The Pinkie (さまよう小指, Lisa Takeba, 2014)

the pinkie posterWhat if someone cloned you and then they liked the other you better? The “hero” of Lisa Takeba’s debut feature The Pinkie (さまよう小指, Samayou Koyubi) is about to find out when his rather depressing life takes a turn for the surreal. Winner of the Grand Prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, The Pinkie is an exercise in madcap fun which packs a considerable amount into its barely feature length runtime of 65 minutes. Ever cineliterate, Takeba leaps from sci-fi to romance to yakuza movie and revenge flick but then her ambitions are more grounded in the real as she explores the fallacy of infatuation, the nature of true, selfless love and the necessity of waking up from a romantic dream.

Ryosuke (Ryota Ozawa) has a lifelong problem. Ever since they were five, a girl has been stalking him. Momoko (Miwako Wagatsuma), in Ryosuke’s words, is the ugliest woman in the village. So infatuated is she, that Momoko has even undergone cosmetic surgery to adjust her face to Ryosuke’s tastes but that’s only made him dislike her more. Truth be told, Ryosuke is no great catch. He has no job and exists on the fringes of the underworld. He has, however, found love, of a kind, but unfortunately the lady in question is the paramour of a local gangster kingpin. Discovered in his illicit romance, Ryosuke is tormented by the gangsters until they eventually exact some of their trademark justice by cutting off his pinkie finger which then flies halfway across town and into the path of Momoko who uses it to create her very own Ryosuke clone.

Shifting focus somewhat, Takeba then tells the story of Momoko and the clone whom she christens “Pinkie Red String” in reference both to his origins and to the red strings which bind true lovers together. Momoko begins taking care of Pinkie, buying him clothes and teaching him to survive in the modern world, and before long the two have become a couple.

Ryosuke doesn’t quite like having a doppleganger – especially one who’s almost his polar opposite in terms of outlook and general personality. Under the gentle guidance of Momoko, Pinkie is good person who works hard, is kind to those around him, and is almost entirely selfless. Stolen away by Ryosuke, Pinkie becomes something between maid and prisoner as he takes on a purely domestic role, cooking and cleaning for his new master who later sends him out to work dressed as a woman wearing a long black wig and red dress, just to ram the point home.

Takeba’s aim is madcap fun but she also offers up a commentary on emotional repression as both Momoko and Ryosuke pursue their respective romances. Momoko has only ever wanted to express her love but her methods backfire, eventually getting her sent to a reform school which leads to the breakup of her family. Ryosuke, by contrast seems to be a fairly romantic, if sometimes cynical soul, originally asking if anyone would really sacrifice themselves for love only to attempt to do exactly that later on (though far too late). Neither Ryosuke nor Momoko is able to show their love in a straightforward way, opting for grand gestures over simple words. “Love needs a victim”, as someone later puts it, but there’s no need to run so eagerly to the gallows.

The world of The Pinkie is one of intense genre fusion as Takeba mixes references from classic cinema with the anarchic pace of anime and manga. Mad scientist sci-fi shifts to classic kung fu before cycling back to jitsuroku yakuza movie complete with on screen captions and brief sting of the iconic Battles Without Honour theme, but even if Takeba can’t always control her rate of progression her leaps are always inventive and unexpected, humorous and melancholy in equal measure. Pinkie, fulfilling his stranger in town role, begins to change his progenitor’s cynical psyche. Ryosuke is no longer the selfish loser but has learned to befriend the wounded Momoko who has also realised she can do better, abandoning her youthful fantasies for something more “real”. Then again, perhaps there is a second chance for lost love even if it is, in a sense, a synthetic solution for a very human problem.


Currently available to stream via FilmDoo in most of the world!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (春子超常現象研究所, Lisa Takeba, 2015)

haruko's paranormal laboratory posterIn the brave new Netflix era, perhaps it’s not unusual to hear someone exclaim that their most significant relationship is with their television, but most people do not mean it as literally as Haruko, the heroine of the self titled Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (春子超常現象研究所, Haruko Chojogensho Kenkyujo). Lisa Takeba returns with her second film which proves to be just as strange and quirky as the first and all the better for it. Haruko’s world is a surreal one in which a TV coming to life is perfectly natural, as is the widespread plague of “artistic” behaviour which involves robbing the local 100 yen store for loose change and randomly setting fire to things. Yet Haruko’s problems are the normal ones at heart – namely, loneliness and disconnection. Takeba’s setting may be a strange fever dream filled with fiendishly clever, zany humour but the fear and anxiety are all too real.

As a teenager, Haruko (Moeka Nozaki) was something of a loner. Being the daughter of a teacher and having a strong interest in UFOs and other supernatural entities, she had few friends and longed for something “exciting” to happen. Sadly, something quite exciting did happen, but it involved a suicide and her brother apparently being abducted by aliens. Ten or fifteen years later, Haruko still maintains her “Paranormal Laboratory” and intense interest in aliens with a view to maybe finding out what happened to her brother, but her external life is less satisfying. Her main hobby is lying around watching her 1950s black and white CRT TV and swearing loudly at the ridiculous images it projects. Her TV, however, has finally had enough and upon hearing 1000 dirty words from Haruko, springs into life as a handsome young man with telebox for a head.

An usual genesis for a relationship, but then when you spend all of your spare time googling paranormal events and harping on your teenage failures, beggars can’t be choosers. Haruko’s growing relationship with TV (Aoi Nakamura) follows the classic amnesiac mould as the two begin living together and eventually become an odd kind of couple. TV’s central operating system is pulled together from what he’s observed over the airwaves which means he has a slightly less realistic view point than your average guy. Though originally content to fall into the stereotypically “female” role, staying home cooking meals and tidying up while Haruko goes to work, he soon becomes depressed out of boredom and loneliness before eventually being made to feel inadequate when someone refers to him as a “freeloader”. Like many a spouse whose decision to stay home has not been entirely their own, TV has a lot of skills including the ability to speak 12 languages fluently, but what finally gets him a job as a TV star (yes, a TV on TV!), is his sex appeal and exotic appearance.

TV also thinks he can remember his “family” which lends a bittersweet dimension to his relationship with Haruko as she helps him look for the wife and child that might be waiting for him. Haruko’s relationship with her own family is strained. Complaining that her family are “annoying” she leaves her well meaning father standing on the doorstep when he’s come out of his way to deliver some of her favourite cup cakes which he’s baked for her himself. Haruko’s mother has since passed on but her feeling of familial disconnection stems right back into her childhood and one strange UFO hunting night during which she discovered something about her brother which may explain his long term absence. This potentially rich seam is merely background to Haruko’s life (something which she later realises as she figures out that her brother may have been watching over her in disguise all these years), but that her brother has felt the need to hide himself away following a traumatic childhood incident is certainly a sad mirror for Haruko’s own ongoing psychological isolation.

Takeba piles jokes on top of jokes in this strange world where ‘50s “Videodrome” TVs with Yubari Film Festival tags still work and play adverts in which cheap whiskey “for the needy” is advanced as a good father’s day present, and an idol retires from the top band KKK48 live on air. Freak shows, extreme cosplay, marital disconnect, “artistic” robbery and arson, and a very dedicated NHK man, pepper the scene but the outcome is a young woman stepping away from her romantic fantasies towards something more real, realising she doesn’t really need to meet aliens so much as she needs to pay more attention to the “normal” world. Quirky to the max and riffing off just about every aspect of Japanese pop culture from Sailor Moon to J-horror, Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory is a charming, if surreal, take on an early life crisis which must be seen to be believed.


Currently available to stream in the UK from Filmdoo.

Original teaser trailer (dialogue free)

Schoolgirl Complex (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Yuichi Onuma, 2013)

Schoolgirl Complex is a popular photo book featuring the work of Yuki Aoyama and does indeed focus on that most most Japanese of fixations – the school girl and her iconic uniform. Aoyama’s book presents itself as taking the POV of a teenage boy, gazing longly from a position of total innocence at the unattainable female figures who, in the book, are entirely faceless. Given a more concrete narrative, this filmic adaptation (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Schoolgirl Complex Housoubu-hen) directed by Yuichi Onuma takes a slightly different tack in dispensing with high school boys altogether for a tale of self discovery and sexual confusion set in an all girls school in which almost everyone has a crush on someone, but sadly finds only adolescent suffering as so eloquently described by Osamu Dazai whose Schoolgirl informs much of the narrative.

About to become head of the broadcast club when the school leavers depart after the culture festival, Manami (Aoi Morikawa) has developed a fascination for Chiyuki (Mugi Kadowaki) whose mysterious figure she finds herself watching from hidden places even though they’ve never met. She is therefore both delighted and alarmed when Chiyuki suddenly joins her broadcast club but becomes flustered enough to tell her she doesn’t need to bother coming to any of the meetings if she doesn’t feel like it – much to the consternation of the other members. Neglecting her best friend Ai (Maaya Kondo), Manami grows closer to Chiyuki whose avoidance of a previous best friend and out of school troubles including a no good older boyfriend are all causes for concern when it comes to her growing feelings. Chiyuki, blowing hot and cold, continues to cause trouble both for herself and everyone else as she finds herself conflicted over who she is and what she really wants.

As in Dazai’s book, there’s a lot of hiding, waiting, watching and suffering at the heart of Schoolgirl Complex. Slightly unusually the school environment does seem to be a strangely progressive one in which same sex attraction is more or less normalised despite the shyness and confusion manifesting among the girls. Love is declared loudly and dramatically in the school corridors with no seeming consequences save perhaps embarrassment and heartbreak for the unlucky girl who finds herself rejected. There are a set of four girls with apparent crushes on each other, returned or otherwise, and there is no further mention of boys or dating outside of Chiyuki’s boyfriend who turns up to steal her away by car but also demands she bring him money. Aside from the general adolescent diffidence, there does not seem to be additional anxiety or personal angst around the idea of same sex love save for Chiyuki’s lament that she can’t make proper friends because everyone turns out to be a lesbian and wants more out the relationship than she can give them.

Rather than the teenage boy POV adopted by the photo book, Onuma’s camera is perhaps intended to capture that of Manami as she finds herself experiencing complicated feelings towards her classmate. Accordingly the camera lingers sensuously over sun beaten, sweaty flesh, and long legs under short skirts as Onuma explores Manami’s burgeoning desires but cannot avoid the tendency towards fetishisation which the title implies.

To its credit, Schoolgirl Complex is not the film which one might presuppose it to be. It’s no schoolgirls gone wild exploitation fest or a shy boy’s yearning for female contact, but its melancholy message that adolescence is difficult for everyone is a somewhat flat one even given its obvious triteness. During the climactic performance at the cultural festival a huge and very public declaration is made but gathers absolutely no reaction save an “I knew it!” from the control booth. Rejections all round seem to reinforce female bonding as the girls continue on in friendship with Dazai’s words that this will all seem funny when they’ve grown up ringing in their ears. The tone of total acceptance is a warm and refreshing one but perhaps a little unrealistic in its uncomplicated approach to a complicated area of personal development. Nevertheless, though Schoolgirl Complex’s attempt to redefine itself as a painful story of youth rings hollow its sympathetic treatment of its suffering teenage romantics is worthy of applause.


Original trailer (English subtitles)