Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2015)

Three Stories of Love posterRyosuke Hashiguchi began his career with a collection of sometimes melancholy but ultimately hopeful tales of gay life in contemporary Japan. In 2008 he branched out with the finely tuned emotional drama All Around Us which followed an ordinary couple’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of a child. Three Stories of Love (恋人たち, Koibitotachi) finds him in much the same territory as he takes three very different yet equally burdened romantics and sets them on a path towards a kind of acceptance while suffering inside a system where everyone seems to be intent on exploiting other people’s unhappiness.

The first of our heroes, Atsushi (Atsushi Shinohara), is a bridge inspector whose wife was murdered in a random street attack three years previously. Ever since then he’s suffered with depression and found it difficult to hold down a job or a life and has become obsessed with getting personal revenge on the killer who pleaded the insanity defence and was committed to psychiatric care rather than to prison. Meanwhile, across town, listless housewife Toko (Toko Narushima) is trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering husband and living with her snooty mother-in-law. Toko’s only outlet is compulsively rewatching a shaky video of the time she and her friends witnessed Princess Masako briefly exit a building. The third of our heroes, Shinomiya (Ryo Ikeda), is a self involved lawyer with a longstanding crush on his straight best friend from college who has since married and had a young son.

The three strands are only loosely interconnected, occurring as they do in the same city at the same time, though they do each share a sense of defeat and impossibility as each of our heroes struggles either to escape from or come to terms with their difficult circumstances. Atsushi’s case is perhaps the most extreme as he deals not only with his grief and anger but with the persistent stigma of being involved with violent crime. Visited by his bubbly sister-in-law he idly remembers to ask after the man she was about to marry last time they met only to be told that he abruptly dumped her after her sister’s death and not only that, all her friends abandoned her too. Getting revenge has become Atsushi’s only reason for living – he stopped paying his health insurance to get money together for fancy lawyers like Shinomiya who convinced him he could lodge a civil case but were only ever stringing him along to fleece him of money he never really had.

Shinomiya is, in a sense, our villain. He listens dispassionately to his wealthy clients – including one woman seeking a divorce (Chika Uchida) because her husband forgot to tell her he was burakumin until after they were married, but privately mocks them and is so unpleasant to his colleagues that someone eventually pushes him down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg. Intensely self-involved, he cares little for other people’s feelings save for those of his forlorn love Satoshi (So Yamanaka). Satoshi’s wife Etsuko, originally friendly and understanding, eventually takes against Shinomiya either because she doesn’t like the way he fiddled with her son’s ears or resents the two men cooing over the child and accidentally making her feel like an unwelcome outsider. Introducing his much younger boyfriend only seems to make matters worse, though the relationship does seem to have its problematic dimensions even if not in the way Etsuko decides to interpret them as Shinomiya takes pains to run down his partner in public and berate him at home. It’s difficult to resist the interpretation that Shinomiya prefers younger lovers because he can boss them around and, in truth, he doesn’t even seem very attached to this one, but he’s about to get a very rude awakening when it comes to learning that he’s not as permanent a part of everyone else’s lives as he seems to think.

Atsushi is fleeced by the Shinomiyas of the world and his heartless health insurers, but he’s wily enough to spot the obvious scam in the lovelorn office boy’s sudden enthusiasm for magical beautifying water which turns out to be part of a bar lady’s (Tamae Ando) nefarious scheme to resell the tapped variety with some of her own glamour shots attached to the front. Toko is wily enough to see it too, though she eventually succumbs when would-be-chicken-farmer Fujita (Ken Mitsuishi), whom she met at work during a difficult moment with her boss, delivers her some on spec. Lonely and insecure, Toko appreciates the unexpected interest but Fujita is not the white knight she first assumes him to be and is eventually exposed as yet another scam artist gunning for the little money she might have been able to hide away in her rabidly penny pinching home.

Shinomiya might feel himself proud to be among the fleecers rather than the fleeced, but he soon gets a comeuppance in realising he has wilfully pulled the wool over his own eyes, blinded in a sense by love. Toko, meanwhile, has learned to accept the latent feudalism of the modern society in her obsession with royalty though a brief attempt to transcend her feelings of innate inferiority seems destined to end in failure if perhaps engineering a mild improvement in her familial circumstances. Atsushi alone, a man whose job it is to assess the foundations, begins to find a degree of equilibrium thanks largely to nothing more than a good friend willing to listen and share his own suffering. Exploitation of others’ misfortunes and a series of social prejudices conspire against our three lovers but perhaps there is something to be said for learning to find the blue sky from whichever vantage point you happen to be occupying no matter how small and distant it may be.


Three Stories of Love was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Tetsuo Shinohara, 2003)

karaoke terror poster.jpgEver since its invention karaoke has provided the means for many a weary soul to ease their burdens, but there may be a case for wondering if escapism is a valid goal in a society which seems to be content in stagnation. The awkwardly titled Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Showa Kayo Daizenshu), adapted from the book Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Audition’s Ryu Murakami, pits two very different groups of karaoke enthusiasts against each other – aimless adolescent males, and jaded middle-aged women. Despite the differences in their ages and experiences, both enjoy singing the wistful bubblegum pop of an earlier generation as if drunk on national nostalgia and longing for the lost innocence of Japan’s hopeful post-war endeavour to rebuild itself better than it had been before.

We open with the slackers and a voice over from the presumed “hero” of the film, Ishihara (Ryuhei Matsuda), who informs us that he can’t really remember how he met most of the guys he hangs out with but that he always knew the one of them, Sugioka (Masanobu Ando), was a bit cracked in the head. In a motif that will be repeated, Sugioka catches sight of a middle-aged woman just on the way back from a shopping trip and decides he must have her but his attempts to pick her up fail spectacularly at which point he whips out his knife and slashes her throat.

Meanwhile, across town, a middle-aged woman, Hemmi (Kayoko Kishimoto), offers to let a co-worker share her umbrella but the co-worker misinterprets this small gesture of courtesy as romantic interest and crudely asks her “how about a fuck?” to which Hemmi is quite rightly outraged. Rather than apologise, the co-worker shrugs and says his “direct” approach works six times out of eight and some women even appreciate it. Once she manages to get away from her odious aggressor, Hemmi ends up stumbling over the body of the woman murdered by Sugioka and realises she knows her. The murdered woman was one of six all named Midori who were brought together for a newspaper article about the lives of middle-aged divorced women and have stayed “friends”. Outraged about this assault not just on their friend and their sex but directly against “women of a certain age” who continue to be the butt of a societal joke, the Midoris decide they want revenge and hatch a plan off Sugioka, but once they have, the slackers hit back by offing a Midori and so it continues with ever-increasing levels of violence.

Which ever way you slice it, you can’t deny the Midoris have a point and Hemmi’s continuing outrage is fully justified. When the boys rock up at a mysterious general goods store out in the country looking for a gun, the proprietor (Yoshio Harada) is only too happy to give it to them when they explain they need it for revenge and that their targets are middle-aged women. The proprietor has a lot to say about ladies of a certain age. In fact he hates them and thinks that bossy, embittered, unproductive women “too old” to fulfil their only reason for existence will be the only ones to survive a nuclear apocalypse that even the cockroaches cannot overcome. The boys appear timid and inexperienced but ironically enough can’t take their eyes off the middle-aged woman from across the way and her sexy dance routines. They feel entitled to female deference and cannot accept a woman’s right to decline. The Midoris are sick of being “humiliated”. They’ve fallen from Japan’s conformist path for female success in getting divorced or attempting to pursue careers. They’ve lost their children and endured constant ridicule as “sad” or “desperate”, made to feel as if their presence in the workplace past a certain age was “inappropriate” and the prices they have paid for their meagre successes were not worth the reward. They strike back not just at these psychotic boys but at a society which has persistently enacted other kinds of violence upon them.

Meanwhile, the boys remain boys, refusing adulthood and responsibility by wasting their time on idle pursuits. Truth be told, karaoke performances involving dance routines and elaborate costumes is not a particularly “cool” hobby by the standards of the time but it appears that none of these men have much else in their lives to invest themselves in. With the economy stagnating and the salaryman dream all but dead, you can’t blame them for their apathy or for the rejection of the values of their parents’ generation, but you can blame them for their persistent refusal to grow up and tendency to allow their insecurities to bubble over into violence.

As it turns out, adolescent males and middle-aged women have more in common than might be thought in their peripheral existences, exiled from the mainstream success which belongs exclusively to middle-aged and older men who’ve been careful to (superficially at least) adhere to all the rules of a conformist society. Neither group of friends is especially friendly, only latterly realising that “real” connections are forged through direct communication. Their mutual apathy is pierced only by violence which, ironically, allows their souls to sing and finally shows them just what all those cheerful songs were really about. Darkly comic and often surreal, Karaoke Terror is a sideways look at two diametrically opposed groups finding unexpected common ground in the catharsis of vengeance only for their internecine warfare to graduate into world ending pettiness.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The greatest hits of the Showa era:

Koi no Kisetsu – Pinky & Killers

Hoshi no Nagare ni – Akiko Kikuchi

Chanchiki Okesa – Haruo Minami

Shiroi Cho no Samba – Kayoko Moriyama

Linda Linda – The Blue Hearts

Sweet Memories – Seiko Matsuda

Kaze Tachinu – Seiko Matsuda

Minato ga Mieru Oka – Aiko Hirano

Sabita Knife – Yujiro Ishihara

Hone Made Aishite – Jo Takuya

Kimi to Itsumademo – Yuzo Kayama

Mata Au Hi Made – Kiyohiko Ozaki

Rain of Light (光の雨, Banmei Takahashi, 2001)

In the closing voice over of Banmei Takahashi’s Rain of Light (光の雨, Hikari no Ame), the elderly narrator thanks us, the younger generation, for listening to this long, sad story. The death of the leftist movement in Japan has never been a subject far from Japanese screens whether from contemporary laments for a perceived failure as the still young protestors swapped revolution for the rat race or a more recent and rigorous desire to examine why it all ended in such a dark place. Rain of Light is an attempt to look at the Asama-Sanso Incident through the eyes of the youth of today and by implication ask a few hard questions about the nature of revolution and social change and if either of those two things have any place in the Japan these young people now live in. Takahashi reframes the tale as docudrama in which his young actors and actresses, along with their increasingly conflicted director, attempt to solve these problems through recreation and role play, bridging the gap between the generations with a warning from those who dreamed of a better world that was never to be.

After beginning with a voice-over and archive footage of the original protests beginning in the ‘60s, Takahashi introduces us to the main thrust of the conceit as veteran TV commercial director Tarumi (Ren Osugi) announces his intention to make a film about the Asama-Sanso Incident and hires indie film director Anan (Masato Hagiwara) as an AD who will also film behind the scenes footage. From here on in we swap between the various levels of the film as we meet the young men and women who will inhabit the roles of the student radicals of 40 years before and then witness the tragic events which befell them eventually culminating in the famous siege which became Japan’s first live broadcast news event gathering a record number of viewers across its ten hour duration.

This is a sad story and a difficult one to watch. As the student movement dwindled in the early 1970s, factionalism was rife and the scene chaotic. Two different factions merged to become known as the United Red Army and retreated to a secret mountain camp where they would train for the coming revolution, believing that only armed insurrection could destroy the old order and allow them to build the bright new socialist future for which they were fighting. However, in the extreme paranoia surrounding the underground movement, there had already been two murders of suspected traitors and suspicion was everywhere. Led by Kurashige (Taro Yamamoto) and Uesugi (Nae Yuki) the mountain lodge quickly becomes a place of fear and rigidity as dogmatic maoist slogans take on near religious significance. Pushing the “soldiers” through the process of continuous “self criticism”, the group places personal revolution as a paramount necessity for social change. Using the system to ease personal grudges or clear the political air, Kurashige and Uesugi bring about the deaths of several cadre members through beatings, exposure, or starvation before resorting to bare faced murder all in the name of “reform”.

Less interested in simply reviewing events, Takahashi’s treatment attempts to speak directly to the young people of today who, at least according to the video interviews conducted by Anan, know little of this traumatic era which presumably formed the backdrop to their parents’ lives. As time moves on it transpires that Tarumi has a much more personal connection to the material than he’d previously been able to admit and one which eventually sees him attempt to absent himself from the film’s completion. In the absence of their director, the cast take on the attributes of their characters in trying to understand his actions. Beginning to self criticise themselves, the actors attempt to find the fault that has driven their leader away despite the fact that his reasoning is entirely personal.

The young discuss the various merits of change and revolution but find their forebears hard to grasp. It is, indeed, impossible and all too possible to understand how this happened. Young men and women who wanted to change the world found their ideals misused, driven half mad by a kind of quasi-religious cultism which demanded nothing less than total commitment the rules of which were entirely decided by a deluded madman terrified of losing his own grip on power. Though some of the performers come to sympathise with their roles, this era of heavily politicised thought and activism is so entirely alien to them as to seem arcane.

Takahashi delineates each of the various media through differing camera effects and aspect ratios from the mid-range digital of the film within the film to the low grade video of the direct to camera “behind the scenes” footage. The film is itself the bridge which the director claims he wants to make yet eventually backs away from as his own painful past becomes the subject he does not want to address. Anan, the AD, pleads with the director to deliver his message to the young. The old, he says, talk about the past like it’s yesterday but refuse offer anything of real substance to those who have come after them. Tarumi does indeed tell his story in all of its pain and sadness, stopping to remind us, as the troupe of actors gleefully start throwing snowballs around, that this was a children’s revolution begun by young men and women who wanted nothing other than to build a better world. So what of the youth of today? Is such idealism still present, and if it is could it ever be as frustrated and misused as the unhappy revolutionaries of the post ’68 generation? The answer seems to be no, but then nothing came of the grand gestures and political posturing of 40 years ago, perhaps the genial, everyday goodness of the youth of today will have more luck.


 

A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Kenji Uchida, 2005)

stranger of mineSometimes life throws you a pretty crazy night but unbeknownst to you the whole world has gone crazy too. For the disparate group of people at the centre of Kenji Uchida’s A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Unmei Janai Hito) , this proves to be more than usually true. A cute romantic encounter may end up going in a less than cinematic direction while ex-girlfriends, detectives and even the yakuza all conspire to frustrate the lovelorn dreams of a nice guy businessman who never even realises the total chaos which is ensuing all around him.

The film begins with a sad scene of a woman, Maki, carrying large bags and forlornly dropping a key through a letter box. She pawns what looks like an engagement ring and thinks about what to do next. Whilst sitting alone in a restaurant, a man asks her to join him and she is overjoyed to find some company. The man is Kanda, a small time detective and childhood friend of businessman Miyata who is also broken hearted as his girlfriend has left him. The girlfriend, “Ayumi”, is not all she seems and is already mixed up with yakuza boss Asai. Mix in a MacGuffin of some missing money and one ordinary night among millions just got very complicated indeed!

Uchida starts out with a fairly standard indie rom-com approach as the two brokenhearted jilted lovers Maki and Miyata are brought together by Kanda’s machinations but just as we think we’re about to head into some kind of Before Sunset scenario our perspective shifts and we find out just why it is that Kanda seems to be acting so manically. In fact, he’s been looking out for his friend all along but it’s getting kind of complicated at his end and the one thing he 100% does not want is for the rather innocent Miyata to figure out that he’s at the centre of dangerous mob caper because his ex-girlfriend, whom he still think is an angel, is really not the innocent flower he thought she was.

Just another night in the city, the point of view shifts around these five characters whose lives intersect like cogs turning some giant, unseen machine. We’re shown one set of events only to have our understanding of them undercut by seeing them again from another angle. Everything is a coincidence, or maybe nothing is, but each of these five characters wade into each other’s story leaving a drama filled wake with only poor Miyata seemingly oblivious to what’s really going on.

A Stranger of Mine plays like an extremely complex farce in which fate conspires to have some fun with five ordinary people and Uchida mines the situation for all the (sometimes dark) humour it can offer. Loosely split into three sections divided by title cards bearing the names of the characters, the film takes inspiration from classic Hollywood screwball comedies and film noir whilst adding a more modern, non-linear approach as Uchida plays and replays his scenes to make us see that things are not always the way they look at first glance.

While obviously a low budget, independent effort, A Stranger of Mine offers surprisingly high production values and boasts excellent performances from its tightly composed cast. The script is fiendishly complicated and exacting yet Uchida pulls it off with a keenly observed eye. Though improbable, the events are never implausible and play out with a kind of off beat inevitability that further underlines the film’s mildly ironic, comic tone. Gleefully playful, A Stranger of Mine may appear a little slight on the surface, but just as its multi-layered narrative suggests, the perspective only deepens on a closer look.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Parco Fiction (パルコ フィクション, Takuji Suzuki & Shinobu Yaguchi, 2002)

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Since making 2002’s Parco Fiction, directors Shinobu Yaguchi and Takuji Suzuki have both gone on to bigger and better things but for this under seen portmanteau movie, they found themselves uniting to create something which seems to be a strange advert for the Parco department store in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district. The film is divided into five different short episodes loosely connected to the department store plus opening, closing and linking segments each filled with the kind of whimsical, absurd humour usually found in these kinds of films.

Opening with a planning meeting for the building of the department store in which its unusual name is decided after the chain smoking consultant finds it written on his scarred lungs after a medical emergency, the story moves on to a young lady who is undergoing an interview for a job at the store. Unfortunately, the young man being interviewed alongside her is an ideal candidate – a Tokyo university graduate who seems to have completely charmed the panel. However, the girl is given a job with the instruction not to open the envelope she’s been given but she can’t resist and finds herself setting off on a strange quest.

This only continues in part two as we come into contact with a soon to be middle school girl who has the misfortune of having a slightly dotty grandma by the name of “Harco”. Every time the Parco ad comes on, grandma gets very excited because she thinks someone’s calling her name even though the last person to call her “Harco” died, years ago. The little girl sets off to solve this problem by stopping grandma seeing the ads, but then something even stranger happens.

Tale three is set during a sale in which a young woman has her heart set on a particular dress and will stop at nothing to get it. This introduces us to the security guard at the Parco who takes us into story five as a shop worker has an unusual medical problem which prevents her from looking up. The security guard has a crush on the shopgirl, but he’s on the taller side so all he can do is stay close by and prepare to catch her every time she’s about to swoon after slightly raising her head. The film then closes with another mini sequence featuring the “standing room only” screening of Parco Fiction at a public cinema.

As is common with these kinds of films, some of the segments are more successful than others. The first perhaps goes on too long and the episode with the little girl and her grandma gets a little too surreal for its own good but the overall tone is zany, quirky humour. Sometimes very off the wall and filled with a good deal of slapstick too, Parco Fiction feels like a fairly low-key, frivolous effort but none the less enjoyable for it. Having said that, the entire duration of the film lasts only 65 minutes, and, truthfully, feels a little long despite the variation of stories involved.

Not a landmark film by any means, Parco Fiction still has plenty to offer particularly as a fairly early effort from these two directors who’ve since gone on to carve out fairly interesting careers. Sure to interest fans of quirky comedies, each of the segments has a zany, studenty humour vibe that often proves extremely funny. The film is undoubtedly low budget (and obviously filled with references to the Parco department store) but earnest enough and filmed in an accomplished and interesting manner.


This is another one you can randomly buy on UK iTunes with English subtitles.

Unsubbed trailer: