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)

My Love Story!! (俺物語!!, Hayato Kawai, 2015)

my-love-storyThey say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but for some guys you’ll have to do a whole lot of baking. Based on the popular manga which was also recently adapted into a hit anime (as is the current trend) My Love Story!! (俺物語!!, Ore Monogatari!!) is the classic tale of innocent young love between a pretty young girl and her strapping suitor only both of them are too reticent and have too many issues to be able to come round to the idea that their feelings may actually be requited after all. This is going to be a long courtship but faint heart never won fair maiden.

Takeo (Ryohei Suzuki) has been best friends with next-door neighbour Suna (Kentaro Sakaguchi) ever since they were small and he made a point of becoming his defender when Suna was the new kid in town and the other boys made fun of him. However, Taeko is a big lug of a guy, adored by the his male classmates for his off the charts level of coolness, but often shunned by the ladies thanks to his impulsive nature and booming voice. Suna, by contrast, is massively popular and finds himself surrounded by swooning girls everywhere he goes. Being the big hearted guy he is, when Takeo notices his middle school crush confessing her love to Suna on graduation day, he makes sure Suna lets her down gentle and chooses to break his own heart instead.

You see, being the big guy is not exactly easy. A little slow on the uptake but also extremely sensitive, Takeo has been hearing gorilla jokes his whole life and so has internalised an intense feeling of being completely unloveable. Despite this, he remains an extremely good person who just wants everyone else to be happy even if he’s convinced himself he’s not allowed to be. Thus when he saves timid high school girl Rinko (Mei Nagano) from a persistent street harasser and falls in love at first sight, it doesn’t really occur to him that the same thing might have happened to her. Mistaking Rinko’s attempts to get his attention for a backhanded way to get to his more conventionally handsome friend, Takeo resolves to get the two together no matter what!

It would be difficult to find a romance quite as innocent as My Love Story!! which (successfully) strings out one wilful misunderstanding for around two hours. There are no great scenes of jealous exes or sudden arranged marriages to contend with, just two people entirely incapable of speaking plainly. Takeo is so invested in the idea of his own ugliness that it just doesn’t make sense to him that anyone would choose him over the conventionally handsome Suna. Likewise Rinko is quite a timid girl, bowled over by the cool way Takeo dealt with her street harasser and subsequent acts of heroism throughout the film. Though her friends may crack gorilla jokes behind her back, Rinko can see straight through to Takeo’s giant heart and is always ready to defend him, even if her own diffidence means she can’t just tell Takeo how she really feels in a way he understands.

Meanwhile, Suna is very bored by all of these missed messages as his well meaning buddy tries to foist the girl he himself loves on his obviously disinterested friend. As for why Suna is so disinterested, the film is also a somewhat coy. A little shy and awkward himself, Suna is uncomfortable with all the attention his ridiculous good looks bring him, as well as additional resentment from the other guys and often needing to deflect praise for Takeo’s heroism which people often seem to attribute to him. It may just be that Suna is over the superficial and is waiting for someone to see past his pretty boy face but his refusal to talk about the kind of girl he likes aside from going for “big and strong” perhaps hints at an altogether different reason. In any case, Suna getting fed up with being persistantly gooseberried becomes the final catalyst for finally explaining to Takeo what exactly has been going on these past few months.

Before you know it, enough baked goods to feed a small army have been consumed but Takeo is still having trouble realising that they each had a secret ingredient – love! Sometimes nice guys do get the girl, even if it involves shielding them from a falling coffin in a haunted house that’s on fire which is not as good of a metaphor as you’d think but it’ll do for now. Old fashioned and innocent, My Love Story isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it might just light a flame in your heart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):