Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

The Beast Must Die (野獣死すべし, Toru Murakawa, 1980)

LP Soundrack record cover

Yusaku Matsuda was the action icon of the ‘70s, well known for his counter cultural, rebellious performances as maverick detectives or unlucky criminals. By the early 1980s he was ready to shed his action star image for more challenging character roles as his performances for Yoshimitsu Morita in The Family Game and Sorekara or in Seijun Suzuki’s Kagero-za demonstrate. The Beast Must Die (野獣死すべし, Yaju Shisubeshi, AKA Beast to Die) is among his earliest attempts to break out of the action movie cage and reunites him with director Toru Murakawa with whom he’d previously worked on Resurrection of the Golden Wolf also adapted from a novel by the author of The Beast Must Die, Haruhiko Oyabu. A strange and surreal experience which owes a large amount to the  “New Hollywood” movement of the previous decade, The Beast Must Die also represents a possible new direction for its all powerful producer, Haruki Kadokawa, in making space for smaller, art house inspired mainstream films.

Shedding 25 pounds and having four of his molars removed to play the role, Matsuda inhabits the figure of former war zone photo journalist Kazuhiro Date whose experiences have reduced him to state of living death. After getting into a fight with a policeman he seems to know, Date kills him, steals his gun, and heads to a local casino where he goes on a shooting rampage and takes off with the takings. Date, now working as a translator, does not seem to need or even want the money though if he had a particular grudge against the casino or the men who gather there the reasons are far from clear.

Remaining inscrutable, Date spends much of his time alone at home listening to classical music. Attending a concert, he runs into a woman he used to know who seems to have fond feelings for him, but Date is being pulled in another direction as his experiences in war zones have left him with a need for release through physical violence. Eventually meeting up with a similarly disaffected young man, Date plans an odd kind of revenge in robbing a local bank for, again, unclear motives, finally executing the last parts of himself clinging onto the world of order and humanity once and for all.

Throughout the film Date recites a kind of poem, almost a him to his demon of violence in which he speaks of loneliness and of a faith only in his own rage. Later, in one of his increasingly crazed speeches to his only disciple, Date recounts the first time he killed a man – no longer a mere observer in someone else’s war, now a transgressor himself taking a life to save his own. The violence begins to excite him, he claims to have “surpassed god” in his bloodlust, entering an ecstatic state which places him above mere mortals. A bullet, he says, stops time in that it alters a course of events which was fated to continue. A life ends, and with it all of that time which should have elapsed is dissolved in the ultimate act of theft and destruction. His acts of violence are “beautiful demonic moments” available only to those who have rejected the world of law.

Murakawa allows Matsuda to carry the film with a characteristically intense, near silent performance of a man driven mad by continued exposure to human cruelty. Hiding out in Date’s elegant apartment, Matsuda moves oddly, beast-like, his baseness contrasting perfectly with the classical music which momentarily calms his world. Mixing in stock footage of contemporary war zones, Murakawa makes plain the effect of this ongoing violence on Date’s psyche as the sound of helicopters and gunfire resounds within his own head. The imagery becomes increasingly surreal culminating in the moment of consecration for Date’s pupil in which he finally murders his girlfriend while she furiously performs flamenco during an dramatic thunderstorm. Date is, to borrow a phrase, no longer human, any last remnants of human feeling are extinguished in his decision to kill the only possibility of salvation during the bank robbery.

Anchored by Matsuda’s powerful presence, The Beast Must Die is a fascinating, if often incomprehensible, experience filled with surreal imagery and an ever present sense of dread. Its world is one of neo noir, the darkness and modern jazz score adding to a sense of alienation which contrasts with the brightness and elegance of the classical music world. At the end of his transformation, there is only one destination left to Date though his path there is a strange one. Fittingly enough for a tale which began with with darkness we exit through blinding white light.


There’s also another adaptation of this novel from 1959 starring Tatsuya Nakadai which I’d love to see but doesn’t seem to be available on DVD even without subtitles. This film has a selection of English language titles but I’ve used The Beast Must Die as this is the one which appears on Kadokawa’s 4K restoration blu-ray release (sadly Japanese subtitles ony).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

His Motorbike, Her Island (彼のオートバイ彼女の島, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)

His Motorcycle Her IslandLike many directors during the 1980s, Nobuhiko Obayashi was unable to resist the lure of a Kadokawa teen movie but His Motorbike, Her Island (彼のオートバイ彼女の島, Kare no Ootobai, Kanojo no Shima) is a typically strange 1950s throwback with its tale of motorcycle loving youngsters and their ennui filled days. Switching between black and white and colour, Obayashi paints a picture of a young man trapped in an eternal summer from which he has no desire to escape.

Ko (Riki Takeuchi) tells us that he’s an unusual guy because most people dream in colour but all of his dreams are in monochrome. He’s a student and dispatch rider overly attached to his admittedly very handsome Kawasaki motorbike. After getting beaten up by his boss due to deflowering the guy’s sister and then breaking her heart, Ko skips town for the open road, just him and his bike. However, he repeatedly runs into the same mysterious girl who lives on an equally mysterious island and develops a deep seated need for her, secondary only to that for his bike. Miyo (Kiwako Harada) has also taken a liking to the Kawasaki and is intent on getting her full motorcycle license. Her growing obsession with the bike threatens to become an all consuming need driving a wedge between the two young lovers.

Obayashi begins in a black and white sequence window boxed in the centre of the screen before expanding to 4:3 when Ko has his fight with his boss and only hits 16:9 for the first colour scene which sees Ko taking off on his beloved bike. He told us that his dreams are in black and white but the film seems to disagree with him, segueing into various gradated colour schemes as Ko narrates his melancholy tale of tragic lost love. Ko is not necessarily a very reliable narrator in any case, but in each instance the on screen action is always coloured by the recollections of the older man who offers his voice over commentary.

Like many Obayashi films, the overriding feeling is one of melancholy mixed with a youthful apathy.  This is a story about modern young people, but refracted through rebellious ‘50s movies from Rebel Without a Cause to The Wild One and a hundred others inbetween. Ko is a university student (of what we don’t know) but seems to have no great ambitions. He takes things as he finds them and his only passion is the bike itself. When he first meets Miyo and she asks him where he’s going, he simply replies that he’s “looking for the wind” – a motif which recurs throughout the film.

Later on when he arrives at Miyo’s island, it takes on an opposing symbolism to his bike. Just as Miyo can’t get enough of the Kawasaki, Ko is originally attracted to the island much more than to the girl. It’s not quite a coincidence that each time he visits there it’s the Bon festival where the dead are temporarily allowed to return to the world of the living. Later he says that Miyo wasn’t just a girl but an island, and he wan’t just a boy but a bike, and together the two of them became the wind. They became one entity, inseparable one from the other. Finally the esoteric colour scheme begins to make sense, we’ve been watching a ghost story all along. This island is an unreal place, existing only inside Ko’s memory where Miyo waits for him with a full tank of gas.

Once again youth is seen as a brief yet unforgettable period filled with longing and regret. The older man is forever trapped by this one glorious summer, a place to which he can never return but neither can he escape. The nihilistic tone and voice over narration have an edge of the French New Wave but ‘50s American cinema of alienation seems closer to Obayashi’s intentions. An elliptical and strange tale of tragic love retold as a ghost story, filled with phantoms of memory and landscapes coloured by dream and emotion, His Motorbike, Her Island is another characteristically offbeat effort from Obayashi which once again embraces the aimlessness of youth and age’s regret.


Unsubtitled trailer – goes through to a video of Kiwako Harada singing the title song, in case you were in any doubt what this movie is for.

Or, here is the film’s opening (which also features the title song)

Death Powder (デスパウダー, Shigeru Izumiya, 1986)

death powderCyberpunk, for many people, is a movement which came to define the 1980s and continues to enjoy various kinds of resurgences and rebirths even into the new century. Beginning the the ‘60s and ’70s in dystopian science fiction afraid of the impact of advancing technologies in society, it’s not surprising that the genre began to actively embrace influences from the East and especially that of the more technologically advanced and economically superior Japan. However, when Japan made its own cyberunk cinema, the “punk” element is the one that’s important. These movies sprang from the punk music scene and often star punk bands and musicians as well as featuring high energy punk rock inspired scores.

Death Powder (デスパウダー) is among the first of these tech themed experimental films and is the only feature to be directed by folk singer and poet Shigeru Izumiya who had also starred in Sogo Ishii’s massively influential Burst City in 1982. Hugely indebted to Blade Runner, it takes that film’s noir stylings and terminology to create an experimental surrealist film loosely themed around two bounty hunters in search of a “replicant”.

After beginning with a chase sequence past neon signs and through a contemporary Tokyo where the faces of passersby have been pixelated out, the story focuses in on the pair of street punk robot hunters, Kiyoshi and Noris, who have been charged with investigating a gang hideout which used to belong to an artist who keeps trying to come back. However, when the duo arrive they find that the reason the artist, Harima (played by Izumiya himself), keeps trying to attack the place is that they’ve been holding his girlfriend, Guernica – an android, in the basement. After Guernica is killed in the resultant fighting, her body turns into a kind of powder which Kiyoshi later snorts. This “Death Powder” allows Guernica to colonise his body producing changes in both his mind and physiology.

This is what passes for a plot summary, though in keeping with the best of cyberpunk film making from Japan the narrative is irrelevant. One character even says to another “Like life itself, this makes no sense” – that being the point in a sense, creating meaning from the meaningless. Though it starts off with a Blade Runner-esque aesthetic bearing all of the hall marks which would come to be associated with cyberpunk from the neon signs, darkened streets and noir tinged atmosphere right down to the shades and trilbies costuming, the film quickly moves into the experimental realm with strange robotic sperm flying across the screen and melting vistas of city scenes and memories.

Kiyoshi begins to merge with Guernica’s consciousness, inheriting her memories and what may or may not be android fears and emotions. He “remembers” a flashback sequence featuring the very strange figure of Dr. Loo – a rock god mad scientistic who built Guernica for some undisclosed reason and then passed her on to Harima on whom it, apparently, depends whether not not she can become human which requires showing her love that transcends human love and will become “memories”. Like the replicants in Blade Runner she has a limited four year lifespan but when she dies her body will become a powder which gives life to other things.

Guernica is a created being, devoid of human flesh, but can she become human through experiencing human emotions and can she overcome death by downloading her experiences into another being’s consciousness? All fundamental questions found in cyberpunk explorations of what in means to be human in a world of advancing technology but once again Death Powder offers no clear answers so much as a surrealist and experimental exploration of the individual changes undergone by the individual rather than the society in the face of increasing mechanisation.

The borders between life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, man and machine have all become so hopelessly blurred that concept of reality itself has become corrupted and no longer carries any kind of currency. While it may not have the raw and sophisticated artistic power of Tsukamoto’s later Tetsuo the Iron Man which has come to define the genre, Death Powder is a surprisingly accomplished low budget cyberpunk body horror extravaganza which places sensory experience ahead of narrative. Undoubtedly hugely influential yet now little seen or remembered, Death Powder is an essential addition to the cyberpunk canon and one which deserves to be as widely distributed as the classics which later followed it.


Opening sequence of the film (very trippy but dialague free until right near the end. Fast forward to around four minutes in for the nighttime chase through Tokyo!):

Panic High School (高校大パニック, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

Panic High SchoolSogo (now Gakyruu) Ishii was only 20 years old when Nikkatsu commissioned him to turn his smash hit 8mm short into a full scale studio picture. Perhaps that’s why they partnered him with one of their steadiest hands in Yukihiro Sawada as a co-director though the youthful punk attitude that would become Ishii’s signature is very much in evidence here despite the otherwise mainstream studio production. That said, Nikkatsu in this period was a far less sophisticated operation than it had been a decade before and, surprisingly, Panic High School (高校大パニック, Koukou Dai Panic) neatly avoids the kind of exploitative schlock that its title might suggest.

Back in 1977, though sadly little has changed in the intervening 40 years, schools are little more than pressure cookers slowly squeezing out every inch of individuality from the young people trapped within them as they cram for tests in subjects they might not actually understand. When a pupil commits suicide, the head master offers a few words of condolence over the tannoy system which the form tutor later backs up by emphasising that no one knows why the boy did this and that it probably has nothing at all to do with the school, exam pressure, or his performance in the recent mock exams. The school expect a line to be drawn here and for everyone to forget about it and get back to work.

However, when the teacher, Ihara, starts going on about the league tables suffering if the kids don’t buckle down some of them have had enough. One young man, Jono, looses it completely and takes a swing at the teacher only to miss and run out of the school in a panic. Whilst wandering around town he passes a gun shop and swipes a rifle before returning to the classroom and assassinating the maths tyrant. Not knowing what to do next, Jono hides out in the school building taking some of his friends hostage and then all hell breaks loose.

At its core, Panic High School is satire laying bare the crisis in Japan’s educational system which places undue emphasis on one particular set of exams which will determine the entirety of a person’s life. The teachers are cruel and heartless, little more than cogs in a machine. They don’t care about the kids, they only care about the statistics and the prestige associated with being the top high school in the area. All of these kids are bright, they already passed the stressful middle school entrance exams to get here, and the school just expects them to succeed but offers no support if they can’t.

Indeed, Ihara isn’t even teaching them anything. At the beginning of the film he asks a female student to solve an equation on the board. When she can’t, not only does he not explain the solution to her, he sends her outside adding to her original humiliation in front of the entire class and preventing her from actually learning how to solve the problem. When the next boy can’t solve it either he simply berates him for not studying, saying a “student at this high school should be able to solve this problem”. When the boy points out he did study but just doesn’t understand all he gets is abuse, no actual teaching at all.

Even when the police have been called, all anyone cares about is the reputation of the school. The headmaster keeps harping on about their status as the top school in the area and how “unfortunate” it would be if a student is killed inside the school – which is completely ignoring the fact that a teacher has already been murdered by a shotgun toting teenager right in the classroom. The police bungle the entire affair, starting by tearing apart Jono’s desk for clues including going right through his lunchbox and pointlessly cutting a hole in the bottom of his schoolbag. Bringing even more guns and riot police into the school to deal with one frightened boy who doesn’t want to shoot anyone else but is only trying to effect his escape (so he can take his entrance exams next year) is far from a good idea.

The kids are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take this anymore. The pressure is extreme and in the face of adult hypocrisy, it’s unsurprising that Jono and the other young people like him find themselves lashing out in extreme ways. Their teachers see them only as products, or even as components in the building of a “future” but never as people. Even if some of them start out wanting to help Jono, by the end even a teacher is trying to grab a gun screaming “That kid! I hate him now – I’ll kill him, he’s abandoned the most important thing – his education! He should never have come here in the first place!” putting the blame firmly on the boy and not on the system. In fact, the other teachers are busy in a huddle talking about how this is going to raise questions about the educational establishment and how they intend to mitigate that (they do not intend to address the “problems” in themselves).

While not as loud or as dynamic as some of Ishii’s later work, Panic High School displays much of his punkish sensibility even if it takes a form closer to ‘70s youth drama complete with all the zooms, whips and pans associated with the exploitation era. However, perhaps because Ishii’s own age is so close that of his protagonists the film is firmly on the side of youth. Far from a “youth in crisis” film, Panic High School places the blame firmly at the feet of the system which forces its young people into extreme and absurd situations. Notably different from Ishii’s later work in terms of tone and style, Panic High School is nevertheless an impressive studio debut feature and a strong indicator of the director’s continuing preoccupations.


Climatic scene from towards the beginning of the film (unsubtitled)