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)

My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday (ぼくは明日、昨日のきみとデートする, Takahiro Miki, 2016)

Tomorrow I will date with yeaterday's you posterLike the Earth and the Moon, are lovers destined to move past and away from each other, sharing the same space only for a cosmic instant yet forever connected by the arc of their existences? It’s a heavier question than you’d expect from your average romantic melodrama. My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday (ぼくは明日、昨日のきみとデートする, Boku wa Asu, Kino no Kimi to Date Suru), another finely crafted tragic romance from genre master Takahiro Miki, is a kind of sci-fi “junai” in which the barriers to romantic fulfilment aren’t cultural or societal or medical, but cosmic in that our star-crossed lovers occupy opposing temporal realms which conspire against their union while also carving it into the arc of the spacetime continuum like a cruel existential joke.

At 20, art student Takatoshi (Sota Fukushi) spots the beautiful Emi (Nana Komatsu) on his morning commute. Hit by a thunderbolt, he falls for her instantly but is shy and diffident. Despite himself, Takatoshi decides that if she alights at the same station as him then it’s really meant to be and he can’t not at least try talking to her. Alight she does and he chases after her as best he can only for his cheerful attempt to ask for a phone number to be rebuffed by the ultimate excuse that she doesn’t have one. Surprisingly, Emi’s claim turns out to be the truth rather than an attempt to politely decline his attentions, though Takatoshi is surprised that his attempts at romance eventually provoke a few tears from the visibly moved Emi. The pair eventually start dating and are well into the world of young love when Emi reveals her secret – she is from a parallel universe where time runs in the opposite direction. Takatoshi’s future is her past, and her past his future. Their universes only overlap every five years for a maximum of 30 days and so this is their one and only shot at true love.

Miki begins in true romantic fashion as Takatoshi giddily pursues his first, idealised romance only latterly beginning to see signs of trouble on the horizon in Emi’s sometimes quirky behaviour and strange ability to predict the future. They walk through the usual steps towards becoming a committed couple, finally dropping the honourifics in  mutual recognition of their deepening bond, but every decisive step reduces Emi to tears in a fashion that runs beyond the merely cute or girlish. Takatoshi, young, naive, and in love, finds his mild suspicion vindicated when he discovers Emi’s diary which seems to run in reverse order and mainly contains entries for dates which have not yet happened.

Gradually, Takatoshi begins to realise that he and Emi exist on opposing planes, destined forever to orbit each other with only this brief moment of connection to sustain them. He muses on whether moving past each other is the natural path of a romance before learning to accept the transitory nature of love so that he might appreciate this brief gift he’s been given even in the knowledge that it will soon be over. Briefly petulant, he resents Emi’s dependence on the diary, filled as it is with “facts” from his 25-year-old self gleaned during a “previous” meeting, wondering if she is merely going through the motions of their predetermined romance and spoiling his vision of easy, serendipitous love in the process.

Privileging his own perspective, Takatoshi comes late to the realisation that Emi has been making a series of sacrifices on his behalf and that their strange romance is likely to prove much more painful for her than it will for him. Their relationship is built not on “shared” memories, but only in their brief moments of togetherness as they actively forge a present for themselves which is distinct from their two worlds of past and future. Like the diverging points which heralded their meeting, they are travelling in different directions – every first for him is a last for her as their moments of joy and pain become strange mirrors of their eventual heartbreak. Nevertheless, each eventually comes to the realisation that their love is worth enduring despite its inevitably sad end and that something of it is destined to remain even in the entropic melancholy of their love story. An old fashioned romance in every sense, My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday offers a surprisingly deep appreciation of true love anchored by mutual understanding and emotional equality even if it acknowledges that the world is cruel and that love is unlikely to survive as anything more than a bittersweet memory.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bleach (BLEACH ブリーチ, Shinsuke Sato, 2018)

BL_honpos_setTite Kubo’s Bleach (BLEACH ブリーチ) had the distinction of being one of three phenomenally popular long running manga series (alongside Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece and Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto) which dominated the industry from the early 2000s until its completion in August 2016. The series spans 74 collected volumes and was also adapted into a successful television anime which itself ran for several seasons and spawned a number of animated movies. It might seem like a no brainer to bring the series to the big screen with a live action adaptation but Bleach is no ordinary manga and the demands of recreating its fearsome world of cruel death gods and huge soul sucking monsters are a daunting prospect. Perfectly placed to tackle such a challenge, director Shinsuke Sato (I am a Hero, Inuyashiki) spent more than a year in post-production working on the CGI and has brought his characteristic finesse to the finely crafted world of Kubo’s Karakura.

Our hero, Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi), is a regular fifteen-year-old high school student, save for his fiery orange hair and the ability to see ghosts. He lives with his relentlessly cheerful father (Yosuke Eguchi) and two cute little sisters but is also nursing guilt and regret over the death of his mother (Masami Nagasawa) who died protecting him from a monster when he was just a child. Feeling disconnected from his family, Ichigo likes to put on a front of bravado – taking on petty punks to teach them a lesson though, in a motif which will be repeated, he only escapes an early encounter unharmed thanks to the intervention of his unusually strong friend, Chad (Yu Koyanagi). Ichigo’s life is changed forever when he finds a strange girl, Rukia (Hana Sugisaki), in his room where she despatches a lingering spirit back its rightful destination of Soul Society. That was not, however, her primary mission and a giant “Hollow” suddenly punches a fist through Ichigo’s living room and scoops up his littlest sister. Rukia does her best to defeat the beast but is seriously wounded. Sensing Ichigo’s high psychic ability, she breaks the rules of her own society and transfers her powers to him but later discovers she gave him too much and is unable to return to Soul Society unless Ichigo ups his Soul Reaper rep to the point he is strong enough to survive giving her powers back.

Loosely speaking Sato adapts the “Soul Reaper Agent” (which is eventually attached to the title during the credits sequence) arc, otherwise known as “Substitute Shinigami”, in which Ichigo gets used to his new life as a Soul Reaper. Condensing Kubo’s considerably lengthy manga to a mere 108 minutes is obviously a difficult exercise necessitating a slight refocussing of Ichigo’s essential character arc as well as that of the feisty Rukia. Sato’s streamlined narrative emphasises Ichigo’s ongoing psychodrama as an adolescent young man attempting to deal with the repressed trauma of his mother’s death and his own feelings of guilt and regret in having unwittingly dragged her into a dangerous situation from which he was unable to protect her. Being “the protector” remains a primary concern of the young Ichigo who withdraws from his family but is determined to protect them from harm. His odd friendship with the similarly conflicted Rukia whose upbringing in the austere surroundings of Soul Society has left her also feeling isolated and friendless (but believing these are both “good” things to be) paradoxically returns him to the real world just he’s turned into an all-powerful monster fighting hero.

Yet the important lesson Ichigo learns is through repeated failures. His mother died saving him, his first fight is ended by a friend, and he is finally redeemed once again by an act of selfless female sacrifice. What Ichigo is supposed to learn, is that he doesn’t always need to be the protector and that being protected is sometimes alright because what’s important is the mutuality of protection, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Meanwhile Rukia, having lost her powers, is perhaps sidelined, rendered both vulnerable and empowered as she becomes Ichigo’s mentor in all things Soul Reaper. This quality of restraint is also how she chooses to make use of her power – something beautifully brought out in Sugisaki’s wonderfully nuanced performance as Rukia’s icy Soul Reaper exterior begins to thaw thanks to her unexpected connection with Ichigo.

Rather than get bogged down in exposition, Sato is content to let the world simply exist with occasional explanations offered in the form of Rukia’s improbably cute rabbit drawings in a motif borrowed from the manga. Sato makes sure to include a number of background players including the strong armed Chad and the lovelorn Orihime (Erina Mano) as well the omniscient shop owner Urahara (Seiichi Tanabe) though their role is strictly to add background colour rather than actively participate in the plot. Despite occasional narrative fudging, Bleach succeeds as a high-octane action blockbuster, by turns slick, ironic, and affecting but always grounded in the real even in excess.


Bleach is currently available to stream worldwide via Netflix.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Takashi Miike, 2017)

blade of the immortal posterGenerally speaking, revenge tends not to go very well in Japanese cinema. It has the tendency to backfire. When you’re immortal, however, perhaps revenge is risk worth taking – then again, it’s not your life your weighing. Takashi Miike is no stranger to the jidaigeki world, though in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin) he harks back to the angry, arty samurai films of the late 1960s from Gosha’s Sword of the Beast with which the manga features some minor narrative similarities, to Kobayashi’s melancholy consideration of corrupted honour, and the frantic intensity of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom.

The film opens in black and white as a disgraced samurai, Manji (Takuya Kimura), tries to protect his younger sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who has gone mad through grief only to see her murdered by a bounty hunter. Manji enters a state of furious, mindless killing which leaves the bounty hunter’s vast crowd of henchmen lying dead and Manji mortally wounded. Consumed by guilt and having lost the sister who was his sole reason for living, Manji longs for death but a mysterious old woman who calls herself Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) has other ideas and curses Manji to a life of eternal suffering by means of sacred bloodworms which give him the power of infinite, near instant healing.

Fifty years later, the land is at peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate but peaceful times are dull for warriors. The Itto-ryu school of swordsmanship has a mission – to take over all of the nation’s martial arts facilities and restore power to the sword. They have no honour or ideology save that of kill or be killed and are content to use any and all weapons which come to hand. A young girl, Rin (Yoko Yamamoto), is a daughter of one of these schools and has her eyes set on becoming a top swordswoman herself but when the Itto-ryu show up at her door, Rin’s father’s training proves worthless as he’s cut down with one blow while the gang kidnap Rin’s mother. The Itto-ryu’s sole concession to morality is in letting Rin alone, seeing as it’s “vulgar” to toy with children.

Rin vows revenge on the Itto-ryu’s leader, Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), at which point she runs into Yaobikuni who recommends she track down Manji and hire him as a bodyguard. Fifty years of immortality have turned Manji into an isolated, embittered wastrel with rusty swordskills but Rin’s uncanny resemblance to Machi eventually begins to move his heart. Despite generating a master/pupil, big brother/little sister relationship, Manji fails to teach Rin very much of consequence that might assist her in her plan to avenge her family, leaving her a vulnerable young woman beset by enemies and random thugs, and eventually caught up in a government conspiracy. The irony of Manji’s life is that he’s just not very good at the art of protection and all of his attempts to do something good usually provoke an even bigger crisis, in this case leaving his new little sister open to exactly the same fate as the one he failed to save for much the same reasons. Apparently, Manji has learned little during his extended lifetime except how to brood and glare resentfully at the world.

It turns out being immortal is kind of a drag. Manji wants to die because he can’t cope with the burden of his guilt, but another similarly cursed man he meets has lived much longer and lost far more, becoming tired of the business of of living. Manji’s existence has lost all meaning, but as he puts it to another world weary warrior who shares his brotherly grief, he’s not the only hero of a sad story. Rin’s need for vengeance gives him a purpose again – not just in the literal revenge, but in being the protector (though one could argue this is less positive than it sounds and might explain why he fails to teach Rin anything very useful, even if it doesn’t explain why she also forgets all her father’s teachings).

Rin remains conflicted over her mission of revenge, confessing to a similarly conflicted assassin that she agrees killing is wrong but that right and wrong no longer matter when it comes to people you love. A dangerous and dubious assertion, but it does bear out the more positive message that love, or at least learning to live for others, can be a transformative force for good as Manji allows himself to resume his role as the big brother despite his past failings. Violent and visceral, if also humorous, Blade of the Immortal is, oddly enough, a story of love but also of cyclical paths of violence and revenge, and of the general muddiness of assigning the moral high ground to those engaged in a quest for retribution.


Blade of the Immortal was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Entertainment on 8th December.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Library Wars: The Last Mission (図書館戦争-THE LAST MISSION-, Shinsuke Sato, 2015)

library-wars-last-missionWhen Library Wars, the original live action adaptation of Hiro Arikawa’s light novel series, hit cinema screens back in 2013 it did so with a degree of commercial, rather than critical, success. Though critics were quick to point out the great gaping plot holes in the franchise’s world building and a slight imbalance in its split romantic comedy/sci-fi political thriller genre mix, the film was in many ways a finely crafted mainstream blockbuster supported by committed performances from its cast and impressive cinematography from its creative team. Library Wars: The Last Mission (図書館戦争-THE LAST MISSION-, Toshokan Senso -The Last Mission-) is the sequel that those who enjoyed the first film have been waiting for given the very obvious plot developments left unresolved at the previous instalment’s conclusion.

18 months later, Kasahara (Nana Eikura) is a fully fledged member of the Library Defence Force, but still hasn’t found the courage to confess her love to her long term crush and embittered commanding officer, Dojo (Junichi Okada). As in the first film, The Media Betterment Force maintains a strict censorship system intended to prevent “harmful” literature reaching “vulnerable” people through burning all suspect books before they can cause any damage. Luckily, the libraries system is there to rescue books before they meet such an unfortunate fate and operates the LDF to defend the right to read, by force if necessary.

Kasahara is an idealist, fully committed to the defence of literature. It is, therefore, a surprise when she is accused of being an accomplice to a spate of book burning within the library in which books criticising the libraries system are destroyed. Needless to say, Kasahara has been framed as part of a villainous plan orchestrated by fellow LDF officer Tezuka’s (Sota Fukushi) rogue older brother, Satoshi (Tori Matsuzaka). There is a conspiracy at foot, but it’s not quite the one everyone had assumed it to be.

In comparison with the first film, The Last Mission is much more action orientated with military matters taking up the vast majority of the run time. A large scale battle in which the LDF is tasked with guarding an extremely important book containing their own charter (i.e. a symbol of everything they stand for) but quickly discovers the Media Betterment Force is not going to pass up this opportunity to humiliate their rival, forms the action packed centrepiece of the film.

The theme this time round leans less towards combating censorship in itself, but stops to ask whether it’s worth continuing to fight even if you feel little progress is being made. The traitorous officer who helps to frame Kasahara does so because he’s disillusioned with the LDF and its constant water treading. The LDF is doing what it can, but it’s fighting to protect books – not change the system. This is a weakness Satoshi Tezuka is often able to exploit as the constant warfare and tit for tat exchanges have begun to wear heavy on many LDF officers who are half way to giving up and switching sides. Even a zealot like Kasahara is thrown into a moment of existential despair when prodded by Satoshi’s convincing arguments about her own obsolescence.

Satoshi rails against a world filled with evil words, but as the head of the LDF points out in quoting Heinrich Heine, the society that burns books will one day burn men. The LDF may not be able to break the system, but in providing access to information it can spread enlightenment and create a thirst for knowledge among the young which will one day produce the kind of social change that will lead to a better, fairer world.

As in Library Wars all of these ideas are background rather than the focus of the film which is, in essence, the ongoing non-romance between Kasahara and Dojo. Remaining firmly within the innocent shojo realm, the romantic resolution may seem overly subtle to some given the extended build up over both films but is ultimately satisfying in its cuteness. Library Wars: The Last Mission masks its absurd premise with a degree of silliness, always entirely self aware, but gets away with it through sincerity and good humour. Shinsuke Sato once again proves himself among the best directors of mainstream blockbusters in Japan improving on some of the faults of the first film whilst bringing the franchise to a suitably just conclusion.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Library Wars (図書館戦争, Shinsuke Sato, 2013)

library-wars-2013-dojo-and-kasahara

 

 

Based on a series of light novels by Hiro Arikawa, Library Wars is another adaptation of a popular multimedia franchise from the director of the live action Gantz movies. Like Gantz, it’s another bug budget, tentpole style block buster with a subtle (though not insubstantial) desire to inject a bit of social commentary into what can be an entirely trivial genre. The manipulative forces at play here, however, are far less mysterious and unfortunately much more plausible than the mysterious black orbs of Gantz as they come in the form of crypto fascist censorship enthusiasts known as The Media Betterment Force. Having achieved the kind of success Mary Whitehouse could only dream of, The Media Betterment Force managed to pass the Media Betterment Act in the alternate Japan of 1989 which required all books containing ‘objectionable’ material to be destroyed. All is not lost though as the last bastion of intellectual freedom, the library, takes up arms and defends its right to disseminate whatsoever information anyone might desire with a government mandated assurance that library property can be safeguarded – with military force if necessary. Thirty years later in the near future of 2019, a young girl joins the LDF (Library Defence Force) full of idealistic zeal for protecting literature and a not so altruistic mission of finding the LDF officer who once saved her favourite book for her during in a MBF raid on a bookshop. Politics, romance, action! It’s all here for your edification and enjoyment.

If this all sounds a bit silly, well it is – but only in the best possible way. This is not a film about the evils of censorship, or how intellectual discourse and freedom of information are essential parts of any fully functioning society, though those themes are there if only in passing, so much as a big glossy blockbuster with just about every genre you can think of vying for the spotlight. The creeping totalitarianism is more backdrop than anything else but perhaps the absurdity of anyone picking up arms to defend access to information speaks to our unwillingness to prevent a gradual slide into a world of book burning and (not really) well meaning nannyism. First and foremost, Library Wars is science fiction action film modelled on the familiar boot camp genre following an underdog rookie recruit’s path to frontline glory. Yes we have training montages galore complete with the strained friendships and ‘you’re off the team!’ moments that appear in every film of this kind but the absurd premise and the film’s successful adoption of a warm comic tone help smooth over over any genre clichés and thankfully the film also manages to impress with several large scale battle scenes.

The romantic comedy element is arguably the least successful as it lacks the traditional climax many fans of the genre maybe hoping for (though one suspects a sequel may well put that right). That said the central relationship definitely falls into the ‘cute’ category and cleverly avoids the melodramatic nature of most blockbuster romances. Yes, the audience knows right away who the much sought after prince is but that only makes it more fun even if the post-idealistic bitterness of the man in question is another genre cliché. Supporting characters are also nicely fleshed out and each enjoys a decent amount of time in the spotlight creating a nice ensemble feel which is often rare in a blockbuster. As in Gantz the acting style remains fairly grounded rather the bigger, TV inflected performances which have been creeping into mainstream cinema and the strong performances from a fairly high profile cast help to lift Library Wars above some of its cinematic brethren.

Viewers expecting another Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 will obviously be disappointed in Library Wars’ fairly superficial examination of its themes but those hoping for a rip roaring, if slightly ridiculous, adventure are in line for a treat. Though the subject matter is itself absurd, such care has gone into the world building that it all makes a curious kind of sense assuming you’re willing to let yourself go with it. Most importantly, it’s remarkably self assured in terms of its tone – it knows exactly what it is and isn’t afraid to embrace its own nature. With much more heart than your average blockbuster, Library Wars is a warm and funny action comedy that also manages to be genuinely romantic. Now if they can only hurry up with Library Wars 2 so we can all enjoy the romantic resolution we’ve been waiting for!