After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

Afterlife posterAt the end of your life, if someone asks you what it all meant, what will you say? It’s a question that can’t be answered until after you’ve turned the final page, but there is an idea at least that death brings clarity, rendering all things simple from a strange perspective of subjective objectivity. This is the central idea behind Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta existential fantasy After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Wonderful Life) in which the recently deceased are given seven days grace in order to decide on their most precious memory so that a small collection of clerks working in an old-fashioned government building can “recreate” it through the medium of cinema, allowing a departing soul to take refuge in a single memory preserved in eternity.

Heaven’s waiting room, as it turns out, is apparently located inside the ghost of the Japanese studio system. The recently deceased give their names at the door and patiently wait for their turn with their allotted case manager whose job it is to offer after life counselling designed to bring them to the point of boiling their existence down to the single moment which defines it within the arbitrary three day time limit which gives the crew the time to put their memories into pre-production complete with old-fashioned stage sets and studio-era special effects.

The purpose of all of this is not is exactly clear, though a clue is perhaps offered when we discover that the clerks are able to order VHS tapes of the entirety of their subjects’ lives in the event that they are struggling to think of relevant moments in an existence which seems to have disappointed them. The point is not so much the literal truth of the memory, be it accurate or not, but its sensation and the transience of feeling which is then re-experienced through the medium of cinema, captured in celluloid as momentary permanence.

Consequently, the chosen moments are necessarily often ones of stillness which promise the kind of peace and serenity one is supposed to find in death. The moments are ones of silent togetherness, of natural beauty, of childish innocence, or unbridled joy but is each is perhaps the key to unlocking the enigma of a life and as such is a solution which points towards a question. One older gentleman, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), finds himself unable to choose. He views his life as the epitome of mediocrity and can find nothing in it that seems worthy of “eternity”. Watching the videotapes of his life, he sees himself as a young man vowing to make a mark and is desperate to find some evidence that he lived but like many does not find it. His life was happy by virtue of being not unhappy for all that it was perhaps unfulfilled but only through communing with himself after death is he able to reclaim the memory of his late wife (Kyoko Kagawa) with whom he never quite bonded in mild jealousy of her lingering attachment to her first love who fell in war.

This being a film from 1998 and mostly featuring those in their ‘70s and above, the war looms large from painful battlefield memories of fear and starvation to unexpected reunions and the joy of simple pleasures found even in the midst of hardship. The clerks who died young may look on in envy of Watanabe’s “ordinary” life in the knowledge of all they were denied, while others mourn for a future they will never see. Yet there are shorter sad stories here too from a high school girl (Sayaka Yoshino) whose original choice of a day out at Disneyland is deemed too prosaic, to a middle-aged bar hostess (Kazuko Shirakawa) reminiscing about an old lover who let her down, and a rebellious young punk (Yusuke Iseya) who flat out refuses to choose because he feels that is the best way to accept responsibility. Forced into a reconsideration of his own life, even a clerk is eventually moved by the realisation that even if he had previously believed his existence devoid of meaningful moments he has achieved something by featuring in those of others and is therefore also a meaningful part of a considered whole.

Making the most of his documentary background, interspersing “genuine” memories among the imagined, Koreeda’s heavenly fantasy is one firmly tied to the ground where seasons still pass, time still flows, and the relentlessly efficient march of bureaucracy continues on apace undaunted by the presence of death. Death may give life meaning, but it’s living that’s the prize in all of its glorious complexity filled with both beauty and sadness but always with light even in the darkest corners.


After Life screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Birds Without Names (彼女がその名を知らない鳥たち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2017)

Birds Without Names poster“Human beings are lonely by nature”, a statement offered by someone who could well think he’s lying but accidentally tells the truth in Kazuya Shiraishi’s Birds Without Names (彼女がその名を知らない鳥たち, Kanojo ga Sono Na wo Shiranai Toritachi). Loneliness, of an existential more than physical kind, eats away at the souls of those unable to connect with what it is they truly want until they eventually destroy themselves through explosive acts of irrepressible rage or, perhaps, of love. The bad look good and the good look bad but appearances can be deceptive, as can memory, and when it comes to the truths of emotional connection the sands are always shifting.

Towako (Yu Aoi), an unmarried woman in her 30s, does not work and spends most of her time angrily ringing up customer service departments to complain about things in the hope of getting some kind of compensation. She lives with an older man, Jinji (Sadao Abe) – a construction worker, who is completely devoted to her and provides both financial and emotional support despite Towako’s obvious contempt for him. Referring to him as a “slug”, Towako consistently rejects Jinji’s amorous advances and resents his, in her view, overly controlling behaviour in which he rings her several times a day and keeps general tabs on her whereabouts.

Depressed and on edge, Towako’s life takes a turn when she gets into a dispute with an upscale jewellery store over a watch repair and ends up beginning an affair with the handsome salesman who visits her apartment with a selection of possible replacements. Around the same time, Towako rings an ex-boyfriend’s number in a moment of weakness only to reconsider and hangup right away. The next day a policeman arrives and informs her that they’ve been monitoring her ex’s phone because his wife reported him missing five years ago and he’s not been seen since.

Towako views Jinji’s behaviour as possessive and his continuing devotion pathetic in his eagerness to debase himself for her benefit. Her sister Misuzu (Mukku Akazawa), however, thinks Jinji is good for her and berates Towako for her ill treatment of him. Despite the fact that Towako’s relationship with her ex, Kurosaki (Yutaka Takenouchi), ended eight years previously, Misuzu is paranoid Towako is still seeing him on the sly and will eventually try to get back together with him. Misuzu does not want this to happen because Kurosaki beat Towako so badly she landed in hospital, but despite this and worse, Towako cannot let the spectre of Kurosaki and the happiness promised in their earliest days go. She continues to pine for him, looking for other Kurosakis in the form of other handsome faces selling false promises and empty words.

Mizushima (Mukku Akazawa), the watch salesman, is just Towako’s type – something which Jinji seems to know when he violently pushes a Mizushima look-alike off a busy commuter train just because he saw the way Towako looked at him. Daring to kiss her when she abruptly starts crying while looking at his replacement watches, Mizushima spins her a line about an unhappy marriage and his craving for solitude which he sates through solo travel – most recently to a remote spot in the desert and cave they call an underground womb. Mizushima describes himself as a lonely soul and claims to have found a kindred spirit in Towako whose loneliness it was that first sparked his interest. Like all the men in the picture, Mizushima is not all he seems and there is reason to disbelieve much of what he says but he may well be correct in his assessment of Towako’s need for impossible connections with emotionally unavailable men who only ever cause her pain.

It just so happens that Kurosaki’s apparent disappearance happened around the time Towako began dating Jinji. Seeing as his behaviour is often controlling, paranoid and, as seen in the train incident, occasionally violent, Towako begins to suspect he may be involved in the mysterious absence of her one true love. Then again, Towako may well need protecting from herself and perhaps, as Misuzu seems to think, Jinji is just looking out for her. The deeper Jinji’s devotion descends, the more Towako’s contempt for him grows but the suspicion that he may be capable of something far darker provokes a series of strange and unexpected reactions in the already unsteady Towako.

A dark romance more than noirish mystery,  Birds Without Names takes place in a gloomy Osaka soaked in disappointment and post-industrial grime where the region’s distinctive accent loses its sometimes soft, comedic edge for a relentless bite in which words reject the connection they ultimately seek. Rejection, humiliation, degradation, and a hopeless sense of incurable loneliness push already strained minds towards an abyss but there’s a strange kind of purity in the intensity of selfless love which, uncomfortably enough, offers salvation in a final act of destruction.


 Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Also screening at:

  • Firstsite (Colchester) 9 February 2018
  • HOME (Manchester) 12 February 2018
  • Watershed (Bristol) – 13 February 2018
  • Exeter Phoenix – 27 February 2018
  • Depot (Lewes) – 6 March 2018
  • Filmhouse (Edinburgh) – 8 March 2018

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Nobuo Mizuta, 2013)

The Apology King.jpgThere are few things in life which cannot at least be improved by a full and frank apology. Sometimes that apology will need to go beyond a simple, if heart felt, “I’m Sorry” to truly make amends but as long as there’s a genuine desire to make things right, it can be done. Some people do, however, need help in navigating this complex series of culturally defined rituals which is where the enterprising hero of Nobuo Mizuta’s The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Shazai no Ousama), Ryoro Kurojima (Sadao Abe), comes in. As head of the Tokyo Apology Centre, Kurojima is on hand to save the needy who find themselves requiring extrication from all kinds of sticky situations such as accidentally getting sold into prostitution by the yakuza or causing small diplomatic incidents with a tiny yet very angry foreign country.

Kurojima promises to know an even more powerful form of apology than the classic Japanese “dogeza” (falling to your knees and placing your head on the ground with hands either side, or OTL in internet lingo), but if you do everything he tells you to, you shouldn’t need it. His first case brings him into contact with Noriko (Mao Inoue) whose awful driving has brought her into contact with the yakuza. Not really paying attention, Noriko has signed an arcane contract in which she’s pledged herself to pay off the extreme debts they’ve placed on her by entering their “employment” at a facility in Osaka. Luckily, she’s turned to Kurojima to help her sort out this mess, which he does by an elaborate process of sucking up to the top brass guys until they forget all about Noriko and the money she owes them in damages. Impressed, Noriko ends up becoming Kurojima’s assistant in all of his subsequent cases, helping people like her settle their disputes amicably rather allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

Mizuta begins with a neat meta segment in which Kurojima appears in a cinema ad outlining various situations in which you might need to apologise including allowing your phone to go off during the movie, or attempting to illegally film inside the auditorium etc ending with a catchy jingle and dance routine pointing towards the contact details for his apology school. Kurojima’s instructions are also offered throughout the film in a series of video essays in which he outlines the basic procedures for de-escalating a conflict and eventually getting the outcome you’re looking for.

Of course, all of this might sound a little manipulative, which it is to a degree, but the important thing to Kurojima lies in mutual understanding more than “winning” or “losing” the argument. The second case which comes to him concerns a young man who has some very outdated ideas and has, therefore, been accused of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, Numata (Masaki Okada) is a classic sexist who only makes the situation worse for himself and completely fails to understand why he was at fault in the first place. Even following Kurojima’s expertly crafted instructions, Numata further insults his female boss whilst attempting to apologise meaning Kurojima has to come up with an even more elaborate plan to smooth the situation which involves pretending to be the ghost of a man who threw himself under a train after being accused of harassing a young woman at work who did not return his affections. This seems to do the trick and the relationship between Numata and his boss appears to have improved even if Numata still has a long way to go in the person stakes, though it does perhaps make light of a serious workplace problem.

Numata follows all of Kurojima’s instructions but still gets everything wrong because he refuses to understand all of the various social rules he’s broken and therefore why and how the apology process is intended to make amends for them. Understanding and sincerity are the keys to Kurojima’s ideology but Numata, after a quick fix, fails to appreciate either of these central tenets and so is unable to work things out for himself. Similarly, in another case the parents of an actor are required to make a public apology when their son is captured on CCTV getting into a street fight. Only, being actors, they find genuine sincerity hard to pull off on the public stage either resorting to chewing the scenery or overdoing the dignified act, not to mention plugging their latest appearances at the end of the speech. The public apology is an important part of the Japanese entertainment industry though it might seem odd that the famous parents of a “disgraced” celebrity would be expected to apologise to the nation as a whole, but as it turns out all that was needed to settle the matter was a quick chat between the people involved, fully explaining the situation and reaching a degree of mutual understanding.

The innovative structure of Apology King neatly weaves each of the cases together as they occur in slightly overlapping timeframes but each contribute to the final set piece in which Kurojima becomes an advisor during a diplomatic incident caused when a film director unwittingly offends the small nation of Mutan by accidentally turning their crown prince into an extra in his film. Mutan is a nation with many arcane rules including a prohibition on filming royalty as well as on drinking and eating skewered meat, all of which the crown prince is seen doing in the movie. Matters only get worse when the film crew travel to Mutan to apologise but make even more faux pas, especially when it turns out that Japanese dogeza is actually incredibly rude in Mutanese culture. Revisiting elements from each of the previous cases, Kurojima is only able to engineer a peaceful solution by convincing the Japanese authorities to utter a set phrase in Mutanese which means something quite different and very embarrassing in their own language. Apologies are, of course, always a little humiliating, but then that is a part of the process in itself – placing oneself on a lower level to those who’ve been wronged, as symbolised in the dogeza.

Full of zany, madcap humour and culminating in a gloriously unexpected pop video complete with dancing idols of both genders exhorting the benefits of a perfectly constructed (and sincere) apology, The Apology King is a warm and innocent tribute to the importance of mutual understanding and its power to ease even the deepest of wounds and most difficult of situations. Hilarious but also heartfelt, The Apology King is a timely reminder that unresolved conflicts only snowball when left to their own devices, the only path to forgiveness lies in recognising your own faults and learning to see things from another perspective. Kurojima’s powers could be misused by the unscrupulous, but the most important ingredient is sincerity – empty words win no respect.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Parasyte The Movie Part 2 (寄生獣 完結編, Takashi Yamazaki, 2015)

parasyte part 2Review the concluding chapter of Takashi Yamazaki’s Parasyte live action movie (寄生獣 完結編, Kiseiju Kanketsu Hen) first published by UK Anime Network.


So, at the end of Part 1, Shinichi and Migi had successfully dispatched their creepy fellow student enemy in the midst of high school carnage but if they thought it was over their troubles were only just beginning. While Shinichi and Migi struggle to define what it is that they are, Ryoko Tamiya’s network is also showing cracks as her increasing levels of humanity contrast with her fellow Parasytes’ ambivalent attitudes to their host species. Ryoko may regard humans as the best hope for the survival of her kind, but you can’t argue with the fact that humanity is often the biggest threat to its own survival. The Parasytes may have a point when they describe us as a pestilence, blighting the planet with our lack of interest in our own living environment. Parasytes, dispassionate as they are, are better equipped to take the long view and ensure the survival of the Earth if only so that they may live in it.

Diverging slightly from the sci-fi movie norm, the police have cottoned on to the Parasyte threat and even uncovered the city hall based conspiracy though they haven’t quite got it all figured out yet. They are also completely unprepared to deal with the big bad that is Goto – a super Parasyte introduced in a Hannibal Lecter inspired cameo at the end of the previous film. Goto also has a minion, Miki, intent on making trouble whereas Ryoko still has various “experiments” on the go including her recently born son and a blackmail scam involving a low rent photojournalist. Add to the mix a dangerous serial killer who can ID Parasytes and the end of mankind seems like a very real possibility.

By this point, Shinichi and Migi have developed a symbiotic relationship which includes endearing little episodes like cooking dinner together with Migi using his unique capabilities to chop veg and make the ultimate miso soup. Ryoko has now given birth to her son and finds herself unexpectedly attached to her experimental offspring. After playing peekaboo with him one evening, she mimics the baby boy by laughing out loud and observing her reflection. Her human disguise has begun to feel good – what she wants now is less colonisation than peaceful co-existence. If Parasytes and humans could truly become one, embracing both the dispassionate Parasyte capacity to plan for their survival and the human capacity for compassion, perhaps both could achieve mutual salvation.

However, Ryoko’s comparatively hippy trippy viewpoint won’t play city hall and the new mayoral stooge is not as well disposed to humanity as his co-conspirator. In attempting to remove Ryoko’s various irons from the fire, the local government gang do nothing so much as invite their own destruction both at the hands of Ryoko herself and at those of the police. However, the police have not banked on Goto who has already become more powerful than they could possibly imagine. The series’ big bad, Goto isn’t given much of an opportunity play the mastermind card but is allowed to expound on his philosophy during the final fight. He says he hears a voice which instructs him to devour the whole of humanity but, after thinking about who this voice might belong to, he concluded that it belongs to humanity itself, begging to be released from its cycle of self destruction.

Less than subtle philosophising aside, Yamazaki maintains the approach and aesthetic from the first film though Part 2 is a little more serious in tone and more given over to meaningful speechifying than its gore filled predecessor. The body horror shenanigans are much less prevalent until the quite gruesome practical effects based final fight, though we’ve already seen enough Parasyte carnage by this point to know the score. That said, the Terminator 2 inspired car sequence and Goto’s unexpected superhero metamorphosis more than satisfy the craving for explosive action.

Parasyte plays with dualities to the max as Ryoko and Shinichi travel the same path from opposite directions ending by meeting somewhere in the middle and parting on a note of understanding rather than one of conflict. In the end, the film’s major message seems to be a plea for harmony in all things. One of Ryoko’s final thoughts casts grief as another kind of parasite – invading the soul, corrupting it and transforming a once rational person into a creature of fear and rage. She eventually finds an answer to all of her questions in the most human of things, emotional connection becomes her salvation and her final hope was that this union of pragmatism and passion could serve as a plan for the salvation of both species.

Even if Parasyte is a little blunt in delivering its well worn messages about the mankind’s negative effect on the planet, the essential baseness of the human spirit, and that desire for survival in one form or another is the driving force of all life, it does so in an interesting fashion and generally avoids falling into the cod philosophy trap of more seriously minded science fiction adventure. Once again Yamazaki marshals all his powers to create a well produced genre-hybrid of a blockbuster movie which takes its cues from 80s genre classics and is well anchored by a series of committed, nuanced performances from its admittedly starry cast.


Parasyte The Movie: Part 2 is available on DVD and blu-ray in the UK from Animatsu Entertainment.

English subtitled trailer:

Parasyte The Movie Part 1 (寄生獣, Takashi Yamazaki, 2014)

parasyte part oneReview of Takashi Yamazaki’s adaptation of Hitoshi Iwaaki’s manga Parasyte – Parasyte: The Movie Part 1 (寄生獣, Kiseiju) first published by UK Anime Network.


Humans – are we the biggest threat to our planet and ultimately our own survival? If the world population were halved, would we also halve the number of forests that are burned and the damage that we’re doing to our natural environment? These thoughts run as a voice over beginning the full scale blockbuster adaptation of Hitoshi Iwaaki’s classic manga which was also recently adapted into a critically acclaimed anime. The Parasyte of title most obviously refers to the extraterrestrial microbes which are climbing into the driving seat of an unsuspecting host’s brain with nothing less than the colonisation of our entire species on their “minds”, yet, is it we ourselves who are the real parasites feasting on the corpse of our dying planet? Parasyte is that rare blockbuster treat that is content to give us man-eating, shapeshifting, monsters and gore filled destruction but also wants us to dig a little deeper into our own souls at the same time.

Shinichi Izumi’s (Shota Sometani) mum (Kimiko Yo) probably told him not to sleep with his headphones on but luckily they’re about to save his life as a weird little bug tries to crawl into his ears but finding them blocked opts for the arm instead. Wrapping the cord around his elbow tourniquet style, Shinichi is able to stop the bug’s progress but the parasite has taken root and Shinichi is horrified to find his right hand is no longer his own but is now controlled by a dispassionate alien that eventually names himself “Migi”.

Shinichi and Migi develop an odd kind of partnership born of their mutual dependency which is threatened only by the presence of other Parasytes who have successfully infiltrated a human brain and can blend in with the general populace (aside from their cold and robotic natures). To his horror, Shinichi discovers a new teacher at his school is actually a Parasyte stooge who recognises the “research” potential of a hybrid team like Shinichi and Migi. Becoming very keen on “experiments” Ryoko Tamiya (Eri Fukatsu) has also mated with one of her fellow Parasytes in the hopes of exploring what will happen with the birth – will it be purely a human child seeing as it’s born of two human bodies or will something of the Parasyte get through? However, Ryoko’s “network” of Parasytes aren’t all as committed to scientific research as she is and Shinichi and Migi quickly find themselves becoming humanity’s last line of defence against the invading creatures.

Shinichi is the teenage lead of the picture but in this first part at least it seems to be Ryoko leading the show. She gives us the original voice over and it’s her burgeoning motherhood that gives the film its clearest ideological standpoint. As the dispassionate Ryoko comes to develop the beginnings of maternal pangs and a desire to ensure the survival of her child (or perhaps just her “experiment”), so Shinichi finds his humanity being erased by the parasitical “child” he is gestating in the form of Migi. At the same time Migi begins to take on a protective mentality towards his host which may be more than simple self preservation particularly after a traumatic near death experience bonds the two even tighter together, in a biological sense at least.

Though the film obviously references former genre classics, in particular Invasion of the Bodysnatchers with its difficult to detect pod people, it steers clear of the “red scare” inspired sense of paranoia and the feeling of intense mistrust that exists even between supposedly good friends. Migi is able to sense (to a degree) his own kind making the presence of potentially dangerous Parasytes easier to detect but the fact that the Parasytes are able to colonise and use the form of someone all too familiar to confuse their enemies restores something of their power to lurk unsuspected in the shadows.

All this seems to suggest that the big screen live action adaptation of Parasyte would be a fairly serious affair yet the tone is often lighthearted, maintaining the darkly humorous buddy comedy side of the relationship between normal teenager Shinichi and the almost omniscient yet strange Migi. Migi, as played by veteran actor Sadao Abe who is perhaps most closely associated with comedic roles, has a thirst for a different kind of “brains” than his fellow Parasytes and quickly devours any and all knowledge he can get his “hand” on though he lacks the emotional intelligence to make sense of everything he learns and thus is dependent on his host Shinichi to get a fuller understanding of the human world.

Like the blockbuster mainstream films of recent times Parasyte boasts generally high production values on a par with any Hollywood movie though it has to be said that the film is often undermined by unconvincing CGI. However, this is mainly a problem with the action scenes and Migi himself is generally well integrated into the action and oddly adorable to boot. In some ways it might have been interesting to see a fully “in camera” take on the effects ala Cronenberg whose spirit is most definitely evoked throughout the film which also harks back to ‘80s body horror with its synth score highlights and generally gruesome scenes of carnage. Though it’s hard to judge the overall effect from just this first instalment of a two part film which drops a decent number of threads to be picked up in part two, part one at least serves as a tantalising appetiser which only heightens expectations for its final conclusion.


Parasyte: The Movie Part 1 is currently available on DVD and blu-ray in the UK from Animatsu Entertainment with Part 2 to follow in June 2016.