The Projects (団地, AKA Danchi, Junji Sakamoto, 2016)

danchi posterTimes change so quickly. The “danchi” was a symbol of post-war aspiration and rising economic prosperity as it sought to give young professionals an affordable yet modern, convenient way of life. The term itself is a little hard to translate though loosely enough just means a housing estate but unlike “The Projects” (団地, Danchi) of the title, these are generally not areas of social housing or lower class neighbourhoods but a kind of vertical village which one should never need to leave (except to go to work) as they also include all the necessary amenities for everyday life from shops and supermarkets to bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, aspirations change across generations and what was once considered a dreamlike promise of futuristic convenience now seems run down and squalid. Cramped apartments with tiny rooms, washing machines on the balconies, no lifts – young people do not see these things as convenient and so the danchi is mostly home to the older generation, downsizers, or the down on their luck.

The Yamashitas – Hinako (Naomi Fujiyama) and her husband Seiji (Ittoku Kishibe), moved into the danchi just a few months ago after abruptly closing their herbal medicine business. The couple have integrated into the mini community fairly well, but as newcomers their neighbours remain a little suspicious and stand offish while Hinako and Seiji have their own reasons for moving and mostly want to be left alone. To make ends meet, Hinako is working part-time at the local supermarket but Seiji is mostly left alone in his thoughts and likes to wander through the nearby woodland behind the estate, eventually earning a nomination for head of the housing committee thanks to his calm and reliable character.

Despite being the last thing he wanted Seiji warms to the idea and has quite a few suggestions for improvements to the estate if he gets elected. Sadly, he loses out at the last second when the incumbent decides to stand again. Depressed and humiliated, Seiji decides to hide inside the mini storage compartment under the couple’s kitchen floor, only emerging for meals and to use the bathroom. Seeing as no one has seen Seiji in weeks, the danchi is ripe with gossip. What can have happened to him? Has he run away with his tail between his legs? Found another woman? Disappeared? Another new resident whose husband is a TV reporter has different idea – Hinako must have killed him!

The village mentality is very much alive in the danchi where the dwindling population and host of empty apartments mean that everyone is very invested in everyone else’s business. Thus the gaggle of women who make up the chief gossip society are suddenly convinced they have a murderer in their midst! Hinako, disinterested in her neighbours’ petty chitchat, ignores them and tries to go on with her business whilst putting up with Seiji’s odd antics as best she can. The neighbours’ suspicions are further aroused by the couple’s mysterious visitor, Shinjo (Takumi Saito), who speaks extremely strange Japanese with oddly robotic delivery.

However much the residents like to tell tales about each other, they are still reluctant to get involved in each other’s affairs. Everyone seems to know that the bossy man from across the way is abusive towards his wife and step-son but no one wants to do anything about it. The boy wanders the same woodland as Seiji, loudly singing the Gatchaman theme song with its cheerful chorus of the world being as one, and trying to keep out of his stepfather’s way. Only Hinako, witnessing the man about to inflict some harsh discipline on his step-son is brave enough to say something but her intervention only provides a momentary reprieve.

Though largely played for laughs there are some darker sides to the world of the danchi – the covert affairs, the gossip, the boredom, and the wilful ignoring of other people’s distress, to name but a few. In true Osakan style there is however a warmth to the comedy coupled with an endearing silliness which contrasts nicely with the more melancholy aspects hanging around the edges. Taking in everything from petty local politics to murder accusations and over zealous TV reporting, not to mention aliens, The Projects’ ambitions are wild and the tone oddly surreal but then again, nothing’s impossible in the danchi!


The Projects was screened as part of the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Black Kiss (ブラックキス, Macoto Tezuka, 2006)

Black KissThe somewhat salaciously titled Black Kiss (ブラックキス) comes appropriately steeped in giallo-esque nastiness but its ambitions lean towards the classic Hollywood crime thriller as much as they do to gothic European horror. Directed by the son of the legendary father of manga Osamu Tezuka (not immune to a little strange violence of his own) Macoto Tezuka, Black Kiss is a noir inspired tale of Tokyo after dark where a series of bizarre staged murders are continuing to puzzle the police.

We witness the first of them as a sleazy producer type takes a prospective new sign out for a night on the town. He promises to make her a star but predictably the evening ends in a fairly grim love hotel. This early episode is brought to an abrupt halt as the man is conked on the head in the bathroom only to wake up tied to the bed for a spot of vivisection.

However, it turns out there is an unexpected witness to the crime in the form of aspiring model, Asuka, who we now meet by hopping back week as she moves into the flat opposite with the rather sullen and reluctant street punk Kasumi. The pair then get involved with the police as well as with a local paparazzo but what does Kasumi’s missing former roommate have to do with all of this and why does all the evidence keep pointing back to her? The reason may surprise you.

Black Kiss is playing with several genres during its running time but it certainly packs in its fair share of red herrings. Far too many, in fact, leaving its ultimate explanation feeling oddly hollow. Given this amount of build up and a careful arrangement of clues, Tezuka’s decision to end as a standard slasher leaves the viewer feeling cheated as our intrepid heroines make an admittedly exciting final run for it across the rooftops of Kabuki-cho. After throwing so many possible solutions on the screen, the one that is finally offered seems extremely dull in comparison and makes little to no internal sense.

That said, Black Kiss is actually quite good at painting its shady world with an appropriate layer of detail. Tezuka returns to the ideas of duality which play into his Vertigo homage, casting his two leading ladies as alike in some senses – both having been involved in the fashion industry, both half Japanese, both adrift in terms of their lives and ambitions, but is also careful place them on opposing sides as Asuka dresses in light colours to bring out her sweetness and innocence whereas Kasumi is all punk/goth darkness and aggression borne of self loathing. Though originally reluctant roommates, Asuka and Kasumi eventually bond though it’s another weakness of the film that aspects of their relationship appear curiously unresolved adding yet another layer of ambiguity to the already hard to pin down central narrative.

What Tezuka really seems to want to do is use the central mystery to explore notions of genre rather than actually follow or even blend them. He quotes Hitchcock both overtly onscreen with the oddly named “Bats Motel” and Vertigo night club as well as in his Rear Window and Dial M for Murder plot elements but then he veers widely off course into the world of giallo with his semi-explicit sex scene and leather clad avenging murderess. As an exercise in style, Black Kiss is frequently impressive with its innovative cinematography and unusual composition but dramatically it can’t unify its underlying concerns in a way which makes both visual and narrative sense.

A noble failure, there is much to admire in Black Kiss which is only let down by its non-sensical finale. Deliberately or otherwise, Tezuka constantly undercuts himself and pulls his punches just when it seems as if he may be about to move into a more interesting area. The final mystery makes no sense at all and, in what may be Tezuka’s biggest failed ambition, leaves the murders themselves as an odd kind of McGuffin. Quite a big ask in what is, essentially a serial killer movie with a significant lean towards giallo inflected horror. Nevertheless, though Black Kiss fails on many levels it does prove intriguing enough to maintain interest even if it ultimately loses all of the good will it accrues with its dramatically unsatisfying slide into slasher territory in the final quarter.


Unsubbed trailer:

Hana-bi (はなび, AKA Fireworks, Takeshi Kitano, 1997)

Original quad poster from UK theatrical release (some of these cinemas no longer exist. Also, sponsored by Yo! Sushi.)

Review of Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (はなび) first published by UK Anime Network.


Takeshi Kitano might still be best known for his ultra violent gangster pics, but after making it into the international arthouse repertoire with Sonatine back in the early ‘90s it was Hana-bi which put him on the map as one of Japan’s most prominent exports. Kitano plays the lead in the film once more adopting his cooler than cool persona with occasional flashes of violence only this time on the side of the law (to begin with, anyway).

Told in an initially confusing, flashback structure, Hana-bi follows middle aged policeman Nishi who experiences several life changing events in a short space of time. At the beginning of the film he’s let off a stakeout and told to go visit his wife who’s ill in hospital. Unfortunately, as we later find out, this will prove to be a poor decision as pretty much everything goes wrong – Nishi’s partner, Horibe, is shot and ends up paralysed, one of his other men is wounded and tragically another killed right in front of Nishi’s eyes. After being told that nothing more can be done for his wife and it’s better that she just come home from the hospital, Nishi quits the police force, gets involved with the yakuza and robs a bank before taking off with his wife for one last holiday.

Actually, the film skips over its climactic event until quite a way into its running time. Kitano unsettles us right away by giving us very little explanation for what we’re seeing. He shows us Nishi meeting with the widow of a man we didn’t even know was dead yet (not that he really told us who she was anyway). We’re left to piece events together like a detective listening to a confused witness testimony only our information is primarily visual – there isn’t even a lot of dialogue to guide us on our way. This refreshing technique is one the generally laconic Kitano seems to favour and greatly adds to Hana-bi’s low-key style.

Kitano never says too much in his movies anyway, but this time his is wife also near silent uttering the grand total of two words in the entire film and both of those come in the final scene. We know that she has a terminal illness (though it isn’t clear that she knows this, or how much she understands). Nishi and his wife also apparently lost their young daughter not long ago and it’s implied that perhaps she just hasn’t been fully present ever since. Her lack of speech, shyness and constant game playing coupled with her outwardly cheerful (if sometimes vacant) demeanour give her a childlike quality but the two words she does offer at the film’s conclusion imply (at least in that moment) that she knows what’s going on and understands what is about to happen.

Nishi and his wife have an extremely close relationship, they rarely need to speak to each other. However, Nishi’s partner, Horibe, discovers that his marriage was not as secure as he assumed as his wife and daughter walk out on him after his accident. In an effort to give him something to strive for, Nishi sends him some painting supplies and henceforth Horibe’s artwork (actually designed by Kitano himself) becomes a prominent motif in the film. The first series takes animals and then people and paints them with the heads of flowers but this then gives way to more complicated pointillist scenes. Many of Horibe’s works feature a repeated motif of a man, woman and child (neatly echoed in the films closing scenes) seemingly enjoying a happy family occasion. Perhaps this is an odd sort of masochism on Horibe’s part, lamenting everything he’s lost since his accident but the two figures could also represent the Nishis reunited with their lost daughter.

Shot in Kitano’s trademark blues, Hana-bi is a melancholy tale. Flowers and fire, Kitano shows us both extreme tenderness and fits of violence as he’s both the loving husband, grieving father, nurturing best friend and hardline cop who bears personal responsibility for the loss of his own. This path only leads in one direction and we’ve figured out where we’re headed long before nearing the end of our journey. Nevertheless, Hana-bi is a rich, poetic experience which continues to prove deeply moving and endlessly fascinating.


Hana-bi is re-released in the UK today on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window Films who will also be releasing Dolls and Kikujiro in the near future.