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)

Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shadowfall (影踏み, Tetsuo Shinohara, 2019)

Cinema has an odd preoccupation with twins. The uncanniness of seeing more than one person with the same face in the same frame injects a note of inescapable unease, not least because of the oddness of the techniques required to make one actor appear to be in two places at once. Shadowfall (影踏み, Kagefumi) adapted from the mystery novel by 64’s Hideo Yokoyama, places the “evil twin” motif at its heart but, perhaps a little uncomfortably, uses it as a metaphor for the shadow self as the conflicted hero attempts to find closure with past trauma and family legacy in order to reintegrate his two selves into one complete whole capable of living a life both spiritually and emotionally honest. 

As the film opens, ace cat burgler Shuichi (Masayoshi Yamazaki) is in the process of breaking into the home of a local politician. Whilst there, however, he discovers petrol pooled on the hall floor and the politician’s wife, Yoko (Yuri Nakamura), nervously grasping a cigarette lighter. He manages to snap the lighter shut before she can use it, saving her life (as well as that of the husband she was about to kill), but is then caught by a policeman, Sosuke (Pistol Takehara), who happened to be “just passing by” and is also, coincidentally, a childhood friend. Shuichi gets two years, and is met on his release by a young man, Keiji (Takumi Kitamura), dressed in incongruously old-fashioned, gangster-style clothes and adressing him as “Shuichi-ni” or “big brother Shuichi”. Together, the pair form a small crime fighting team determined to find out what became of Yoko while poking their noses into some conspiratorial corruption which links her with yakuza, police, and the judiciary. The situation is further complicated when Sosuke is found dead after a visit to Yoko’s bar, leaving Shuichi implicated in the possible murder of his old friend. 

Reflecting on the case, police detective Mabuchi (Shingo Tsurumi), who also knew Shuichi in his youth, remarks that twins are tied to each other like heaven is to hell. One will necessarily drag the other down. Later, he corrects himself, that if is that is true then the reverse must also be and one should be able to raise the other up. What we see, however, is largely the former. We discover that Shuichi had an identical twin who was “no good”, a petty teenage hoodlum always in trouble with the police where he was a top student preparing to study the law and become a prosector. Their mother (Shinobu Otake), a teacher, found herself a victim of social stigma as the mother of a criminal, asked to resign from her job because a woman who can’t raise her own son to be a law abiding citizen is not fit to educate those of others. Hisako (Machiko Ono), who had been friends with both the boys and is still carrying a smouldering torch for the “good” Shuichi, experiences something of the same when she’s targeted by a creepy stalker (Kenichi Takito) who leaks her “criminal associations” on the message board of the nursery school where she too teaches. 

Having waited for him all these years, Hisako is praying for the restoration of the Shuichi she once knew who was good where his brother was “bad”. Despite her deep and abiding love for him, she claims to have chosen Shuichi, rather than his brother, because loving the good is the safer, more responsible choice. Shuichi, meanwhile, describes himself as walking in his brother’s shadow, a darkened space into which Hisako wishes to be admitted but is wilfully denied. He tells himself he does this to keep her safe, but is in reality unable to step into that space himself and occupy it as a full and complete person. He claims that his criminality is an act of revenge when it is actually a kind of self-harm that ensures his two selves, the shadow self that is his departed brother, and the ghost self which is the cat burglar, will remain forever separate. 

Talking with another twin whose mirroring of his brother had even darker results, Shuichi confesses that to share a soul with another human being is a terrible curse and one he secretly longed to be released from. It’s this latent sense of guilt which haunts him, cleaving his soul in two. Only by dealing with the traumatic past, the memories inflamed by Yoko whose burden is a fear of an excessive “niceness” she too must learn to let go, can he reintegrate his two selves into one complete whole with only a single shadow. A noirish tale of haunting grief and unresolved regret, Shadowfall finds hope in the simple act of acceptance and the promised restoration of the imperfect whole. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Flowers of Evil (惡の華, Noboru Iguchi, 2019)

Small-town ennui is something familiar to many who’ve found themselves feeling somewhat out of place in the place they’ve always been, but rebellions usually take less obvious forms than the nihilistic rejection of bourgeois respectability enacted by the conflicted hero at the centre of Noboru Iguchi’s Flowers of Evil (惡の華, Aku no Hana). Iguchi is best known as a director of made for export splatter exploitation, so it might come as a surprise to his fans to see him take on the admittedly dark but largely gore-fee adaptation of Shuzo Oshimi’s coming-of-age manga.

Takao (Kentaro Ito), a “regular” high school boy, likes to read “difficult” books such as the poetry collection by Charles Baudelaire from which the film takes its title. He feels himself somewhat above his surroundings, but superficially conforms to the ordinary world around him. Like many of his classmates, he’s developed an adolescent crush on the school’s prettiest girl, Nanako (Shiori Akita), but unlike his friends views her as his “muse”, a pure and untouchable figure of unspeakable desire. Nipping back to the classroom alone to retrieve a forgotten book, he spots Nanako’s gym bag lying on the floor and cannot resist opening it, burying his face in her clothes. Panicked after hearing someone nearby, he takes the bag home with him.

Everyone immediately knows that a “pervert” is responsible for the theft, they just don’t know who it is. Except for the class’ resident strange girl, Sawa (Tina Tamashiro), who apparently witnessed Takao’s descent into perversion in real time. She makes him a deal – write an essay all about what a big pervert he is and she’ll kept his secret in friendly complicity seeing as she is a kind of “pervert” too. Sawa, who is much more obviously “different” than Takao and completely unafraid of embracing it, is convinced that their town is entirely inhabited by “Shit Bugs”, and they are the only elevated beings. Uncomfortable with her own desire, Sawa’s behaviour becomes increasingly intense when Nanako unexpectedly expresses an interest in Takao, apparently impressed that he was so “upfront with his feelings” and willing to stand up for Sawa when she was accused of being a (but not the) thief.

Takao tells Sawa that he just wants to be “normal”, to be the kind of man Nanako could desire. Just another confused teenage boy, he doesn’t yet know who he is or what he feels and is, in a sense, consumed by the sense of emptiness that comes of lacking self-knowledge. He masks his sense of intellectual inferiority by feigning sophistication, spending his free time in second hand bookshops reading the accepted canon with a typically teenage obsession with death and despair. But as he is later forced to admit, he did so largely in order to feel superior. He doesn’t truly understand much of what he read and lacks the maturity to accept his confusion. Nanako challenges him in more ways than one – by calling him on his wilful repression of his desires, and by confronting him about his obsession with Flowers of Evil, a “difficult” book which try as she might she can’t understand. She doesn’t “get” Baudelaire, and she doesn’t “get” Takao because of it, but Takao doesn’t “get” Takao either because he thinks he’s a book filled with blank pages, that if you open the cover there’s really nothing interesting there, just a giant void of emptiness.

Three years after stealing the gym bag, Takao describes his new environment as infinitely grey as if devoid of any sense of life, whereas the climactic summer is coloured by a vibrant greenery he claims to be equally oppressive. Fed up with small-town life, both Takao and Sawa long for a mythical “beyond” on the other side of the mountains which trap them within the claustrophobic environment of their provincial existence. They kick back against small-town conservatism with childish shows of resistance which culminate in a very public act of self-harm dressed as societal attack, but remain unable and unwilling to address the real cause of their frustration in their adolescent inability to accept that desire itself is not “perverse” or somehow sullying some grand romantic notion of pure and innocent love.

Unable to process his desires, Takao remains unable to progress into adulthood and become, as Sawa later chides him, a “regular human”. Normality is, however, what he eventually chooses, reverting to the anxious bookworm he always was only having moved forward in learning to let something go, whereas Sawa perhaps feels that she has no other option that to accept her own “perversion” and be exiled by it. Takao discovers an internal “beyond” and tries to share it with Sawa, but she is looking for something else and cannot join him in the “regular” world to which he is always going to return. Iguchi dedicates the film to all those who are or were tormented by youth, allowing his tortured hero to find his path towards an integrated selfhood, but resists the temptation to belittle his suffering as he strips himself bare to exorcise the emptiness inside.


Flowers of Evil was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Every Day a Good Day (日日是好日, Tatsushi Omori, 2018)

Everyday a good day posterTatsushi Omori burst onto the scene in 2005 with the extremely hard-hitting and infinitely controversial The Whispering of the Gods before going on to build a career on chronicling the unpalatable facets of human nature. He does have his lighter sides as the delightfully whimsical Seto and Utsumi proves, but even so he might be thought an odd fit for directing an adaptation of a series of autobiographical essays detailing one woman’s personal growth over a 20 year period spent perfecting the art of the Japanese tea ceremony. Every Day a Good Day (日日是好日, Nichinichi Kore Kojitsu) is, however, like much of his previous work, a story of youthful ennui and existential despair only one in which it turns out that the world is basically good once you agree to embrace it for what it is.

The film opens in 1993 with the heroine, Noriko (Haru Kuroki), a confused college student unsure of the forward direction of her life. Often ridiculed by her family for being clumsy and neurotic, Noriko compares herself unfavourably with her glamorous cousin Michiko (Mikako Tabe) who has come to the city from the country to study and appears to have her whole life already mapped out with a confidence Noriko could only dream of. A turning point arrives when she’s talked into accompanying Michiko to learn tea ceremony from a kindly old lady, Mrs. Takeda (Kirin Kiki), who lives nearby. Despite regarding tea ceremony as something fussy and old fashioned that only conservative housewives aspire to learn, Noriko begins to develop a fondness for its formalist rigour and continues dutifully attending classes for the next 24 years.

“Carry light things as if they were heavy, and heavy things as if they were light” Noriko is told as she clumsily tries to carry an urn from one room to another, though like much of Takeda-sensei’s advice it serves as a general lesson on life itself. Mystified by the entire process, Noriko and Michiko make the mistake of trying to ask practical questions about why something must be done in a particular way only for Takeda-sensei to admit she doesn’t know, it simply is and must be so. To look for that kind of literal meaning would be a waste of time.

Of course, she doesn’t quite put it that way. As Noriko later realises, some things are easy to understand and need only be done once. Other things take longer and can only be understood through a weight of experience. Just as she was bored out her mind by La Strada at 10 but moved to tears at 20, the discrete pleasures of the tea ceremony are something only fully comprehended when the right moment arrives. What was once empty formalism becomes a framework for appreciating the world in all its complexity, embracing each of the seasons as they pass and learning to live exactly in the moment in the knowledge that a moment is both eternal and transient.

Noriko continues to feel herself out of place as she witnesses those around her progress in their careers, get married, or go abroad while she remains stuck, unable to find a direction in which to move. Even tea ceremony occasionally betrays her as new pupils arrive, depart, and sometimes wound her newfound sense of confidence by quickly eclipsing her. Nevertheless, the calm and serenity of ritualised motion become a place of refuge from the confusing outside world while also offering a warmth and friendship perhaps unexpected in such an otherwise ordered existence.

Over almost a quarter of a century, Noriko’s life goes through a series of changes from career worries to romantic heartbreak, learning to love again, and bereavement, while tea ceremony remains her only constant. She may not yet have discovered the path to happiness, but perhaps has begun to reach an understanding of it and believe that it might exist in some future moment – as Takeda-sensei says, there are flowers which bloom only in winter. In any case, what she’s learned is that sometimes it’s better not to overthink things and simply experience them to the best of your ability while you’re both still around. Every day really is a good day when you learn to slow down and truly appreciate it, living in the moment while the moment lasts in acknowledgement that it will never come again.


Every Day a Good Day was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Orange (orange-オレンジ, Kojiro Hashimoto, 2015)

Orange posterPerhaps it isn’t possible (or even desirable) to live a life without regrets, but given the opportunity who wouldn’t want a second chance to tackle some of those thorny adolescent moments where you said something you shouldn’t have or didn’t say something that perhaps should have been said. The heroine of Kojiro Hashimoto’s Orange (orange-オレンジ) gets exactly this opportunity when she receives a letter from her future self asking for her help in “erasing” some of her teenage regrets by using the information in the letter to save a friend she hasn’t yet met. Though the letter contains little information about the life she is leading ten years from now, it is clear that something happened all those years ago which has profoundly affected the lives of a tight group of high school friends.

16-year-old Naho (Tao Tsuchiya) receives the letter at the beginning of her second year of high school, reading it under the vibrant pink cherry blossoms. A little creeped out, she doesn’t read it fully but is surprised when, just as the letter said, a new student, Kakeru (Kento Yamazaki), transfers into her class and occupies the previously empty desk next to hers. A shy and quiet girl Naho is nevertheless part of a group of five friends which includes sportsman Suwa (Ryo Ryusei), geek Hagita (Dori Sakurada), and two other girls Takako (Hirona Yamazaki) and Azusa (Kurumi Shimizu). For reasons unexplained, the group quickly takes Kakeru into their fold only for him to suddenly disappear for a couple of weeks. On closer inspection of the letter, Naho is disturbed by the news that Kakeru is “no longer around” at the time of her future self’s writing.

Orange fits neatly into the popular tragic high school romance genre in which an older version of the protagonist looks back on a traumatic event and tries to come to terms with their own action or inaction in order to move forward with their adult lives. 26-year-old Naho, as we quickly find out, has moved on – she is married to Suwa and has a young son she has named Kakeru but she and the others are still finding it difficult to come to terms with what happened to their friend and the possibility that they could have done something more to help him if they’d only known then what they know now.

So far so “junai”, but Orange tries to have things both ways by introducing a slightly clumsy time travel/parallel universe theory in which the protagonists realise that they won’t be able to change the past but are hoping that their friend is happy in an alternate timeline created by their efforts to influence their younger selves with more mature thinking coupled with the benefit of hindsight. Unlike other examples of the genre, Orange undercuts the usual need to deal with the past and find closure through a mild fantasy of denial in which the older protagonists can believe in an alternate future in which they were able to do things differently and save their friend from his unhappy destiny.

Saving their friend is, however, only a secondary goal – the first being to ease their own sense of guilt in not having seen that Kakeru was in trouble and needed their help. All this emphasis on personal “regret” cannot help but seem somewhat solipsistic – everyone is very sorry about what happened in the past and wishes that they could have acted differently but is also somewhat preoccupied with their own role in events rather than a true desire to have in someway eased their friend’s suffering. Though there is the true selflessness of real, grown up love such as that displayed by Suwa who has always loved Naho but supports her love of Kakeru despite his own feelings, the actions of the group remain childishly goal orientated as Kakeru’s survival becomes an end mission flag rather than an expression of love and care for a friend in trouble.

The teenagers are, despite advice from their older selves, still teenagers and so it is only to be expected that they respond to a very grown up problem with a degree of immaturity, but it is also true that Kakeru’s ongoing, mostly well hidden, depression plays second fiddle to the various romantic subplots currently in action. Though the friends rally round with fairly trite phrases about helping to carry Kakeru’s burden and always being there him, Orange almost tries to argue that kind words are enough to pull a strained mind back from the brink – not that kind words ever hurt, but some problems are bigger than superficial pledges of friendship can handle especially when you’ve half a mind on who loves who and who is trying to get in the way of someone else’s romantic destiny. In spending so much time worrying about their friend, they have, in a sense, left him to deal with all his problems on his own while revelling in their own “concern”.

Superficial and melodramatic, Orange’s insistence on the power of teenage friendship can’t help but ring a little false and the parallel universe solution an overly convenient narrative device which allows for two differing resolutions both of which essentially frustrate the attempts of the older protagonists to accept their own sense of guilt and responsibility for their friend’s death in order to move on with their lives. Kakeru, in a sense, gets forgotten in his friends’ need to absolve themselves of his fate – a particularly ironic development in a cautionary tale about the enduring legacy of regret and the necessity of communicating one’s true feelings fully in the knowledge that there may not always be another opportunity to do so.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル, Toshimitsu Iizuka, 2017)

poetry angel posterLife is confusing. You think you know what you want, only to realise it wasn’t what you wanted at all. What you really wanted was the very thing you convinced yourself you didn’t want so that you could want something else. The characters at the centre of Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル) are all suffers of this particular delusion, lost and alone in a small town in rural Japan without hope or direction. That is, until they discover the strange sport of “poetry boxing”.

Our hero, Tsutomu (Amane Okayama), is a 21-year-old farm boy with dreams of becoming an author. His illusions are, however, shattered when he checks the board in the community centre and discovers he hasn’t even placed in a local history essay writing contest which appears to have been won by a child. In this delicate state, a pretty girl suddenly approaches him and begs for his help but then drags him into a seminar room where he is forced to listen to a lecture on “poetry boxing”. Almost everyone else leaves straight away but Tsutomu is intrigued – after all, semi-aggressive literary sport might be just the thing to get an aspiring author’s creative juices flowing.

Tsutomu’s problems are the same as many a young man’s in Japanese cinema – he resents having his future dictated to him by an accident of birth. His father owns a large orchard and is a well respected producer of salt pickled plums. As the only child, Tsutomu is expected to take over but he hates “boring” country life and the repetitive business of farming, his thinly veiled jealousy all too plain when an old friend returns from Tokyo on a visit home between university graduation and a new job in the capital. Tsutomu thinks of himself as special, as an artist, but no one seems to be recognising his genius.

This might partly be because his only “poem” is an alarming performance art piece in which he laments his tendency to destroy the things he loves with his “weed whacker”. The sport of poetry boxing has no physical requirements but it has no limits either. It’s more or less like performance poetry or a less directly confrontational kind of slam, but participants are encouraged to step into the boxing ring and express themselves in whichever way they see fit. Once both participants have concluded their “poems” a panel of judges votes on the winner. Like Tsutomu, the other members of the poetry boxing team are dreaming of other things or claiming to be something they’re not. Rappers who really work in cabaret bars, lonely girls who fear they’re plain and long to be “cute”, civil servants longing to kick back at inconsiderate citizens, and old men who really do just want to write poetry and appreciate the time they have left.

Yet through the endlessly wacky tasks set by Hayashi (Akihiro Kakuta), the leader of the group, each of the participants begins to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they really want. Not least among them An (Rena Takeda), a gloomy young girl who spends her life scowling at people and refusing to speak. She’d been into boxing for real and first met Tsutomu when she punched him in the face because his unexpectedly sexist friend from Tokyo was harassing her in the street. Poetry, however, begins to unlock even her deepest held desires which can finally be voiced from the ironically safe space of the poetry boxing ring.

There may be nothing particularly original about Iizuka’s delayed coming of age tale, but it has genuine warmth for its confused no hopers as they look for connection through formalised language and ritual play, discovering new depths to themselves as they do so. As it turns out mostly what you want was there all along, only you didn’t want to look. Annoyingly, other people may have figured it out before you but that can’t be helped and is, after all, only to be expected. Poetry is a doorway to the soul but it’s also one that might need a good kicking to get it open. Maybe the boxing ring is a better place to start than one might think.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dead or Alive (DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者, Takashi Miike, 1999)

dead or alive
Prolific as always, Takashi Miike released four feature length films in 1999, in addition to working in TV and video. Dead or Alive (DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者, Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha) came out within the same year as Miike’s seminal Audition and though it is the latter which has gone on to define his reputation, the Dead or Alive Trilogy is equally responsible for the director’s ongoing popularity. Following the Black Society Trilogy the finale of which, Ley Lines, was also released in 1999, Dead or Alive returns to the world of orphaned exiles and Chinese gangsters, men looking for family in all the wrong places and finding only loneliness, rage, and disappointment. Criminal or cop, everyone is looking for the same old thing but for one reason or another it continually evades their grasp.

Late ‘90s, Shinjuku night life. Miike captures all of its sordid glory in a wordlessly frenetic opening sequence which begins with a naked woman falling off a building and ends with the exploding belly of a noodle loving Triad. The Shinjuku gang scene is a large and complex one but this tiny corner is about to be torn apart by the opposing forces of petty Chinese gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and veteran policeman Jojima (Sho Aikawa).

A little later, the major antagonist – yakuza boss Aoki (Renji Ishibashi), asks a drugged up woman he’s immersed in a pool of her own excrement he himself extricated by means of a series of enemas if she’s high or if she’s come down. Drugs are always on the periphery from the bag in the hands of the falling woman to the deluded hopes and dreams of everyone who’s had the misfortune to find themselves here but Miike takes things one step further and structures his film like the inverted bell curve of a strange trip. The relentless pace of the opening sequence with its constant noodle refills, cocaine excess, and eventual bathroom sex and murder combo gradually winds down giving way to the comfortably numb central section in which Jojima and Ryuichi mirror and circle each other in the murky Shinjuku streets but, as he often does, Miike refuels for an angry, increasingly bizarre final sequence as two men whose quests have cost them everything they were fighting to protect prepare to burn the world rather than see the other live another day.

Ryuichi, like many a gangster hero, is an orphan. His major motivation is a desire to protect his delicate younger brother whom he has sent abroad to study in the hope that he will be catapulted into a successful middle class life while Ryuichi takes over the criminal underworld. Toji (Michisuke Kashiwaya) has returned, but such close proximity to his brother’s darkness may have destabilising consequences for both of them. Ryuichi’s “family” is a constructed one made of other similarly lost or discarded kids of Chinese descent, all looking for a home when neither of the two which present themselves is willing to offer them full acceptance but there is no unconditional love here, betrayal is an easily applied judgement met with a harsh and irreversible punishment.

Even if Ryuichi’s world is cold, Jojima’s may be colder. Despite his wife’s pleas he sleeps on the sofa and seems to have a difficult, strained relationship with the family his life is founded on protecting. Jojima’s reasons for continuing to avoid his marital bed are unclear whether from simple consideration of his strange policeman’s hours or the hushed phone call his wife receives which suggests she may be seeking comfort outside the home, but the one thing which is clear is that this is a family already deeply fractured. Adding to the strain, Jojima’s daughter is seriously ill and his wife has worked out that they will need an enormous amount of money for her treatment. Jojima continues to proclaim that he is “working on it” and will find the money somewhere, reacting angrily to his wife’s desperate suggestion of asking her family for a loan. Wanting to save his daughter himself, he ventures ever deeper into the criminal underworld, crossing the line from law enforcer to law breaker.

Miike operates a tightly controlled approach to pacing after the frenetic opening, slowing right down before exploding in a flurry of gun fire for the climactic shootout (flying chicken feathers and all) and then taking a break until the bonkers finale with its self amputations, mysterious bazookas and strange power orbs. Dead or alive, these are men living in a furious purgatory each denied the very thing they’ve been searching for, but in the end they mirror each other, locked in a vicious cycle of rage and violence which threatens to engulf us all.


Out now in the UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (鮫肌男と桃尻女, Katsuhito Ishii, 1999)

Shark_Skin_Man_And_Peach_Hip_Girl_(1998)If you’re going on the run you might as well do it in style. Wait, that’s terrible advice isn’t it? Perhaps there’s something to be said for planning a cunning double bluff by becoming so flamboyant that everyone starts ignoring you out of a mild sense of embarrassment but that’s quite a risk for someone whose original gamble has so obviously gone massively wrong. An adaptation of a manga, Katsuhito Ishii’s debut feature Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl (鮫肌男と桃尻女,  Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna) follows a mysterious criminal trying to head off the gang he just stole a bunch of money from whilst also accompanying a strange young girl, also on the run but from her perverted, hotel owning “uncle” who has also sent an equally eccentric hitman after the absconding pair with instructions to bring her back.

Like Ishii’s subsequent efforts, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl is a riot of full on craziness from the get go, though he largely manages to avoid manga adaptation cliches. The gangster, Samehada (Tadanobu Asano), is pursued by an eccentric set of former gang members – the sanest amongst them being Sawada (Susumu Terajima), his former partner who wants to track him down first to prevent the bloody retribution his guys have in store for him. The gang’s boss (Ittoku Kishibe), lovingly caresses a harpoon, dresses in a gestapo style shiny black leather overcoat, wears one glove, and is on a quest to track down rare vintage posters of much loved Japanese comedian Kon Omura. One of his henchmen is a guy with bleach blond hair who dresses all in white and has an extremely sensitive sense of smell but an intense aversion to water.

The heat coming from the other side is equally strange as the leacherous uncle is apparently friends with Japan’s weirdest hitman, Yamada, who dresses in a retro style and has a unibrow and a high pitched voice. In fact, he’s basically Ken Omura himself, creeping about, being odd in a ridiculous cartoon character way. Unfortunately, Yamada has a weakness and just as he’s about to complete his mission he falls in love with his target! Apparently this is something that happens to him often though you’d think it would be quite a liability given his line of work. In this instance who could really blame him, but his new found romance means he won’t be able to pull the trigger  – and not only that, he can’t bring the girl back either because he doesn’t want to break the beautiful gangster’s heart! Ah, true love!

There is quite a lot going on. Too much, really. For all the craziness which ensues, it’s hard to build up an attachment to any of our strange little gangsters and their petty plots or bids for freedom. Things build to a whirlwind of chaos in the final stretch but when it’s all supposed to calm down for a little spiritual contemplation at the end, the effect begins to fall apart.

There are however a few quieter sections such as a surprisingly maudlin one in which yakuza sons of yakuza fathers lament their unhappy childhoods which saw them bullied and excluded by their law abiding peers. One even says that he thought the tattoos were something which just appeared on everyone when they grew up. Ishii employs some strange jump cuts, moving us ahead a little jerkily as the time passes slowly for this motley crew of veteran bad guys. He later employs a similar technique where he shifts some of his violence into the expressionist realm by cutting on the sound of landing punches.

As the title suggests, Shark Shin Man and Peach Hip Girl is the story of two crazy kids on the run, and the bizarre collection of people who end up chasing them. Ishii could never be accused of subtlety but the punk infused, anarchic and ironic tone are difficult to resist even if the end result is a necessarily slight one. An imperfect, though impressive debut, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hipped Girl is an interesting genre infused tale that uses absurd humour as a foil for the darkness and violence which underpins it.


Original trailer (no English subs – French subs available via settings menu)

Midway through this film someone starts singing a Japanese language cover of Donna Donna which was a surprise! Can’t find a clip so here’s Joan Baez’s version live in Japan in 1967!