Kingdom (キングダム, Shinsuke Sato, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Kingdom poster 1The class war arrives in feudal China via modern Japan in Shinsuke Sato’s big budget adaptation of the wuxia-inspired manga by Yasuhisa Hara, Kingdom (キングダム). Set in China’s Warring States period, Kingdom offers a surprisingly progressive message, if mildly tempered by a failure to tackle the system in its entirety, in which the oppressed (which in this case includes the king) rise up against sneering aristocracy fuelled mostly by righteousness and fierce defence of the right to dream.

The tale begins with a fateful meeting between enslaved war orphans Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Xin (Kento Yamazaki) on a small farm somewhere in rural China. The boys, realising there is no way out of their enslavement save the sword, commit themselves to perfecting their martial arts with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s greatest generals. Their intense bond is broken when a mysterious man, Lord Chang . Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima), appears and offers Piao a job at the palace. Though he agonises over leaving his brother behind, Piao seizes his destiny little knowing he has been hired not quite so much for his sword skills as for his resemblance to weakened king Ying Zheng (also played by Ryo Yoshizawa). Sometime later, Piao returns close to death, entrusting Xin with an important mission – go to Ying Zheng and seek his own destiny by restoring rightful rule.

The two boys are about as oppressed as it’s possible to be – orphaned slaves with no prospect of improving their condition save the one they’ve already decided on, fighting in a war. This doesn’t quite explain how they can release themselves from the farm, but Xin’s eventual flight, in which his master does not attempt to stop him, might suggest the first hurdle is not as big as it seems. In any case, Xin finds an unlikely ally in Ying Zheng who has been deposed from the throne by his younger brother for not being royal enough because his birth was illegitimate and his mother was a dancer.

Of course, Ying Zheng’s intention to regain his “rightful” throne is in defence of a necessarily unequal social order, but it’s also a blow against the kind of elitism which mark’s his brother Cheng Jiao’s (Kanata Hongo) philosophy. Cheng Jiao believes that he is the most rightful king because his blood is the most royal. He looks down on Ying Zheng as low born, and has no respect for his subjects or the lower orders. “A peasant in fine clothes is still a peasant” one of his minions intones to intimidate an opponent, but someone with a sword is still someone with a sword no matter their circumstances of birth and provided you have access to acquire one, perhaps swordsmanship is a truly egalitarian art given that it largely depends on how well you wield a blade. Eventually, Ying Zheng makes an ally of another oppressed people – the mountain dwellers subjugated, and previously betrayed, by the powers that be who lend their strength to toppling a corrupt power structure in order to restore something like peace and balance to the land.

Indeed, asked to give a brief manifesto speech, Ying Zheng cooly declares that he aims to create a unified China by eliminating borders and therefore the need for war. Insisting that when a king picks up a sword it ought to be in service of his people, he makes the case for a borderless world, little caring that, as his general points out, history may brand him a tyrant. Nevertheless, he remains a “puppet king” whose status is dependent on the loyalty of key general Wang Yi (Takao Ohsawa) with whom true power lies. Wang Yi, as we later find out seems to be a “good” person who used his troops to protect the innocent and ensure no civilians were harmed during the chaos of the insurrection but he does indeed wield dangerously vast power for just one man. Meanwhile, Ying Zheng may reject the primacy of blood, but does dare to claim his birthright as an oldest son and is of course acting in service of an inherently oppressive system even if he means to make minor improvements towards the kind of meritocracy that allows men like Xin to embrace the power of their dreams.

The power of dreams is indeed the key. Though Cheng Jiao’s hardline mercenary may sneer that “dreams are bullshit” and deny a slave like Xin’s right to have one at all, to men like Xin dreams are all they have. As he says, they get you back on your feet when everything else seems hopeless. Learning that Piao achieved his dream even if it was only for a few moments gives him the strength to pursue his own in service not just of himself but his brother, friends, and kingdom.

Appropriating the aesthetics of wuxia may prove problematic for some, but like many Japanese manga with international settings, Kingdom’s mechanics are essentially home grown which is perhaps why Sato heavily leans on Kurosawa’s legacy, possibly overusing the distinctive side wipe and giving his heroine a look echoing that from Hidden Fortress while other influences seem to feed back from Star Wars in the strangely cute masked mountain elders and gleaming golden armour of bad ass warrior queen Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa). A surprisingly positive, perhaps ironically bold plea for a borderless world and if not actual equality at least a friendly kind of egalitarian nobility, Kingdom hands victory to those who fight hardest for their right to dream while subtly advocating for their right to rebel against an inherently unjust social order in order to claim it. 


Kingdom was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be screened in US cinemas from Aug. 16 courtesy of Funimation.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

Dare to stop us posterUntil his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 2012, Koji Wakamatsu had been the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. An irascible but somehow much loved figure, Wakamatsu is most closely associated with a series of provocative sex films which mixed politically radical avant-garde aesthetics with pink film exploitation. Kazuya Shiraishi, himself a former Wakamatsu apprentice, takes a look back at the heady years of Japanese indie cinema in the aptly titled Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Tomerareruka, Oretachi wo) which explores the backstage environment at Wakamatsu Production from 1969 to 1972 (or, right before everything changed with the death of the student movement in Japan following the Asama-sanso incident).

Rather than follow Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) directly, Shiraishi frames his tale around aspiring director Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki) – the only female presence (besides the actresses) at the otherwise extremely masculine studio which focusses mainly on artistic soft-core pornography. A Shinjuku hippie and self-confessed fan of Wakamatsu, Megumi finds herself joining the team after being recruited to scout potential starlets who could pass for high schoolers. On arrival at the studio, Megumi is quickly mistaken for an actress or mistress but finally manages to win the guys round and is taken on as an assistant director with the possibility of stepping up to the director’s chair if she lasts three years working under Wakamatsu.

As the gruff director warns her, most don’t even last the month. Megumi is however determined, despite Wakamatsu’s continued show of forgetting her name and harsh on-set demeanour. Commiserating with her, another veteran affirms that the big studios wilfully exploit their ADs, at least with Wakamatsu his heart is in the right place even if he’s only a different sort of difficult. He also, however, hands her a bottle of hooch which serves an unfortunate harbinger of things to come as Megumi finds herself playing along with the hard drinking boys club but becoming ever more confused about her role in the organisation and the further direction of her life.

Wakamatsu and his partner Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) vow to make films to shake the world, but are not above commercial concerns which is why they find themselves making pure sex films under pseudonyms to balance the books, much to the chagrin of some of the studio’s more politically engaged members. These are particularly politically engaged times in which the student movement is at its zenith, protesting not only the renewal of the ANPO treaty, but the Vietnam War, and the fiercely contested building of Narita airport. Mostly thanks to Adachi, Wakamatsu Production gradually shifts from indie film company to activist organisation in which political concerns are beginning to take precedence over the business of filmmaking.

The shift leaves those like Megumi who were not so interested in the political dimension floundering along behind and increasingly disillusioned with the world of Wakamatsu Pro. Megumi may admit that she had other problems that probably should have been better addressed, but remains conflicted as to her involvement with the studio. Feeling as if she has nothing in particular to say, she questions her desire to make films at all while clinging fiercely to the surrogate family that has grown up around the strangely fatherly director and continuing to feel insecure in her atypical femininity in a world which more or less requires her to act like a man but doesn’t quite accept her for doing so.

Wakamatsu said he wanted to hold the masses at knifepoint and create a film to blow up the world, but Megumi increasingly feels as if it’s she who will eventually face Wakamatsu with only one of them surviving. Megumi is, in a sense, a victim and encapsulation of her age in which she wanted a little more than it had to give her and found herself increasingly disillusioned with its various betrayals and disappointments. Given the chance to direct a 30-minute short for love hotels, Megumi spins a tale of Urashima Taro which is, as Adachi puts it, all about how she can’t go back to being a hippie after getting mixed up with Wakamatsu and has lost sight of her true self in her quest for acceptance. Both nostalgic look back to a heady era and a tragic tale of that era’s costs, Dare to Stop Us is a fitting tribute to the Wakamatsu legacy which portrays the irascible director as neither saint nor demon but painfully human and infinitely flawed.


Dare to Stop Us was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー, Ken Ninomiya, 2017)

the limit of sleeping beauty posterCan you escape the past by evading it? The heroine of Ken Ninomiya’s The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー) does her best to find out as she approaches the point at which she can no longer bear the weight of all her sorrows. A rising star of the Japanese indie scene, Ken Ninomiya had some minor festival exposure with his first film, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk drama Slum-polis, back in 2015 before making a complete about turn in releasing a terse mockumentary about a resilient actor hammering on the door of Japanese show business. Sleeping Beauty was, apparently, originally conceived as a mid-length picture before producers suggested expanding it into a full length feature and in many ways marries the twin concerns of Ninomiya’s earlier films in its high concept examination of a fracturing psyche unable to let the past go and move on from trauma and disappointment.

At 19, Aki (Yuki Sakurai) ran away from a bad family situation and ended up in Tokyo with the hope of becoming an actress. With nowhere else to go she wandered into a random bar which is where she met the love of her life, Kaito (Issey Takahashi) – a melancholy photographer and owner of cabaret club Aurora. Kaito takes her in and she begins working at Aurora as a magician’s assistant but ten years pass and, as a TV presenter later put it, it’s unheard of for a Japanese actress to make it in her 30s.

Her mind fracturing, Aki is often accompanied by “Butch” (Nino Furuhata), a strange clown with a scary white face who appears alternately supportive and enabling. Complaining that she feels unstuck in time, Butch reminds her that the idea of time as linear flow is a misconception and that all moments are indeed one moment which is one reason Aki never quite knows “when” she is. Accepting this fact she asks to be taken to the time at which she was happiest, only to be told that emotional time is not necessarily in sync with one’s perception of temporality. Nevertheless, her mind flies back to her first meeting with Kaito who we later surmise is no longer in her life but continues to define it all the same.

The picture we get of Aki is of a woman attempting to bury herself and her disappointments by revelling in a pleasant memory and then using it as raw material to read herself into an idealised version of her current life only one which is still marred by the tragedy of losing Kaito. Ninomiya opens with an orgy in dingy sex club where everyone is wearing creepy carnival masks and the older Aki is sporting a nasty bruise on her chin. The bruise, we later discover, was earned in a nasty encounter with a lascivious producer engineered by a soulless manager who promised her a career but in effect sold her to a man who assaulted and humiliated her. This final humiliation is only one of many acts of degradation that Aki suffers in her quest to make it as an actress – one of only two things Kaito urged her to do before disappearing from her life forever.

Unable to cope with the weight of lost love, defeated dreams, and a wasted youth Aki’s mind splinters into fragments, creating the strange entity known as Butch whom she seems to want to get rid of but cannot bear to be without. Aki’s quest is one of reintegration in which she must find the strength to put herself back together again and finally set light to the past, waking up from her self imposed slumber.

Kaito wants her to know the world is still wonderful, but his message seems curiously perverse considering his final course of action and Aki’s continuing descent into a spiral of depression, exploitation, and mental instability. Fantasy and reality remain hopelessly blurred, only gradually separating and becoming distinct as Aki begins to put herself back together. Ninomiya improves on Slum-Polis with similarly detailed production design and world building but occasionally allows his taste for music video aesthetics to slide into the indulgent with the success of such sequences depending on the viewer’s taste for the overused main titles song, Hummingbird by Kyla La Grange. Nevertheless there’s no disputing Ninomiya’s ambition and originality even if there is something unsettling in his urgency to inhabit the world he seems to be critiquing.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Oshin (おしん, Shin Togashi, 2013)

Oshin posterBack in the 1980s, an “asadora” named “Oshin” proved so popular with Japanese television viewers that its title became a byword for tenacity and perseverance, attached to any underdog who battled bravely against insurmountable odds. The “asadora”, as its name suggests, is a 15 minute drama serial broadcast in the mornings and therefore mainly targeted at housewives. As such it often focusses on the lives of women and particularly on women who work hard to triumph over adversity. Oshin is no different in this regard except that it also recounts the painful history of 20th century Japan through that of its stoical heroine who travels from a life of poverty in snowy Yamagata to becoming the owner of a supermarket chain in the bustling consumerist economy of 1983. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the TV series, Oshin graduated to the big screen. Shin Togashi’s Oshin (おしん) movie focusses exclusively on Oshin’s childhood at the tail end of the Meiji era in which she suffered all the downsides of lingering feudalism and benefitted from few of the new freedoms of the age.

The winter of 1907, Yamagata – snow country. Oshin (Kokone Hamada) lives with her parents, grandmother, and siblings and looks forward to finally being allowed to go to school when spring arrives. Sadly, Oshin will not be going to school after all. Her father has arranged for her to work for another family who own a timber yard a few towns over for the period of one year. Only seven years old, Oshin pleads not to be sent away but her father will not back down. There is not enough food to feed the family and, unbeknownst to Oshin, her mother (Aya Ueto) is pregnant again.

Finally agreeing to go after her mother takes drastic action to try and reduce the burden on the family, Oshin arrives at the timber yard but is treated cruelly by the head housekeeper who refuses to recognise that Oshin is only a child and will of course lack basic knowledge as to how to run a household. Though Oshin bears the constant hardship for her family she eventually runs away when falsely accused of theft.

The world of 1907 is harsh and cruel. Women have few rights and almost no say in their lives or destinies. Oshin might count herself lucky that she’s merely been contracted as a household servant in an age where selling one’s daughter to a brothel to feed one’s sons was not an unusual event, but nevertheless her life at the timber yard is hard. Bright and curious, Oshin longs to learn to read and write but because of her lowly “peasant” birth, she is constrained into a life of drudgery where her labour will only ever be in service of her family and never herself.

A “peasant” background is, as a kinder mistress reminds Oshin, a burden in that she is always likely to be viewed with suspicion. This is doubly true when she runs away and is rescued by a fugitive deserter hiding in a mountain shack. Shunsaku (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a sensitive young man marked by service in a war he no longer believes in, teaches Oshin how to read and write as well as giving her a grounding in humanitarian politics. He is, however, a problematic figure for going against the martial culture of the age and having “betrayed” his nation by deserting. Oshin is tainted by her association with such a radical young man, but boldly comes to Shunsaku’s defence when others seek to discredit his memory.

This boldness is a part of Oshin’s essential “goodness” in which she refuses to give in to injustice even whilst stoically bearing all of the troubles that come her way. Eventually she finds herself a servant in a much nicer house where the staff take pity on her and welcome her warmly into their extended family. Treated with such kindness, Oshin works even harder to repay it and impresses all with her earnestness and morally upright character. She does, however, clash with the spoilt daughter of the house, Kayo (Manami Igashira), who has her own share of troubles though hers are those of the privileged classes. Lonely and bored, Kayo resents the attention golden girl Oshin seems to get from the staff but the two eventually become friends when Kayo realises Oshin is the only person willing to treat her as an equal rather than the young mistress.

Though the overall arc of the TV series painted a more positive picture of female resilience and capability, the film’s focus on the late Meiji childhood era is unavoidably more conservative in its pointed message that a woman’s life is served in dedication to others with the unpleasant undertone that she must keep nothing back for herself and that she is not entitled to personal happiness but only that of repaying the sacrifices that have been made on her behalf by other women (and especially by mothers – biological and surrogate). Nevertheless, Oshin’s earnestness and deep love for her family are admirable qualities and when she trudges back out into the snow again, always waiting for the spring, she does so with hope and determination.


Oshin is screening in London on 18th August as part of the Japan Foundation London’s Summer Explorers season of free film screenings.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tokyo Vampire Hotel (東京ヴァンパイアホテル, Sion Sono, 2017) [Fantasia 2018]

Tokyo Vampire Hotel PosterAbridging a work of fiction can be a taxing task. The job of a judicious abridger is the use their own judgement to reduce a larger work to its most essential elements either for those who, for one reason or another, need a more immediate digest or for those looking for greater accessibility. When it comes to a work of art, abridgement can be a dubious task and, unfortunately, the temptation is simply to excise the “best bits” shorn of all the “heavy stuff” and supporting material. Sion Sono who had been in a particularly prolific phase was given something of an unusual opportunity in creating Tokyo Vampire Hotel (東京ヴァンパイアホテル) – a chance to do as he pleased with a sizeable budget to create a television series for Amazon Prime, which is to say marrying mainstream commercial concerns with idiosyncratic artistry. The 6.5hr, eight episode, series was released via the streaming platform in June 2017 (initially in Japan only with international streaming available a few months later) but Sono also took the step of creating a 2hr22min feature length cut for film festival distribution.

The titular Tokyo hotel is the lair of a sect of modern day vampires. As a long prophesied war between rival clans – the Corvins in Japan and the ancient Draculas of Romania, brews, the Corvins have engineered a plan to lure lonely unsuspecting Tokyoites to an exclusive singles mixer where they will not only be given a sizeable fee for attending but also tempted with the possibility of meeting the love of their life, never suspecting that all this is too good to be true and they are really being recruited for a kind of blood farm to feed the various appetites of their bonkers captors.

Meanwhile, “the chosen one”, Manami (Ami Tomite), is about to come of age. Born during an “auspicious” alignment of the stars, Manami is one of three children given special vampire blood and thought to be all powerful, species saving hybrids. As such she is wanted by every side and is eventually “rescued” from a massacre at a restaurant by ice cool vampire K. (Kaho) – a Japanese vamp currently working for Dracula.

It has to be said that Sono’s original TV cut is extremely convoluted and initially confusing. The hotel, a Japanese vampire hub, is connected to the vampire capital in Romania by a magical tunnel with the narrative flowing freely between both spaces. What we lose in condensing to feature length is the entirety of the extensive back story with the consequence of shifting the focus from the protagonist of the TV series, Manami, to the more exciting figure of second lead K. whose gradual disillusionment with becoming a puppet in someone else’s revolution coupled with romantic heartbreak eventually reawakens her sense of “humanity” as she becomes committed to “saving” Manami from becoming yet another slave to the Dracula cause.

Meanwhile, Sono satirises modern Japan’s ambivalence towards romance as a collection of youngsters are forced into an extreme situation in order to successfully couple off and form a “traditional” family solely to satisfy the demands of a bunch of vampire overlords standing in for a bloodsucking state. Yamada (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), the conflicted hero of the Corvins who longs for escape from his unwanted immortality and an egotistical, individualist world harbours intense resentment towards his own “hypocritical” father who “sold” him to the vampires as a baby in return for various favours by which he has now become the “Romantic Party” Prime Minster of Japan preaching traditional family values and a “wholesome” future for the little children who otherwise face a difficult existence in a country which has “lost its way”.

Sono doubles down on his usual sense of romanticism as his flamboyant vampires adopt an oddly foppish, Regency era aesthetic whilst speaking in a deliberately theatrical manner filled with bold philosophical statements and a florid sense of repressed melodrama. Harking back to Bad Film – another attempt to reorder extensive footage into a narratively cohesive whole, the conflicts are often about love more than death with suffering and sorrow marking the lives of our gloomy immortals, oppressed by their own inability to transcend their natures and find the escape they so desperately crave.

Sono seems to reemphasise their unhappy fates by engineering an altogether different, infinitely abrupt ending which, in contrast to the TV drama, hands the victory back to the people but does so in historically uncomfortable fashion as the victorious hotel guests revel in acts of atrocity against their captors which are framed as a kind of genocide and accompanied by stills from violent classical paintings featuring scenes of unbridled carnage. A contrarian to the last, Sono mutilates his own endeavour and then frankensteins it into something else, twisting his own words and tying himself in knots in the process. Viewers seeking clarification would be well advised to invest their time in the 6.5hr experience rather than opting for the convenient shortcut of an edited version, but there is certainly plenty to ponder in Sono’s truncated tale of love and death in post-Olympic Tokyo.


This review refers to the theatrical cut of Tokyo Vampire Hotel which was screened as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival 2018. You can also stream the original TV drama in most territories via Amazon Prime.

Trailer for the TV drama (no subtitles)

Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2017)

Hanagatami posterIn time the past becomes a dream. A world in and of itself, conjured from feeling and memory and painted in the imprecise strokes of one attempting to recreate a long forgotten scene. The melancholy heroes of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s long career were each trapped in a sense by nostalgia, a yearning for another time and place, or more precisely another, more innocent, version of themselves only with the benefit of hindsight and the confidence of age. Finally realising a long dreamt of project in dramatising Kazuo Dan’s classic wartime youth novel Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI), Obayashi reunites with another melancholy young man who as he puts it in the opening text wants to tell his story not out of a sense of nostalgia but out of longing for the things which were lost. Those like him who had the misfortune to be young before the war saw their whole world swept away by a kind of madness far beyond their control, losing not only a past but a future too.

When Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) returns home from Amsterdam where he had been living with his parents, Japan is already at war in China. Though the times are changing, Toshihiko’s life remains relatively untouched by conflict, insulated from the concerns of the day by the pleasant natural surroundings of his old-fashioned country town. Returning to the family estate presided over by his war-widow aunt, Keiko (Takako Tokiwa), Toshihiko strikes up a friendship with her sickly sister-in-law, Mina (Honoka Yahagi), whose proximity to death only seems to enhance her beauty. At school he finds himself caught between two polar opposites – the strong and silent Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) and the cynical nihilist Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), while his two sets of social circles finally combine with the addition of Mina’s friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) who also happens to be Kira’s cousin. The world is on the brink of ruin, but there are dances and picnics and festivals and everywhere everyone is desperate to live even in the midst of such foreboding.

Obayashi opens with a quote from one of Dan’s poems in which he mourns the flowers in full bloom shortly to be cut down in their prime. Hanagatami itself means “flower basket” but is also the title of a noh play about a woman driven mad by love for a man from whom she is separated by the arbitrary rules of her society. Japan itself has become a basket of flowers, offering up its youth on a senseless altar to political hubris while a generation attends its own funeral and becomes obsessed with the idea of permanence in a permanently uncertain world. Chitose carries about her camera, bitterly claiming that she will confer immortality on her subjects while privately longing for an end to her loneliness and suffering.

Like the heroine of the noh play, our protagonists too are driven mad by love as the madness of their times spurs them on and holds them back in equal measure. Mina, in all her etherial beauty, becomes the symbol of an age – innocence about die, drowned in its own blood. All in love with Mina, or perhaps with death itself, the men sink further into petty rivalries and conflicted friendships all the while staving off the inevitabilities of their times – that soon they too will be expected to sacrifice themselves for a cause they don’t believe in or risk being left behind alone.

Toshihiko finds himself torn between his two friends – the light and the dark, the robust Ukai and the gloomy Kira. While Toshihiko’s wide-eyed hero worship of Ukai and his idealised male physique takes on an inescapable homoerotic quality, his relationship with Kira leads him towards a darker path on which everything is “worthless” and all pleasures impossible in a world apparently so close to its end. Kira, having committed a truly heinous act, reminds his friends that they routinely kill and eat animals, and that one day they too will be gobbled up, swallowed whole by the cruelty of their times.

One by one the war takes them, if indirectly, leaving only Toshihiko behind. Describing his youth as like a game of hide and seek in which he suddenly realised it had gotten dark and all his friends had gone home, Toshihiko recasts his tale as a ghost story in which he remains haunted by the visions of his younger self and longs for his long absent friends, robbed of the futures promised to them by right of birth. Free floating through dreams and memory, Obayashi conjures an etherial world overshadowed by tragedy but coloured with wistful melancholy as pale-faced soldiers march off for the land of the dead while youth does its best to live all its tomorrows today in rejecting the senseless cruelty of its age.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Third Murder (三度目の殺人, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2017)

Third Murder posterJapanese cinema has often put the justice and legal system on trial and found it wanting. From Yoji Yamada’s Flag in the Mist in which a “selfish” lawyer contributes to the death of an innocent man, to Yoshitaro Nomura’s spiralling, feverish The Incident, Yoshimitsu Morita’s Kafka-esque Keiho, Gen Takahashi’s pointed Court of Zeus, and Masayuki Suo’s comparatively more straightforward I Just Didn’t Do It, the entire justice system takes on an almost spiritual quality of absurdity, tormenting the accused for the sake of a pantomime of justice, little caring for his or her guilt or innocence and intent only on propping up its own sense of absolute authority.

Like Yoji Yamada in Flag in the Mist, The Third Murder (三度目の殺人, Sandome no Satsujin) finds director Hirokazu Koreeda in unfamiliar territory though, at heart, it all comes back to family. A top lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), currently in the middle of a divorce, is asked to represent a man who has freely confessed to murder. As the son of the original judge who sentenced the accused, Misumi (Koji Yakusho), to the 30 year sentence he had not long been released from before (allegedly) committing the crime, Shigemori feels a responsibility to act but is frustrated by his client’s constantly shifting story. Nothing he says adds up, and every new angle Shigemori uncovers provokes only more doubt as to the true nature of the case at hand.

Shigemori, somewhat condescendingly, criticises the junior lawyer in the office for his naivety in wanting to to investigate the crime. Understanding and empathy are “unnecessary” in defending a client. The business of a lawyer, on either side, is to assess the evidence at hand, create an argument that withstands scrutiny, and eventually triumph in debating one’s opponent. In the face of the law, the “truth” is an irrelevance.

Shigemori’s cynicism is however rocked by the eerie presence of Misumi who seems to carry with him a kind of deepening emptiness. Misumi has already served 30 years in prison for the murder of two loansharks, the theft of their money, and an act of arson committed on their property to disguise the crime. Shigemori’s father, now a much older man, laments his youthful naivety in handing down a compassionate judgement which took into account the mitigating circumstances – Misumi’s troubled childhood, his poverty, the dire economic situation in which the closure of the local mines had led to mass unemployment and provided fertile ground for unscrupulous money lenders, and a series of personal tragedies which may have unbalanced his mind, but now he thinks some people are just bad and Misumi’s third murder is, in a sense, also his responsibility in allowing him the freedom to commit it.

Yet, there is also a doubt that Misumi’s first crimes are even his. We are told that, like the current case, Misumi couldn’t stick to one story – a common phenomenon with those who confess under duress, saying yes to everything in order to make the questioning stop but later forgetting what exactly they confessed to. Misumi later says he confessed only because he was told that confessing was the only way to avoid the death penalty which, ironically enough, is what he now faces. He also claims he was intimidated by the (admittedly stern) prosecutors, and when it looks as if a new trial may be necessary, the judge opts for the most “judicially economical” solution to incorporate the new demands into the current trial for reasons which the lawyers attribute to his personal need to get the case off his docket in good time so as not to muddy his own reputation. Japan’s 99% conviction rate is less an endorsement of judicial efficiency than a worrying indictment of the legal process in which trials are mere formalities held for show, a pantomime intended to reinforce an idea of “justice” which does not quite exist.

The weight of justice itself is called into question. We learn that the victim was guilty of several crimes, some of them more forgivable than others. Yet is his death “justice” or “murder”, was he “killed” or was the act one of “salvation” for his victims? There are no easy answers and the uncomfortable fact remains that one kind of justice may not necessarily be any different from another. Misumi remains a cypher, his motives for committing the crime(s) (if he even did commit them at all) unclear yet there is also something in him that suggests he is merely a reflection of ourselves, a projection of our own primal need to see justice done that our civil selves have tried and failed to codify into a universally recognised system of fairness known as law. Then again perhaps all we really want is a story we can understand and empathise with, perhaps we don’t want justice at all – we want narrative, a strategy for defence against the cruel and arbitrary charges of an unforgiving world. Shigemori stands at a crossroads, cleansed of his cynicism but unsure what to replace it with, as, perhaps, as we.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Academy.

International trailer (English subtitles)