Midori: The Camellia Girl (少女椿, TORICO, 2016)

camelia-girlPicking up on the well entrenched penny dreadful trope of the tragic flower seller the Shoujo Tsubaki or “Camellia Girl” became a stock character in the early Showa era rival of the Kamishibai street theatre movement. Like her European equivalent, the Shoujo Tsubaki was typically a lower class innocent who finds herself first thrown into the degrading profession of selling flowers on the street and then cast down even further by being sold to a travelling freakshow revue. This particular version of the story is best known thanks to the infamous 1984 ero-guro manga by Suehiro Maruo, Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show. Very definitely living up to its name, Maruo’s manga is beautifully drawn evocation of its 1930s counterculture genesis – something which the creator of the book’s anime adaptation took to heart when screening his indie animation. Midori, an indie animation project by Hiroshi Harada, was screened only as part of a wider avant-garde event encompassing a freak show circus and cabaret revue worthy of any ‘30s underground scene.

The 2016 live action adaptation from fashion designer TORICO, Midori: The Camellia Girl (少女椿, Shojo Tsubaki) doesn’t quite take things so far but does its best to put a modern spin on the original work’s decidedly Weimar aesthetic. Fourteen year old Midori (Risa Nakamura) narrates the tale as she suffers at the hands of the freaks and performers who form the community she has become a less than willing member of. After her father ran off and her mother died, Midori’s activities as a seller of paper camellias came to an end when she joined a circus troupe but rather than a warm community of outcasts Midori finds herself amongst a bitchy collection of kinky sex obsessed perverts who force her to become their personal domestic servant. Enduring cruel and frightening behaviour culminating in a rape by a performer with a bandaged face, Midori has begun to consider suicide as her only means of escape but when the circus receives a new employee in the form of “Western” style magician Mr. Wonder (Shunsuke Kazama), Midori’s fortunes begin to brighten.

Thankfully, given some of the things she’s forced to endure, Midori is played by 27 year old model Risa Nakamura in her first film role. The world of the freak show is undoubtedly a hellish one as Midori’s compatriots view her as the company kicking bag. Her biggest problem is the effeminate gay showman, Kanabun (Takeru), who actively enjoys tormenting her even going so far as to kick her pet puppies to death and feed them to her in a stew. This being a fairly incestuous environment, everyone is having sex with everyone else all the time which is not an ideal environment for a dreamy and sheltered fourteen year old. After witnessing a number of strange sexual practices including eyeball licking and an odd ménage à trois, Midori is unceremoniously raped by the bandaged man whose wrappings wind up around her own face. Mr. Wonder is the only one to show her any kind of kindness and perhaps begins to earn her love but his attentions have a possessive and controlling dimension which make this far from an uncomplicated romance even aside from Midori’s relative youth.

TORICO takes a page from Mina Ninagawa’s book in painting her tale in bright, kaleidoscopic colours. Not a naturalistic recreation of early Showa decadence, Midori: The Camelia Girl evokes the spirit of the period with its surreal atmosphere and outlandish costuming. Midori dresses in the bright and innocent clothes of a little girl making her look something like a cartoon heroine though her sunniness contrasts nicely with the sometimes muted dinginess of the street performer world. Accompanied by jaunty, accordion led gypsy jazz, TORICO also makes use of animated sequences and occasional effects to capture the bizarre goings on at the heart of the story and Midori’s frequent retreats into fantasy to escape them. Every bit as strange and surreal as might be hoped, Midori: The Cameila Girl only infrequently allows the encroaching darkness of militarism to penetrate its kitschy world but the threat is ever present as this collection of misfits attempts to survive outside of the mainstream, even if their attempts to do so reject the idea of community in favour of a constant series of betrayals and manipulations.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)

Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Hiroshi Nishitani, 2012)

ninkyo helperIn old yakuza lore, the “ninkyo” way, the outlaw stands as guardian to the people. Defend the weak, crush the strong. Of course, these are just words and in truth most yakuza’s aims are focussed in quite a different direction and no longer extend to protecting the peasantry from bandits or overbearing feudal lords (quite the reverse, in fact). However, some idealistic young men nevertheless end up joining the yakuza ranks in the mistaken belief that they’re somehow going to be able to help people, however wrongheaded and naive that might be.

The hero of Hiroshi Nishitani’s Beautiful World (任侠ヘルパー, Ninkyo Helper) is just one of these world weary idealists turned cynics. We find him working a low rent convenience store job where he fills the shop with the kind of intensity that only a disappointed former yakuza can generate. Hikoichi (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) was trying to make a go of things in the regular world, but when a sad little old man comes in with armed robbery on his to do list, Hikoichi shows his yakuza stripes by easily beating him down in front of his stunned colleague.

This might have earned him some brownie points at work, but overcome by pity for this pathetic old man reduced to robbing corner shops for petty change, he gives him the cash and tells him to run. The police soon turn up and arrest them both – during the robbery Hikochi’s colourful tattoos were caught on security camera and no one wants a yakuza working here, even if he did volunteer to pay back the tiny sum of money the old guy got from his own wages.

Meeting up in prison, Hikoichi and the armed robber eventually become friends and after his release, Hikoichi ends up in the old guy’s home town where he joins his former clan as an enforcer. Extremely bitter by this point, Hikoichi has decided to play the modern yakuza game to the max so when he finds out his assignment is running a dodgy “care” home which gets its residents by extorting old people through outrageous loans which send them bankrupt, he only briefly pauses.

The idea of a yakuza running a care home is a strange one. The Uminoneko residential care facility is far from what one would want from a old people’s home – there are no doctors, or even carers, the entire home is run by one nurse, herself an elderly woman who got her nurse’s certification and eldercare qualifications back in 1943!

With a rapidly ageing population, eldercare is a big topic in Japan as the birth rate has progressively fallen while lifespans have increased leaving many older people without family to look after them. With the nature of the family unit also changing, it’s become much harder to care for elderly relatives at home especially if they need around the clock attention. There are simply not enough facilities available to cope with the increasing needs of the older generation leaving families struggling to cope and social services overwhelmed. It’s not surprising that the yakuza have picked up on this as a growth area.

When Hikoichi arrives at the Uminoneko facility, which is just really a prefab shed with some futons in it, he finds a hellish place filled with unstimulated old people left on their beds to die. The place is filthy, and about the only attention the guests receive is the occasional offering of food to keep them alive so that the clan can keep claiming their pensions and welfare payments. Though Hikoichi goes along with this to begin with, it’s not long before his idealism rears its ugly head and he hits on the idea of reforming Uminoneko by turning it into a kind of old person’s commune in which the residents themselves will help out with the running of the place. What was a sad and gloomy prison of exploitation suddenly transforms as the older generation rediscover a place that they can belong, working together to build their own community. However, this of course means less money for the clan and more trouble for Hikoichi.

The clan aren’t his only problems as the town also has a progressive mayor who made a commitment to wipe out organised crime and turn the area into a tourist hotspot with a special focus on caring for the older generation. Teruo (Teruyuki Kagawa) has is own stuff going on which again causes a problem for Hikioichi as he also has a long standing crush on the older yakuza’s daughter, now a single mother with two young children and a mother of her own with senile dementia who needs expensive medical care. Yoko (Narumi Yasuda) has a grudge against yakuza after enduring decades of stigma and eventual abandonment by her father but is willing to deal with them if it will enable her to help her mother. Predictably she begins to develop a better understanding of her father as she bonds with Hikochi and warms to his noble tough guy ways.

Directed by Hiroshi Nishitani and inspired by a TV show (though functioning as a standalone movie), Beautiful World is a finely plotted drama which explores both the roles of the ageing population and eldercare explosion in Japan, and the conflicting role of the yakuza who seek to exploit those who are arguably the weakest in society. Hikoichi makes for a very Takakura-like, brooding presence as his innate idealism and desire to help those around him conflict with his experiences as a yakuza which teach him to distrust everyone and expect betrayal and exploitation at every turn. Resolving in an unconventional and unexpected way, this otherwise mainstream, if  beautifully photographed, drama develops into one of the more interesting character driven pieces of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: