The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

korou_honpos_0220_fin.aiJapanese cinema, like American cinema, is one of the few in which the hero cop is a recognisable trope. Though they may be bumbling, inefficient, obsessed with bureaucracy, or perhaps just lazy, police in Japanese cinema are rarely corrupt or actively engaged in criminality. Even within the realms of the “jitsuroku” gangster movie, the police maintain a fringe presence, permitting the existence of the underground crime world in order to contain it. “Jitsuroku” is, in a fashion, where we find ourselves with Kazuya Shiraishi’s throwback underworld police story, The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Koro no Chi). Set in 1988, the end of the Showa Era which had seen the rebirth of post-war Japan and the ascendency of yakuza thuggery, The Blood of Wolves is based on a novel by Yuko Yuzuki rather than a “true account” of life on the frontlines of gangsterdom, but otherwise draws inspiration from the Battles Without Honour series in updating the story of nihilistic yakuza violence to the bubble era.

In 1988, a young accountant “goes missing” sending his sister to ask the police for help in locating him. The case gets passed to sleazy detective Ogami (Koji Yakusho) and his new rookie partner, Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka). Ogami leers disturbingly at the dame who just walked into his office before dismissing the newbie and extracting a sexual favour from the distressed relative of the missing man. Unfortunately, the accountant turns up dead and the bank he worked for turns out to be a yakuza front caught up in a burgeoning gang war between the Odani with whom Ogami has long standing connections and the gang from the next town over who are looking to increase their territory.

Ogami, a chain smoking, hard drinking, womanising detective of the old school, has one foot in the yakuza world and the other on the side of law enforcement. Hioka, a recent graduate from the local but also elite Hiroshima University (something of a rarity in his current occupation), is not quite sure what to make of his new boss and his decidedly “unorthodox” methods, becoming increasingly concerned about the way the police force operates in a town defined by organised crime. Deciding that Ogami has gone too far, he eventually makes the decision to go to IA with a list of complaints but there’s still so much he doesn’t know about Hiroshima and it is possible he may have picked the wrong side.

What he discovers is that the police force is so intrinsically rotten as to have become little more than a yakuza gang itself, only one with the legal right to carry guns and a more impressive uniform. Ogami, for all his faults, apparently has his heart in the right place. His “friendships” with gangsters are more means to an end than they are spiritual corruption, gaining leverage that will help him keep a lid on gang war – after all, no one wants a return to the turbulent days of the 1970s when the streets ran red with the blood of unlucky foot soldiers and that of the civilians who got in their way. Meanwhile Hioka, starting out as the straight-laced rookie, is himself “corrupted” by the corruption he uncovers, developing a complex mix of disgust and admiration for Ogami’s practiced methods of manipulation which, apparently, place public safety above all else.

Ogami, as he tells the conflicted Hioka, knows he walks a tightrope every day, neatly straddling the line between cop and yakuza, and the only way to stay alive is to keep on walking knowing one slip may lead to his doom. He may say cops can do whatever they like in pursuit of “justice” (and he does), but Ogami has his lines that cannot be crossed, unlike others in his organisation who care only for themselves and have long since given up any pretence of working for the public good.

Shiraishi channels classic Fukasaku from the noticeably retro Toei logo at the film’s opening to the voice over narration, garish red on screen text, and frequent use of freeze frames familiar from the Battles Without Honour series and associated “jitsuroku” gangster fare that followed in its wake. Moving the action up to 1988, the gangster world is once again in flux as it tries to corporatise itself to get in on the profits of bubble era prosperity which largely has no need for the thuggish gangster antics of the chaotic post-war years in which the yakuza could paint itself as a defender of the poor and oppressed no matter how ridiculous it might have been in reality. Ogami is a dying breed, a relic of the Showa era meeting its natural end, but perhaps you need to be a wolf to catch a wolf and guardian spirits can come in unexpected forms.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death Note: Light Up The NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

Death Note- Light up the NEW WorldTsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata’s Death Note manga has already spawned three live action films, an acclaimed TV anime, live action TV drama, musical, and various other forms of media becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. A return to cinema screens was therefore inevitable – Death Note: Light up the NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World) positions itself as the first in a possible new strand of the ongoing franchise, casting its net wider to embrace a new, global world. Directed by Shinsuke Sato – one of the foremost blockbuster directors in Japan responsible for Gantz, Library Wars, and the zombie comedy I am a Hero, Light up the NEW World is a new kind of Death Note movie which moves away from the adversarial nature of the series for a more traditional kind of existential procedural which takes its cues from noir rather the eccentric detectives the franchise is known for.

Ten years after Kira, the Shinigami are bored out of their minds and hoping to find themselves a new puppet to play with and so they drop six notebooks at different places across the world and wait to see who picks them up. The first is a Russian doctor who uses it out of curiosity and compassion when faced with the desperate pleas of a suffering, terminally ill man. Others are not so altruistic, as a young girl with reaper eyes goes on a mass random killing spree in the busy Shibuya streets while the police attempt to cover their faces so they can’t fall victim to her relentless writing. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) of the special Death Note task force hesitates, uncertain whether he should disobey orders and shoot the girl to end her killing spree, but his dilemma is solved when a strangely dressed masked man appears and shoots her for him. He is special detective Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) – L’s successor, and a crucial ally in discovering the Shinigami’s intentions as well as the counter plan to obtain the six books and lock them away to permanently disable the Death Note threat.

As in the original series, Kira has his devotees including the cybercriminal Shien (Masaki Suda) who is intent on frustrating the police’s plan by getting his hands on the books and using them to complete Kira’s grand design. This time around, there’s less questioning of the nature of justice or of the police but at least that means there’s little respect given to Kira’s cryptofascist ideas about crime and punishment. At one point a very wealthy woman begins to voice her support of Kira because something needs to be done about “the poor” and all their “crimes” but she is quickly cut down herself as her well dressed friends attempt to rally around her.

The focus is the police, or more specifically their internal political disputes and divisions. Mishima, described as a Kira geek, heads a special squad dedicated to Death Note related crimes, where he is asssited by the flamboyant private detective Ryuzaki who is apparently the last remaining inheritor of L’s DNA. Mishima remains distrustful of his colleague but the bond between the rest of the team is a tight one. In order to frustrate possible Death Note users, none of the squad is using their real names which places a barrier between comrades in arms when it comes to building trust and solidarity in addition to leaving a backdoor open for unexpected secrets.

Sato’s focus, as it has been in the majority of his career, is genre rather than character or exploring the wider themes of the Death Note franchise from the corrupting influence of absolute power to vigilante justice and the failings of the judicial system. The new Death Note world is a more conventional one loyal to the police procedural in which dogged detectives chase mad killers through whatever means necessary whether on foot or online.

The action, however, is generally exciting as the police engage in a cat and mouse game with Shien even if not as complex as that between Kira and L. The Death Notes are an unstoppable force, corrupting otherwise fair-minded people and turning them into vengeful killing machines acting like gods in deciding who should live and who die. Moving away from the series trademark, Light up the NEW World is, essentially, the generic thriller spin-off to the main franchise but is no less fun for it even if it necessarily loses a little of itself in the process.


Death Note: Light up the NEW World was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Nobuhiro Doi, 2004)

be-with-youWhen it comes to tragic romances, no one does them better than Japan. Adapted from a best selling novel by Takuji Ichikawa, Be With You (いま、会いにゆきます, Ima, ai ni Yukimasu) is very much part of the “Jun-ai” or “pure love” boom kickstarted by Crying Out Love In the Center of the World released the same year but taps into Japan’s long history of supernaturally tinged love stories, filled with the weight of impending tragedy and the essential transience of the human experience.

Like many such tales, Be With You begins with a framing sequence set 12 years after the main events, but unusually it’s directed from the point of view of the soon-to-be 18 year old, Yuji (Yuta Hiraoka). Receiving a birthday cake from a bakery which has apparently only stayed open because of its promise to deliver birthday cakes to him every year until he turns 18, Yuji begins to reflect on the “miracle” which he and his father experienced all those years ago.

Yuji’s mother passed away at the age of 28 when he was only 5 years old. However, before she died, Mio (Yuko Takeuchi) had prepared a special picture book for Yuji to try and help him process what was happening. In the book, Mio has gone to a place called “Archive Star” and will return for the first rainy season a year after her death. Improbable as it is, Yuji and his father Takumi (Shido Nakamura) discover a woman who looks exactly like Mio lost in the forest during the first rains. Stunned the pair take her home but Mio has no knowledge of her former life as a wife and mother. Gradually, Mio begins to fall in love with her husband all over again whilst bonding with her young son, but their happiness is short lived as Mio realises her time with them is limited.

Because Mio can’t remember, we experience the love story between the teenage Takumi and Mio firstly through his eyes as he tells her of his unrequited high school crush when she sat at the desk across from him for two years during in which he was too shy to say anything. Later we hear the same story again from Mio’s perspective through her diary where we learn, not altogether surprisingly, that she felt the same way. The pair mirror each other throughout their courtship, wanting to say something but lacking the courage and looking for excuses to try and push the situation in a better direction. Other than the mutually unresolved attempts at phone calls and an unreturned pen, Mio and Takumi essentially relive their original romance in the brief time they are able to share together from repeated motifs of untied shoelaces and clumsiness with a bicycle, to innocent in pocket hand holding.

Takumi has an ongoing medical condition which interferes with his motor functions, slowing him down and giving him an air of soulful melancholy later compounded by his romantic tragedy. Having been a champion runner on a sports scholarship to college, the diagnosis causes extreme disruption to his life and leads him to the typically jun-ai decision to break up with Mio because he feels as if he’d be a burden to her. A year after Mio passed away, Takumi is doing his best to bring up his son but is a little distant and struggling to take care of the domestic environment. When Mio realises that she can’t take care of them forever, she switches her focus to trying to prepare her husband and son for life alone – teaching Yuji how to fry eggs and do the laundry, whilst renewing her emotional bond with Takumi. There’s no happy ending in store for Mio, the loss cannot be avoided and perhaps it might even be worse to have had this brief respite from the ongoing pain, but the six week rainy season does, at least, provide an opportunity to say those things that might have otherwise gone unsaid.

Nobuhiro Doi films in a typically elegant fashion making great use of the area’s natural beauty to create a fairy tale atmosphere from the mysterious, life giving forest. The poignancy of the tale is all the deeper knowing that Mio eventually understood what would happen to her, but chose a brief life with Takumi and her son over the possibility of a longer one without them. Heartbreakingly sad, yet a testament to the importance of appreciating the present which all too soon becomes the past, Be With You is a genuinely romantic love story, not only between a husband and a wife but an entire family carrying the weight of a tragic loss but easing the burden by treasuring the memory of the intense love shared between them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)