The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Tatsushi Omori, 2010)

crowd-of-threeTatsushi Omori’s debut feature The Whispering of the Gods proved so controversial that he was left with no choice other than to set up his own temporary cinema to screen it. Five years later he returned with another uncompromising look at modern society which is only a little less grim than its predecessor. A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Kenta to Jun to Kayo-chan no Kuni) takes what has become a staple of quirky indie comedy dramas – a small group of disconnected people taking a road trip to look for something better, and turns it into a depressingly nihilistic voyage to nowhere. Never quite achieving the kind of painful, angst ridden atmosphere of disaffected young men desperately trying to break out of a social straight jacket, A Crowd of Three is an oddly cold film, undercut with a pervasive layer of misogyny and hopelessness which makes its ultimate destination somewhere few will wish to travel.

Kenta (Shota Matsuda) and Jun (Kengo Kora) are young men working dead end construction jobs. Growing up together almost like brothers in the same orphanage the pair share an intense bond but also a shared sense of having been badly let down by life even at such a young age. Their main source of relief seems to be in picking up “loose women” from the street by asking random ladies on their own for their ages. One evening Jun picks up Kayo (Sakura Ando) – a melancholy woman with low self esteem who sleeps around because she is insecure about her own plain looks. After Kenta is assaulted by the foreman, he decides to take revenge by smashing up the office and his boss’ car before taking off on a journey north to see his (biological) brother who is currently in prison.

Kayo tags along with the pair after apparently having fallen in love with Jun who is only interested in her for easy sex and occasional cash tips. Despite the fact that the film’s original Japanese title is “Jun, Kenta, and Kayo’s Country”, Kayo is quickly cast aside by the pair of travellers who think it’s funny to throw all of her stuff out of the window and abandon her at a service station in the middle of nowhere. Getting thrown out of cars and left behind in remote places is something which happens to Kayo repeatedly throughout the film as she tries to follow Jun despite his obvious indifference towards her.

Kayo just wants to feel love, but at least as far as the film goes she’s looking for it in all the wrong places. Even if Jun does start to feel something more genuine for her in the end, it’s born of a kind of shared insecurity as he worries about a repetitive strain injury from using the pneumatic drill which turns his hand white at moments of stress. After literally jilting Kayo, Jun takes up with a vacuous bar hostess who does, indeed, recoil from his pale hand. The bar hostess has very ordinary dreams – a big house, wealthy husband, children. She’s even planned out her own death. These are all things which Jun could never give her, a middle school drop out with no family he already fears he has no future but at least he’s not railroaded onto a pre-determined course and is free to choose his destination even if he feels there is nowhere for him to go.

Kenta expresses this early in the film when he states that there are two kinds of people – those who choose how they’re going to live, and those who don’t. The boys feel as if they’re in the no choice category – unceremoniously kicked out of social care and expected to fend for themselves with no education or contacts, reliant on poorly paid temporary work to get by. In a slightly overworked metaphor, Kenta and Jun’s jobs on demolition projects point to their desire to dismantle their world but the more they smash away at it the less progress they make. Kenta’s literal smashing of the car and office belonging to his boss are his final act of choice but again it gets him nowhere. Even talking to his brother who is in prison for the most heinous of crimes, Kenta finds no encouragement but only cold rejection.

A Crowd of Three goes to some very dark places ranging from work place harassment to child abuse and sexualised violence, but it largely fails to capitalise on its grim atmosphere to make any kind of impact aside from the pervasive melancholia. Omori mostly sticks to a straight forward approach with some interesting editing choices and composition but largely relies on the quality performances of his leading players. Far from youth aflame with nihilistic rage, A Crowd of Three is bleaker than bleak and frozen throughout making the battling of its heroes to transcend their difficult social circumstances a forlorn hope of epic proportions.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanging Garden (空中庭園, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2005)

hanging gardenIf you wake up one morning and decide you don’t like the world you’re living in, can you simply remake it by imagining it differently? The world of Hanging Garden (空中庭園, Kuchu Teien), based on the novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, is a carefully constructed simulacrum – a place that is founded on total honesty yet is sustained by the willingness of its citizens to support and propagate the lies at its foundation. This is The Family Game 2.0 or, once more with feeling.

The Kobayashis have one rule – they keep no secrets and no subject is taboo. We can see they take this approach to life seriously when daughter Mana asks her mother about the circumstances of her conception and receives an honest and frank reply. However, this “pretence” of honesty is exactly that – a superficial manifestation of an idea intended to maintain control rather than foster liberty. Each of the family keeps their secrets close be it extra marital affairs, past trauma, or just dissatisfaction with the state of current society. The very idea which binds them together also keeps them forever apart, divided by the charade of unity.

Toyoda crafts his metaphors well. The hanging garden of the title belongs to the matriarch, Eriko, who has created an elegant garden space on the cramped balcony of their small flat on a housing estate. Her swinging hanging baskets give the film its odd sense of off kilter sway as the camera swirls and swoops unsteadily like a rudderless ship adrift at sea. Eriko is carefully rebuilding her world in manner more to her liking, pruning her rosebushes with intense precision both metaphorically and literally.

Eriko’s intense control freakery stems back to her childhood and strained relationship with her currently hospitalised mother, Sacchan. Sacchan is one feisty grandma who may not share Eriko’s tenet of total honesty but nevertheless is inclined to tell it like it is. The central tragedy here is of maternal misconnection, a mother and daughter who refuse to be honest with each other. An encounter with Eriko’s older brother who seems to have an equally difficult relationship with Sacchan makes this plain. However, facing a health crisis and aware of reaching the final stages of her life Sacchan is also in a reflective mood and reveals that she’s recently begun dreaming her memories – revising and improving them as she goes to the point that she’s no longer sure how much of her recollection is how she would have liked things to have been rather than how they really were.

Son Ko is also interested in imagined worlds only more of the technological kind where he’s created a virtual version of his real life on his computer. Something of a dreamer, he wonders if the designers of the tower block deliberately made all the windows face south so that they’d get more sunlight and people would feel happier but he’s quickly shot down with the prosaic explanation that it’s all to do with drying laundry. He’s the only one who tries to explain to his mother that her intense need for “honesty” is, ironically, just another way of avoiding reality but then everyone already knew that – it’s the final truth that underpins the value system which has defined each of their lives.

However, where the family at the centre of The Family Game is shown to be hollow, the Kobayashis’ willingness to go along with this crazy self determined cosmology is driven by genuine feeling. Father Takeshi may be having affairs all over the place and even lying to his boss to facilitate them, but he wouldn’t have stayed at all if it truly meant nothing to him. Eriko plays manipulative goddess, micromanaging the fate of this tiny nation state since its inception with a keen and calculating eye but it’s all in the service of creating for herself something which she’d always felt she’d been denied – unconditional familial love, something which she also seeks to pass on to her children as the ultimate revenge on her mother whom she believes to have been cold and unfeeling.

As useful a tool as honesty may be, Sacchan may have a point towards the end when she says you take your most important secrets with you to the grave. Some things lose their power once you speak them aloud, too much honesty only focuses attention on the self and is apt to make those secretive who would seek to be open. Hanging Garden is a rich and nuanced exploration of human relationships, the shifting nature of memory, and the importance of personal privacy coupled with the veneer of authenticity which makes life in a civil society possible. Take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness – hanging gardens never take root, but they bloom all the same.


 

Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Kichitaro Negishi, 2009)

Villon's Wife2009 marked the centenary year of Osamu Dazai, a hugely important figure in the history of Japanese literature who is known for his melancholic stories of depressed, suicidal and drunken young men in contemporary post-war Japan. Villon’s Wife (ヴィヨンの妻 〜桜桃とタンポポ, Villon no Tsuma: Oto to Tampopo) is a semi-autobiographical look at a wife’s devotion to her husband who causes her nothing but suffering thanks to his intense insecurity and seeming desire for death coupled with an inability to successfully commit suicide.

Beginning in the immediate post-war period of 1946, Sachiko (Takako Matsu) is a fairly ordinary housewife with a young son who generally waits around the house for her husband’s return. Only, she’s married to one of the most brilliant writers of the age, Joji Otani (Tadanobu Asano), whose book on the French poet François Villon is currently a best seller. Despite his obvious literary talents, Otani is a drunkard who spends most of his time (and money) in bars and with other women. When he crashes home one night only to be pursued by two bar owners who reveal that he ran off with their takings (around 5000 yen), Sachiko is not exactly surprised but still embarrassed and eventually takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to offer herself as a “hostage” by working at the bar until the debt is repaid.

“Men and women are equal now, even dogs and horses” says one customer, impressed with this sudden arrival of a beautiful woman in a low life drinking spot. To her own surprise, Sachiko actually enjoys working at the bar, it gives her purpose and proves more interesting than being stuck at home waiting to see what her drunken fool of a husband has got up to next. She’s good at it too – Sachiko is a beautiful and a fundamentally decent and kind person, in short the sort of woman that everyone falls a little bit in love with. That said, she isn’t a saint. She’s perfectly aware of the power she is able to wield over men and is unafraid to make use of it, though only when absolutely necessary.

Otani himself is a fairly pathetic figure. He may be a great artist but he’s a hollow human being. He admits the reason for all of his vices is fear – he’s a afraid to live but he’s also afraid to die. He seems to love his wife, though he’s insecure about losing her and dreads the embarrassment involved in becoming a cuckold. So afraid to face the possibility of failure, Otani satisfies himself in an underground world of drunks and easy women rather than facing his own self loathing as reflected in the faces of his unconditionally loving family.

Perhaps because Villon’s Wife is a commemorative project, the film has been given the prestige picture treatment meaning the darker sides of Dazai’s original novella have been largely excised. The chaos of the post-war city with its starving population, soldiers on the streets and generalised anxiety is all but hidden and some of the more serious travails Sachiko undergoes in devotion to her husband as well as Otani’s tuberculosis (from which Dazai also suffered in real life) have also largely been removed. What remains is the central picture of a self destructive husband and the goodly wife who’s trying to save him from himself but risks her own soul in the process.

The one spot of unseemliness of post-war life that the film lets through is in a brief scene which features a group of pan pan girls hanging around ready to try and snag some passing GIs. Sachiko buys some lipstick from them to use in attempt to convince an ex who is also a top lawyer to try and help her husband after his latest escapade lands him in jail on a possible murder charge. After visiting him, Sachiko wanders out slightly dazed to see the pan pans atop a military jeep cheerfully waving and shouting “goodbye” in English. Sachiko is confused at first but eventually shouts “goodbye” back in a way which is both excited and a little bit sad, perhaps realising she is not so different from them after all. Finally she wipes the lipstick from her face and leaves the small silver tube behind where the pan pans were sitting, hoping to bury this particular incident far in the past.

In actuality the pan pan girls are depicted in a fairly matter of fact way rather than in the negative light in which they are usually shown, just another phenomenon of occupation. At the end of the film Otani calls himself a monster whilst acknowledging that he’s a terrible father who would steal the cherries from his own son’s mouth. Sachiko replies that it’s OK to be a monster – as long as we’re alive, it’ll be alright. Oddly for someone so suicidal, this fits in quite well with Dazai’s tenet of embracing the simple gift of a dandelion. The film ends on an ambiguous note in which there seems to have been some kind of restoration but it’s far from a happy one as the couple remain locked in a perpetual battle between light and darkness albeit with the balance a little more equalised than it perhaps was before.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Villon’s Wife includes English subtitles.