Roar (轟音, Ryo Katayama, 2019)

Two powerful stories of agency denied run in parallel in Ryo Katayama’s gritty debut, Roar (轟音, Go-on). Does violence free or constrain, and if the world itself is defined by access to it what does that say about the nature of our society? Burdened by familial failure and persistent misogyny Katayama’s heroes seek escape from their sense of futility but find it finally only in fighting their way out as they struggle to liberate themselves from constraints both societal and self-imposed. 

Makoto (Ryo Anraku) has always looked up to his big brother Tadashi (whose name literally means “correct”) but for reasons which remain unclear, Tadashi’s life has veered off course. Resentful of his authoritarian father who he claims has done nothing for him, Tadashi quits his job and eventually commits an act of heinous and senseless violence, placing his family at the centre of a campaign of social shaming. “My future is ruined because of him, what should I do now?” Makoto asks of his mother, but she turns away and tells him only to figure it out for himself while his father too abnegates his responsibility leaving Makoto in sole charge of his brother’s affairs. Burdened by further tragedies, he runs away and finds himself taking shelter with a mysterious vagrant (Ryo Katayama) who appears to earn money as an enforcer beating up targets on behalf of a shady petty gangster. 

Across town, meanwhile, cheerful radio host Hiromi (Mie Ohta) is stuck in a dead end “romance” with her overbearing boss (Shoji Omiya) who, despite being married to someone else, is jealous and possessive, regularly following her around outside of work to make sure she’s not seeing other men and stowing away in the footwell under the back seat of her car to “surprise” her. Nomura pressures her into illicit make-out sessions in the office, but also into voyeuristic public sex acts. Hiromi does not seem to be invested in the relationship even if, on the surface at least, not unhappy about going along with it, but is nevertheless constrained by the fact he is her boss and therefore she likely cannot end the affair without damaging her career nor does Nomura seem the sort of man who will respect her decision if she decides not to continue allowing him access to her body. 

Both Hiromi and Makoto are, in one way or another struggling to escape from their respective positions in society or perhaps to assume those they feel they should have. As the little brother, Makoto is the one who is protected, by his big brother and by his family, but both have deserted him. Tadashi swore he was “invincible”, yet he’s stumbled and is now in need of protection himself but Makoto is not in a position to protect him. In Manabu, the silent thug, he sees an image of his brother which can still be redeemed. He sees that his violence is born of pain and is as much about self harm as it is about hurting others. Makoto begins to care for him, hoping to save him from a life of senseless violence but finally cannot escape the capacity for violence in himself, exacting rage on an innocent bystander but failing to find a sense of power or liberation only deepening his sense of hopelessness. 

Hiromi meanwhile wrestles with being a middle-aged career woman who struggles to accept that perhaps she deserves more than the skeevy boss and has the right to refuse him. Her mind starts to change when a friend, Mayuko (Mari Kishi), introduces her to a handsome young man who offers her the possibility of a happier romantic future, forcing her to reflect on her present and the toxicity of her relationship with the controlling, manipulative Nomura. Her options are however limited, and finally like Makoto her rage boils over into unavoidable violence that is also the catalyst for her liberation in directly defying pervasive societal misogyny in the shape of her lecherous boss. 

Mayuko, Hiromi’s friend, faces a similar problem in discovering that her brothers intend to leave her father’s care to her despite the fact that she has a life and career in the city both because they think such things are women’s work and because they find her status as an unmarried middle-aged woman embarrassing, invalidating her choices in insisting she return to her “proper” familial role as caregiver if not as a wife or mother then as a daughter. She too struggles with herself, but finally opts for compromise rejecting violence in favour of compassion. 

Nevertheless, Katayama opens with a lengthy POV shot which places us directly into the role of Tadashi, forcing us to reckon with our own latent violence in making us complicit with the harm his actions cause to others in his quest for power and agency. Where he leaves us, however, is on the run both towards and away as Makoto and Hiromi attempt to liberate themselves from the sense of futility which defines their lives but find scant release in the senseless act of mindless violence. 


Roar is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Leo Sato, 2018)

Kamagasaki couldron warAs far as Japanese cinema has been concerned, the city of Osaka is renowned for two very specific things – gangsters and comedy. The Kamagasaki Cauldron War (月夜釜合戦, Tsukiyo no Kamagassen), the debut narrative feature from Leo Sato, neatly brings them both together in an anarchic tale of social inequalities and the pettiness of organised crime. A warmhearted exploration of the eponymous “invisible slum”, Kamagasaki Cauldron War delights in everyday resistance as its ordinary citizens attempt to live their ordinary lives all but forgotten in a society intent on swallowing them whole.

The drama begins with drifter Henmi – a casual labourer with a young son, Kantaro (Tumugi Monko), who dreams of joining the local yakuza gang Kamitari but is rudely rejected by its foot soldiers. In revenge, he steals their precious “kama” sake bowl which is the symbol of their clan and essential for carrying out the succession ritual. This is all the more embarrassing because the elderly boss is thinking of retiring now that his son, Tamao (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), has been released from a 20-year prison stretch. Tamao, however, is secretly pleased because he doesn’t much fancy taking over while the petty yakuza who’s been running the show all this time is also quite happy because he doesn’t really want to give up control. Nevertheless, the precious Kama must be recovered at all costs or the gang will continue to face a significant loss of street cred.

Meanwhile, a bigger drama is underway. Kamagasaki is home to a significant proportion of “homeless” people, many of whom congregate around Sankaku Park where a regular soup kitchen runs next to the giant symbolic Kama cauldron in the park’s centre. It also the last remaining undeveloped post-war area and is therefore rich pickings for unscrupulous property developers such as Capital Beat who are primed to bulldoze the welfare centre to build more housing and therefore need to clear the park of the homeless in order to make the area seem attractive. Already trying to prevent the homeless from settling, the city has put up a series of insidious barriers including floral centrepieces and more obvious metal barriers but is nervous of taking direct action such as physical evictions. Which is where the yakuza come in. Working with Capital Beat and corrupt police, the yakuza take clubs to the soup kitchen and get vulnerable people to commit arson by setting fire to live rats and having them run into “derelict” buildings.

At the centre of events, orphan Nikichi (Yota Kawase) tries to keep himself afloat when the only gigs going are transfers to Turkish nuclear power plants by taking advantage of the Kama crisis and getting his hands on as many as possible little knowing that he is actually in possession of the Kamitari sake bowl thanks to little Kantaro whom he has been persuaded to adopt with his sex worker girlfriend Mei (Naori Ota) who grew up with him in the same orphanage. Coincidentally, the pair were also childhood friends with Tamao who has apparently been holding a torch for Mei all these years as well as grudge against Nikichi for an embarrassing injury caused during a sports contest at school. While they’re busy scrapping it out, the local area decides to fight back against Capital Beat by protesting the city’s treatment of the homeless leaving Nikichi an accidental figurehead for a campaign he doesn’t quite believe in and is only tangentially involved with.

Decrying that there is “no place to rest in the whole world” some enterprising homeless guys have built a tunnel under the giant Kama while others attempt to repurpose their penury by declaring that “garbage is the weapon of the people”. Recalling the anarchic spirit of the student protests (including a surprising cameo by Masao Adachi), the residents of Kamagasaki rise up against social intransigence by taking on the yakuza armed with pots and pans before the police stick their oar in and end up becoming a mutual point of irritation. Filmed on retro 16mm, Kamagasaki Cauldron War offers no real solutions to its various problems but delights in the everyday anarchism of its workaday world in which its scrappy residents do their best to get by in an often hostile environment, finding whatever ways they can to resist societal oppression while maintaining a sense of humour and world weary hope for the future.


The Kamagasaki Cauldron War was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Takashi Miike, 2018)

Laplace's Witch poster 2Takashi Miike, among Japan’s most prolific of directors, teams up with one of the nation’s most prolific authors, the often adapted Keigo Higashino, for a dose of scientific mystery in Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Laplace no Majo). Responsible for the international smash hit The Devotion of Suspect X and the Galileo series, Higashino too has worked across several genres ranging from the detective novels for which he is best known to children’s books and fantasy. Perhaps in contrast to the director, however, Higashino’s novels tend towards the socially conservative, occasionally cynical if at times perverse. Nevertheless, there is something a little ironic in Miike choosing to adapt this particular title which revolves around the idea of authenticity in art and meaningful legacy.

The unlikely hero of the tale, climate scientist Shusuke Aoe (Sho Sakurai), is called in to investigate the mysterious deaths of a film producer and an out of work actor who appear to have died of hydrogen sulphide poisoning at separate hot springs resorts. Dying of hydrogen sulphide poisoning outdoors is considered a scientific impossibility and Aoe has no real explanation for how it might have occurred but is stunned by policeman Nakaoka’s (Hiroshi Tamaki) assertions that foul play may have been involved.

Nakaoka is not exactly a bumbling policeman, but his certainties – born of policeman’s instinct, are held up for ridicule as he rapidly switches suspects, knee-jerk accusing the film producer’s widow of conspiracy to murder before deciding there must be more involved than a simple attempt at financial gain. He is however eventually correct, quickly figuring out the surprising connection between the two dead men is a famous film producer, Amakasu (Etsushi Toyokawa), who lost his own family in ironically similar tragic circumstances some years earlier and seems to have dropped off the radar ever since.

All of which means, Aoe’s scientific knowledge is increasingly irrelevant. His major contribution to the case at hand is in his strange friendship with a mysterious teenage girl who is engaged in her own missing persons case which may have some overlap with the murders. Aoe quickly notices that Madoka (Suzu Hirose) appears to have preternatural powers which she later alludes to in branding herself the “Laplace Demon” in honour of a scientific theory which suggests that if someone were to know the exact location of each and every atom in the universe then it would be perfectly possible to calculate their courses and trajectories with mathematical certainty and thereby possess absolute knowledge of the future.

Whether one might want such all encompassing knowledge is a bigger question. As one character later puts it, the ability to discern the future may impede one’s ability to dream and therefore hinder the progress of human society. The central message is, however, somewhat banal in pointing out that we are each of us connected, essential parts of a cosmic machine in which each has a specific role to play. By such logic, murder is then not so much a moral failing as one of over engineering in which attempts to tweak the system may lead to its destruction.

Then again, we hear from the depressed Amakazu that what he fears is that life is essentially meaningless and that many go to their deaths without leaving a mark. His central theory is that objective truth is a matter of record, that whatever is shot is “real” because that is what will be “remembered” long after the fact. Through his films, which are amusingly described in a piece of meta irony as dealing with edgy themes which don’t pander to audiences, he attempts to reorder his world by recreating it, improving on its many disappointments by envisioning it differently. Yet he still yearns for authenticity in his work and may have gone to great lengths to get it in a seemingly pointless piece of behind the scenes theatre.

Perhaps it is this sense of fatalistic ennui that Miike is attempting to capture through Laplace’s continually listless aesthetics but it has to be said that the central mystery, filled with plot holes and contradictions as it is, is particularly unengaging and despite the cheerful we’re all one narrative also carries some decidedly unpleasant undertones. Never quite finding the register to unlock its central philosophy, Laplace’s Witch proves a curiously flat outing for the famously out there director which may very well be the point but then again perhaps it’s a strange point to be making. 


Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)