School in The Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1981)

Still most closely associated with his debut feature Hausu – a psychedelic haunted house musical, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s affinity for youthful subjects made him a great fit for the burgeoning Kadokawa idol phenomenon. Maintaining his idiosyncratic style, Obayashi worked extensively in the idol arena eventually producing such well known films as The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (starring Kadokawa idol Tomoyo Harada) and the comparatively less well known Miss Lonely and His Motorbike Her Island (starring a very young and extremely skinny Riki Takeuchi). 1981’s School in the Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nerawareta Gakuen) marks his first foray into into the world of idol cinema but it also stars one of Kadokawa’s most prominent idols in Hiroko Yakushimaru appearing just a few months before her star making role in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun.

Set once again in a high school, School in the Crosshairs is the ultimate teen movie for any student who’s ever suspected their place of education has been infiltrated by fascists but no one else has noticed. Top student Yuka (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is the archetypal Obayashi/idol movie heroine in that she’s not only bright and plucky but essentially good hearted and keen to help out both her friends and anyone else in trouble. Her life changes when walking home from school one day with her kendo obsessed friend Koji (Ryoichi Takayanagi) as the pair notice a little kid about to ride his tricycle into the path of a great big truck. Yuka, horrified but not quite knowing what to do, shouts for the little boy to go back only it’s time itself which rewinds and moves the boy out of harm’s way. Very confused and thinking she’s had some kind of episode, Yuka tests her new psychic powers out by using them to help Koji finally win a kendo match but when a strange looking man who claims to be “a friend”  (Toru Minegishi) arrives along with icy transfer student Takamizawa (Masami Hasegawa), Yuka finds herself at the centre of an intergalactic invasion plot.

Many things have changed since 1981, sadly “examination hell” is not one of them. Yuka and Koji still have a few years of high school left meaning that it’s not all that serious just yet but still, their parents and teachers have their eyes firmly on the final grades. Yuka is the top student in her class, much to the chagrin of her rival, Arikawa (Macoto Tezuka), who surpasses her in maths and English but has lost the top spot thanks to his lack of sporting ability. Koji is among the mass of students in the middle with poor academic grades but showing athletic promise even if his kendo career is not going as well as hoped.

Given everyone’s obsession with academic success, the aliens have hit on a sure thing by infiltrating a chain of cram schools promising impressive results. Grades aside, parents are largely laissez-faire or absent, content to let their kids do as they please as long as their academic life proceeds along the desired route. Koji’s parents eventually hire Yuka as a private teacher to help him improve only for her to help him skip out to kendo practice. Her parents, by contrast, are proud of their daughter and attentive enough to notice something’s not right but attribute her recent preoccupation to a very ordinary adolescent problem – they think she’s fallen in love and they should probably leave her alone to figure things out her own way. A strange present of an empty picture frame may suggest they intend to give her “blank canvas” and allow her to decide the course of her own life, but she has, in a sense, earned this privilege through proving her responsible nature and excelling in the all important academic arena.

School is a battlefield in more ways than one. Intent on brainwashing the teenagers of Japan, “mysterious transfer student” Takamizawa has her sights firmly set on taking over the student council only she needs to get past Yuka to do it. Takamizawa has her own set of abilities including an icy stare which seems to make it impossible to refuse her orders and so she’s quickly instigated a kind of “morality” patrol for the campus to enforce all those hated school rules like skirt lengths, smoking, and running in the halls. Before long her mini militia has its own uniforms and creepy face paint but her bid for world domination hits a serious snag when Yuka refuses to cross over to the dark side and join the coming revolution. Asking god to grant her strength Yuka stands up to the aliens all on her own, avowing that she likes the world as it and is willing to sacrifice her own life for that of her friends. Accused of “wasting” her powers, Yuka asks how saving people could ever be “wasteful” and berates the invaders for their lack of human feeling. Faced with the cold atmosphere of exam stress and about to be railroaded into adulthood, Yuka dreams of a better, kinder world founded on friendship and basic human goodness.

Beginning with a lengthy psychedelic sequence giving way to a classic science fiction on screen text introduction Obayashi signals his free floating intentions with Yuka’s desaturated bedroom floating over the snowcapped mountains. Pushing his distinctive analogue effects to the limit, Obayashi creates a world which is at once real and surreal as Yuka finds herself at a very ordinary crossroads whilst faced with extraordinary events. Courted by the universe, Yuka is unmoved. Unlike many a teenage heroine, she realises that she’s pretty happy with the way things are. She likes her life (exam stress and all), she loves her friends, she’ll be OK. Standing up for the rights of the individual, but also for collective responsibility, Yuka claims her right to self determination but is determined not to leave any of her friends behind.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bloom in the Moonlight (わが愛の譜 滝廉太郎物語, Shinichiro Sawai, 1993)

bloom-in-the-moonlightAll those songs and rhymes you learnt as a child, somehow it’s strange to think that someone must have written them once, they seem to just exist independently. In Japan, the name behind many of these familiar tunes is Rentaro Taki – the first composer to set Japanese lyrics to European style “classical” music. It’s important to remember that even classical music was once contemporary, and along with the opening up of the nation during the Meiji era came a desire to engage with the “high culture” of other developed nations. The Tokyo Music School was founded in 1887 and Taki graduated from it just four years later in 1901. However, his career was to be a short one as his health gradually declined until he passed away of tuberculosis at just 23 years old. Bloom in the Moonlight (わが愛の譜 滝廉太郎物語, Waga Ai no Uta: Taki Rentaro Monogatari), also the title of one of his most well known and poignant songs, is the story of his musical career but also of the history of early classic music in Japan as the country found itself in a moment of extreme cultural shift.

Defying his father’s wishes and travelling to Tokyo to pursue a musical education, Rentaro Taki (Toru Kazama) becomes fascinated by the piano and is determined to become a high level pianist. Even knowing how hard it is to conquer the instrument and that many of his contemporaries have been studying since early childhood, Rentaro refuses to lose heart and pushes himself to become the best piano player that he can possibly be. Always a sickly child, Rentaro’s intense devotion to his instrument begins to threaten his health but his ambition knows no limit. The purpose of the school leans more towards the study and dissemination of Western music among ordinary people but soon Rentaro and some of his fellow pupils grow tired of the idea that their role is that of teachers and scholars and begin composing their own work. Rentaro’s songs become what is really the first kind of modern folk music, marrying the European classical music of the foreign elites and the more egalitarian, everyman quality of the accompanying lyrics to create a new kind of Japanese music.

The tale is narrated at times by a fellow pupil, Yuki Nakano (Isako Washio), who encounters Rentaro at the same time as he encounters the piano. The star pupil at the school and sister of an already internationally famous concert pianist, Yuki is nevertheless insecure about her own skills. Rentaro quickly surpasses her though the two become close and eventually a source of mutual inspiration. Adding to the melancholy nature of the tale, Yuki falls in love with Rentaro and his musical intensity but the pair are separated when she is selected as one of the first pupils to be sent abroad to learn from the classical music masters in Germany. A year later, Rentaro is also permitted to go and the pair are briefly reunited but it will be for the last time as Rentaro’s illness intensifies and brings an early end to his musical career.

Times being what they are, Rentaro and Yuki are denied the possibility of pursuing a romance, adding to the theme of poignancy and missed opportunities running through the film. Indeed, the final piece Rentaro composes and which he is still working on right up to the end is for Yuki and is titled “Regret”. Dedicating himself to music above all else, Rentaro leaves behind him a musical legacy but still, as one of his songs puts it, longs for the “brightness of bygone days”.

Rentaro was from a wealthy family, and even if his father did not approve of his decision to study music, he continued to support him even whilst worrying about his constant ill health. Many of his fellow pupils were not so lucky including his good friend Suzuki (Ryo Amamiya) who is forced to leave the school when his father becomes ill leaving him responsible for each of his siblings. Eventually Suzuki is able to return to the world of music as a teacher, playing Rentaro’s folk songs for the local village children and helping to make his friend’s work some of the most well known in Japan.

Little is seen outside of the rarefied world of wealthy students and their internationally focussed cultural pursuits but at times the other world is allowed to slink in, particularly in the case of an inn girl who is charged with looking after Rentaro during one of his periods of convalescence. The girl, Fumi (Miki Fujitani), also becomes fascinated with Rentaro’s intense love music but any attachment on her part can only lead to tragedy. All else aside, Rentaro is the oldest son of a wealthy family and not seriously considering a formal arrangement with someone like Fumi. Eventually she will be sold off as a concubine to a wealthy man, there are no better options for her even in the bright new Meiji era.

As in much of his other work, Sawai neatly avoids the more sentimental elements of the story even if melodrama is a necessary part of its appeal. Bloom in the Moonlight is among his more straightforward efforts sticking to the prestige picture approach without any of the stranger or more expressive sequences which often crop up in films such as W’s Tragedy or Maison Ikkoku. As a neutral biopic, the treatment of its subject is at times superficial, skipping other interesting details of Rentaro Taki’s life such as his late conversion to Christianity preferring to focus on the tragic love story which becomes the genesis of his final, unfinished work. Nevertheless, Bloom in the Midnight succeeds in telling the sad story of a musical genius who poured all of his intensity into a few short years leaving a body of work behind him likely to outlive us all.


Rentaro Taki’s songs are still very popular today and if you’ve spent any time at all watching Japanese films you will definitely have heard them.

One of the most recognisable – Hana

And one of the most well known – Kojo no Tsuki (with footage from Throne of Blood!)

 

Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Shinji Somai, 1981)

sailor-suit-and-machine-gunFor good or ill, Haruki Kadokawa’s entry into the film industry was to have a profound effect both culturally and commercially. Rising from the ashes of the studio system, Kadokawa’s stable of cute and perky idols presented him with the opportunity to build a multimedia empire formed of a union between cinema, books, and music in which each could be used to sell the other.

1981’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Sailor-fuku to kikanju) was one of his earliest successes and helped to solidify his approach. Featuring one of the biggest idol stars of the 1980s, Hiroko Yakushimaru, in her most iconic role, the film adapts a Kadokawa teen novel as its source material and includes an end credits song with the same title sung by the film’s star. It was a winning formula, but then Sailor Suit and Machine is not just another idol movie. Directed Shinji Somai whose work is much more well known in Japan than it is abroad, this strange story of a high school girl and her unlikely role as a yakuza boss is both a surreal coming of age tale and an arthouse influenced character piece which came to become the defining youth movie for a generation of female cinema goers.

Izumi Hoshi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is now an orphan. Her mother died some time ago and today is her father’s funeral. Thinking herself all alone in the world, Izumi is surprised when an older woman, Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri), suddenly appears with a letter from her father claiming he asked her to look after his daughter if anything should happen to him. More surprises follow when her school is surrounded by black suited yakuza. Prophetically, the other students are terrified but Izumi marches straight up them to find out what’s going on. As it turns out, they’ve come for her – an uncle of Izumi’s father was the head of a yakuza clan and now that he’s dead they need a blood relative to succeed him. Izumi’s father out of thte picture, the position falls to his daughter, teenage high school girl or not. At first she refuses but realising that with no boss the guys will all have to die, Izumi relents and orders them to live. So begins her long, strange, not altogether successful career as the head of moribund clan of dejected yakuza.

In many ways, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is a parody of a standard yakuza flick in which rival groups vie for power in the crowded backstreets of a busy city. The idea of a tiny 17 year old girl heading up an organised crime syndicate and going toe-to-toe with grizzled fifty year old veterans is an inherently absurd one as exemplified by Izumi’s courtesy visit to the area’s most powerful gang boss in which he he more or less laughs her out of the office.

Despite the incongruity, Izumi is a tough kid and more than holds her own in the very male underground world. In her father’s letter to Mayumi, he describes his daughter as tough but naive – an analysis which proves true in her tenure as a yakuza boss. There is a degree of silliness in her actions, playing the role assigned for her as if acting a part in a movie but as her guys start getting knifed it suddenly doesn’t seem so funny after all. The film revolves around a mcguffin of some missing heroin which belongs to a gangster named Fatso but is also sought by rival gangs. Out of her depth, Izumi has no knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing drugs or even the reason why anyone would want them. This is a situation that can’t be blustered through and Izumi does not have the ability to navigate it.

The idea of an ordinary high school girl plunged into the criminal underworld is as ridiculous as it’s intended to be. However, Izumi is not quite the ordinary high school girl she first appears. Gangly and boyish, she is supported by three male friends who often flank her as entourage but always recede into the background, bowing to her leadership. Already dominant and possessing obvious leadership potential, Izumi’s bold decision to approach the yakuza at the school gates also hints at her curious and fearless personality, even if it also speaks to her youthful recklessness.

These more masculine qualities of forcefulness and dynamism as opposed the stereotypical image of the cute and submissive school girl are perfectly suited to her new life as a crime boss but for all of that her leadership takes on an oddly maternal quality. A wounded foot soldier remarks that Izumi smells like his mother as she’s awkwardly winding bandages around his torso, and the guys flock around her like they would the family matriarch. Tellingly Izumi later tells Mayumi that part of the reason she rejected her was because of her extreme femininity – something the adolescent Izumi did not quite know what to do with, especially given the maleness of her new environment.

Izumi’s short lived career in the yakuza cannot be termed a success in the normal manner of things, she acts honourably and may win a final victory but it comes at great cost. When Izumi finally picks up the machine gun of the film’s title for the intense finale, she finds herself enjoying it a little too much as the word “fantastic” escapes her lips seconds after letting rip intro a rival gang boss’ office. Rather than the romantic awakening which is the climax of many female centred teen movies, Izumi’s major consummatory event is with her machine gun. As she puts it at the end, Izumi’s first kiss goes to a (deceased) middle aged man and she looks set to become a “foolish” woman, her path into womanhood has been an unusually transgressive and as yet unresolved one.

Somai’s camera is is both slippery and precise as he casts us as voyeur in Izumi’s world, shooting through exterior windows and even at one point from behind the shrubbery. Preferring long takes and often at extreme distances, Somai mixes static camera with unusual fluidity for an effect that’s far more arthouse influenced than your usual teen idol picture. As with many of Kadokawa’s ‘80s movies, the film is steeped in the naivety of the teenage world view as Izumi goes about her new life with a kind of fearless determination despite the inherent violence and unexpected adult sexuality. A deserved classic, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is the archetypal Kadokawa movie, creating a vehicle for its idol star in the fascinating, iconic presence of its central heroine whilst simultaneously generating an enduring pop culture phenomenon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s star Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 35th anniversary celebration concert in 2013:

Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Shinichiro Sawai, 1988)

Memories of youIf you thought idol movies were all cute and quirky stories of eccentric high school girls with pretty, poppy voices then think again because Memories of You is coming for you and your faith in idols to make everything better. Directed by W’s Tragedy‘s Shinichiro Sawai, Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Love Story wo Kimi Ni) stars one of the biggest idols of them all – Kumiko Goto, only 14 years old at the time of filming. Seemingly inspired by classic Hollywood melodramas of the ‘50s, Sawai’s film finds its innocent protagonist attempting to live an entire lifetime in only six months as she succumbs to a cruel and relentless disease.

Giving no clue as to its eventual destination, Memories of You begins with two young men returning from a hiking trip. You can tell the pair are committed alpinists because of their distinctly alpine attire and by the way they look at a glockenspiel. In this early comic scene, Araki (Shingo Yanagisawa) is heading straight to an important job interview that he hopes will help him get his girl back if he’s hired so he’s talking a mile a minute whilst awkwardly changing into a business suit inside a photo booth.

The other young man, Akira (Toru Nakamura), runs into the star of film, Yumi (Kumiko Goto), on her way back from the hospital. Akira used to be Yumi’s tutor and it’s obvious she has kind of a crush on him. Unbeknownst to Yumi, the results of her tests are much more serious than might be assumed from her cheerful persona. Yumi has leukaemia and the doctors do not expect her to survive for more than six months at most.

Yumi’s devasted mother shifts her grief away from the pain of losing her only child, to that of her stolen future – no high school, no romance, no love, marriage, or children. Accordingly she asks teacher in training Akira for a considerable sacrifice – essentially, pretend to date Yumi and give her the kind of love story that she will never now be able to experience.

Needless to say, this is a little creepy given that Akira is in in his mid-twenties and Yumi is only fourteen. Of course, it’s all very chaste and innocent like something out of a shoujo manga but still even in 1988 the scenario rings alarm bells. Akira is conflicted about his new role as a fake boyfriend for a dying teenager but it would be heartless to refuse, though one may wonder about what effect all of this may have on his future chosen career.

The world of 1988 is noticeably sexist in that Yumi’s mother works as a cookery teacher, reminding her pupil’s that this is the most important course because they’ll all be competing with their future mother-in-laws in the great culinary battle to win their husband’s hearts. These girls are raised to be housewives and nothing more, although, Yumi’s mother is divorced and now has a career, is taking care of Yumi alone and is not particularly looking to remarry. So, swings and roundabouts in terms of social progress.

The film flits between the viewpoints of Yumi and Akira as they both try to adapt to this unusual situation. As is common in these kinds of films, Yumi is not quite as in the dark as everyone had assumed and is readying herself to say her final goodbyes. This also brings about a reunion with her long absent father who has emigrated to Canada where he has a new wife and younger daughter. Yumi’s family status is an uncommon one for 1988, yet there is relatively little stigma surrounding it. Perhaps her father’s return after three years is one factor in Yumi’s realisation of the seriousness of her condition (as her mother feared it might be) but the final reconciliation does at least bring her a little more calmness and stability.

Yumi’s illness is a mountain which cannot be conquered. The beauty of the natural world and the desire to overcome it, in a sense, through physical exertion are the chief motifs of the film as Yumi dreams of travelling to Switzerland – the spiritual home of alpinism (it would seem). The loving looks at the glockenspiel in the opening scenes develop into an underlying musical theme as they also recur during the lengthy cabaret sequence close to the film’s climax. Of course, Yumi finally attempts to climb her mountain with Akira as her guide but there is only so far she can proceed.

Despite its melodramatic touches and desire to be a grand tearjerker, Memories of You is too restrained to make the full force of its tragedy achieve the kind of emotional effect that it aims for. Filled with syrupy, orchestral music very much like that employed by classic Hollywood examples of the genre, Memories of You really wants the viewer to experience the intense sadness of such a young life taken by a cruel and indiscriminating disease but often overplays its hand. This isn’t helped by the unsettling nature of the “romance” between Akira and Yumi or the (entirely understandable) lack of chemistry between the leads who each give independently high quality performances. An interesting example of an “idol movie” which steps outside the genre norms, Memories of You doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions but is another nicely photographed effort from Sawai.


End credits and title song (not sung by Kumiko Goto)