Fancy (ファンシー, Masaoki Hirota, 2020)

“Every minute of life is yours to make use of” according to the ultra cool hero of Masaoki Hirota’s Fancy (ファンシー), a laconic postman with a penchant for sunshades and a resigned attitude to transience. Adapted from the manga short story by Naoki Yamamoto, Fancy is indeed a transitory tale, a minor episode in the life of a poet who thinks he’s a penguin, his best friend the postman, and his penpal seeking her own kind of escape in an impromptu and probably unwise proposal of marriage. 

The postman, Takasu (Masatoshi Nagase), is also a tattooist, a former yakuza now reformed and living quietly in an old-fashioned hot springs town which seems to be stuck in the Showa era. As Takasu’s colleague Tanaka (Tomorowo Taguchi) puts it, it’s pretty “standard” now for everyone to have two jobs, his side hustle being a shooting gallery which is a front for the sex trade. Even the local Buddhist priest is intent on trying to sell everyone he meets a funerary monument, while Southern Cross Penguin (Masataka Kubota) is a best-selling poet particularly popular with high school girls in addition to being a flightless aquatic bird in human form. Penguin doesn’t expect us to believe him, but tells us that a penguin is just what he is and there’s no particular reason for it. So completely does he take his penguinhood that he opens the door in a full penguin mask, dresses only in black and white, mainly eats raw fish, and keeps his home ice cold with the aid of several industrial-size air conditioners. Penguin prides himself on answering the many fan letters he gets, explaining that they’re not so much “fans” as “comrades” who are also looking for the “shining country”. In any case, his fan mail is how he met the postman, his only friend, who is content to shiver in his home putting whisky in his tea to stave off the cold. 

Penguin’s life begins to change, however, when he gets a letter from “Moon Night Star” (Sakurako Konishi), a fan with whom he’d been corresponding. Moon Night Star pretty much insists on becoming his “wife”, failing to take Penguin’s hints that she might not be very happy “married” to an aquatic animal who can’t go outside. As we will later discover, Moon Night Star is in her own way rebelling against her fate, taking refuge in Penguin’s igloo and engaging in a delusion that she loves him in order to make it work. For his part, Penguin perhaps comes to like her too, but he can also see that she’s quite “depressed” stuck in the cold with him, pushing her towards the outside and into the arms of the postman. 

Takasu, meanwhile, finds himself on a series of borders as he begins to confront his past in the form of his absent father and the family he seems to have lost, sympathetically telling his pained former wife that her life is hers to do with as she wishes, perhaps in a sense cuttingly refusing her apology but also accepting her right to seize the present. Another man with two jobs, Takasu’s childhood friend is both yakuza gang boss and hotelier, confiding that the gangster stuff is too stressful and he wishes he could just focus on the hotel in the same way the Takasu has now become a postman. It’s his strange relationship with a yakuza drifter, however, that threatens to drag him back into gangsterdom as he learns that there’s been a schism in his former clan. With a turf war brewing, the loyalists have taken over his friend’s hotel, unreconstructed Showa-era yakuza on the streets of a pleasant hot springs resort. 

“We’re doomed anyway, do what you like” one of the goons intones, in one sense subverting Takasu’s mantra but in another perhaps embracing it. A memory of his father reminds him to “make very second count” while also catching him in an endless moment of gaze, unable to forget the back of the woman his father was tattooing at the time. Takasu looks and does eventually touch, but admits his jealousy obsessed with skin as canvas only latterly taking off his shades in a willingness to see and be seen. Penguin, meanwhile, who wanted to swim in a sea of words, finds himself floating free, braving but eventually succumbing to the heat before exclaiming that he’s going to close his eyes to allow a new story to start. The love of a poet is fleeting, Takasu reflects as each of the various protagonists shifts towards their “main” identity, edging back towards conventionality in abandoning the “fancifulness” of their sometimes strange existences. There will, however, be more strange adventures because even if it falls apart beneath your feet, life’s what you make it, be you a postman or a penguin. 


Fancy screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

colorless (猿楽町で会いましょう, Takashi Koyama, 2019)

“I think I could capture the real you” a photographer pleads of a subject he has become obsessed with, little knowing the deeply problematic implications of his statement. Shot with a photographer’s eye, Takashi Koyama’s colorless (猿楽町で会いましょう, Sarugakucho de Aimasho), paints its heroes as just that, wandering zombies of modern day Tokyo as estranged from themselves as they are from others, but even as it attempts to draw similarities between their mutual lifelessness cannot help but reflect a misogynistic world view in which the conflicted heroine remains little more than an empty shell, a blank canvas onto which various men project their inner desires leaving her essentially robbed of an identity by an exploitative society. 

When we first meet aspiring freelance photographer Shu (Daichi Kaneko), he is in much the same position, kept waiting by an arrogant magazine editor who has stepped out of the office despite having arranged an appointment to look over his portfolio. When he eventually arrives, Kasamura (Kenta Maeno) rudely dismisses his work, claiming that the selection of photos he’s assembled doesn’t make sense in that it gives no clear indication of his style or intent and aside from that his shots are cold and lifeless. He attributes this lack of passion to the likelihood that Shu has never truly been in love, something which turns out to be true though as we later discover Kasamura is also a cold and cynical man who proudly proclaims the same of himself. Nevertheless, he hooks Shu up with a side job shooting publicity shots for an acquaintance, Yuka (Ruka Ishikawa), hoping to become a “reader’s model” as a path to fame. 

For whatever reason, Yuka seems to incite in him the passion which Kasamura claimed was missing in his work, becoming both muse and object of desire. She describes herself as colourless and wonders if there is a “her” that can be captured, while Shu assures her that he feels much the same but fails to appreciate the various ways in which he is attempting to colour her with his camera, filled with nothing but jealous anxiety when confronted by the possibility that she exists outside of the image he has created of her. The incongruities between what she tells him of herself, his own self created vision, and the evidence presented to him by others bring out an unpleasantly chauvinistic side of him which he perhaps does not even like in himself, abruptly attempting to stop her leaving his apartment without consenting to sex by threatening to withhold the data for the pictures he took, breaking into her phone to check her messages, and later feeling humiliated in realising that she may have hidden from him a prior (or current) life in sex work.

Yuka, meanwhile, remains a cipher. Unexpectedly interviewed as part of an audition she is asked to describe herself but can only reply in terms of the way others see her, answering only that she is often said to have a sunny disposition. We see her parrot back lines she’s heard from one man to another in an attempt to please him, as if wilfully erasing her essential identity to better conform to male desires in an attempt to keep herself safe but also perhaps betraying that she has few words of her own to offer. Yet in private we see a much less complimentary side of her in which she is petty and jealous, resentful of a friend’s success while she seems to get nowhere and, the film uncomfortably insists, willing to use men by exploiting their desire for her which is in essence a desire for a colourlessness they can dye with their own self projected ideals. 

Yuka claims that she does not want to know who she really is, perhaps afraid to know or realising that there really is no value in knowing because her existence is defined by male desire. Her tragedy may be that she isn’t cynical enough, unable to manipulate men to the same extent as her more successful friend, still longing to be known and loved for who she is even while insisting that she does not exist and wilfully misrepresenting herself to those around her out of embarrassment and dissatisfaction with her life. The story she tells in her interview implies a lasting trauma of male abuse which has caused a rupture in her sense of self, unable to grasp an identity other than that granted by others, but still we’re largely left with Shu’s resentment in his inability to “capture” that which cannot be captured in his desire to possess not only Yuka’s body but her image by replacing it with that of his own creation. A dark and cynical take on modern romance, colorless leaves its heroes much where it found them, floundering in an inherently patriarchal society itself devoid of the colour they each desire. 


colorless streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

First Love (初恋, Takashi Miike, 2019)

First love poster 1Taking a deep dive into Showa era nostalgia repurposed for the modern era, Takashi Miike returns to the world of jitsuroku excess with an ironic tale of honour and humanity. Quite literally all about the jingi, First Love (初恋. Hatsukoi) takes a pair of exiled loners betrayed by the older generation, and allows them to escape their sense of futility through simple human connection while the nihilistic gangster underworld slowly implodes all around them.

Sullen boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) is so filled with ennui that nothing really excites him, not even success in the ring. An unexpected KO, however, sends him off to the doctor’s where he is told that he has a possibly inoperable brain tumour and very little time left to live. That is perhaps why he decides to punch a policeman in defence of a young woman running away and desperately pleading for help. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), known as “Monica” to her captors, was sold to the yakuza by her father and has since become dependent on drugs. Little known to either Leo or Yuri, they are about to become embroiled in a long brewing turf war between the local yakuza and the Chinese Triads engineered by jaded underling Kase (Shota Sometani) who has enlisted rogue policeman Ohtomo (Nao Omori) to help in a plan to steal his gang’s drug supply and have Ohtomo sell it on in the same way he does with “confiscated” narcotics while blaming the whole thing on the Chinese.

Abandoned at birth, Leo is a man who doesn’t know his history and so doesn’t know himself. He tells a reporter that there is no particular reason that he boxes save that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, yet the fighter’s all that remains and “boxer” has become his entire identity. A passing fortune teller advises him that he loses because he only fights for himself and if he truly wants to win he needs to learn to fight for someone else, but Leo is used to being alone and believes he has no need of other people. Knowing he’s going to die means, paradoxically, that he has infinite potential because he has nothing left to lose.

Leo punching out the policeman reawakens in Yuri a memory of her “first love”, a high school classmate who tried to defend her against her abusive father whose ghost still haunts her in drug-fuelled hallucinations. The ultimate proof of the yakuza’s ironic lack of “jingi” or “honour and humanity” when it comes to the treatment of women, Yuri was betrayed first by her father and then by the petty street thug who got her hooked on drugs as a means of control and exploited her body for financial gain.

Ironically enough, it’s a Chinese Triad who proves the ultimate heir to “jingi” having come to Japan because of her love for classic Toei gangster hero Ken Takakura only to discover that kind of nobility is something you only see in the movies. While the yakuza lament that they’re at a disadvantage fighting the Chinese because they don’t need to worry about “honour” as dictated by their code, they are quick enough to scream vengeance when Kase convinces them that it was the Triads who offed their street fixer (Takahiro Miura) to get back at recently released gangster Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) who is the reason that the Triad boss is nicknamed One-Armed-Wang. Gondo and Wang are already on a collision course as representatives of their respective ideologies with Gondo perhaps the last true yakuza standing, faithful to his code to the end.

Sensing his strong sense of jingi, the romantic Triad allows Leo to escape with Yuri as if recognising that neither of them belong in this nihilistic world of pointless and internecine violence. Despite proclaiming that he had no need of other people, it’s Leo’s humanity that eventually saves him as he realises that he was always going to die and rediscovers his true strength through fighting to protect someone else. Yuri, meanwhile, finds the will to live again in making peace with the past and laying old ghosts to rest thanks to Leo’s altruistic decision to protect her. Echoing Fukasaku’s classic crime cycle in its severed heads and funky ‘70s jazz score remixing the iconic theme tune, Miike ups the ante with a series of outlandishly idiosyncratic gags as Kase’s nefarious scheme snowballs into a darkly humorous crescendo of ridiculous brutality, but ultimately rejects the futility of a world without jingi in allowing his pure hearted heroes the possibility of escape, saved rather than consumed by their sense of honour and humanity.


First Love was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)