The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2018)

Miracle of Crybaby Shottan poster 1Toshiaki Toyoda burst onto the scene in the late ‘90s with a series of visually stunning expressions of millennial malaise in which the dejected, mostly male, heroes found themselves adrift without hope or purpose in post-bubble Japan. For all their essential nihilism however, Toyoda’s films most often ended with melancholic consolation, or at least a sense of determination in the face of impossibility. Returning after a lengthy hiatus, Toyoda’s adaptation of the autobiography by shogi player Shoji “Shottan” Segawa, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki), finds him in a defiantly hopeful mood as his mild-mannered protagonist discovers that “losing is not the end” and the choice to continue following your dreams even when everything tells you they are no longer achievable is not only legitimate but a moral imperative.

An aspiring Shogi player himself in his youth, Toyoda opens with the young Shoji discovering a love of the game and determining to turn pro. Encouraged by his surprisingly supportive parents who tell him that doing what you love is the most important thing in life, Shoji (Ryuhei Matsuda) devotes himself to mastering his skills forsaking all else. The catch is, that to become a professional shogi player you have to pass through the official association and ascend to the fourth rank before your 26th birthday. Shoji has eight chances to succeed, but in the end he doesn’t make it and is all washed up at 26 with no qualifications or further possibilities seeing as he has essentially “wasted” his adolescence on acquiring skills which are now entirely meaningless.

As his inspirational primary school teacher (Takako Matsu) tells him, however, if you spend time indulging in a passion, no matter what it is, and learn something by it then nothing is ever really wasted. Shoji’s father says the same thing – he wants his son to follow his dreams, though his brother has much more conventional views and often berates him for dedicating himself to shogi when the odds of success are so slim. It may well be “irresponsible”, in one sense at least, to blindly follow a dream to the exclusion of all else, but then again it may also be irresponsible to resentfully throw oneself into the conventionality of salaryman success.

Nevertheless, shogi is a game that drives men mad. Unlike the similarly themed Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, also inspired by a real life shogi star, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan has a classically “happy” ending but is also unafraid to explore the dark sides of the game as young men fail to make the grade, realise they’ve wasted their youths, and retreat into despair and hopelessness. Shoji accepts his fate, internalises his failure, and begins to move on neither hating the game nor loving it, until finally reconnecting with his childhood friend and rediscovering his natural affinity free from ambition or desire.

Another defeated challenger, expressing envy for Shoji’s talent, told him he was quitting because you can’t win if you can’t learn to lose friends and he didn’t want to play that way. Shoji doesn’t really want to play that way either, freely giving up chances to prosper in underhanded ways and genuinely happy for others when they achieve the thing he most wants but cannot get. He does in one sense “give up” in that he accepts he will never play professionally because of the arbitrary rules of the shogi world, but retains his love of the game and eventually achieves “amateur” success at which point he finds himself a figurehead for a campaign targeted squarely at the unfair rigidity of the sport’s governing body.

Shoji’s rebellion finds unexpected support from all quarters as the oppressed masses of Japan rally themselves behind him in protest of the often arcane rules which govern the society. As his teacher told him, just keep doing what you’re doing – it is enough, and it will be OK. Accepting that “losing is not the end” and there are always second chances even after you hit rock bottom and everyone tells you it’s too late, a newly re-energised Shoji is finally able to embrace victory on equal terms carried solely by his pure hearted love of shogi rather than by ambition or resentment. A surprisingly upbeat effort from the usually melancholy director, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan is a beautifully pitched reminder that it really is never too late, success comes to those who master failure, and being soft hearted is no failing when you’re prepared to devote yourself body and soul to one particular cause.


The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2005)

It's Only Talk poster“I’m scared of wanting to die” the heroine of Ryuichi Hiroki’s It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Yawarakai Seikatsu) confesses during an awkward car ride with a childhood friend, perhaps one of the only absolute truths she offers in her infinite quest to escape existential loneliness through the false connection of mass tragedy. Yuko (Shinobu Terajima) tells people that her parents died in the Kobe Earthquake, but they actually died in a house fire a few years later. She tells people that her best friend died in 9/11 (she died in New York in the early 2000s but in a car accident), and that her former lover died during the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway (this one might even be true, but who really can say). She lies, not about facts only details, in the belief that her private pain is somehow not relatable enough and if she ties herself into a wider sense of national or global tragedies then others can share in her grief and she won’t be so alone in her sadness.

Following the deaths of her parents when she was 29, Yuko was diagnosed with bipolar and has been in and out of hospitals for the past six years. Now 35, single, and unemployed, Yuko has found herself cast out from mainstream society and fulfils her (minimal) needs for human connection through meeting “perverts” on specialist message-boards. Through one of these illicit connections she meets K. (Tomorowo Taguchi) – a 50-year-old husband and father who drives her all the way out to provincial suburb Kamata to ensure the liaison (which extends only to watching a porn film together in a public cinema and a cup of tea afterwards) remains secret. Taken with the suburb’s retro charm and unassuming air of faded grandeur, she decides to move and starts life over again in the somewhat nostalgic past which brings her into contact with two men from her youth and another still battling his own.

A portrait of inescapable loneliness, Yuko’s life is both as frozen as the photographs she takes of local landmarks to post on her fledgling blog and permanently in flux as she tries to navigate the constantly shifting tides of her condition. After moving to Kamata she unexpectedly reencounters an old university friend who recalls their spirited discussions of world politics from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square when they were both bright and engaged students. Like Yuko, Honma (Shunsuke Matsuoka) has wound up in Kamata as a kind of retreat from the harshness of life in Tokyo. Unwilling to embrace life in the public eye, he’s decided to concentrate on a career in local politics instead hoping to work his way into the ministry of education as a civil servant. He is also unmarried – partly as a result of debts accrued during unsuccessful electoral campaigns, and, as we later find out, erectile dysfunction. Honma reintroduces Yuko to another old friend, “Bach” (Nao Omori) who has gone the opposite way and become a venture capitalist but apparently still holds a torch for the young Yuko all these years later. Meanwhile, she’s been meeting up with a lonely yakuza, Noboru (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who also has bipolar and longs for the world of childhood safety and innocence he associates with the strange Godzilla tyre park Yuko photographed and put on her blog.

The most significant relationship in her short-lived period of connection is in fact with her childhood friend and cousin, Shoichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), who abruptly turns up at her flat unannounced. Shoichi, also depressed but perhaps in a less extreme way and hiding it much better, left his marriage because he felt pushed out when the baby was born and then ran after a younger woman who went to Tokyo but ultimately did not want him. The two share a strange sort of intimacy born of their long history which is almost fraternal but laced with minor awkwardness and ancient resentments. Though his wife berated him for his refusal to help out at home, Shoichi tenderly cares for Yuko just as she is at her most vulnerable having entered an extreme depressive episode – washing her hair, doing her laundry, and picking up her medication while trying to remain patient even when Yuko rejects his gestures of help. The giving and receiving of care provides each with a new sense of purpose and connection but their paths are perhaps set on different courses in the immediacy of the need to deal with the unresolved past.

Waking up from her depression, Yuko discovers life has delivered her yet another cruel blow, witnessing others moving on in one way or another and leaving her once again all alone marooned on the sidelines. Yet she lives on, “scared of wanting to die” but daring to remove the towel which hides an ugly scar from a previous suicide attempt to revisit a public bath which holds a memory perhaps both happy and sad. Melancholy in the extreme, It’s Only Talk is not a tragedy but an aching portrait of spiritual loneliness in a society only too happy to exclude.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Chen Sicheng, 2018)

Detective Chinatown 2 posterBox office smash Detective Chinatown successfully pulled off the difficult feat of merging amusing buddy cop comedy with a holiday setting and intriguing cerebral mystery. Given the success of the first film it’s no surprise that the boys are back in town, or, as teased in the finale, in New York where another strange crime awaits their particular talents. Firmly a Chinese production taking place in an American city (though one using American crews), Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Tángrénj Tàn Àn 2) tries its best to maintain its unique character while shifting into American crime thriller territory, even if hampered by a stereotypical view of its target culture and some decidedly ropey English language dialogue.

Qin (Liu Haoran), now apparently a student at the police academy, has been tricked into coming to New York for Uncle Tang Ren’s (Wang Baoqiang) wedding to his love interest from the first film, Ah Xiang (Tong Liya). When he arrives, however, Qin quickly figures out that he’s in a room with some of the world’s best detectives – Ah Xiang left Tang Ren for someone with more money and so Tang Ren wants Qin to help him solve a mysterious New York murder for the reward promised by one of the victims’ grandfathers, a Chinatown gangster named Uncle Seven (Kenneth Tsang). Qin likes a good mystery so sticks around though the situation becomes decidedly more complicated after he finds and discounts the main suspect, Song Yi (Xiao Yang), leaving the trio on the run from the authorities, other detectives vying for the reward, and Uncle Seven’s guys some of whom have their own ulterior motives.

The most satisfying element of Detective Chinatown lay in the genuinely intricate nature of its locked room mystery and elegance of its resolution. Detective Chinatown 2 shifts away from the classical style of a European drawing room mystery for something altogether flashier and more American in keeping with its setting. It is, however, guilty of more than the faults of its genre in heavily signposting its solution from the midway point leaving any serious thriller fan twiddling their thumbs waiting for the penny to drop with ace detective Qin. Though a secondary twist offered after the killer has been unmasked helps to undercut the disappointment of such an anticlimax, it is not quite enough to compensate for the crushing obviousness of the central mystery.

Likewise, where Detective Chinatown existed firmly within a small Chinese enclave of Bangkok where everyone knew everyone, the move into the metropolis of Manhattan robs the film of its small-town charm. Despite the “Chinatown” tag, Chinatown itself is not a big player and as both of our guys are now full outsiders in another culture, we’re treated to a much less nuanced take on local stereotypes with several running gags likely to raise audience hackles with their tone-deaf approach to visualising the multicultural city. All of that aside, shooting in Central Manhattan with American crews also means much less creative freedom leaving the set pieces perhaps less impressive in terms of scale and ingenuity while the cinematography occasionally feels much more like standard American television than a big budget Chinese comedy.

Nevertheless the odd pairing of loudmouth Tang Ren and the comparatively subdued Qin, whose powers find even more impressive means of visualisation as he literally lifts buildings off a map and moves them round, remains the key selling point even though each half of the pair is also subjected to a bizarre round of sexual harassment from a biker boss with a tiny Chinaman fetish to a kung fu master with possible Alzheimer’s respectively. Though Chen generally relies on slapstick, the gags have a decidedly topical flavour – a police chief with terrible hair who makes off colour jokes and wants to build a wall to keep out all the annoying Chinese guys he can’t be bothered to deal with, for example, or the repeated references to immigration and the various dangers faced by those who’ve come from somewhere else and are trying to make a life for themselves. Yet the guys also keep running into people who unexpectedly speak Mandarin – perhaps a sign of the equally unexpected elevated status of Chinese visitors and their all important economic power. Detective Chinatown 2 is a mild disappointment after the duo’s impressive debut, but nevertheless does enough to spark interest in the teased Tokyo-set third instalment.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Screening details for UK, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand available via official website.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Children of the Dark (闇の子供たち, Junji Sakamoto, 2008)

Children of the Dark posterJunji Sakamoto’s career has been marked by a noticeable split between commercial projects and artier genre pieces but even considering his tendency towards socially conscious filmmaking, Children of the Dark (闇の子供たち, Yami no Kodomotachi) is a surprising entry into his filmography. Starring heartthrob Yosuke Eguchi as an earnest reporter determined to expose the extent of Japanese complicity in the exploitation of Thai children, Sakamoto’s film is hard hitting in the extreme, refusing to back away from the horrors that these children are forced to experience but perhaps taking things too far in putting his young actors through a series of emotionally difficult scenes. Children of the Dark was pulled from its slot in the Bangkok Film Festival for painting a less than idealised picture of the grim underbelly of Thai society but Sakamoto is also keen to point out that the problem is a global one which merely finds an unhappy home in a country many regard as a “paradise”.

Nanbu (Yosuke Eguchi), a Japanese ex-pat reporter living in Thailand, has been handed a hot tip on a difficult piece of investigate reporting relating to the illegal trafficking of human organs. His investigation brings him back into contact with a local NGO who operate a centre promoting educational and human rights whilst helping the impoverished children of the area. The NGO is currently investigating the disappearance of child they’d been trying to save, but the two investigations eventually overlap as it becomes clear that the organ trafficking and sexual exploitation of abandoned children are part of the same deeply entrenched cycle of human cruelty.

Nanbu’s key interest is in the Japanese connection to organ transplant case. A wealthy Japanese couple will apparently be bringing their son to Thailand for an illegal transplant to get around Japan’s strict medical ethics laws which prevent children becoming organ donors. Though it might be thought that the boy’s parents simply believe they will be undergoing a legitimate medical procedure only abroad, they are perfectly aware that the organ they will be receiving will have been acquired specifically for the purpose and will have been ripped from a healthy child rather than transplanted from an unfortunate accident victim.

Using the NGO’s contacts, Nanbu begins to realise how deeply the conspiracy runs. The NGO’s investigations lead them to a brothel in which extremely young boys and girls are kept in cages to be picked out like lobsters in a restaurant by the international clientele each after a different kind of sexual experience. The children are beaten if they refuse and literally “thrown out” in black bin bags should they contract illnesses such as AIDS. When one of the children is killed by a client who overdoses him on hormones, the matter is settled with financial compensation and the body disposed of. Many of these children are orphans from backgrounds of extreme poverty, neglected or abandoned by their parents into a life of sexual servitude in part caused by ongoing economic inequality which is only exacerbated by the thriving underworld enterprises of people and drug trafficking.

Nanbu is, however, only a reporter. Keiko (Aoi Miyazaki), a young and idealistic Japanese woman recently arrived in Thailand to work with the NGO, is committed to saving individual lives whereas Nanbu and the paper are committed to being passive observers exposing the truth in the hope that the whole sordid system will one day collapse. Keiko’s sometimes dangerous naivety is contrasted with Nanbu’s jaded complicity in essentially allowing a young child’s life to be sacrificed to get his story with only the justification that something might be done if the truth were known.

A final revelation, however, proves a step too far even if it encourages all to point the finger back on themselves and accept that personal complicity may run far deeper than most suspect. The tragedy is further undercut by the strange decision to end on an idyllic scene of paradise with a karaoke track playing over the top complete with lyrics pasted on the side – a tonal variation too far given the necessarily somber atmosphere of the the film as a whole. Despite the strangeness of the ending with its unexpected reversals and clumsy attempt at reflexivity, Children of the Dark is an urgent, difficult piece exposing the unspeakable cruelties hidden away in the underbelly of a foreign “paradise”.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rage (怒り, Lee Sang-il, 2016)

rage posterVillain, Lee Sang-il’s 2011 adaptation of a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, used a crime story to investigate the wider effects of social stigma and emotional repression – themes which are recurrent in the author’s work. Rage (怒り, Ikari) attempts to do something similar but its aims are larger, reflexively tacking the vicious cycle of social oppression and emotional repression in a society which actively suppresses the desire for expression in the aim of maintaining an illusion of harmony. A brutal, senseless killing has occurred and three suspects present themselves. The killer could be any one or none of them, but the fact of the matter is that when you cannot speak the truth, you cannot truly believe in anything or anyone.

In the blazing summer heat with its noisy cicadas and uncomfortable humidity, a young couple has been brutally murdered in their Hachioji home. There are few clues to be found save that the killer has painted the kanji for “rage” in blood on the wall. The police do, however, come up with a suspect and circulate a photofit which is anonymous enough to look like any youngish man who might make you feel uncomfortable for a reason you can’t articulate.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged man from Chiba, Maki (Ken Watanabe), anxiously wanders around Kabukicho until someone finds him and takes him to a brothel where his runaway daughter, Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki), has been working and has been very badly injured through her “eagerness to please her clients”. The father, trying to comfort his daughter who seems cheerful enough despite her ordeal, inwardly seethes with rage and is both relieved and worried when she begins a relationship with a secretive drifter, Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama).

Back in Tokyo, Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) visits a gay bathhouse and roughly forces himself on a nervous man hunched in a corner. Despite the slight unpleasantness of their meeting, the two men eat dinner together and Yuma invites his new friend, Naoto (Go Ayano), to live with him in his well appointed apartment despite knowing nothing more about him.

Further south, a teenage couple enjoy a day out on what they think is a deserted island but the girl, Izumi (Suzu Hirose), discovers a backpacker, Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama),  living in some local ruins. Strangely drawn to him, Izumi keeps meeting up with Tanaka but an encounter in the city turns sour when her friend, Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto), works himself into a jealous rage. Trying to get the drunken Tatsuya to the ferry, Izumi is raped by GIs from the local military base.

The Okinawan episode is, in many ways the key. Tetsuya invites Izumi to see a movie in Naha but they’re really going to observe a protest about the continued presence of the US military bases. Tatsuya wanted to be there to see it but pressed for an answer he doubts protest will achieve anything. Izumi, after her brutal encounter, says the same thing. She doesn’t want anyone to know. “Protesting won’t change anything”. No matter what she says, nothing will be done, no one would listen, nobody really cares.

Or, perhaps they simply care about the wrong things. Aiko gets home from her horrible ordeal in the city but everyone knows what she did there; her “sordid” past is the talk of the town. Her father says nothing, because like Izumi he knows it will do no good, but still he berates himself for it and his internalised anger grows.

Izumi does not want the stigma of being a rape victim, and Aiko does not want the stigma of being a “fallen woman”, their secrets are already out, but Yuma is jealously guarding his – living as a cautious gay man with his life strictly divided, his true nature walled off from his professional persona. Too afraid to be open about his sexuality, he projects his sense of unease and discomfort onto Naoto – first going overboard by inviting someone he just met and knows nothing about to live with him and then refusing to let him in all the way. Yuma asks Naoto not to attend his mother’s funeral despite the fact they had been friends because he doesn’t want the awkwardness of deciding how to introduce his boyfriend to a set of relatives he doesn’t really know. What he doesn’t do is ask any questions about Naoto’s past, jumping to conclusions and angrily slinging accusations when he thinks he’s caught Naoto out in a lie but his reaction and subsequent behaviour only bear out his own insecurities in his inability to trust the man the loves.

Each of the trio begins to doubt their friends or lovers with little more to go on than a police photofit which only superficially resembles them. The suspicion, however, is reflexive. It’s born of a society in which one is obliged to keep secrets and emotional honesty is frowned upon. No one speaks the truth because no one wants to hear it – it will only bring more suffering with additional social stigma. Sooner or later, when all of these unexpressed emotions reach a critical mass, they will explode. Such crimes could so easily be avoided were it easier to live a more open, less fearful life, but as long as it is impossible to trust oneself, there can be no unguarded trust between people.

Neatly in line with the self-centred narrative viewpoints, Izumi’s rape is relegated to a plot device as she herself disappears from the screen only to return briefly in the final coda. The effects of the rape are then explored as they impact on Tetsuya and Tanaka whose self images of masculinity are (seemingly) damaged by their failures to protect her. Izumi’s rape is viewed as something that happened to the men, as if she were a car that was scratched or a jacket torn. Self-involved as this is, it plays into the central theme – no one cares very much about anybody else’s feelings until those feelings are visited upon them by means of violence.

The murder occurs essentially because of a betrayal followed by unbearable, unexpected kindness. A woman felt sorry for a man, and so she trusted him and was betrayed. Two parties fail to trust the one they love because of a failing in themselves, their own sense of personal inadequacy will not allow them to believe in the other person’s faith in them, while another misplaces his trust in his need to find an ally and confidant to feel less alone and powerless. Prevailing social stigmas, selfishness, and a need to maintain the status quo have left all running scared, craving connection but too afraid to engage. When the system won’t let you be, violence, of one sort or another, is an inevitable consequence.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録, Kei Ishikawa, 2017)

gukoroku posterGenerally speaking, murder mysteries progress along a clearly defined path at the end of which stands the killer. The path to reach him is his motive, a rational explanation for an irrational act. Yet, looking deeper there’s usually something else going on. It’s easy to blame society, or politics, or the economy but all of these things can be mitigating factors when it comes to considering the motives for a crime. Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録), the debut feature from Kei Ishikawa and an adaptation of a novel by Tokuro Nukui, shows us a world defined by unfairness and injustice, in which there are no good people, only the embittered, the jealous, and the hopelessly broken. Less about the murder of a family than the murder of the family, Gukoroku’s social prognosis is a bleak one which leaves little room for hope in an increasingly unfair society.

When we first meet Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) he’s riding a bus. Ominous music plays as a happy family gets off but the real drama starts when another passenger irritatedly instructs Tanaka to give up his seat so an elderly lady can sit down. He snorts a little but gets up only to fall down next to the steps to the doors and subsequently walk off with a heavy limp. The man who told him to move looks sheepish and embarrassed, but as soon as the bus passes from view Tanaka starts walking normally, an odd kind of smirk on his face in thought of his petty revenge.

In one sense the fact that Tanaka faked a disability is irrelevant, the man did not consider that Tanaka may himself have needed a seat despite looking like a healthy man approaching early middle age. Perhaps, he’ll think twice about making such assumptions next time – then again appearances and assumptions are the lifeblood of this mysteriously complicated case.

Tanaka has a lot on his plate – his younger sister, Mitsuko (Hikari Mitsushima), has been arrested for neglecting her daughter who remains in intensive care dangerously underweight from starvation. In between meeting with her lawyer and checking on his niece, he’s also working on an in-depth piece of investigative reporting centring on a year old still unsolved case of a brutal family murder. Tanaka begins by interviewing friends of the husband before moving onto the wife who proves much more interesting. Made for each other in many ways, this husband and wife duo had made their share of enemies any of whom might have had good reason for taking bloody vengeance.

The killer’s identity, however, is less important than the light the crime shines on pervasive social inequality. As one character points out, Japan is a hierarchical society, not necessarily a class based one, meaning it is possible to climb the ladder. This proves true in some senses as each of our protagonists manipulates the others, trying to get the best possible outcome for themselves. These are cold and calculating people, always keeping one eye on the way they present themselves and the other on their next move – genuine emotion is a weakness or worse still, a tool to be exploited.

The key lies all the way back in university where rich kids rule the roost and poor ones work themselves to the bone just trying to keep up. There are “insiders” and “outsiders” and whatever anyone might say about it, they all secretly want in to the elite group. Here is where class comes in, no matter how hard you try for acceptance, the snobby rich kids will always look down on those they feel justified in regarding as inferior. They may let you come to their parties, take you out for fancy meals, or invite you to stay over but you’ll never be friends. The irony is that the system only endures because everyone permits it, the elites keep themselves on top by dangling the empty promise that someday you could be an elite too safe in the knowledge that they only hire in-house candidates.

Gradually Tanaka’s twin concerns begin to overlap. The traces of sin extend to his own door as he’s forced to examine the legacy of his own traumatic childhood and fractured family background. The reason the killer targeted the “happy” family is partly vengeance for a series of life ruining wrongs, but also a symbolic gesture stabbing right at the heart of society itself which repeatedly failed to protect them from harm. Betrayed at every turn, there’s only so much someone can take before their rage, pain, and disillusionment send them over the edge.

Despite the predictability of the film’s final twist, Ishikawa maintains tension and intrigue, drip feeding information as Tanaka obtains it though that early bus incident reminds us that even he is not a particularly reliable narrator. Ishikawa breaks with his grim naturalism for a series of expressionistic dream sequences in which hands paw over a woman’s body until they entirely eclipse her, a manifestation of her lifelong misuse which has all but erased her sense of self-worth. There are no good people here, only users and manipulators – even the abused eventually pass their torment on to the next victim whether they mean to or not. Later, Tanaka gets on another bus and gives up his seat willingly in what seems to be the film’s first and only instance of altruism but even this small gesture of resistance can’t shake the all-pervading sense of hopeless loneliness.


Gukoroku – Traces of Sin was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2001)

Japan has really taken the underdog triumphs genre of sports comedy to its heart but there can be few better examples than Shinobu Yaguchi’s 2001 teenage boys x synchronised swimming drama Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ). Where the conventional sports movie may rely on the idea of individual triumph(s), Waterboys, like many similarly themed Japanese movies, has group unity at its core as our group of disparate and previously downtrodden high school boys must find their common rhythm in order to truly be themselves. Setting high school antics to one side and attempting to subvert the normal formula as much as possible, Yaguchi presents a celebration of acceptance and assimilation as difference is never elided but allowed to add to a growing harmony as the boys discover all new sides of themselves in their quest for water borne success.

Dreamy high school boy Suzuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is currently the only member of his high school’s swimming team, and unfortunately he’s not a particularly good swimmer. His interest is piqued when he spots a synchronised swim meet, but he forgets all about it until a new teacher arrives and pledges to revive the school’s fortunes in the pool. Seeing as their new teacher is a pretty young woman with an interest in swimming, the team suddenly becomes much more popular but when she reveals her synchronised swimmer past numbers dwindle once again. Unfortunately, the hot new teacher suddenly has to leave the school so the boys are left to fend for themselves in their new and possibly embarrassing career in a generally feminine sport.

Being teenage boys who only started this whole thing because of the pretty teacher, most of the other guys are are looking for a way out but they also don’t like to be called quitters and so they become determined to make a success of themselves. Suzuki, who secretly wanted to become a synchronised swimmer anyway, is the most committed but also, perhaps, the least confident in his choice of sport as he embarks on a tentative romance with a girl from another school – herself an enthusiast of the more masculine karate. Terrified that she will find out and laugh at him, Suzuki goes to great lengths to avoid telling her what it he really does in his club activities, possibly putting the growing romance at risk in the process.

This mild challenge to masculinity is the main joke of the film but Yaguchi neatly subverts as the guys become cool again thanks to mastering a difficult skill and creating an impressive spectacle through hard work and group mentality. The boys gain an unlikely mentor in the form of a dolphin trainer at Sea World who they hope will be able to train them in the same way he trains his marine creatures but quickly sets them off on some Karate Kid style practical training which involves a lot of menial tasks around the park before dumping them at the local arcade to play dance dance revolution until they learn the art of synchronicity through the power of idol pop. Waterboys is, essentially, a hymn to the harmonious society as the boys eventually find their common rhythm and the power that comes from many acting as one.

Unusually, this does not requite a loss of individuality or for any erasure of essential personality traits but rather a greater need for acceptance as difference merely adds to the strength of the whole. Though there are a fair few gay jokes in what is essentially a movie about high school boys in skimpy trunks, the joke is not homosexuality but reactions to it as Yaguchi adopts a “get over it” attitude and so when one of the boys does confess his love for another it’s treated with no particular reaction other than lack of surprise. Similarly the cross dressing mama-san from the local gay club (a surprising turn from Akira Emoto) becomes one of their greatest supporters and may provide comic relief but is never a figure of fun. In order to succeed the boys will need to be in tune with each other, but that in tune sounds better when it allows for harmony rather than insisting on dull monotony.

Visually inventive and often hilarious, Waterboys lacks the heart of Yaguchi’s similarly plotted Swing Girls but nevertheless succeeds in its tale of inexperienced young guys working hard and achieving the impossible, growing up and discovering new things about themselves as they do. Waterboys may be lighthearted, crowd pleasing fun, but its good natured message that great things are possible when determined people work hard at them together, and that group harmony does not necessarily require social conformity, only add to its warm and gentle tone.


Korean trailer (Korean captions/subtitles only)