The Deer King (鹿の王 ユナと約束の旅, Masashi Ando & Masayuki Miyaji, 2021)

A broken and defeated man rediscovers a sense of purpose in human connection but finds himself hunted by opposing sides each of whom see in him either salvation or destruction in Masashi Ando & Masayuki Miyaji’s fantasy anime adapted from the novel by Nahoko Uehashi, The Deer King (鹿の王 ユナと約束の旅, Shika no Ou: Yuna to Yakusoku no Tabi). Set in a fractured land of fragile peace, Deer King perhaps uncomfortably casts resistance as villainy while largely letting its oppressors off the hook but argues finally for turning towards the light rather than the darkness in a spirit of mutual forgiveness that permits a less fractious co-existence. 

As a lengthy title roll explains, a war took place between the Aquafa and the Empire of Zol which resulted in a truce, partly because of a mysterious ”Mittsual” plague, the Black Wolf Fever, which frightened the Zolians out of sacking the capital. 10 years on, however, it’s clear Aquafa has become a vassal state living (literally) under the eye of the watchful Zolian emperor. The action opens in a salt mine where the enslaved are mercilessly exploited by their Zolian masters. “Work as if death spared you” one shouts out as an old man collapses, a younger, fitter one silently picking up his burden. As we’ll later discover this man is “Broken Antler” Van (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a lone survivor several times over and about to be so again as the mine is attacked by seemingly rabid dogs, one of them wandering into the prison where Van has been chained for helping the old man with a small child in its mouth. Van lunges at the dog which drops the child and bites his arm instead, the creature in a sense freeing him from the source of his oppression in breaking the chain which tied him to the wall before walking away leaving him bleeding only for Van to discover the bite has given him new power. Breaking free he takes the child with him as he ventures back out into the world. 

Van has lost more than most in this war, in a sense orphaned, a living a ghost with nothing and no one to live for. He could so easily lean towards hate or resentful violence but is given new reason for survival in becoming a father to the little girl, Yuna (Hisui Kimura), who is like him a lone survivor. Yet others feel differently, the resurfacing of the plague a metaphor for the grief and anger existing among the Aquafa targeting as it does only the Zol who look upon it as a “curse” or else or rebellious plot, which it in fact is. The former elite of Aquafa are apparently intent on using the Mittsual, to which they believe themselves immune, to free themselves of Zolian control and regain their independence. A neutral scientist, Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchi), however, throws their plan into disarray in his conviction that Van’s blood, the blood of a survivor, may act as cure and vaccine. The Zolians need him to survive, but Aquafans would rather he didn’t. 

Meeting his destiny head on, Van finds he has a choice: either embrace the darkness, accept the fear and the grief and the hate by using the Mittsual to target the Zolians, or allow Hohsalle to use his blood to find a cure. In the small, formerly nomadic, village in which Van finds a temporary home, they care nothing for politics and only want peace. They’ve begun intermarrying with the Zolians and live happily together while another man he meets along the way appears to be grateful for all the Zolians have done for them, which seems on one level a peculiar sentiment in welcoming their ongoing oppression. Yet salvation comes in a sense from re-embracing the Aquafan culture which has been taken from them, the cure not Van’s blood but his bond with nature something which all Aquafans once shared but was disdained by Zol. Zol can only survive by recognising Aquafa’s equality. 

Van’s strange new power, dubbed “inside Out” literally connects him to every other living being in the land becoming one with the great confluence of nature and cosmos. “Blood ties matter not” he tells an embittered young woman realising that Yuna is not his biological daughter, she in turn learning to abandon her hate through the force of his love. He reflects on the memory of a deer who put himself at risk to save a foal, asking himself if that’s what it means to be a hero or if he merely had the means to do what anyone should and did what was asked of him. Where the cruel patriotism of the Aquafans and religious zealotry of the Zolians fail, the rationality of humanitarian science and simple human empathy win out. A sacrifice may in a sense be needed, but it’s not the one you thought it was. A tale of the redemptive power of love, The Deer King argues for forgiveness in the face of hate if perhaps uncomfortably suggesting the burden of peace lies with the oppressed.


The Deer King screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋, Kan Eguchi, 2021)

Appearances can be deceptive. A case could be made that everyone is in a sense living undercover, pretending to be something they’re not in order to survive in a conformist society and most do indeed have their secrets even if they’re relatively benign. Others, meanwhile, are on a kind of sabbatical from a life of meticulous violence such as the hero of Kan Eguchi’s sequel to smash hit action comedy The Fable, The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋, The Fable: Korosanai Koroshiya) or like his antagonist living a double life with his apparently genuine concern for the lives of disabled and disadvantaged children balanced by his business of targeting wayward youngsters for the purposes of extortion. 

Some months on from the previous action, “Sato” (Junichi Okada), formerly a top Tokyo assassin known as The Fable, is successfully maintaining his cover hiding out in Osaka as an “ordinary” person with a part-time job in a print and design shop. His cover is almost blown, however, when his colleague Etsuji (Masao Yoshii) is targeted by Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi), ostensibly the leader of a local organisation advocating for the rights of children but also a shady gangster who finances his “philanthropy” by extorting the parents of young people who’ve in someway gone off the rails. Etsuji’s crime is, as was exposed in the previous film, his spy cam habit and in particular his planting of hidden cameras in the home of colleague Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) with whom he has an unhealthy obsession stemming from her time as an aspiring idol star. Blaming Misaki for his misfortune, Etsuji turns to violence but is shut down by Sato who risks blowing his cover in order to protect her. Realising he has a previous connection with Utsubo, Sato makes the gang an offer they can’t refuse in order to get Etsuji back but quickly finds himself drawn into another deadly battle with bad guys endangering his still in progress no kill mission. 

Focussed this time much more on action than the fish out of water comedy of Sato’s attempts learn the rules of polite society having been raised in the mountains as a super efficient killing machine, The Fable 2 nevertheless wastes no time in exposing the murkiness of the “normal” world Sato is intended to inhabit. Utsubo is a hit with the local mothers, taken with his smart suit and professionalism as he gives “inspirational” speeches about park safety while making time to converse in sign language with a deaf little girl explaining to another mother that it’s important to “listen to every voice”. As part of his patter he implies his assistant, Hinako (Yurina Hirate), who uses a wheelchair, was injured in a freak park-related accident as a child when in reality she sustained the injury while trapped in the back of a car which veered off a roof after The Fable took out its driver. Vaguely recognising her in the local park, Sato takes an interest out of guilt as the young woman attempts to rebuild her strength in the hope of walking again though that might in itself be contrary to Utsubo’s desires. 

As in the first film, Sato may be a ruthlessly efficient killing machine but at heart he’s still childishly innocent, hoping to help the young woman he unwittingly hurt but also keen not interfere with her ability to help herself. Misunderstanding the situation, Hinako asks Utsubo to lay off Sato, explaining that he gives her confidence as she begins to realise that she can stand alone, as the sometimes uncomfortably ablest metaphor would have it, and no longer needs to be complicit in Utsubo’s nefarious schemes nor need she continue to punish herself in guilt over her traumatic past. While Sato and his handler Yoko (Fumino Kimura) pose as a pair of siblings watched over by their benevolent if absent boss (Koichi Sato), Hinako and underling Suzuki (Masanobu Ando) similarly pose as brother and sister only with the comparatively dubious guidance of Utsubo who affects kindness and generosity while burying problematic youngsters alive in the forest in order to extort money from their “protective” parents. “It’s always the villain who tells the truth” Utsubo explains, insisting that it’s shame and humiliation which build self-esteem in direct contrast to the gently invisible support which seems to have re-activated Hinako’s desire for life.

Sato has at least discovered the benefits of a well functioning and supportive “family” network thanks to the, as we discover, equally handy Yoko, and his still largely oblivious workplace friends. Amping up the action value, Eguchi careers from set piece to set piece culminating in a high octane chase through an apartment block and its eventually unstable scaffolding while making space for slapstick comedy such as two guys trying to move a piano at a very inconvenient moment. A gently wholesome tale of a pure-hearted hitman kicking back against societal hypocrisy while figuring out how to be “normal” in a confusing society, The Fable 2 more than builds on the promise of its predecessor while allowing its hero the space to grow as he begins to adjust to his new and very “ordinary” life.


The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill screens on July 7 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Blood & Bones in a Flowing Galaxy (砕け散るところを見せてあげる, SABU, 2020)

“Do heroes need a reason to be heroes?” asks the hero of SABU’s adaptation of the light novel by Yuyuko Takemiya My Blood & Bones in a Flowing Galaxy (砕け散るところを見せてあげる, Kudakechiru Tokoro wo Misete Ageru). A little lighter than the Japanese title which translates as “I will show you a broken place”, SABU’s latest collaboration with EXILE TRIBE is a sometimes surreal tale of the great confluence of love, undercutting and repurposing a traditional idea of masculinity as the young man at its centre tries and fails to overcome himself to be the hero he longs to be while finally discovering that true heroism lies in the capacity to lend courage to others in a world often haunted by violence and despair. 

SABU opens, however, with a brief framing sequence in which another young man (Takumi Kitamura) meditates on the legacy of his father who died a hero trying to save a little girl from a submerged car. A flashback to sometime in the ‘90s introduces us to Kiyosumi (Taishi Nakagawa) running full pelt late for school and surreptitiously joining the back of the assembly hall behind a class of younger students hoping to avoid detection. Once there, however, he witnesses a young woman being relentlessly bullied by her classmates and intervenes. After the assembly concludes he tries to make sure the girl is OK, but when he touches her in comfort she begins screaming uncontrollably and leaves the room. Kiyosumi, however, is undeterred and continues trying to protect her, eventually earning her trust after rescuing her when she’s doused in water and locked up in a bathroom storage cupboard. The pair soon become friends, Kiyosumi apparently falling for the melancholy young woman but naively failing to realise that her problems may be bigger than he realises and that there are some monsters you can’t fight alone. 

During one of their early conversations, Hari (Anna Ishii), the young woman, outlines her UFO theory of universe in which she visualises each of the forces which oppress her as alien spaceships floating ominously in the sky above. Standing in for unresolved trauma, the ever present threat of violence, and the pain of loneliness, the presence of the UFOs both brings the pair together and overshadows their growing romance, Kiyosumi’s voiceover hinting at an unhappy ending in which he will not fulfil his dream of being forever by her side. He continues to doubt himself, unsure if he can really be the hero that Hari believes him to be while she draws confidence from his kindness to become one herself. 

There is, it has to be said, an air of chauvinism and a mild saviour complex in Kiyosumi’s otherwise altruistic desire to stand up to injustice. He doesn’t stop to ask himself if Hari wants saving or if his intervention may end up making things worse for her as it eventually does if in an unexpected way. Childishly naive, he fails to look beyond the immediate problem of high school bullying, recalling his own days as a lonely first year rejected by the cool crowd only later finding a friend, while certain that he can protect Hari solely with the force of his presence. To begin with, he may be right, his initial intervention allowing other like-minded souls to stand up against the school’s bullying culture and earning Hari another friend in the equally defiant Ozaki (Kaya Kiyohara). But only too late does he begin to realise that the bruises on her wrists may not be caused in class and that her victimisation does not end at the school gates. 

Rescued from the storecupboard, Hari tried to defend her aggressors citing the fact that they used clean tap water the last bucket of which was even warm as a sign of “kindness”. So brutalised is she that she expects nothing more. The irony is Kiyosumi cannot in the end protect her, but does perhaps lend her the strength to protect herself as she in fact saves him. Yet as Kiyosumi points out, the “UFOs” do not simply disappear in the midst of red rain but may strike again at any moment, his attempts to rescue a drowning girl a kind of metaphor for his desire to drag Hari free of the source of her trauma and show her “the glowing beauty of this world”, a desire he can only realise by becoming one with a galaxy of eternal love. True heroism, he eventually realises, is just being there if only in spirit as a source of constant support and reassurance in a world of dizzying anxiety. At times infinitely bleak but coloured with teenage sunniness and youthful naivety, SABU’s empathic drama both recognises and forgives its hero’s chauvinistic self-obsession while allowing the heroine to save herself each bolstered by a sense of mutual solitary born of a deep compassion with love perhaps the best weapon against the circling UFOs of a sometimes cruel existence. 


My Blood & Bones in a Flowing Galaxy streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Shinji Hamasaki, 2020)

©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

“What’s important is purpose, to live for something. Without it you’re as good as dead” according to the hero of madcap existentialist farce Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Ichido Shinde Mita). The feature debut from ad director Shinji Hamasaki pits a rebellious student against her overly literal, authoritarian dad as the pair begin to come to a kind mutual understanding only once he “dies” after being tricked into taking an experimental drug in order to unmask conspiracy within his own organisation. 

College student Nanase (Suzu Hirose) intensely resents her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the CEO of Nobata Pharmaceuticals which he has long been pressuring her to join. She’s currently the lead singer in death metal band Soulzz only according to a record scout at one of their shows their problem is that they’re all “zz” and no soul. Meanwhile, Nobata has assigned an underling, Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa), to shadow her partly because Matsuoka too has very little presence and is in fact nicknamed “ghost” for his essential invisibility. The trouble starts with the escalation of a corporate feud as Nobata’s old buddy Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada) starts manoeuvring to get his hands on the company’s research into an anti-ageing serum codenamed “Romeo”, planting a mole inside the organisation. As a consequence of his research another of the scientists nicknamed “Gramps” has stumbled on another drug which renders someone temporarily “dead” for a period of two days, naming it “Juliet”. Watabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a consultant Nobata has brought in to streamline the business, convinces him to take the experimental drug in order to flush out the mole while secretly working with Tanabe to take over the company by forcing through a merger while Nobata is out of action. 

A typical socially awkward scientist, Nobata believes that life is about experiment and observation, a belief system which has thoroughly irritated his daughter who still lives at home but has divided the territory in half with clearly marked red tape. Nanase’s animosity towards her father apparently stems back to the death of her late mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura), angry with him that he never left his desk and didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she passed away. “Life’s not a lab experiment” she sings, recalling her childhood during which her overly literal father took away life’s magic by patiently over explaining fairytales, scoffing that Prince Charming probably didn’t revive Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but a transfer of static electricity, while continuing to order her around in fatherly fashion now she’s all grown up. Perhaps still stuck in a petulant adolescence she started the band to vent her frustrations with the world in the form of a death metal “mass”, but she’s growing up. Her bandmates are getting jobs or getting married, she’s still stuck with no real clue about what it is she actually wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want anything to do with Nobuta Pharmaceuticals.  

Once her father “dies”, however, she begins to gain a new appreciation for his life philosophy able to see but not hear his “ghost” while his body lies on a table in the office cafeteria. Nobata went into pharmaceuticals to help people, but has been led on a dark and vacuous path pursuing anti-ageing technology which is in itself a rejection of change and transience. Ending all her sentences with the word “death”, that’s not something Nanase can get behind. She believes in growing old gracefully, that they make drugs not to cheat death but to be able to spend longer with those they love. As her father had advised Matsuoka to do, she begins to find her purpose, rediscovers her soul, and figures out what it is she’s supposed to do with her life.

Matsuoka, however, seems to be permanently “invisible” despite the tentative romance that develops as he and Nanase attempt to subvert the conspiracy to stop them doing her dad in for good, brushing up against the venal Tanabe who seems set to muster all his corporate advantages against them partly because of an old grudge against Nobata. Of course, you have to wonder why the conspirators didn’t just poison him rather than having him go Juliet and then entering a race against time to cremate him before he wakes up, but as Nobata reminds us there are many things which science cannot explain. A cheerfully silly Christmas tale of rediscovering what it means to be “alive” in the presence of death, Not Quite Dead Yet is zany seasonal fun but with plenty of soul as its heroes learn to shake off cynical corporatism for a healthy respect of the values of transience.


Not Quite Dead Yet screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

Honnouji Hotel (本能寺ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2017)

According to the opening quote from Otto von Bismark, fools learn from experience and the wise man from history, but in truth you’ll need a little of the former to correctly interpret the latter. The heroine of Honnoji Hotel (本能寺ホテル) is not exactly lacking in life experience, but hers has been of the passive variety. She’s blithely gone along with the path her society laid out for her, but now she’s hit an unexpected bump in the road it’s prompted her into a reconsideration of where it was she was going. Most people wouldn’t meet such a crisis by asking “what would Nobunaga do?”, but that’s where our heroine finds herself after accidentally exiting a hotel lift right into the middle of the Sengoku era. 

20-something Mayuko (Haruka Ayase) is in Kyoto for a short holiday and to meet up with her fiancé to be formally introduced to his family. The problem begins when it transpires that owing to an administrative error, her hotel reservation has been made for the following month and everything is currently fully booked seeing as the city is such a tourist hotspot. After wandering around a while, she stumbles across a dated, slightly musty establishment named the “Honnouji Hotel” which, she realises even given her shaky grasp of history, is a fairly inauspicious name. Everyone knows that 16th century general and noted tyrant Oda Nobunaga committed seppuku at the Honno temple after he was betrayed by one of his retainers who rose against him. Nobunaga had been primed to bring peace to Japan after more than a century of destructive warfare, paving the way for unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate, but is a somewhat ambiguous figure known for his extreme volatility and tendency towards cruel authoritarianism. 

That vision of Nobunaga is indeed the one Mayuko first encounters when she finds herself accidentally thrown back into the Sengoku era after exiting the lift in her hotel. The first person that she meets turns out to be Mori Ranmaru (Gaku Hamada) with whom she bonds over a shared sense of anxiety, she over meeting her boyfriend’s family, and he over an important tea ceremony with life or death consequences. She gives him some modern-day stomach medicine while he warns her that his lord is “cruel and demonic”. Still not quite grasping that things work differently (to a point at least) in the feudal world, she advises him to quit rather than allow himself to be exploited to the point that it’s ruining his health but he exasperatedly reminds her that you can’t simply drop out of samurai society. Mayuko gets another cruel awakening when observing the tea ceremony and witnessing a man, whom she later realises to be Nobunaga (Shinichi Tsutsumi), extorting a tea caddy from a distressed master who tries to protest that he’d only been informed that the caddy would be displayed and is unwilling to give it away. Nobunaga reminds him that the nation will soon be unified under his banner, at which point he will be in control of business affairs, threatening him with economic consequences backed up with the possibility of immediate violence. 

Despite her essential passivity, Mayuko cannot bear injustice and immediately springs into action, handing the caddy back to its original owner and instructing him that he shouldn’t allow himself to be intimidated into giving up his prized possessions. In her own life, however, she’s nowhere near as certain. We find out that she’s only known her fiancé for six months, and is still ambivalent about the idea of marriage. When the company she’d been working for suddenly went bust, she found herself at a loss, told that the teacher’s certificate she’d taken as a backup is largely useless because even teaching is oversaturated in today’s difficult job market. Now, it’s not feudal times anymore, but many people in Japan still expect a woman to give up her career to get married, which is what most of her friends advise her to do especially seeing as she had no particular ambitions or goals in life. Kyoichi’s (Hiroyuki Hirayama) proposal comes at an opportune moment, but she finds herself asking opportune for whom and if this is really what she wants or if she’s just allowing herself to be railroaded into conventional “success” without really thinking it through. 

It might be going too far to read too much in to a similarity between Nobunaga’s dictatorial dynamism and Kyoichi’s domineering manliness, but that’s largely where Mayuko seems to be. Beginning to realise his mistakes, Kyoichi confesses that he cynically took advantage of the situation to manipulate Mayuko into marrying him, believing that she was “insecure and unreliable”, “unable to do anything alone” and in need of his protection. Talking with Kyoichi’s father and beginning to assert herself in opposition to Nobunaga’s injustices, she begins to realise that she can take charge of her own destiny and has a duty to find what it is she wants to do, and do that as best she can.

The lesson is, however, somewhat problematically learned in her realisation both that she can’t change “history” and that she can because history is a consequence of our collective choices. This Nobunaga, apparently wanted a peaceful society for all, one in which class divisions had been eradicated and equality ruled. He sees our world and deems it good enough to sacrifice his life for, but Mayuko by turns becomes enamoured of the past, finding her vocation as a teacher of history in a move which is both progressive in seeing her reject a marriage of “convenience” to strike out under her own steam, but also backward looking in its reevaluation of Nobunaga and his unfinished revolution as if there is no real need for change “now”. Granted, Honnouji Hotel is partly concerned with selling the charms of Kyoto as an unchanging historical centre, but it’s difficult to escape the slightly sour note of conservatism as Mayuko finds her forward path only by embracing the samurai past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, SABU, 1996)

Dangan Runner posterIt’s not difficult to see what might send three young men running like stray bullets from a random gun in the Japan of the mid-90s, but each of the various protagonists of SABU’s debut feature Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, AKA Non-Stop) is reaching for a different target. Like much of the director’s later work, Dangan Runner pivots on random circumstance which somehow conspires to bring our three runners together as if bound by cosmic thread while they too are chased by an oncoming storm in the form of vengeful yakuza and the bumbling cops hot on their trail.

Kickstarting the whole affair, lowly restaurant worker Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi), fed up with the petty humiliations of his life, decides to rob a bank. He has everything planned, even rehearsed and choreographed down to the second, but when the time comes he makes a mistake. Having left his mask at home, he decides to buy one from a local combini but panics and accidentally shoplifts instead, attracting the attentions of bullet two – Aizawa (Diamond Yukai), who is wounded in the arm by Yasuda’s nervous shot when his gun accidentally goes off. A drug addict and former rockstar, Aizawa, intent on revenge for the disrespect he’s just been paid, retrieves the gun dropped by Yasuda and chases him through the streets of Tokyo. Aizawa in turn continues the chain reaction when he bumps into a yakuza, Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is “triggered” by a deep seated trauma into chasing off after Aizawa, knife in hand. Meanwhile, a rival yakuza clan is also after Takeda because of gangland politics while they too are being monitored by the police who have gotten wind of a gang war in the offing.

Though SABU’s film is not in the least political, it is like much of his work a mild satire even if its sympathy lies firmly with its three central heroes each desperately trying and failing to outrun themselves. Yasuda, a small man with a slight frame, is the lowest of the low. He has a terrible job as a kitchen assistant in a small restaurant where he is constantly bullied by the head chef and belittled by the other kitchen staff who are all much taller and stronger than he is. It’s not difficult to see why he might bristle so much when one calls him “good for nothing”, yet he’s not the type to offer more than an angry stare in return. To make matters worse, he runs into an old girlfriend who appears to have moved on and up. Walking arm in arm with a wealthy salaryman, she has apparently jettisoned the “common” name of “Midori” for the relatively more sophisticated one of “Yasuko”, presumably hoping to hook someone who is indeed the polar opposite of a “loser” like Yasuda.

Aizawa also has his share of woman troubles though his are of an opposing dimension. A failed musician with a drug problem, Aizawa alienated his loving girlfriend while hoping his addiction would save him from his unattainable dreams. Of course, it’s an entirely different “shot in the arm” that starts him running, but like Yasuda in the end all he can think of is the girl and how he did everything wrong. Takeda, by contrast, is a yakuza through and through. His regrets are bound up with homosocial bonding and male loyalty, mourning the death of the trusted superior he failed to save in dodging the blows of a random assassin. Yet as his superior tells him, all living beings run towards the same thing. A yakuza cannot control his death but he can control his life and the effect he has on others. He urges Takeda to run and find life in the process, but perhaps Takeda’s destination is the run itself rather than where it will eventually take him.

Indeed, Yasuda, accidentally landing up in the middle of the yakuza gang war, affirms that he never felt so alive as when he was running for his life. All three men, running fast from failure, finally achieve the freedom they’d dreamed of through the intense exertion of their flight which later literally becomes orgasmic as all three fantasise about a pretty woman seen on the side of the road. Like bullets fired from a gun powered by social impossibility, each is destined to explode on reaching its chosen target. Like many of SABU’s later protagonists, these are men brought low by life and circumstance, driven slowly mad by a conspiracy of cosmic coincidence, mere playthings of fate without power or agency. Angry young men are a powder keg waiting to ignite, but in SABU’s whimsically surreal universe they usually sort things out amongst themselves. For the Dangan Runners, they only need to look in the mirror to figure out where it is they need to go.


Dangan Runner is available on dual format DVD & blu-ray from Third Window Films. On disc extras include a video essay on the history of V Cinema from film scholar Tom Mes, and an expansive audio commentary by Jasper Sharp providing detailed background on SABU’s career and the Japanese cinema landscape of the mid-90s.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura (DESTINY 鎌倉ものがたり, Takashi Yamazaki, 2017)

Destiny tale of kamakura posterJapanese literature has its fair share of eccentric detectives and sometimes they even end up as romantic heroes, only to have seemingly forgotten the current love interest by the time the next case rolls around. This is very much not true of Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura (DESTINY 鎌倉ものがたり, Destiny: Kamakura Monogatari) which is an exciting adventure featuring true love, supernatural creatures, and a visit to the afterlife all spinning around a central crime mystery. Blockbuster master Takashi Yamazaki brings his visual expertise to the fore in adapting the popular ‘80s manga by Ryohei Saigan in which the human and supernatural worlds overlap in the quaint little town of Kamakura which itself seems to exist somewhere out of time.

Our hero, Masakazu Isshiki (Masato Sakai), is a best selling author, occasional consulting detective, and befuddled newlywed. He’s just returned from honeymoon with his lovely new wife and former editorial assistant, Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata), but there are a few things he’s neglected to explain to her about her new home. To wit, Kamakura is a place where humans, supernatural creatures, and wandering spirits all mingle freely though those not familiar with the place may assume the tales to be mere legends. To her credit, Akiko is a warm and welcoming person who can’t help being “surprised” by the strange creatures she begins to encounter but does her best to get used to their presence and learn about the ancient culture of the town in which she intends to spend her life. Unfortunately, she still has a lot to learn and an “incident” with a strange mushroom and a naughty monster eventually leads to her soul being accidentally sent off to the afterworld by a very sympathetic death god (Sakura Ando) who is equal parts apologetic about and confused by what seems to be a bizarre clerical error.

Destiny’s Kamakura is a strange place which seems to exist partly in the past. At least, though you can catch a glimpse of people in more modern clothing in the opening credits, the town itself has a distinctly retro feel with ‘60s decor, old fashioned cars, and rotary phones while Masakazu plays with vintage train sets, pens his manuscripts by hand, and delivers them in an envelope to his editor who knows him well enough to understand that deadlines are both Masakazu’s best friend and worst enemy.

The creatures themselves range from the familiar kappa to more outlandish human-sized creatures conjured with a mix of physical and digital effects and lean towards the intersection of cute and creepy. The usual fairytale rules apply – you must be careful of making “deals” with supernatural creatures and be sure to abide by their rules, only Akiko doesn’t know about their rules and Masakazu hasn’t got round to explaining them which leaves her open to various kinds of supernatural manipulation which he is too absent minded to pick up on.

Yet Masakazu will have to wake himself up a bit if he wants to save his wife from an eternity spent as the otherworld wife of a horrible goblin who, as it turns out, has been trying to split the couple up since the Heian era only they always manage to find each other in every single re-incarnation. True love is a universal law, but it might not be strong enough to fend off mishandled bureaucracy all on its own, which is where Akiko’s naivety and essential goodness re-enter the scene when her unexpected kindness to a bad luck god (Min Tanaka), and an officious death god who knew something was fishy with all these irreconcilable numbers, enable the couple to make a speedy escape and pursue their romantic destiny together.

Aimed squarely at family audiences, the film also delves a little into the awkward start of married life as Akiko tries to get used to her eccentric husband’s irregular lifestyle as well as his childlike propensity to try and avoid uncomfortable topics by running off to play trains. Masakazu, orphaned at a young age, is slightly arrested in post-adolescent emotional immaturity and never expected to get married after discovering something that made him question his parents’ relationship. Nevertheless, a visit to the afterlife will do wonders for making you reconsider your earthly goals and Masakazu is finally able to repair both his old family and his new through a bit of communing with the dead. Charming, heartfelt, and boasting some beautifully designed world building, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura is the kind of family film you didn’t think they made anymore – genuinely romantic and filled with pure-hearted cheer.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Takashi Miike, 2013)

mole song under cover agent reiji poserYakuza aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? According to one particular lover of Lepidoptera, that’s all they ever need to be. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo and adapted from the manga by Noboru Takahashi, Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji) is the classic bad spy comedy in which a hapless beat cop is dragged out of his police box and into the field as a yakuza mole in the (rather ambitious) hope of ridding Japan of drugs. As might be assumed, Reiji’s quest does not quite go to plan but then in another sense it goes better than anyone might have hoped.

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) is, to put it bluntly, not the finest recruit the Japanese police force has ever received. He does, however, have a strong sense of justice even if it doesn’t quite tally with that laid down in law though his methods of application are sometimes questionable. A self-confessed “pervert” (but not a “twisted” one) Reiji is currently in trouble for pulling his gun on a store owner who was extracting sexual favours from high school girls he caught shop lifting (the accused is a city counsellor who has pulled a few strings to ask for Reiji’s badge). Seizing this opportunity, Reiji’s boss (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) has decided that he’s a perfect fit for a spell undercover in a local gang they suspect of colluding with Russian mafia to smuggle large amounts of MDMA into Japan.

Reiji hates drugs, but not as much as his new best buddy “Crazy Papillon” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who is obsessed with butterflies and insists everything that happens around him be “funny”. Reiji, an idiot, is very funny indeed and so he instantly gets himself a leg up in the yakuza world whilst forming an unexpectedly genuine bond with his new buddy who also really hates drugs and only agreed to join this gang because they promised him they didn’t have anything to with them.

Sliding into his regular manga mode, Miike adopts his Crows Zero aesthetic but re-ups the camp as Reiji gets fired up on justice and takes down rooms full of punks powered only by righteousness and his giant yakuza hairdo. Like most yakuza movies, the emphasis is on the bonds between men and it is indeed the strange connection between Reiji and Papillon which takes centerstage as Miike milks the melodrama for all it’s worth.

Scripted by Kankuro Kudo (who previously worked with the director on the Zebra Man series), Reiji skews towards a slightly different breed of absurdity from Miike’s patented brand but retains the outrageous production design including the big hair, garish outfits, and carefully considered colour scheme. Mixing amusing semi-animated sequences with over the top action and the frequent reoccurrence of the “Mole Song”, Miike is in full-on sugar rush mode, barely pausing before moving on from one ridiculous set piece to the next.

Ridiculous set pieces are however the highlight of the film from Reiji’s early series of initiation tests to his attempts to win the affections of his lady love, Junna (Riisa Naka), and a lengthy sojourn at a mysterious yakuza ceremony which Reiji manages to completely derail through a series of misunderstandings. At 130 minutes however, it’s all wearing a bit thin even with the plot machinations suddenly kicking into gear two thirds of the way through. Nevertheless, there’s enough silly slapstick comedy and impressive design work at play to keep things interesting even if Reiji’s eventual triumph is all but guaranteed.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 21 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 24 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 March 2018
  • Broadway – 20 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 27 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 28 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Monday (マンデイ, SABU, 2000)

mondayWaking up in an unfamiliar hotel room can be a traumatic and confusing experience. The hero of SABU’s madcap amnesia sit in odyssey finds himself in just this position though he is, at least, fully clothed even if trying to think through the fog of a particularly opaque booze cloud. Monday (マンデイ) is film about Saturday night, not just literally but mentally – about a man meeting his internal Saturday night in which he suddenly lets loose with all that built up tension in an unexpected, and very unwelcome, way.

Mild mannered salaryman Takagi (Shinichi Tsutsumi) wakes up in his cheap hotel room dressed in a pitch black suit and with no recollection of how he got there. A packet of purification salt reminds him he was going to a funeral, but what happened after that? Takagi, it seems, enjoys a drink or two to ease that ever present sense of dread and impotence which dominates his life and so the events of the previous two days are lost in that pale space obscured by a booze drenched curtain of brain fog. Spotting various reminders hidden in his room Takagi begins to piece his strange adventure together from a bad date with the girlfriend whose birthday he blew off to go to the funeral, to a weird fortune teller, a beautiful woman, guns, gangsters and a homicidal killing spree. All in all, perhaps it was better when he couldn’t remember.

As usual, SABU weaves his complex comedy into a complicated cycle of interconnected gags. Takagi remains within the purgatory of his hotel room, furiously trying to remember how he got there but this otherwise anodyne space seems to be a reflection of his everyday persona in its inoffensive blandness, littered as it is with indications of the deeper layers implied by the still unknown actions of the previous few days. Judging by his appearance, Takagi is a shy, nervous man hidden behind his unstylish glasses and neatly swept back hair. Fearing his adventures are about to signal the end of his existence, Takagi suddenly gets the inspiration to make a proper will/suicide note which largely consists of a number of apologies firstly to his parents and siblings and finally to the girlfriend who walked out on him in the bar owing to his failure to appear for her birthday celebration and subsequently bizarre behaviour. The second portion of the letter also includes some advice to his siblings about how to look after the family pets and some horticultural tips but as he takes a few more drinks to steady his nerves, those deeper layers start to bleed through and so he takes this opportunity to advise his girlfriend that she should work on her anger issues and also avoid finishing other people’s sentences for them.

In Takagi’s defense, he has had a strange few days. The funeral of a close friend, especially one so young, might be enough to tip anyone into a spot of drunken introspection but the send off for former hair model Mitsuo (Masanobu Ando) is hardly a typical one given that it ends with the corpse exploding after Takagi is asked and then fails to “defuse” it. When he should probably take the opportunity to talk to someone about the things which are bothering him, Takagi has another drink, does his strange little laugh, and internalises his irritation with the very people who might be able to help him. Retreating to the bathroom carrying the memory of a stunning woman spotted at the bar with him, he returns to find a gloomy yakuza sitting in the adjacent seat intent on drinking and talking. Rather than saying a flat no and going home like a sensible person, Takagi keeps drinking until he feels like partying with the most dangerous guys in the room, even going so far as a raunchy dance with the gangster’s girl. The gangster, strangely, doesn’t mind and even seems to think he’s found a cool new friend but when everyone’s this drunk and there are guns around nothing is going to end well.

The finale finds SABU at his most sarcastic as the imprisoned Takagi indulges in a hero fantasy of taking the cops hostage and heading outside to meet the forces of authority head on only to give them a lecture about the danger of firearms and the necessity of love and kindness in a strange world. Needless to say, his message of peace is not universally well received. Takagi might have a point when he says that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the shotgun – such a powerful and easy to use weapon in the hands of those who previously felt so powerless can indeed be a dangerous thing, but the fact remains that he harboured all of this fear and resentment inside himself, attempting to drown it with booze but continually failing. We leave Takagi trapped inside the hotel room, as he’s always been trapped inside his mind, holding a possibly empty shotgun at a flimsy hotel room door with all of that pressure pushing down outside it. The gun is one thing, and guns are bad, but the enemy will always be Monday – the modern world is driving people crazy and could use some of that love and kindness Takagi was so keen on during his hostage crisis but it probably won’t work until he puts the gun (and the booze) down and opens that hotel room door.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):