkyo Helper) is just one of these world weary idealists turned cynics. We find him working a low rent convenience store job where he fills the shop with the kind of intensity that only a disappointed former yakuza can generate. Hikoichi (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) was trying to make a go of things in the regular world, but when a sad little old man comes in with armed robbery on his to do list, Hikoichi shows his yakuza stripes by easily beating him down in front of his stunned colleague.

This might have earned him some brownie points at work, but overcome by pity for this pathetic old man reduced to robbing corner shops for petty change, he gives him the cash and tells him to run. The police soon turn up and arrest them both – during the robbery Hikochi’s colourful tattoos were caught on security camera and no one wants a yakuza working here, even if he did volunteer to pay back the tiny sum of money the old guy got from his own wages.

Meeting up in prison, Hikoichi and the armed robber eventually become friends and after his release, Hikoichi ends up in the old guy’s home town where he joins his former clan as an enforcer. Extremely bitter by this point, Hikoichi has decided to play the modern yakuza game to the max so when he finds out his assignment is running a dodgy “care” home which gets its residents by extorting old people through outrageous loans which send them bankrupt, he only briefly pauses.

The idea of a yakuza running a care home is a strange one. The Uminoneko residential care facility is far from what one would want from a old people’s home – there are no doctors, or even carers, the entire home is run by one nurse, herself an elderly woman who got her nurse’s certification and eldercare qualifications back in 1943!

With a rapidly ageing population, eldercare is a big topic in Japan as the birth rate has progressively fallen while lifespans have increased leaving many older people without family to look after them. With the nature of the family unit also changing, it’s become much harder to care for elderly relatives at home especially if they need around the clock attention. There are simply not enough facilities available to cope with the increasing needs of the older generation leaving families struggling to cope and social services overwhelmed. It’s not surprising that the yakuza have picked up on this as a growth area.

When Hikoichi arrives at the Uminoneko facility, which is just really a prefab shed with some futons in it, he finds a hellish place filled with unstimulated old people left on their beds to die. The place is filthy, and about the only attention the guests receive is the occasional offering of food to keep them alive so that the clan can keep claiming their pensions and welfare payments. Though Hikoichi goes along with this to begin with, it’s not long before his idealism rears its ugly head and he hits on the idea of reforming Uminoneko by turning it into a kind of old person’s commune in which the residents themselves will help out with the running of the place. What was a sad and gloomy prison of exploitation suddenly transforms as the older generation rediscover a place that they can belong, working together to build their own community. However, this of course means less money for the clan and more trouble for Hikoichi.

The clan aren’t his only problems as the town also has a progressive mayor who made a commitment to wipe out organised crime and turn the area into a tourist hotspot with a special focus on caring for the older generation. Teruo (Teruyuki Kagawa) has is own stuff going on which again causes a problem for Hikioichi as he also has a long standing crush on the older yakuza’s daughter, now a single mother with two young children and a mother of her own with senile dementia who needs expensive medical care. Yoko (Narumi Yasuda) has a grudge against yakuza after enduring decades of stigma and eventual abandonment by her father but is willing to deal with them if it will enable her to help her mother. Predictably she begins to develop a better understanding of her father as she bonds with Hikochi and warms to his noble tough guy ways.

Directed by Hiroshi Nishitani and inspired by a TV show (though functioning as a standalone movie), Beautiful World is a finely plotted drama which explores both the roles of the ageing population and eldercare explosion in Japan, and the conflicting role of the yakuza who seek to exploit those who are arguably the weakest in society. Hikoichi makes for a very Takakura-like, brooding presence as his innate idealism and desire to help those around him conflict with his experiences as a yakuza which teach him to distrust everyone and expect betrayal and exploitation at every turn. Resolving in an unconventional and unexpected way, this otherwise mainstream, if  beautifully photographed, drama develops into one of the more interesting character driven pieces of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: