Pulse (回路, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

pulse US posterTimes change and then they don’t. 2001 was a strange year, once a byword for the future it soon became the past but rather than ushering us into a new era of space exploration and a utopia born of technological advance, it brought us only new anxieties forged by ongoing political instabilities, changes in the world order, and a discomfort in those same advances we were assured would make us free. Japanese cinema, by this time, had become synonymous with horror defined by dripping wet, longhaired ghosts wreaking vengeance against an uncaring world. The genre was almost played out by the time Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (回路, Kairo) rolled around, but rather than submitting himself to the inevitability of its demise, Kurosawa took the moribund form and pushed it as far as it could possibility go. Much like the film’s protagonists, Kurosawa determines to go as far as he can in the knowledge that standing still or turning back is consenting to your own obsolescence.

The end of the world starts with a young man staring at his computer screen and the strange images it conjures of the only half alive. Michi (Kumiko Aso), a young woman working at a rooftop plant centre, is dispatched to find out what’s happened to a colleague, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), who has some essential information stored on a floppy disk. Arriving at his flat she finds him distracted, informing her that the disk is somewhere in a pile scattered on the desk before disappearing off somewhere else. Having found what she came for, Michi looks for Taguchi to say goodbye but finds him hanged in an adjacent room. Barely reacting, Michi deals with the police before meeting up with her colleagues to relate the news, leaving each of them stunned. Another colleague, Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo), then receives a strange phone call as a distorted voice repeatedly utters the words “help me”.

Meanwhile, economics student Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) is attempting to set up this new fangled internet thing in his dorm but failing miserably. When he finally gets online and is greeted with the message “would you like to meet a real ghost?” he thinks he’s done something very wrong and hurriedly shuts his computer down. Seeking advice in the uni computer club he gets to know IT professor Harue (Koyuki) who tries to help him but may be beyond help herself.

The Japanese title, “Kairo”, literally means “circuit”, a fixed path of connectedness along which something flows continuously. A “pulse” is itself a circuit, or more accurately an observation of a fixed point in motion along it which maybe continuous or finite. Pulse, in its most immediate meaning is the life force by which we live, the thing which defines the states of life and death, but the “circuit” here is bigger than that which exists in one body alone, extending across the great confluence of humanity, or at least of that still regarded as “living”.

When Harue attempts to fix Kawashima’s internet she prompts him about why he wanted it in the first place (it was hardly necessary back in the still largely analogue world of 2001). He seems confused and replies he doesn’t quite know, it’s just that everyone seemed to be into it. Harue thinks she has his number – he thought he could use it to connect with people, but, she says, that is hopeless, people don’t truly connect, we all live in our separate bubbles. Harue is the most classically “disconnected” of our protagonists. Never having felt at home in the world, she talks of a lifelong fascination with the idea of death as a portal to another one in which it might be possible to live happily with others, only to realise as a teenager that it might also be a gateway to a land of perpetual nothingness and isolation. Terrified of being alone yet unwilling to submit herself to the inherent risks of connection, Harue exists in a permanent state of embittered longing and anxiety in which the cold embrace of death may prove the the only companion she will ever allow.

Harue may be an extreme case but she’s not the only example of disconnected youth. Michi, is also aloof and isolated – a child of divorced parents who has a close if imperfect relationship with her mother (Jun Fubuki) and an absent father she has already rejected. She says she’s OK in the city because she has her friends prompting her mother to warn her that she’s too trusting, too blind to the dangers of city life. Michi’s connections may turn out to be shallow, but unlike Harue she remains broadly open, seeking physical connections rather than digital ones. She visits her friend’s apartment, and makes a point of chasing after Yabe even after her boss warns her that friendly words can wound and that wounding a friend is also an act of self harm. Compelled to travel onwards, she resolves to keep on living, continue seeking connections until there are no more left to seek.

Kurosawa’s world is one of essential interconnectedness which finds itself frustrated by a mysterious forces leaking in. Yet the ghosts are not all on the other side, these are people who are spiritually dead while physically alive – isolated, defined by routine and expectation, and endlessly unfilled. “Trapped inside their own loneliness” as one character puts it, the disappeared gain a kind of immortality but it’s one filled with eternal longing and isolation. These “broken connections” are continually in search of vulnerable ports, flooding a system which has already begun to fail, and threatening to destroy that which they seek. The “ghosts” have destroyed the machine, but Kurosawa’s apocalyptic conclusion, melancholy as it seems to be, offers as much a hope for rebirth as it does a condemnation to existential loneliness.


Now available on blu-ray from Arrow Films!

Arrow release EPK

A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer, Shinji Aoyama, 1996)

a-weapon-in-my-heartShinji Aoyama would produce one of the most important Japanese films of the early 21st century in Eureka, but like many directors of his generation he came of age during the V-cinema boom. This relatively short lived medium was the new no holds barred arena for fledgling filmmakers who could adhere to a strict budget and shooting schedule but were also aching to spread their wings. After a short period as an AD with fellow V-cinema director now turned international auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Aoyama directed his first straight to video effort – the sex comedy It’s Not in the Textbook!. Released just after his theatrical debut, Helpless, A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, Waga Mune ni Kyoki Ari, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer) is a more typically genre orientated effort with its cops, robbers, and femme fatale setup but like the best examples of the V-cinema trend it bears the signature of its ambitious director making the most of its humble origins.

Call girl Alice has ripped off her gangster bosses for a large amount of heroine only her accomplice has got cold feet and called a relative in the police force. The kid gets shot as officers Goro and his partner Yoshioka wade in all guns blazing but Alice calmly allows herself to be taken into custody. Yoshioka is a strangely cheerful chap who informs Alice that he has a game running where he gives suspects odds to bet on their likelihood of escape. Hers are brilliant because there is no way she is getting away. However, the trio are ambushed by crazy gangster Matsumura and his gang forcing Goro and Alice onto the run. In addition to avoiding Matsumura and his dastardly schemes, Goro and Alice are also being stalked by a mysterious hitman, Hoshi, who claims to be “watching from up above” and has his own motives for his bizarrely heroic hunting style.

This being a V-cinema effort, the production values are low, shot in widescreen but on the kind of cheap video cameras common to the V-cinema movement. Nevertheless, Aoyama makes the most of what he has to create a stylish genre throwback which recalls the Nikkatsu action films of years gone by only a little less madcap even if leaning towards the surreal. Told in a non-linear fashion, exposition is delivered largely through flashbacks but each of these is innovatively offered such as in a touching scene in which Goro remembers a conversation with Yoshioka in which only the lighting darkens to let us know that the happy memory has ended and the melancholy present has resumed. Similar techniques mark Alice’s frequent flashbacks to her traumatic crime, though in line with their much more pressing nature Alice’s memories are given harsher, more abrupt entrances and exits, lacerating the screen as they do her mind.

The genre elements may be familiar enough but Aoyama ensures each of the major players is fully drawn despite the necessarily tight running time. Good cop Goro is arguably the least explored but it’s antagonist Hoshi who leaves the biggest mark. A joke that’s somewhat lost in translation runs on the fact that “Hoshi” means star which lends an oddly comic dimension to his frequently uttered catch phrase in which he promises to be watching “from up above”. Having once abandoned the killing game, Hoshi has found himself forced back into the life in order to earn the money to pay for an operation to restore the sight of his blinded son – something he feels karmically responsible for. Frequently letting our heroes go out of a debt of honour, Hoshi nevertheless has his mission to complete, no matter how much it might offend him to do so.

Our policemen also seem to operate from a mysterious antique shop where they keep the records for their escape based betting games. Add in weird dirt bike riders, mysterious statues, and strange phone calls not to mention a horror movie inspired sequence where our two heroes are trapped in a shed while the enemy looms large in a thunderstorm outside and there are plenty of interesting quirks to be going on with. Deaths are dramatic, slow motion falls and set pieces become remarkably elaborate but there’s also a sort of childish innocence as a fearsome killer tries and fails to unwrap one of his beloved boiled sweets even as he dies. Very much part of the fast and loose V-cinema universe, A Weapon in My Heart is also pure Aoyama, filled with strange details and surrealist touches but ultimately imbued with his own strange brand of humanity.


 

Ley Lines (日本黒社会 LEY LINES, Takashi Miike, 1999)

ley-linesThe three films loosely banded together under the retrospectively applied title of the Black Society Trilogy are not connected in terms of narrative, characters, tone, or location but they do all reflect on attitudes to foreignness, both of a national and of a spiritual kind. Like Tatsuhito in the first film, Shinjuku Triad Society, the three young men at the centre of the final instalment, Ley Lines (日本黒社会 LEY LINES, Nihon Kuroshakai LEY LINES), have each faced prejudice and discrimination due to their Chinese heritage. Fleeing their small town blues and heading for the big city, they want out of the homeland which can find no place for them to try their luck in pastures new, but desperation breeds poor choices and if they find their freedom it may not be in the way they might have hoped.

Angry young man Ryuichi (Kazuki Kitamura) seems to have been in some trouble with the law recently, at least that’s the reason the pedantic government official gives for rudely rejecting Ryuichi’s attempts to get a passport whilst subtly underlining the fact that a “real” Japanese person would know you can’t have one whilst on probation. Offended, Ryuichi picks up a small potted tree and hits the uncooperative desk jockey on the head with it. With Brazil off the cards and no work or prospects on the horizon, Ryuichi decides to blow town with some friends. All but three of them change their minds at the train station but Ryuichi, his sensitive younger brother Shunrei (Michisuke Kashiwaya), and their friend the impulsive Chan (Tomorowo Taguchi) head for the sleazy streets of Shinjuku hoping to find someone to forge their papers for passage overseas.

Once there, hotheaded Ryuichi immediately begins to cause trouble and the trio get mixed up in an ongoing series of gang problems with the traditionally minded Chinese gangsters and a petty thug (Show Aikawa) selling what he claims is a new wonder drug, Toluelene. Teaming up with a brutalised local prostitute, Anita (who previously ripped them off leading to their ill advised Tolulene adventures), also desperate to get the hell out of Shinjuku, the four form an unconventional mini family but a last ditch solution to their dilemma will turn out to be a gamble too far.

Neatly uniting the themes of the previous two movies in the Black Society Trilogy, Ley Lines casts its heroes as multilayered outsiders. Miike begins the film with deliberately retro, aged footage of the brothers as young boys playing happily on a beach until some Japanese kids turn up and remind them that they’re different. Never allowed to just fit in, Ryuichi has become angry and frustrated whereas Shunrei studies harder than anyone trying to earn his place in a competitive society. If their Chinese heritage had set them at odds with their small town peers, the boys are just as much adrift in the big city, a trio of bumpkins wandering into all the wrong places naively thinking they can scrap their way out of Japan. Anita, also Chinese, shares in their desperation as her situation has become unsustainable. Shackled to a useless pimp and forced to endure frightening and barbaric treatment, Anita needs out of the flesh trade and the guys might just be her ticket to ride.

As he would later do so splendidly in Audition, Miike deliberately wrong foots us in the beginning as if he’s about to embark on a standard tale of a young man making his first big set of mistakes which will set him on a path to becoming a better person, but of course this isn’t where we’re going. The original Japanese title, “Japan Black Society” hints at the all pervading darkness which exists below the everyday world into which our trio of hapless dreamers have fallen. The guys are ordinary young men making ordinary mistakes which have a familiar, often comedic quality which only serves to deepen the agony they’re about to face.This underworld belongs to people like the mad gangster Wang (Naoto Takenaka) dreaming of his Chinese homeland and forcing young women to tell him folktales to remind him of it, the pimp the who mishandles the desperate Anita, and the deluded drug dealer Ikeda convinced he’s onto the next big thing. The boys don’t stand a chance. Ending with a typically poetic, bittersweet set of images as some of our heroes find a kind of freedom in an endless sea, Miike does not stint on the irony but his sympathy is very much with these disenfranchised youngsters, denied their futures at every turn and finally backed into a corner by the cruel and unforgiving nature of the Black Society which they inhabit.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kanikosen (蟹工船, SABU, 2009)

kanikosenBack in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.

As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.

SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.

Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.

Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.

In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.


 

Dead Run (疾走, SABU, 2005)

Dead run posterSABU might have gained a reputation for his early work which often featured scenes of characters in rapid flight from one thing or another but Dead Run both embraces and rejects this aspect of his filmmaking as it presents the idea of running and its associated freedom as an unattainable dream. Based on the novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Dead Run (疾走, Shisso) is the tragic story of its innocent hero, Shuji, who sees his world crumble before him only to become the sacrifice which redeems it.

The story begins in a voice over narration offered in the second person by Shuji’s older brother, Shuichi. Shuji, it seems was a curious, if shy, little boy full of the usual childish questions and a curiosity about the way his world works. The boys live with their parents in an area they call “the shore” which is next to a settlement created through reclaimed land which the shore people refer to as “offshore” and somewhat look down on. One day, Shuji gets marooned offshore when his bicycle chain snaps and is rescued by the unlikely saviour of “Demon Ken” (Susumu Terajima) – a local petty gangster whom everyone is afraid of, and his girlfriend, Akane (Miki Nakatani), who is some kind of bar hostess. Soon after, Demon Ken is found buried in a shallow grave dead of a gunshot wound to the stomach, but somehow this improbable act of kindness has stuck in Shuji’s mind.

Moving on a few years, a creepy looking priest moves into the offshore area and opens up a church in a small hut complete with shiny silver crosses. Just like with Demon Ken, there’s a rumour about town that the priest, Father Yuichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), is a former criminal and murderer. Shuji becomes intrigued by the strange figure of the priest and a young girl his age, Eri (Hanae Kan), who likes to spend time in the church. However, more gangsters soon turn up wanting to buy up the offshore area to build an entertainment complex and even though most of the other residents have agreed to be resettled elsewhere, Father Yuichi won’t budge. Akane returns to the area as one of the higher ranking gangsters trying to force the church out and is happy to realise that Shuji, at least, has not forgotten Demon Ken. This won’t be the last time the pair meet again as circumstances conspire against the young boy to drag him ever deeper into the darkness of the shady adult world.

As a young boy, Shuji’s life is the ideal pastoral childhood full of bike rides through green fields and under cloudless blue skies, yet his once happy family dissolves and though he tries to run from his destiny he can not escape it. After his over achieving older brother Shuichi is caught cheating at school and is suspended, he begins to lose his mind becoming obsessed with the idea of the priest as a murderer and is fixated on exposing some dark secret about him. Of course, it turns out not to be exactly as he thought it was and Shuichi becomes increasingly disturbed before becoming a suspect in a series of local crimes which see him sent away to reform school. After this string of tragedies, Shuji’s parents start to fall apart too – his father disappearing and his mother mentally absent. Eventually even Eri leaves as the relocation programme finally kicks in.

Around this point our narrative voice shifts to that of Father Yuichi who becomes Shuji’s only responsible adult figure. However, Father Yuichi’s decision to take Shuji on a trip proves to be a disastrous one as it backfires massively forcing him onto the run and, coincidentally, straight into the arms of Akane. Though Akane had originally seemed an austere and difficult woman, she harbours an affection for Shuji as one of the few people to remember Demon Ken and to remember him for his kindness. Though she wants to help Shuji she ends up pulling him into a the darkness of her own world filled with violence and exploitation. Shuji runs again and eventually makes his way to Tokyo and to Eri who is just as broken as he is but there’s no salvation here either. Even when the pair attempt to travel back to their once idyllic childhood town, their problems follow them and destiny catches up with everyone, in the end.

Early on Father Yuichi and Eri are having a discussion about the difference between fate and karma and which might be more frightening. Eri says fate is better because you can’t change karma but perhaps you can change your fate. The film seems to disagree with her. You can try to run but somehow or other something will always stop you so the cold hand of fate can stretch its icy fingers around your heart. Different in both tone and style from SABU’s previous work, Dead Run is a bleak tale filled with loneliness and melancholy which, though it offers a glimmer of hope for those who are left behind, is not afraid to make a sacrificial lamb of its holy fool of a protagonist.


The Hong Kong R3 DVD release of Dead Run contains English subtitles.

Based on the book of the same name by Kiyoshi Shigematsu (as yet unavailable in English).

Unsubbed trailer: