Bare Essence of Life (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー , Satoko Yokohama, 2009)

©Little More Co.

bare essence of life posterThere might be a pun involved in the title of Bare Essence of Life – another example of a Japanese film with a katakana English title, Ultra Miracle Love Story (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー), given a completely different English language title for overseas distribution, but that would be telling. Following her feature debut German + Rain, Satoko Yokohama once again tells a tale of small town misfits only this time of an Aomori farm boy whose brain is wired a little differently to everyone else’s – “not broken, just different”. Though everyone in the village knows Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) and is familiar with his sometimes unusual behaviour, a young visitor taking a temporary job in a quaint rural backwater may need a little more time to acclimatise.

Yojin is, as he says, a little different from the others. Neatly signalling a problem with executive functioning, he lives his life to the tune of several different alarm clocks with deliberately different sound cues to help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing. Grandma also helps with that too through use of a giant whiteboard which has Yojin’s daily itinerary on it so he can keep track of where he is and record his thoughts about the day. Yojin’s grandfather has passed away but has left him some valuable horticulture tips on a cassette tape which Yojin listens to diligently every day whilst tending to his cabbages, trying to work out a good way of keeping them safe from creepy crawlies seeing as grandma doesn’t really trust him with insecticide (later events will prove this to be wise).

Everything changes when brokenhearted school teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) arrives all the way from Tokyo as temporary cover for maternity leave at the local nursery. Oddly, seeing as there are so few young people around, the school seems pretty busy with youngsters but then again perhaps they’ve come from neighbouring villages which would explain why the parents are sometimes so late coming to pick their kids up. In any case, Machiko instantly captures Yojin’s heart and he becomes fixated on the idea of making her his one and only. Machiko, however, is battling her own romantic woes and is originally quite taken aback by Yojin’s odd combination of directness and innocence.

Yojin is, undoubtedly, a lot to take in, but the villagers are all very used to his ways and mostly just shrug his various antics off even when they entail inconveniences like office paperwork suddenly scattered to the wind, or getting pelted with vegetables after taking issue with Yojin’s sales patter. Grandma bears the brunt of his rudeness not to mention self-centred attitude and otherwise difficult behaviour but she also worries how he’s going to look after himself when she’s gone. Hence the vegetable patch – a literal testing ground. Machiko makes Yojin wish he were different, and a half-baked experiment in which he buries himself up to the neck in his cabbage patch (perhaps to better understand cabbages so that he can figure out how to grow them) and a neighbourhood boy sprinkles him with pesticide shows him a way he can make it happen.

So begins Yojin’s long, strange path towards “evolution” as he discovers that exposure to various chemicals helps him slow everything down so he can be a little more like everyone else. Moving into the centre ground makes his presence more palatable to Machiko, giving them time to bond during nighttime walks as Machiko outlines her curious theories on the forward motion of the human race. Machiko wonders if humanity’s need to control the unpredictable, smooth out rough edges and tame nature is limiting its ability to change and grow, yet even as she says so Yojin is attempting to temper his own wildness expressly for Machiko. Nevertheless, getting to know him Machiko comes to the conclusion that maybe what Yojin needs is to become more Yojin, rather than dousing himself in dangerous chemicals which seem to have provoked some kind of strange metamorphosis as yet unknown to medical science.

Chemicals aside, Yojin’s world takes a turn a definite turn for the surreal as he chats with headless ghosts and then temporarily joins the ranks of the undead himself. Yokohama has a point or two to make about the use of pesticides – a neighbourhood woman warns Machiko to head indoors when she first arrives because it’s crop spraying day, but then refuses to buy Yojin’s “organic” vegetables because she’s not convinced anything grown without chemical assistance could really be “safe” or “clean” enough for consumption. This need to control nature may eventually ruin it, and us too – much as Machiko’s hypothesis posited. Maybe Yojin is the most evolved us all, defiantly in touch with his essential nature and, perhaps, finally allowing his soul to find its true home if in the strangest of ways.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Joji Matsuoka, 2016)

midnight diner 2 posterThe Midnight Diner is open for business once again. Yaro Abe’s eponymous manga was first adapted as a TV drama in 2009 which then ran for three seasons before heading to the big screen and then again to the smaller one with the Netflix original Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories becoming the de facto season four. Midnight Diner 2 (続・深夜食堂, Zoku Shinya Shokudo) returns with more of the same as Master puts out his sign and opens the shop, welcoming the denizens of Tokyo after dark in search of a little place to call home amid all the chaos and alienation.

To re-cap, the Midnight Diner is a casual eating establishment run by Master which opens only between the hours of midnight and 7am. The restaurant has only a small formal menu but Master’s selling point is that he is prepared to make whatever the customer so desires (assuming the ingredients are available). Regulars and newcomers alike are given a warm welcome and a place to feel at home, free of whatever it was that was bothering them in the outside world.

Like the first film, Midnight Diner 2 is really three TV episodes stitched together. The first begins on an ominous note as each of the regulars arrives in mourning clothes only to be struck by the coincidence that they’ve each been to a different person’s funeral. A woman arrives dressed in black but reveals she hasn’t been bereaved, she simply enjoys dressing like this to destress from the difficult atmosphere at her publishing job. Noriko (Aoba Kawai) is a top editor but often finds herself sidelined – this time by a young author whose book she made a success but has now dumped her owing to all her notes on his second effort. Saddled with an elderly client who doesn’t like taking advice from a woman, Noriko’s fortunes fall still further when she finds him dead. A visit to a real funeral threatens to change her life completely.

Strand two follows the son of a nearby soba shop, Seita (Sosuke Ikematsu), who has fallen in love with a much older woman and wants to marry despite his mother’s reservations. The third segment continues along the familial theme with an old woman travelling all the way from Kyushu to Tokyo after falling victim to an “Ore Ore” scam.

Scams and parental bonds become the central themes tying the episodes together as each of the lovelorn protagonists finds themselves taking advantage of Master’s sturdy shoulders. Noriko and Mrs. Ogawa (Misako Watanabe) fall victim to an obvious conman but do so almost willingly out of their desperate loneliness. Noriko, dissatisfied with her working environment, takes to the streets dressed in black but becomes the target of “funeral fetishists” who are only interested in her “bereaved” state. A chance encounter at a real funeral makes her believe her life can change but she is deceived again when a man she came to care for is unmasked as a serial trickster. Mrs. Ogawa faces a similar problem when she races all the way to Tokyo to pay off a “colleague” of her son’s, so desperate to help that she never suspects that she’s fallen victim to a scam.

Mrs. Ogawa’s deep love for the son she has become estranged from is contrasted with that of the soba noodle seller for the son she can’t let go. Seita cares for nothing other than ping pong, much to his mother’s consternation and has little interest in taking over the family business. A young man, he’s tired of the constraints his lonely widowed mother continues to place on him though his determination to marry an older woman at such a young age bears out his relative maturity.

As usual Master has good advice and a kind word for everyone that helps them get where they need to go, softly nudging them in the right direction through the power of comfort food. By now the cast of familiars is well and truly entrenched but there will always be space at Master’s counter for those in need who will be greeted warmly by those already aware of its charms. True enough, Midnight Diner 2 offers little in the way of innovation (though we do get a little more information about the mysterious Master) but no one comes the Midnight Diner looking to try something new. In here, nostalgia rules and we wouldn’t have it any other way.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Crows Explode (クローズ EXPLODE, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2014)

crows explodeToshiaki Toyoda made an auteurst name for himself at the tail end of the ‘90s with a series of artfully composed youth dramas centring on male alienation and cultural displacement. Attempting to move beyond the world of adolescent rage by embracing Japan’s most representative genre, the family drama, in the literary adaptation Hanging Garden, Toyoda’s career hit a snag. Despite the film’s favourable reception with critics, a public drugs scandal cost Toyoda his career in Japan’s extremely strict entertainment industry. Since his return to filmmaking in 2009 Toyoda has continued to branch out but 2014’s Crows Explode (クローズ EXPLODE) throws him back into that early world of repressed male energy as internalised rage and frustration produce externalised violence. Picking up the Crows franchise where Takashi Miike left off, Toyoda brings his unique visual sensiblilty to the material, swapping Miike’s irony for something with more grit but losing the deadpan depth of its adolescent posturing in the process.

The old gods have fallen and new ones must rise. Tough guys graduate, but the battlefields of Suzuran High endure eternally. Suzuran is the ultimate in delinquent schools. None of the boys here are under any misapprehension that the adult world holds any promise for them. Many will drop out without completing high school, condemning themselves to a precarious life of continually uncertain, low paid employment, but even those who do manage to leave with a certificate will be heading into another competition to find a steady job in economically straightened times.

That is, those of them who don’t end up in a gang. The thing at Suzuran is that your fate is determined by your fists. Boys roam the halls looking for a fight, each vowing to become the top dog and de facto leader by proving themselves the best and the strongest of the strapping young men all vying for the title. A new challenger arrives in the form of transfer student, Kaburagi (Masahiro Higashide), whose intense energy upsets the dynamic between presumed number one Goura (Yuya Yagira) and his challenger Takagi (Kenzo) but Kagami (Taichi Saotome), the loner son of a fallen yakuza, seems further set to pose a threat in this knife edge environment.

Toyoda has some interesting points to make about the legacy of violence and the importance of father son relationships as each of these young men is reacting in some sense against a father or just his father’s world. Kaburagi, the film’s protagonist, is nursing a deep wound of double abandonment after witnessing his father’s death and then being deposited in a foster home by his sorrowful mother who promises to return for him soon but makes do with occasional visits and monetary gifts. Kaburagi is an angry young man and like many angry young men, he is eager not to become his father – a situation complicated by the fact that his father was a prize fighter who died in the ring.

His “mirror” Kagami, has a similar problem only his father died in a yakuza turf war. A surrogate presents himself in the form of former Suzuran scrapper “Jarhead Ken” (Kyosuke Yabe), now an ex-yakuza helping out at a friend’s second hand car dealership but unable to escape gangland troubles when it emerges Kagami’s clan are intent on acquiring it in order to turn the place into some kind of “entertainment complex”. Ken, a tough guy but soft hearted, has a talent for paternalism which he turns on the fatherless little boy of the car dealership’s owner to whom he teaches the importance of a hefty punch but also of friendship and loyalty.

Miike’s world was a surreal one, inflected with a wry middle aged eye which sees all of this teenage rambunctiousness for the ridiculous posturing it really is. Toyoda’s attempts to be more in the moment, experiencing the adolescent angst with all of its immediate force but unlike his early protagonists the boys of Suzuran are forced to “explode” rendering that central tenet of repressed anger redundant. Externalising the internal war somehow makes it much less interesting as boys trade blows, mindlessly trying to work out a mental struggle which their ill drawn backgrounds will not support.

The environment which the boys inhabit is a grey and hopeless one. Toyoda paints it with his characteristic visual flair, returning to his trademark sequences of slow motion coupled with indie music, but his energy is very different from Miike’s and its more contemplative rhythm never quite gels with the pugilistic fury of the source material even as it gives way to his more expressionistic imagery. The franchise is feeling a little punch drunk by this point, and Toyoda finds it in a particular puddle of teenage malaise. Still, the fists fly and the boys of Suzuran rise and fall as always providing enough self consciously cool action to sustain interest despite the otherwise insubstantial quality.


International trailer (English subtitles)

A Double Life (二重生活 , Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2016)

double-lifeA Double Life (二重生活, Nijyuu Seikatsu ), the debut feature from director Yoshiyuki Kishi adapted from Mariko Koike’s novel, could easily be subtitled “a defence of stalking with indifference”. As a philosophical experiment in itself, it recasts us as the voyeur, watching her watching him, following our oblivious heroine as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the act of observance. Taking into account the constant watchfulness of modern society, A Double Life has some serious questions to ask not only of the nature of existence but of the increasing connectedness and its counterpart of isolation, the disconnect between the image and reality, and how much  the hidden facets of people’s lives define their essential personality.

Tama (Mugi Kadowaki) is an MA philosophy student working on a thesis regarding the nature of existence in contemporary Japan. Discussing her work with her supervisor, Shinohara (Lily Franky), Tama reveals that she was drawn to her subject because she is unable to understand why she herself is alive. Her proposal was largely based on the tried and tested method of a survey but Shinohara is hoping for something more original. Catching sight of a Sophie Calle book on his desk, he suggests that Tama’s project might benefit from examining the life of one subject in depth and so he tasks her with following a random person and observing their daily activities in order to figure out what makes them tick.

Tama is conflicted, but when she catches sight of her neighbour at a book shop she makes an impulsive decision to follow him which will later develop into an all consuming obsession. Ishizaka (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a successful editor at a high profile publishing house with a pretty wife, cute daughter and lovely home just over the way from the apartment Tama lives in with her illustrator and game designer boyfriend, Takuya (Masaki Suda). However, while following Ishizaka to a local coffee shop Tama catches him illicitly meeting another woman. Not quite believing what she sees, Tama’s obsession with her target continues to grow until the fateful day that her cover is finally blown.

Tama, and her supervisor, both regard the exercise as essentially harmless because all Tama is supposed to do is observe. The nature of her experiment means that she must remain unseen so that the subject does not change his or her behaviour but Tama quickly becomes a passive observer to an unpleasant domestic episode when Ishizaka’s wife discovers the affair. Tama is, always, a passive presence. As she says herself, she carries a deep-seated sense of emptiness that prevents her from fully connecting with other people. Her stalking activities, however, reawaken a sense of connectedness that she had been unable to find in her everyday life.

While Tama is watching Ishizaka, she herself is also being watched. Firstly, of course, by us, but also by the busybody landlady whose obsession with the proper way to dispose of rubbish has led to her installing spy cameras to capture the offending tenants on film. Of course, the cameras capture a lot of other stuff too which, when used alongside other forms of evidence, paint a slightly different picture. The old lady is a classic curtain twitcher, albeit one with access to more sophisticated equipment, and looms big brother-like over her tiny domain, the possessor and disseminator of all information. Tama’s rules mean she must not be seen, but someone is always watching, collecting information to be repurposed and repackaged at the convenience of the collector.

Cameras capture images but humans conjure pictures. From the outside, the Ishizakas are the perfect model family – a successful husband, warm and friendly housewife who is quick to get involved in community events, and a lovely, well behaved little daughter. As we find out Ishizaka is not the committed family man which he first seems. After treating all of the women in his life extremely badly, Ishizaka adds Tama to his list after the affair is exposed and his life ruined. Tama was only ever a passive observer whose presence had no effect on the narrative, yet Ishizaka blames his predicament on her rather than address the fact the situation is entirely his own fault. He does, however, have a point when he accuses Tama of exploiting his secrets for her own gain.

Tama’s observations are limited to the public realm and so she’s left with a lot of unknown data making her conclusions less than reliable. The gap between her perception and the reality becomes even more apparent once she begins observing the life of her supervisor, Shinohara. In an elliptical fashion, the film begins with Shinohara’s presumed suicide attempt and for much of the first half we seem him struggle with the grief of his mother’s terminal illness. This again turns out to be not quite as it seems, undermining Tama’s whole research proposal as her conclusions on Shinohara’s reason for living were based on a deliberately constructed scenario.

Ironically enough, Tama’s attempts to connect eventually ruin her own relationship as she finds herself living “a double life” as a vicarious voyeur. Abandoning her sense of self and living through her subjects, Tama begins to connect with the world around her but it’s more overlapping than a true union of souls in which she becomes a passive receptacle for someone else’s drama. Hers is the life of a double, shadowy and incomplete. Take away a man’s life lie and you take away his happiness, so Ibsen told us. Tama would seem to come a similar conclusion, that the essence of life may lie in these petty secrets and projected images. An intriguing philosophical text in itself, A Double Life is an intense look at modern society and all of its various artifices which marks Kishi out as a promising new cinematic voice.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Tatsushi Omori, 2016)

seto-and-utsumiThere are two very distinct sides to the career of Tatsushi Omori. Brother of the well known actor, Nao, Omori may be best known to certain audiences for his hard hitting, often gloomy and pessimistic dramas of human misery such as festival favourite Ravine of Goodbye or the little seen The Whispering of the Gods which proved so controversial that his only option of screening the film involved erecting a tent where he could show it himself. However, a closer look at his filmography discovers a steady strain of laid-back comedy such as the Tada’s Do It All House series in which two brothers played by Eita and Ryuhei Matsuda act as bumbling handymen-cum-detectives-cum-whatever-you-need-them-to-be. It might be less surprising therefore that his latest effort is an adaptation of Kazuya Konomoto’s comedy manga Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Setoutsumi) which revels in the everyday absurdity of teenage life in Southern Japan.

Seto (Masaki Suda) and Utsumi (Sosuke Ikematsu) are ordinary high school boys heading into their final year with the exam season and the end of their youthful, carefree days looming. Utsumi is a quiet, serious sort who generally doesn’t like a lot of company. Seto, by contrast, is a real live wire and not exactly a top student. Nevertheless, they found each other by a river one day and have been more or less inseparable ever since. Every day after school they meet and hang out in the same spot over looking the water where they shoot the breeze about various ordinary things from a non-argument over a girl to venus fly traps, Buddhist terminology, and ghosts.

Like many teenagers, Seto and Utsumi kill time doing nothing in particular and their conversations are generally inconsequential. Yet for all of their inherent randomness and absurdity, there’s a layer of poignancy underpinning each of them as the boys let slip various aspects of their private, interior lives. Seto’s big life drama involves the possible separation of his parents following the illness of the family cat which everyone in the family decided to indulge seeing as the poor thing didn’t have long left, but against expectation it’s two years later, the cat is still alive and Seto’s father is growing ever more resentful at spending so much money on luxury cat food. Seto’s family are a rowdy bunch, just as prone to drama as he is yet for all their complaining they seem fairly close – close enough for Seto to complain about the constant random text updates from his mother (a trait which Seto seems to have inherited himself).

Utsumi, by contrast, is much more aloof and keeps himself to himself. When Seto complains after his mother spots the boys at the river with bags full of shopping in her hands he remarks sadly that he rarely eats at home, implying it must be nice to have someone cook you a meal everyday. His approach to life is cerebral, calculating odds and planning angles, as he reveals to Seto in a piece of possibly not very helpful dating advice. Utsumi’s unseen parents are, presumably, just as aloof as he is, austere and religious. Nevertheless, in Seto he’s found a true sparring partner and someone he can waste time with amiably.

Utsumi’s parents are useful for one thing, they belong to the temple in which Seto’s crush, Kashimura (Ayami Nakajo), lives. Seto has been secretly trying to brush up on Buddhist terminology to impress her, but predictably she prefers the cool indifference of Utsumi to his friend’s energetic banter. Utsumi isn’t interested in Kashimura in any case, but not even this possible subject of conflict is big enough to seriously risk damaging the two boys’ friendship. As one character remarks towards the end of the film, it really is a once in a lifetime connection.

Omori keeps things simple, mostly sticking to static shots of the boys sitting on the steps near the river but he makes the stillness add to the sense of the absurd running through the quiet backwater town. After beginning with accordion music and ride through the canals, Seto and Utsumi’s first conversation takes place in front of an unintentional audience of a perfectly motionless older man, staring vacantly out at the river. The man turns out to have a valid (if sad) reason for being where he is, but the presence of the balloon animal vending clown from Eastern Europe (called Mr. Balloon) is a little harder to explain given that other than Seto, Utsumi, the aforementioned man, a high school bully, Seto’s mum, and a senile grandpa, no one else comes anywhere near this tranquil spot for the entire film. Using occasional dissolves and superimpositions to create a fleeting, dreamlike atmosphere with a handful of cutaways and flashbacks for comedic context, Seto and Utsumi is a truly charming ode to teenage friendship in all its pleasantly ridiculous absurdity.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

There are also a few bonus web episodes of Seto and Utsumi enjoying even more pointless conversations:

No. 1 – Kendama (a kind of Japanese cup and ball game) (English subtitles)

No. 2: Timing (English subtitles)

3. Standing Ovation (no subtitles but you don’t really need them)

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.

La La La at Rock Bottom (AKA Misono Universe, 味園ユニバース, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2015)

プリントNobuhiro Yamashita has made something of a career out of championing the underdog and La La La at Rock Bottom (味園ユニバース, Misono Universe) provides yet another foray into the lives of the disposed and degraded. With a lighter touch than some of his previous work, the once again musically inflected film is another testament to the power of redemption and that you can still turn your life around if you only have the courage to take the chance.

The film begins with a young man being released from prison. The guard apologises about the smell of mothballs emanating from the man’s jacket, usually the family bring clean clothes. No family has come for this inmate though – just a couple of cool seeming characters who profess their gratitude for “what you’ve done for us” but the reunion is anything but warm. A little while later the man is unceremoniously bundled into a car and taken off to a quiet place where he is beaten half to death by thugs using baseball bats. After waking up, he stumbles around and eventually chances on a summer festival with a band playing on the mainstage. Zombified, the man grabs the mic and starts singing before promptly collapsing again.

The band’s manager, a young girl, takes the man home whereupon she discovers he’s lost his memory. Giving him the ironic nickname of “Pooch” (Kasumi also has a habit of picking up stray dogs), the band and local villagers quickly “adopt” the confused stranger and let him work at their karaoke rooms and studio whilst coaching him to become their new lead singer. However, as Pooch’s memories start to return it seems that his former life may not have been as tranquil as his laid-back amnesiac persona might suggest.

Like much of Yamashita’s previous work, music plays a central role with the one thing that Pooch remembers from his former life being the lyrics to a particular song and his innate singing talent. The leading role of Pooch himself is played by real life singing star Subaru Shibutani of Kansai based idol band Kanjani Eight who proves himself more than capable of belting out these hard rock/enka tracks as well as being able to imbue Pooch’s amnesiac blankness with his own specific character. He is ably supported by the popular young actress Fumi Nikaido who turns in yet another impressively nuanced performance as the older than her years Kasumi.

The beginning of the film gives us quite an idea of the man Pooch may have been and the kind of life he’s led. As the revelations pile on and Pooch’s memories inevitably return threatening the new life and personality he’s begun to build with the band and the possibility of fulfilling a long abandoned dream of being a singer, his dark side begins to break through and we’re shown a man lost in rage and violence left with nowhere to turn. At the end of the day, “Pooch” has been given a valuable opportunity to start all over again but it requires him to make the choice to do so. Go back to being “Shigeo”, a self hating thug who’s alienated absolutely everyone in his life or choose to become Pooch and earn a second chance to be the man he always wanted to be.

Like Yamshita’s previous film, Tamako in Moratorium, with which it also shares a lot in terms of style, La La La offers no great revelations or technical bells and whistles but revels in the simple pleasure of a tale told well. Like much of his other work, the central message is that it’s never too late to begin again (even if there are bridges which have been burned beyond repair) only that it requires you to make the sometimes scary choice to take a chance on something new. That choice rests with one person but is greatly aided by the support of others and the unusual bond between the two central characters (which stops short of romance) plus the uncompromising faith which Kasumi places in Pooch are some of the greatest joys of the film.

Perhaps not a career best from this still vastly underrated director, La La La at Rock Bottom is nevertheless another beautifully constructed addition to his filmography. Offering an extreme depth of performance from each of its ensemble cast, the film is rich with detail whilst also reflecting Yamashita’s trademark cinematic naturalism. Once again a musical feast for the ears, La La La at Rock Bottom is destined to become one of the director’s best loved films even in a career which has already offered so many as yet undiscovered gems.