Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Miwa Nishikawa, 2020)

“Am I too unhealthy to live in society?” asks the hero of Miwa Nishikawa’s Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Subarashiki Sekai) of his doctor, but the only answer he gets is a wry chuckle and an exhortation not to be so “pessimistic”. Inspired by Ryuzo Saki’s 1993 novel Mibuncho, the first of Nishikawa’s six features to be adapted from secondary material is in many ways a typical Showa-era story, testifying to the fact that the world has not changed as much as we might have hoped in the intervening 30 years since Saki’s novel was published, but it’s also a lowkey condemnation of the quiet hypocrisies which continue to define our notions of civility in the story of a man who was perhaps too good to survive in our “society”.

Opening with bars and heavy snow, Nishikawa introduces us to Mikami (Koji Yakusho) as he nears release after serving 13 years in prison for killing a man in what is described by the authorities as a yakuza gang war, though Mikami is keen to point out that he’d already attempted to leave the yakuza by then and the killing was mere self defence. In any case when questioned by the officers about to release him, he admits no remorse over the man’s death only that he lost 13 years of his life over “that hoodlum”. In any case he’s thrown out into the cold, boarding a bus back into the city where he vows to go straight. Once there, however he discovers the outside world to be fairly inhospitable. Not only are the skills he learned in prison next to useless when it comes to finding employment in the contemporary economy, but he must also contend with societal prejudice and his own wounded pride.

Stepping for moment into the realms of the issue movie, Nishikawa explores the relative impossibility of re-entering mainstream society as someone who has been convicted of a crime. Having spent most of his adult life in and out of prison as a petty yakuza footsoldier, Mikami has little education and no marketable skills aside from his capacity for violence and the ability to drive, something of which he is now deprived because his licence expired while he was inside and to get it back he has to start from scratch by passing the new-style two-part test. Mikami’s life is indeed a typical post-war story, abandoned to an orphanage by his geisha mother from which he later escaped and ended up joining a gang in place of the family he never had. “Prison is the only place that won’t kick you out no matter how badly you behave” he later quips, accidentally laying bare his yearning for unconditional love found only shakily in yakuza brotherhood.

Yet that old-fashioned, post-war yakuza is an outdated institution, like Mikami himself a relic of the Showa era floundering in the late Heisei society in which gangsters wear sharp suits and have fancy offices, finding more sophisticated ways to make war with each other than open thuggery. Everybody wants out, Mikami later muses to himself, but it’s hard to fit in to society and those like him find themselves drawn back towards the vagaries of the yakuza life for all the dubious certainties it continues to offer them. His lawyer and guarantor Souji (Isao Hashizume) tells him that he needs to regain his love and trust of people, but that’s a tall order when it feels like no one loves you and they make a point of letting you know you’re not forgiven. Even a simple trip to the supermarket proves traumatic when the head of the local neighbourhood association who just happens to run it decides to pick him up for shoplifting just because he knows he’s an ex-con. Thankfully he later realises his mistake and is filled with remorse, moved by Mikami’s quiet dignity in asserting his innocence and right to shop as he pleases. 

For all that, however, Mikami is a man of violence who has known no other way of life, taught that his only acceptable emotional release lies in pain and destruction. His violence is, however, for the sake of others not himself. He does not become violent with the store manager Mastumoto (Seiji Rokkaku) who later becomes his friend, but gleefully confronts two punks hassling a terrified salaryman and teaches them a minor lesson in the way only an old hand can. This other side to his otherwise childishly naive character shocks frightens Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano), a TV director Mikami had approached with the intention of being featured on his show in the hope of tracking down the mother who abandoned him, who engages in some armchair psychology to imply that the source of Mikami’s rage lies in his alienation as a rejected child. The irony is that Souji, his wife (Meiko Kaji), Matsumoto, and Tsunoda become Mikami’s new “family”, replacing that he’d looked for in the yakuza and providing a grounding in mainstream society that allows him to shed his anger, but the compromise they ask of him is in itself soul crushing in its implications to the extent that his complicity with it is no redemption but a moral failure. 

If such is the price of civility, Mikami may have a point, perhaps it isn’t worth it. In the end, it is our world which fails to live up to his goodness, his violence a result of society’s continued indifference to human suffering. He is no more free outside the walls than in, constrained by an unforgiving emotional austerity that permits injustice in the name of harmony. If you can’t protect the ones who’ll save the flowers from the storm, then what is your freedom for? Subverting a well worn redemption narrative, Nishikawa finds a wealth of kindness in a broken world, but suggests it’s not enough save us until the world itself is redeemed. 


Under the Open Sky streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar (前田建設ファンタジー営業部, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Construction was the post-war powerhouse and a traditional solution for governments looking to boost the economy but what are successful firms to do when everything’s already been built? Maeda made a name for itself as an expert in the construction of dams, but there are only so many you can build and theirs were state of the art so no one’s really looking for any more in the near future. Enter enterprising PR chief Asagawa (Hiroaki Ogi) who has a bold new plan to raise the company’s profile – start an enticing web project in which they draft iconic buildings from the fantasy world as if they existed for real starting with the underwater hangar from nostalgic ‘70s mecha anime, Mazinger Z!

As you can imagine, not everyone is taken by the idea even if initially swept up by Asagawa’s impassioned sales pitch. Being an otaku isn’t something you really want to advertise at work, and perhaps especially if you’re really into kids robot shows from 40 years ago. The point however is less about Mazinger Z than it is that Maeda can build anything it sets its mind to and if it can figure out the wilfully outlandish designs of classic anime which, it has to be said, rarely thought through the real world physics of its creations which are not even generally internally consistent, there’s nothing it cannot handle. 

The major sticking point with the Mazinger Z design is that the hangar is covered by a large amount of water (Mazinger Z is made from a special metal which is completely rust proof) which, given their proficiency with dam technology, shouldn’t be so much of a problem, but the more they look into it the more issues they find from the joints on the “roof” to the platform which pushes Mazinger Z into the launch position needing to boost him within 10 seconds. It doesn’t help that the anime often ignored the constraints of the original design for reasons of plot such as when Dr. Yumi suddenly has the robot slide to the left and bust out of the concrete rather than using the shoot. 

The team will need to show all of their engineering knowhow in order to solve the increasingly annoying number of problems, which is in a sense the point of the project in showcasing Maeda’s superior engineering power. Not all employees are originally behind it, however. Emoto (Yukino Kishii), a young woman entirely uninterested in mecha anime discovers that her colleagues quickly leave the canteen when they see her coming, while reluctant office worker Doi (Mahiro Takasugi) and former engineer Besso (Yusuke Uechi) both find themselves accosted by section chiefs who want them to undermine the project because they are embarrassed to be associated with something so “silly” and worry it will damage the firm’s reputation. Asagawa however is undaunted, sure that this kind of “silliness” is perfect for improving the company brand and capturing an online audience that will eventually lead to more business in the future even if it’s true that their “Fantasy World” clients aren’t going to be paying them nor will they actually be building any of their designs. 

In this Asagawa may well have a point because Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar (前田建設ファンタジー営業部, Maeda Kensetsu Fantasy Eigyobu) just might be the most accessible intro to civil engineering imaginable as they somehow manage to make even the driest of calculations seem exciting in direct contrast to the frequent complaints that the ideas they’ve come up with aren’t “glamorous” enough. Dragged along by his passion, the team gradually come on side one by one with even Doi, the most cynical who told himself that he needed to knuckle down after becoming a regular salaryman, realising that there’s no shame in having fun at work, unexpectedly finding a new appreciation for the craft of engineering after being ordered to read a lot of books about dam building by the company’s foremost expert, himself quietly in favour of the project in its capacity to show off their collective know how and inspire the next generation of engineers. Contrary to expectation, they discover there’s much more industry support than they ever could have imagined for this kind of “silliness” with other companies enthusiastically coming on board to help them achieve their Mazinger dreams. Inspired by true events, Project Dreams has real love and affection for the craft and for those who are just very good at what they do no matter what it might be, embracing a childish sense of fun and imagination along with teamwork and camaraderie which suggests that anything really is possible when you put your mind to it, even constructing an underwater hangar for a robot that doesn’t exist to defend the world against the forces of evil.  


Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fable (ザ・ファブル, Kan Eguchi, 2019)

The Fable poster 2It’s easy to become a victim of your own success when you’re a top assassin. Being the best only makes you target, and over exposure can prove fatal. If you’ve lived by taking the lives of others, can you ever really go back to being just like everyone else? The hero of Kan Eguchi’s The Fable (ザ・ファブル) tries to do just that, but then “back” might not quite be the best way to think about it in his case. Silly slapstick humour meets fast and furious gun fu but always with a soulful heart as our heroes try to figure out how to live “normally” while inhabiting a very abnormal world.

“The Fable” (Junichi Okada) is Tokyo’s top assassin, as he proves effortlessly taking out a room full of yakuza at a wedding reception. He is not, however, heartless, letting the gangster’s pregnant wife alone unlike the next bunch of goons to turn up. In any case, Fable has been far too successful, which is why his handler (Koichi Sato) hands him an unusual new mission – to live as a “normal” person in Osaka for a whole year without killing anyone at all. Along with his assistant posing as his sister under the cover ID “Yuko” (Fumino Kimura), and a pet parrot, Fable becomes “Akira Sato” and begins his new life as a “normal” man nominally under the aegis of the local mob.

The problem is “Sato” never had much of a “normal” life. As a child, he was abandoned in the mountains with only a pocket knife to toughen him up for a life of killing. He didn’t go to school, has never had a job, and struggles with social situations. He is however extremely dedicated and committed to fulfilling his mission which means he is very keen to figure out what “normal” people do so he can do that too, quickly noting that “normal” people don’t usually eat the skin on edamame beans or the rind on watermelon so doing either of those things in public will instantly arouse suspicion. Meanwhile, he takes a minimum wage job at small printshop working alongside the lovely Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) who was nice enough to offer him some tissues when he let himself get beaten up by thugs to prove how “professional” he could be in maintaining his cover.

That’s something that might be easier said than done given the rapidly unfolding yakuza drama all around him. Recently released thug Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is stirring up trouble everywhere he goes, exacerbating a growing division between the big boss (Ken Mitsuishi) and ambitious underling Sunagawa (Osamu Mukai) who is already fed up with Kojima’s antics while two crazed admirers are also hot on Sato’s trail hoping to knock him off the top spot.

Meticulous and efficient, Sato is still in many ways a child trying to learn to live in the “normal” world. Somewhat arrested in having missed out on a normal childhood, his “childish” drawings of zoo animals become an unexpected hit with the print shop crew, while his justice loving heart also has him subtly undermining the office pervert who has a habit of installing illicit spy cams targeting female employees. Despite his icy profession, Sato is a goodnatured guy and deep down just wants to help and protect people. Thus he is very invested in his mission and actively tries to become “normal” while bonding with Misaki and taking care of his pet parrot (a Le Samouraï reference and ironic mentor in mimicry) as he navigates the difficult waters of interpersonal interaction.

Frustrated male relationships are indeed key from Sato’s with his boss who orders him not to die but then says he’ll kill him if he fails his mission, to the homoerotic tension between Sato’s contact Ebihara (Ken Yasuda) and the relentlessly psychotic Kojima. Sato’s boss and Ebihara acknowledge they will have to accept responsibility for their respective charges and if necessary take preventative measures in order to ensure they don’t cause trouble, but they do so with heavy hearts in service of their codes. Silly slapstick humour quickly gives way to slick action set pieces as Sato steps back into his element, ably assisted by his sake-loving “sister” who has committed to her cover ID almost as deeply as Sato. Sweet and affecting, Kan Eguchi’s adaptation of the much loved manga is a charmingly surreal one in which his fish out of water hero figures out how to live in a new pond thanks to unexpected kindnesses and honourable yakuza ethics.


The Fable screens on 2nd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no 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)