P. P. Rider (ションベンライダー, Shinji Somai, 1983)

PP rider posterDespite a brief resurgence following a retrospective at Tokyo Filmex followed by another at Edinburgh International Film Festival, Shinji Somai remains frustratingly underrepresented in the West. Though his career is more varied than most give him credit for, encompassing the melancholy pink film Love Hotel and masculinity drama The Catch among others, Somai is justifiably most closely associated with his youth films. Running from the artier Typhoon Club and The Friends to the rabidly populist in the Kadokawa idol movies Sailor Suit and Machine Gun and Tokyo Heaven, Somai’s work is unique in managing to catch hold of a zeitgeist, capturing the essence of the contemporary teenager more or less in the way they saw themselves rather than the way they were generally seen by adults. Like many Japanese teen movies of the ‘80s, the world of P.P. Rider (ションベンライダー, Shonben Rider) is essentially a safe one – our three protagonists get themselves mixed up in some dark and shady business but they are never afraid, do not lose heart, and face danger with only contempt and determination.

Somai opens with one of his trademark long takes which whirls around from two suspicious looking yakuza types to a bunch of kids playing around in the school swimming pool. One of the kids, a rotund boy who goes by the nickname Debunaga (he has the rather pretentious name of Nobunaga Deguchi, “Nobunaga” being the first name of a historical tyrant) is being a bit of a twit and having a go at one of our heroes – JoJo (Masatoshi Nagase). Debunaga (Yoshikazu Suzuki) then tries to “drown” JoJo’s friend Jisho (lit. Dictionary) (Shinobu Sakagami), before the third member of the trio arrives – an androgynous girl who goes by the name of Bruce (Michiko Kawai). Bruce neatly dispatches the petty high school punks while a teacher, Arane (Hideko Hara), attempts to shift some bosozoku who’ve invaded school property.

Meanwhile, the petty yakuza get on with their plan. They’ve come to kidnap Debunaga – his pharmacist dad apparently has a sideline in drug dealing, but before they can grab him, Debunaga is kidnapped by entirely different kidnappers! Our three heroes, JoJo, Jisho, and Bruce are very annoyed about this because they didn’t get a proper chance to get even with Debunaga. Accordingly, they decide the best way to make use of their summer holiday is to rescue him themselves and make sure they get their revenge before the kidnappers do him in.

P.P. Rider means exactly you think it means, except it doesn’t quite mean anything at all aside from perfectly capturing the strange mix of childish jokes and serious crime that defines the movie’s tone. The atmosphere is absurd and ironic, the kids distrust adult authority and attempt to define their own nascent personalities by effectively rejecting them – using nicknames, dressing in highly codified ways, and either conforming to or subverting social codes as they see fit. Amusingly enough, the trio take a brief pause in the middle of their quest to get haircuts and change outfits, after which they emerge dressed in each other’s clothes as if implying they are almost interchangeable. 

In keeping with most Japanese youth dramas, parents are an entirely off screen presence. Adult input comes from two very different directions (plus the occasional interventions of bumbling beat cop Tanaka) – a down-at-heels yakuza called Gombei (Tatsuya Fuji), and the kids’ teacher, Arane. Gombei, a drug addled gangster, is hardly an ideal role model (especially when he tries to drown Bruce and attacks Jisho with a samurai sword), but he does eventually take the kids under his wing with JoJo picking up the classic deputy role in learning the yakuza ropes. Arane, by contrast begins by letting them down. Harried by the bosozoku she tells the kids to buzz off when they try to talk to her, telling them that she’s off to hot springs town Atami and they’d best come back next term. Nevertheless she eventually becomes an integral part of their group, assisting in the quest and helping to rescue Debunaga while the strange finale plays out before her impassive eyes.

The kids didn’t really want to save Debunaga, and are conflicted when they eventually locate him, but in the end it’s friendship which wins out as they each celebrate their various roles in the successful rescue whilst lamenting the relative lack of care they’ve received from adults and authority figures aside from Arane and Gombei. Absurdist and ironic, P.P. Rider is a strange children’s odyssey in which the adolescent teens head out on a dark and dangerous adventure but live in the relative safety of the world and so nothing very bad is going to happen to them despite the terrible things they eventually witness. Classical long takes jostle alongside Somai’s mobile camera, random intertitles, and frequent breaks for pop music (this is an idol movie after all) in a frenzy of post-modern gags but somehow it all just works, and does so with wit and charm.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

Interview with actor Masatoshi Nagase from the Tokyo Filmex screening in 2011 (Japanese only, no subtitles)

Michiko Kawai’s main titles song – Watashi, Takanna Koro

Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (雪の断章 情熱, Shinji Somai, 1985)

Lost-Chapter-of-Snow-Passion dvd coverShinji Somai’s work is most closely identified with depictions of contemporary young people who meet their approaching adulthood with an almost nostalgic melancholy but in Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (雪の断章 情熱, Yuki no Dansho: Jonetsu), he takes things one step further as his orphaned heroine moves through dependence to independence and finally assumes her own identity. Based on a novel by Marumi Sasaki, Lost Chapter also fits neatly into the idol movie subgenre, starring the then popular singer and actress Yuki Saito who sings frequently throughout the film and provides the end titles theme Jonetsu (Passion).

As the film opens, seven year old orphan Iori (Mami Nakazato) has been adopted by the wealthy but cruel Naba family who regard her as a slave, to be beaten, humiliated and pressed into service. One day, an employee of Naba’s, Yuichi (Takaaki Enoki), visits and witnesses Iori’s cruel treatment at the hands of oldest sister Sachiko (Kyoko Fujimoto), immediately taking her home to live with him. The situation is difficult, especially as Iori’s past has led her to be wary of new connections, and her sudden arrival has also placed a strain on Yuichi’s engagement to a girl still living in Tokyo far away from snowy Sapporo. Ten years pass and Iori (Yuki Saito) has become a happy, healthy high school girl but the resurfacing of the Naba sisters in her life is to have profound consequences when one of them is murdered and Iori finds herself regarded as a prime suspect.

Embracing its almost Dickensian roots, Lost Chapter’s most obvious theme is the place, or displacement, of the orphaned within Japanese society which places the family above all else. Iori’s origins are never mentioned beyond her early life in an orphanage, but even when Yuichi brings her home the first words the housekeeper offers are that a discarded child like Iori maybe trouble, assuming that she is the result of a “loose woman’s” weakness and irresponsibility. The Nabas, who are a thoroughly unpleasant bunch ruled over by older sister Sachiko, have adopted her despite being an already large family but raising a lonely child in love was not their aim so much as getting a kitchen maid they wouldn’t have to pay. Iori is sent out on pointless errands through the snow and freezing air only to fear she will be beaten for having drunk the juice she was sent to buy on Sachiko’s behalf. This fate is not unique to Iori as she discovers when Daisuke (Kiminori Sera), a friend of Yuichi’s who has become like a second father to her, reveals his orphan past as a poor relation sheltered by family members but not quite embraced by them.

Iori’s poor treatment at the Naba’s is offered as a possible motive for the murder of Hiroko (Mai Okamoto) – younger sister to Sachiko and a student in the same class as Iori. Hiroko is fairly depressed and a flighty girl, still cruel and eager to show off in front of her former step-sister with a lengthy dance sequence offered in front of the hottest boys at school. When she dies suddenly, all evidence points to a cup of coffee Iori tried to take her in kindness but even if it wasn’t Iori who plotted to kill her, Hiroko’s death is still firmly linked to her family’s cruel superiority.

The strain of the investigation plays on Iori’s mind, forcing her into a deeper consideration of her place within Yuichi’s household especially as she’ll soon be approaching the crossroads of adulthood and will need to decide whether to go on to university or leave Yuichi’s house to be independent. In the housekeeper’s mind, staying at “home” is not an option once she could, theoretically, support herself but Yuichi and Daisuke may feel quite differently about this damaged little girl they once took in and are still in the process to turning into a fine young woman. Yuichi’s housekeeper has a choice metaphor regarding Yuichi’s intentions in rescuing Iori – pointing to a withered flower, she suggests that Iori was a thirsty seed that Yuichi has been patiently watering in order to see the flowers bloom, but this way of viewing the situation places a further wedge between Iori and Yuichi who is still seeing his fiancée in Tokyo while Iori’s feelings about the father figure who raised her but is also still a handsome, kind, and youngish man have begun to become confused.

Falling into shojo romance territory, Lost Chapter does indeed become a slightly uncomfortable romantic tale in which a young woman falls in love with her “father” and he with her though, as they aren’t blood related, it can still be depicted as sweet and innocent rather than a tale of long term grooming and inappropriate power structures. Yuichi, though obviously a kind and socially minded young man, is nevertheless as “irresponsible” as he’s branded in his neglect of his longterm fiancée (who later makes an embarrassing first visit in nine years to Yuichi’s home to ask Iori to back off and finally declare herself grown up so she and Yuichi can marry), and later positing of Iori as some kind of pet project in his determination to have her graduate university – a feather in his cap rather than a stepping stone to a middle-class life for his precious daughter.

Known for his long, roaming, handheld takes Somai opens with a 14 minute seemingly unbroken, dreamlike sequence recounting Iori’s life with the Nabas and her eventual rescue. Somai’s camera pans around a series of snow trenches, placing a phone call from Tokyo right inside the icy space alongside a hidden violin player scoring the action. Shot with the random, etherial quality of memory mixed with dream, this first sequence gives way to a more conventional main body even if Somai maintains his preference for long takes filled with surprising pans and unexpected entrances into the frame. There are great moments of tenderness and warmth in Iori’s story, brought to life by Somai’s noticeably expressionist techniques, but there’s pain and darkness too as death and suicide lurk in the background, ready to strike at any moment. A beautifully surreal, theatrical exploration of a standard coming of age tale Lost Chapter is both shojo romance at its most controversial and a fine showcase for a popular idol shining in a leading role.


Originally released as a double header with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Four Sisters.

14 minute long take intro (no subtitles)

Yuki Saito singing Jonetsu on a Japanese TV show presumably around the time of the film’s release.

Love Hotel (ラブホテル, Shinji Somai, 1985)

love-hotelShinji Somai is not particularly well known outside of Japan but where his work is celebrated it’s mostly for his youth films of teen alienation and pop culture cool. Released in the same year as his iconic Typhoon Club, Love Hotel (ラブホテル) seems like something of an aberration in Somai’s career which leans towards the melancholic rather than the passionate. Somai had begun his working life apprenticing with Nikkatsu during their Roman Porno years and Love Hotel is, in someways, a return to this genre but is only accidentally a “pink film”, produced with Director’s Company and later acquired by the pink film giant. As such it contains a number of explicit sex scenes but maintains Somai’s characteristic long takes and contemplative approach rather than adhering to the often formulaic nature of the Roman Porno.

Failed businessman Muraki (Minori Terada) returns one day to find his office full of gangsters in the middle of raping his wife. Distraught, his first thought is suicide but then he decides on a little roundabout revenge before he goes. Dressed in a dark suit and sunglasses like some ‘60s Nikkatsu bad guy, Muraki holes up in a love hotel and calls down for a girl. “Yumi” (Noriko Hayami) arrives not long after. Handing the girl a vast sum of money, Muraki then instructs her to close her eyes because he’s also brought “a present”. He handcuffs her and reveals his true purpose by tearing off her clothes, tying her up and fitting her with a vibrator. He’s going to kill himself tonight, but he doesn’t want to go alone. In the end, he can’t go through with it, something in Yumi’s face changes his mind and he leaves her there, tied up and handcuffed.

Two years later, Muraki has divorced his wife (apparently to keep her safe from the yakuza who are still after him for his debts) and is now living an intentionally dull life as a taxi driver. One fateful day he runs into Yumi again, only she’s no longer “Yumi” but “Nami”, an office lady at a top company. Eventually recognising each other, the pair are each forced to face the circumstances surrounding the traumatic night of two years previously but doing so means risking everything they have now.

Love Hotel is a film of seeing and not seeing, of looking and refusal to look. The film opens with a semi-explicit sexual scene in which Muraki’s wife is raped by a loanshark in which we watch both Muraki’s horrified expression and the act itself by means of a well positioned mirror. Somai repeats the mirroring motif throughout the film both by showing us Nami repeatedly caught in mirrors and by the obvious tripartite glass arrangement of the love hotel’s headboard. Both Muraki and Nami have elements of themselves at which they’d rather not look but the ever present mirrors constantly prompt them into areas of self-reflection, ironically possible only by looking at the other.

Where Muraki has chosen a life of austerity, separating from his wife who nevertheless continues stopping by to look after him in all of the wifely ways, Nami has tried and failed to put her traumatic past behind her by hopping into the consumerist revolution. Having supported herself through prostitution as a student, she’s managed to swing a pretty good job at top company only to find herself “prostituted” again through an ill-advised affair with her married boss. After his wife finds out and Nami loses her job and the entire life she’d begun to build for herself, she tries to call her former lover for consolation only to have him cruelly hang up on her. Nami continues her lamentations to the alarming trill of the dial tone in a heartbreaking moment of true loneliness.

Left with nothing else, the pair decide to revisit their unfinished love hotel business but their much more normal encounter changes each of them in different ways. It’s clear something has passed between the two, but Muraki’s final glance into the mirror perhaps shows him something he’d rather not have seen. Nami’s face, like Yumi’s face, may well have been “angelic” but cannot “save” Muraki in the same way twice – or at least, not in the way the restored Nami would have liked to save him. Dark, melancholy and fatalistic, Somai’s stab at Roman Porno is a sad tale of frustrated love, destroyed by the use and misuse of bodies speaking against each other and becoming a barrier to true connection. The Love Hotel is a place romance goes to die, and what the pair of damaged lovers at the centre of his noir-tinged tale of despair find there is only emptiness and pain devoid of any sign of hope.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

Masterfully constructed one take final scene (dialogue free)

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:

Tokyo Heaven (東京上空いらっしゃいませ, Shinji Somai, 1990)

title-752In Japan, Shinji Somai is a well known and highly regarded director yet few of his films have ever made it overseas and he remains almost unknown in the West. Even by these standards Tokyo Heaven (東京上空いらっしゃいませ, Tokyo Joukuu Irasshaimase) seems to be something of a forgotten episode in Somai’s career and is difficult to find even on unsubtitled DVD. Though it may not be among his best works and is undoubtedly of its time, Tokyo Heaven still displays Somai’s characteristic visual flair.

Set in 1990, the film begins with spoilt brat up and coming idol star and soon to be campaign girl Yu (Riho Makise) at a glitzy launch party. It’s time for 16 year old Yu to be heading home, but sleazy producer Shirayuki (Tsurube Shofukutei) has other plans and instructs his underlings to set her up with him which they, guiltily, do. However, during the cab ride home Yu eventually escapes his mollestations by jumping out into the middle of the road where she’s immediately mown down by an oncoming car. Waking up in a pastoral vision of heaven, Yu meets her guide, “Cricket” who looks exactly like Shirayuki – the last face she had in her mind before she died. Given the opportunity to return to Earth but not as her old self, Yu tells Cricket to make her the girl on her campaign posters. Waking up in the room of one of the advertising executives working on her account, Fumio (Kiichi Nakai), she discovers resurrection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Taking its queue from A Matter of Life and Death, Tokyo Heaven is first and foremost a fantasy romance (in the broadest sense) though leaning more towards bittersweet comedy than heartrending tragedy or profound human truths. Yu has returned to Earth but is unable to make contact with her family or let her presence be known to anyone other than Fumio. She no longer appears in photographs or mirrors and gradually comes to the realisation that her life really has ended and this small reprieve is only temporary. Many of Somai’s films focus on the emotions of younger people and the irony here is that Yu only grows up once she’s technically dead. Having had the chance to experience a “normal” adolescence with a part-time job at a fast food restaurant and a tentative romance Yu eventually feels ready to move on.

At only 16 years old, Yu was about to become a the face of a large scale advertising campaign. Her image haunts the streets of Tokyo and the loathsome Shirayuki is desperately trying to spin the tragic events into some kind of narrative that will both cover-up his entirely inappropriate behaviour with a school girl in the back of his chauffeur driven car and save some of the hard work already in place on the campaign itself. Hence, no one other than the girl’s parents is being told that Yu is dead and all previous commitments are being cancelled due to “poor health” or “taking a break” etc. Even after death, Yu’s image is being exploited and her soul ignored.

The conflicted trombone player, Fumio, comes to appreciate Yu for who she really is during their brief time together, resents Shirayuki’s treatment of her and wants the campaign to go ahead in an attempt to prolong her “presence” even if in image only. Through his contact with the increasingly vivacious Yu, Fumio who has previously been berated by his brother for not wanting to join their family bathroom fittings business and labeled as someone with an impenetrable shell who prefers his own company by his sometime girlfriend from downstairs, also comes to appreciate the joys of being alive a little more and reconsider some of his previous life choices.

Bearing Somai’s trademark long yet dynamic takes, Tokyo Heaven is a colourful tribute to Tokyo right before the bubble burst. Almost a prescient warning about the dangers of praising image over reality, Tokyo Heaven becomes a poignant tale of learning to appreciate the sheer pleasure of being alive. Its slightly strange and perhaps abrupt ending has the potential to be misread, but the general message about the transience of life and the importance of living the way you want to live is one that cannot be overstated.


Screened from film as part of the London Japanese Embassy Filmshow programme on 19th November 2015.

There isn’t even a trailer available for this but if you can understand Japanese there’s a talkshow event with star and comedian Tsurube Shofukutei recorded at the recent Tokyo Filmex Somai retrospective in 2011.

And a musical scene from the film featuring Yosui Inoue’s Kaeranai Futari