The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Shohei Imamura, 1983)

ballad of narayama imamura 1983 posterWhen Keisuke Kinoshita decided to dramatise The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama Bushiko), adapted from a recent novel inspired by the ancient legend of “ubasute”, he recast it is as myth – a parabolic morality play adopting the trappings of kabuki to tell a timeless tale of transience and sacrifice. As much as Kinoshita praised the heroine’s kindness and altruistic sense of duty, he also questioned her failure to question the cruel and arbitrary social codes which defined her life, sacrificing her deep familial love for the cold austerity of religious reward. Shohei Imamura, slightly younger than Kinoshita, had also read the novel when it came out though he was not sufficiently progressed in his career to have considered adapting it for the screen. Unlike Kinoshita’s highly stylised approach, Imamura opts for his trademark sense of realism, exposing nature red in tooth and claw as he attempts to restore rural earthiness to the rarefied cinema screen.

Deep in the mountains, a small village does what it can to survive in harsh terrain. 69-year-old Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is as strong as they come but she is preparing to meet her end. In the villages of these parts, men and women of 70 are carried by their children to summit of Mount Narayama where they are left as a sacrifice to the god, praying for snow to hasten an otherwise long and drawn out death. Orin’s husband disappeared 30 years ago, the laughing stock of the village for his sentimental aversion to carrying his own mother up the mountain, and her son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) seems equally reluctant to accept that Orin will making her own journey as soon as the next snows arrive.

Existence is indeed cruel. The custom of “obasute” or “throwing away” one’s old people, originated because of a lack of food. There not being enough sustenance to support a large population, the old sacrifice themselves in the name of the young. Life is cheap and of little consequence. Tatsuhei’s simple-minded younger brother, Risuke (Tonpei Hidari), notices the body of a newborn baby emerging from the melting snow to the edge of his rice paddy but the sight does not disturb or sadden him – he is annoyed that someone has “dumped” their “rubbish” on his land. Baby boys, oddly, are worthless – just another mouth to feed until it becomes strong enough to work, but baby girls are a boon because they can be sold. Orin herself sold her baby daughter in desperation following a bad harvest, and when the salt seller calls in unexpectedly Orin is at pains to tell him they’ve still not made a decision as to whether to sell her granddaughter who has been left without a mother following the death of Orin’s daughter-in-law in a freak accident.

She needn’t have worried however because the salt seller is bringing good news – a new wife for Tatsuhei, meaning Orin can make her final journey with an unburdened heart knowing that the household will be taken care of. Tamayan (Aki Takejo), a kind and cheerful woman much like Orin herself, fits right in despite the objections of Tatsuhei’s teenage son, Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki), who has got his girlfriend pregnant and wants to “marry” her – bringing not one but two extra mouths into his household. Orin loves him dearly, but all Kesakichi can do is make fun of his granny for still having all her teeth and resentfully enquire if she isn’t needed somewhere up a mountain sometime about now.

Kesakichi’s coldness and selfishness is contrasted with the goodness and warmth of Orin and her son. Hardship, far from bringing people together in their shared struggle, has made beasts of all. Imamura splices in frequent shots of animals copulating or feasting on each other – rats gnawing on the body of a snake giving way to a snake swallowing the body of a twitching grey mouse. Yet it is nature that will win in the end. Early on the village men chase a hare in the snow, Tatsuhei shooting it dead, only for an eagle to swoop down and make off with the prize. On the mountain, strewn with bones, a host of flapping crows emerges from a battered rib cage. 

Catching a thief is no different to catching a hare. Convinced that the thief’s family is a curse on the village, the villagers determine that they must all be eliminated – the roots of a poisoned tree must be burned away. Breaking into the home, friends and former neighbours tie up and kidnap an entire family, burying them alive and then redistributing all their worldly goods in “recompense” for what they’d “lost”. The cycles of loss and redistribution continue, as Tatsuhei observes finding Orin’s belongings draped around other shoulders. Kesakichi, having lost one lover, quickly takes another forgetting the first while Tatsuhei struggles to come to terms with the loss of his mother and the knowledge that someday he too, and Kesakichi, and the sons of Kesakichi, will make this same journey to this same spot.

Kinoshita’s secondary concern had been with the cruelty of the custom and the mechanisms of social conformity which enforced it, but Imamura almost seems to be in agreement with the villagers, finding horror but also beauty in the sacrifice of Orin who accepts her fate with transcendent beatification and willingly sacrifices herself to the mountain gods. The world is cruel, and tender. A son’s acceptance of his mother’s sacrifice becomes the greatest expression of a love he must destroy by honouring.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Eel (うなぎ, Shohei Imamura, 1997)

The EelDirector Shohei Imamura once stated that he liked “messy” films. Interested in the lower half of the body and in the lower half of society, Imamura continued to point his camera into the awkward creases of human nature well into his 70s when his 16th feature, The Eel (うなぎ, Unagi), earned him his second Palme d’Or. Based on a novel by Akira Yoshimura, The Eel is about as messy as they come.

Mild-mannered salary man Yamashita (Kouji Yakusho) receives a handwritten letter filled with beautiful calligraphy delivering the ugly message that his wife has been entertaining another man whilst he enjoys his weekly all night fishing trips. Confused at first, the note begins to work its way into Yamashita’s psyche and so he decides to leave his next fishing trip a little earlier than usual. Peeping through the keyhole, he finds his beloved wife enjoying energetic, passion filled sex with another man. Drawing a knife from a nearby shelf, he enters the room and attacks the pair killing the woman but letting the lover get away.

Yamashita immediately and with perfect calmness turns himself in at the local police station, still covered in his wife’s blood and carrying the murder weapon. Released on a two year probationary period after eight years in jail, there is no one to meet Yamashita when he comes out and so he remains under the guardianship of a Buddhist priest in a nearby town. Accompanied by his only friend, a pet eel, Yamashita takes possession of a local disused barbershop and sets about trying to rebuild his life.

Things change when Yamashita comes across an unconscious woman lying in the grass while he’s out looking for things to feed his eel. The strange thing is, this woman looks exactly like his wife. Eventually, Keiko (Misa Shimizu) recovers and comes to work with Yamashita in his new enterprise but as the pair grow closer the spectres of both of their troubled pasts begin to intrude.

As the small town residents of Yamashita’s new home often remark, Yamashita is a strange man. His deepest relationship is with his eel which the prison guards, who seem quite well disposed towards him, allowed him to keep in the prison pond even though pets are not generally allowed. When asked why he likes his eel so much, Yamshita replies that the eel listens to him and doesn’t tell him the things he does not wish to hear. Like Yamashita, the eel is isolated inside his tank, content to absent himself from interacting with other creatures, both protected and constrained by transparent walls.

After his release from prison, Yamashita begins to reflect on his crime which he doesn’t so much regret but has no desire to repeat. His other double arrives in the form of fellow inmate and double murderer Tamasaki (Akira Emoto) who keeps trying to convince Yamashita that he is living dishonestly by not having visited his wife’s grave or read sutras for her. Though Yamashita pays no heed to most of his advice which is more self-pity and anger than any real concern for Yamashita’s soul, some things begin to get to him, most notably that perhaps the fateful letter never existed at all and is nothing more than the manifestation of Yamashita’s jealous rage.

Though the film presents everything that happens to Yamashita as “real”, his state of mind is continually uncertain. Not only is the provenance of the letter doubted, he doubts the existence of Keiko because she looks (to him at least) like the returned ghost of the woman he killed, and even the final confrontational arguments with Tamasaki take on an unreal quality, as if Yamashita were arguing with himself rather than another man who also represents his own worst qualities – impulsivity, violence, self doubt and insecurity. The film is so deeply embedded in Yamashita’s subjective viewpoint that almost nothing can be taken at face value.

Yamashita is, in a sense, trapped in a hall of mirrors as his own faults are reflected back at him through the people that he meets. Keiko, rather than being physically murdered by a jealous lover, attempted to take her own life after being misused by a faithless (married) man. Her past troubles are, in some ways, the inverse of Yamashita’s as she finds herself at the mercy of dark forces but internalises rather than externalises her own anger. Cheerful and outgoing, she quickly turns Yamshita’s barbershop into a warm and welcoming place which the local community takes to its heart.

Yamashita, however, remains as closed off as ever though he does strike up something of a relationship with a lonely young man who wants to use his barber’s pole to try and call aliens. When Yamashita asks him what he’s going to do if the aliens actually come, the young man replies that he wants to make friends with them. Yamashita astutely remarks that the young man’s desire to meet aliens is down to a failure to connect with people from his own planet – an idea which the young man equally fairly throws back at him. Perhaps out of fear rather than atonement, Yamashita exiles himself from the world at large though gradually through continued exposure to the genial townsfolk and Keiko’s deep seated faith in him, he does begin to swim towards the surface.

Imamura adopts his usual, slightly ironic tone to lighten this otherwise heavy tale allowing the occasional comic set piece to shine through. Yakusho delivers another characteristically nuanced performance as this entirely unformed man, unsure of reality and trapped in a spiral of self doubt and confusion. His original crime of passion is at once chilling in its calmness but also messy and violent as he gives in to animalistic rage. After showing us a street lamp glowing an ominous red, Imamura steeps us in blood as his camera becomes progressively more stained making it impossible to forget the shocking betrayal of this unexpected violence.

Yamashita remarks at one point that he died that day alongside his wife. The Eel is a story of rebirth as its protagonists begin to swim towards the shore in support of each other, though like the titular marine creature there is no guarantee that they will make there alive. Yamashita is a cold blooded murderer and creature of suppressed rage yet Imamura is not interested in moral judgements as much as he is in the messier sides of human nature. A chance offering of redemption for the unredeemable, The Eel offers hope for the hopeless in a world filled with goodhearted eccentrics where all faults are forgivable once they are understood.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Film Noir (殺し, Masahiro Kobayashi, 2000)

Koroshi-2000Existential tales of hitmen and their observations from the shadows have hardly been absent from Japanese cinema yet Masahiro Kobayashi’s Film Noir (AKA Koroshi, 殺し) perhaps owes as much to Fargo as it does to Le Samouraï. Taking place in the frozen, snow covered expanses of Northern Japan, Kobayashi’s story is an absurdist one filled with dispossessed salarymen leading empty, meaningless lives in the wake of late middle age redundancy.

Hamazaki starts us off with a very Film Noir style voice over in which he likens being alive to be trapped on a long coach tour with strangers. You may fight and scream and argue with them right the way through, but in the end you will crave their understanding. Like many men of the era following the recent economic turbulence, he’s lost his job and, being a cowardly if kindly soul, he’s too afraid to tell his wife about it. Consequently he leaves for work everyday as normal but drives to a near by strip mall and wastes the day away playing pachinko. That is until one fateful morning when he finds the entire area deserted only for a mysterious man to climb uninvited into his car.

This unnamed man has a business proposition for Hamazaki – kill a guy, get a lot of money. As anyone would be, Hamazaki is a little shocked, confused and uncertain but eventually accepts. His first hit (like all of his subsequent hits) is on a man just like him – a middle aged loser who’s lost his job and is hiding out in the pachinko parlour hoping to figure something out before he runs out of money. Hamazaki likes his new line of work, it makes him feel like a man again and even helps him rebuild a bond with his wife (or so he thinks) but when he discovers one of his targets is someone he knows it all starts to go wrong.

Amusingly, the mysterious man gives Hamazaki a number of videos to watch as a kind of instructional guide to killing which includes a fair few from Melville including Army of Shadows and other classics of shady French cinema. This is a well worn tale and we know it isn’t going to end well for Hamazaki but we can also see from his voiceover that he’s consistently at odds with the situation as it is almost as if he’s constructing a film noir-esque reality all of his own.

Hamazaki is an unlikely fit for this kind of work – all the way through he’s berated for being “too nice”, notably in an argument with his former boss towards the end and then again by his wife who, it seems, cares more for her social standing and middle class lifestyle than she does for her kindhearted husband. The couple have a teenage daughter whom they’ve sent abroad to study in America (presumably at great expense) and only seems to contact them to ask for more money. Though she’s apparently only in high school, they seem to treat their daughter with a high level of adulthood – sending the money for her to budget with by herself (the implication is that she runs through quite a bit) and her mother even takes care to remind her of the importance of using a condom (not just the pill – America is the AIDS hub of the world, apparently) which is obviously good advice from an enlightened parent but perhaps a surprisingly frank way of talking to a teenage girl.

In many ways Hamazaki is a man without a place. Now he’s lost his job he’s become quite useless to just about everyone. As the mysterious man tells him, everyone is playing a role, in that case “killer” and “prey” but as it transpires Hamazaki was playing a role all along – that of salaryman husband and father. The couple seem happy, but in having sent their daughter overseas the Hamazakis have already broken their happy family in favour of increasing their social status. Kazuko is perhaps only playing the role of the middle class housewife and may have little use for a man who proves too soft hearted to get ahead. After Hamazaki tragically declares he wants to give up the life of a contract killer because he’s realised the importance of family, he may find that “family” had long ago abandoned him.

In this deserted, snow covered town the hearts of men are as cold as the wind that blows through the depressingly empty expanses. A man’s worth is measured by the money he makes and status he can claim, a man with no job is worth nothing at all. No love, no family, no morality – this is the archetypal film noir world filled with nothing but eternal darkness despite the bright sunshine which bounces lightly off the crisp white snow. As much about the death of the spirit as it is about the taking of life, Film Noir paints an eerily bleak picture of modern society with its rigid social codes which prize only the acquisition of money and status rather than the contents of a man’s soul.


Unsubtitled trailer: