Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Takashi Miike, 2017)

blade of the immortal posterGenerally speaking, revenge tends not to go very well in Japanese cinema. It has the tendency to backfire. When you’re immortal, however, perhaps revenge is risk worth taking – then again, it’s not your life your weighing. Takashi Miike is no stranger to the jidaigeki world, though in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin) he harks back to the angry, arty samurai films of the late 1960s from Gosha’s Sword of the Beast with which the manga features some minor narrative similarities, to Kobayashi’s melancholy consideration of corrupted honour, and the frantic intensity of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom.

The film opens in black and white as a disgraced samurai, Manji (Takuya Kimura), tries to protect his younger sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who has gone mad through grief only to see her murdered by a bounty hunter. Manji enters a state of furious, mindless killing which leaves the bounty hunter’s vast crowd of henchmen lying dead and Manji mortally wounded. Consumed by guilt and having lost the sister who was his sole reason for living, Manji longs for death but a mysterious old woman who calls herself Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) has other ideas and curses Manji to a life of eternal suffering by means of sacred bloodworms which give him the power of infinite, near instant healing.

Fifty years later, the land is at peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate but peaceful times are dull for warriors. The Itto-ryu school of swordsmanship has a mission – to take over all of the nation’s martial arts facilities and restore power to the sword. They have no honour or ideology save that of kill or be killed and are content to use any and all weapons which come to hand. A young girl, Rin (Yoko Yamamoto), is a daughter of one of these schools and has her eyes set on becoming a top swordswoman herself but when the Itto-ryu show up at her door, Rin’s father’s training proves worthless as he’s cut down with one blow while the gang kidnap Rin’s mother. The Itto-ryu’s sole concession to morality is in letting Rin alone, seeing as it’s “vulgar” to toy with children.

Rin vows revenge on the Itto-ryu’s leader, Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), at which point she runs into Yaobikuni who recommends she track down Manji and hire him as a bodyguard. Fifty years of immortality have turned Manji into an isolated, embittered wastrel with rusty swordskills but Rin’s uncanny resemblance to Machi eventually begins to move his heart. Despite generating a master/pupil, big brother/little sister relationship, Manji fails to teach Rin very much of consequence that might assist her in her plan to avenge her family, leaving her a vulnerable young woman beset by enemies and random thugs, and eventually caught up in a government conspiracy. The irony of Manji’s life is that he’s just not very good at the art of protection and all of his attempts to do something good usually provoke an even bigger crisis, in this case leaving his new little sister open to exactly the same fate as the one he failed to save for much the same reasons. Apparently, Manji has learned little during his extended lifetime except how to brood and glare resentfully at the world.

It turns out being immortal is kind of a drag. Manji wants to die because he can’t cope with the burden of his guilt, but another similarly cursed man he meets has lived much longer and lost far more, becoming tired of the business of of living. Manji’s existence has lost all meaning, but as he puts it to another world weary warrior who shares his brotherly grief, he’s not the only hero of a sad story. Rin’s need for vengeance gives him a purpose again – not just in the literal revenge, but in being the protector (though one could argue this is less positive than it sounds and might explain why he fails to teach Rin anything very useful, even if it doesn’t explain why she also forgets all her father’s teachings).

Rin remains conflicted over her mission of revenge, confessing to a similarly conflicted assassin that she agrees killing is wrong but that right and wrong no longer matter when it comes to people you love. A dangerous and dubious assertion, but it does bear out the more positive message that love, or at least learning to live for others, can be a transformative force for good as Manji allows himself to resume his role as the big brother despite his past failings. Violent and visceral, if also humorous, Blade of the Immortal is, oddly enough, a story of love but also of cyclical paths of violence and revenge, and of the general muddiness of assigning the moral high ground to those engaged in a quest for retribution.


Blade of the Immortal was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Entertainment on 8th December.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Napping Princess (ひるね姫 ~知らないワタシの物語, Kenji Kamiyama, 2017)

napping princess posterKenji Kamiyama has long been feted as one of Japan’s most promising animation directors, largely for his work with Production I.G. including the Ghost in the Shell TV anime spin-off, Stand Alone Complex, and conspiracy thriller Eden of the East. Aside from the elegantly shaded quality of his animation, Kamiyama’s work has generally been marked by thoughtful social and political commentary mixed with well executed action scenes and science fiction themes. Napping Princess (ひるね姫 〜知らないワタシの物語〜, Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari, also known by the slightly more intriguing title Ancien and the Magic Tablet) swaps science fiction for steampunk fantasy and, in a career first, is aimed at younger children and family audiences.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics fast approaching, Kokone (Mitsuki Takahata) is a regular high school girl about to enjoy her very last summer holiday before graduation. With no clear ideas of what it is she wants to do with her life, Kokone idly whiles away her time looking after her monosyllabic single dad, Momotaro (Yosuke Eguchi), who only seems to be able to communicate with her via text. Momotaro is a mechanic with a difference – he knows how to retrofit cars with a hi-tech, experimental self driving software that’s a real boon to the ageing population in the tiny rural town where the pair live.

A dreamy sort of girl, Kokone is always tired and frequently drifts off into a fantasy land where the car industry is all important and all are at the mercy of an iron fisted king whose sorceress daughter continues to cause problems for the population at large thanks to her strange powers. Whilst in her dream world, Kokone (or Ancien as she is known in “Heartland”) is accompanied by a her stuffed toy come to life and interacts with slightly younger versions of the people from her town including a dashingly heroic incarnation of her father as a young man.

The main action kicks off when Momotaro is arrested by an evil looking guy who wants a mysterious tablet he says Momotaro has stolen from their company. The fairytale inspired dreamworld might indicate a different kind of tablet, but this really is just a regular iPad with some information on it that certain people would very much like to get their hands on and other people would very much prefer that they didn’t. The tablet itself is a kind of macguffin which allows Kokone to process some long held questions about her past and that of her late mother who passed away when she was just an infant.

Kokone’s frequent flights of fancy start to merge with the real world, firstly when she shares a lucid dream with companion Morio (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) who helps her on her quest, and then later when magic seems to come to the pair’s aid through the tablet (though this turns out to have a more prosaic explanation). At 17 or so, you’d think perhaps Kokone is a little old for these kinds of fantasies, or at least for carting around a stuffed toy which is in remarkably good nick for something which apparently belonged to her mother when she was a child. Nevertheless, her dreamland is a long buried message which helps her piece together her mother’s story and how it might relate to her own all while she’s busy saving the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Olympics from becoming a possibly lethal international embarrassment which would destroy the Japanese car industry for evermore.

Despite his prowess with harder science fiction subjects, Kamiyama can’t quite corral all of this into a coherent whole. Valiantly trying to merge the twin stories of Kokone’s coming of age and the problems of the Japanese auto industry which is good at hardware but struggles with soft, Napping Princess narrowly misses its target neither quite charming enough in its fantasy universe or moving enough in the “real” one. This may perhaps rest on a single line intended to be a small revelation which melts the icy CEO’s heart but essentially comes down to the use of a kanji in a name being different from one on a sign, losing much of its impact in translation as it accidentally explains the whole of Kokone’s existence in one easy beat which easily missed. Failing to marry its two universes into one perfect whole, Napping Princess is a pleasant enough though perhaps inconsequential coming of age story in which a young girl discovers her own hidden powers whilst unlocking the secrets of her past.


Currently on limited UK release from Anime Limited.

Trailer featuring a (very nice) Japanese cover of Daydream Believer

 

Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

over the fence posterNobuhiro Yamashita may be best known for his laid-back slacker comedies, but he’s no stranger to the darker sides of humanity as evidenced in the oddly hopeful Drudgery Train or the heartbreaking exploration of misplaced trust and disillusionment of My Back Page. One of three films inspired by Hakodate native novelist Yasushi Sato (the other two being Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City and Mipo O’s The Light Shines Only There), Over the Fence (オーバー・フェンス) may be among the less pessimistic adaptations of the author’s work though its cast of lonely lost souls is certainly worthy both of Yamashita’s more melancholy aspects and Sato’s deeply felt despair.

Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) wants nothing to with anything or anyone. His wife has divorced him and he doesn’t see his child but he still wears his wedding ring and feels like a married man, unable to move on from the suspended end of his marriage. Having no place else to go, Shiraiwa has come back to his home town of Hakodate – a run down harbour town on the southern point of Hokkaido. For no particular reason other than it allows him to continue claiming unemployment benefits, he’s enrolled in a back to work scheme at a vocational school which teaches carpentry skills. Keeping himself aloof and explaining to anyone that takes an interest that he’s “human scum” and they’d best keep away, Shiraiwa is eventually convinced to go drinking with fellow student Dajima (Shota Matsuda) at his favourite bar.

Dajima introduces him to a much needed motivating factor in his life, a free spirited hostess girl with the strangely manly name of Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Satoshi argues loudly with customers in the street and dances with wild abandon in the middle of a room of quiet drinkers but on getting to know her better her rapidly changeable moods and occasional fits of violent despair speak of a more serious set of problems which Satoshi herself feels as ill equipped to deal with as Shiraiwa has been with the failure of his marriage.

Failure is something which hangs heavily over the film as the grey dullness and stagnant quality of the harbour town seems to bear out its inescapability. Unsurprisingly, in one sense, everyone at the vocational school is there because they’ve already failed at something else though some of them have more success with carpentry than others. Shiraiwa takes the work seriously even if he doesn’t really see himself heading into a career as a carpenter but there’s an additional reason why the environment is so oppressive and the uniforms not unlike those of a prison. Everyone is here because they have to be and they can’t leave until they’ve completed their re-education. The teacher at the school is always quick to remind everyone how it was when he worked in the field, only he never did, he’s a failure and a prideful fantasist too.

The other men face various problems from age and dwindling possibilities, to intense pressure to succeed leading to eventual mental breakdown, and trying to build a new life after leaving the yakuza, but Shiraiwa is unique among them in the degree to which he has internalised his essential failures. Having convinced himself that he’s “human scum” Shiraiwa wants everyone else to know too as he intentionally refuses any sense of forward motion or progress in his life to reassure himself that there is no possible future for him. Satoshi has convinced herself of something similar though her dissatisfaction and fear of rejection are deeply ingrained elements of her personality which are permanent personal attributes. Pushing Shiraiwa to address the questions he could not bear to face, she helps him towards a more positive position whilst simultaneously refusing any kind of reciprocal self analysis.

There’s an additional cruelty in Satoshi’s manic declaration that Shiraiwa drove his wife insane that’s in part self directed and raises a mutual anxiety between them as Shiraiwa may be falling for a woman who already feels herself to be “mad”. Satoshi’s strange impressions of birds and animals point to her closeness to nature and separation from conventional society but also perhaps of her fear of hurting other people through her periodic descents into self destructive cruelty. As caged as the animals in the zoo where she works, Satoshi decides to try letting them out only to discover that the eagle has no desire to leave his perch.

Hakodate becomes a kind of purgatory for all as they each attempt to conquer their demons and win the right to move on to better and brighter things. Melancholy as it is, Yamashita adds in touches of his trademark surrealist humour but even in its sadness Over the Fence leaves room for hope. Climaxing in an inconsequential yet extremely important softball game the meaning of the film’s title becomes apparent – you’ll never know if you can hit that ball over the fence until you find the courage to take a swing but you may never be able to find it without the help and support of a kindred spirit.


Over the Fence was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)