The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Takashi Miike, 2013)

mole song under cover agent reiji poserYakuza aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? According to one particular lover of Lepidoptera, that’s all they ever need to be. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo and adapted from the manga by Noboru Takahashi, Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji) is the classic bad spy comedy in which a hapless beat cop is dragged out of his police box and into the field as a yakuza mole in the (rather ambitious) hope of ridding Japan of drugs. As might be assumed, Reiji’s quest does not quite go to plan but then in another sense it goes better than anyone might have hoped.

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) is, to put it bluntly, not the finest recruit the Japanese police force has ever received. He does, however, have a strong sense of justice even if it doesn’t quite tally with that laid down in law though his methods of application are sometimes questionable. A self-confessed “pervert” (but not a “twisted” one) Reiji is currently in trouble for pulling his gun on a store owner who was extracting sexual favours from high school girls he caught shop lifting (the accused is a city counsellor who has pulled a few strings to ask for Reiji’s badge). Seizing this opportunity, Reiji’s boss (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) has decided that he’s a perfect fit for a spell undercover in a local gang they suspect of colluding with Russian mafia to smuggle large amounts of MDMA into Japan.

Reiji hates drugs, but not as much as his new best buddy “Crazy Papillon” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who is obsessed with butterflies and insists everything that happens around him be “funny”. Reiji, an idiot, is very funny indeed and so he instantly gets himself a leg up in the yakuza world whilst forming an unexpectedly genuine bond with his new buddy who also really hates drugs and only agreed to join this gang because they promised him they didn’t have anything to with them.

Sliding into his regular manga mode, Miike adopts his Crows Zero aesthetic but re-ups the camp as Reiji gets fired up on justice and takes down rooms full of punks powered only by righteousness and his giant yakuza hairdo. Like most yakuza movies, the emphasis is on the bonds between men and it is indeed the strange connection between Reiji and Papillon which takes centerstage as Miike milks the melodrama for all it’s worth.

Scripted by Kankuro Kudo (who previously worked with the director on the Zebra Man series), Reiji skews towards a slightly different breed of absurdity from Miike’s patented brand but retains the outrageous production design including the big hair, garish outfits, and carefully considered colour scheme. Mixing amusing semi-animated sequences with over the top action and the frequent reoccurrence of the “Mole Song”, Miike is in full-on sugar rush mode, barely pausing before moving on from one ridiculous set piece to the next.

Ridiculous set pieces are however the highlight of the film from Reiji’s early series of initiation tests to his attempts to win the affections of his lady love, Junna (Riisa Naka), and a lengthy sojourn at a mysterious yakuza ceremony which Reiji manages to completely derail through a series of misunderstandings. At 130 minutes however, it’s all wearing a bit thin even with the plot machinations suddenly kicking into gear two thirds of the way through. Nevertheless, there’s enough silly slapstick comedy and impressive design work at play to keep things interesting even if Reiji’s eventual triumph is all but guaranteed.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 21 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 24 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 March 2018
  • Broadway – 20 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 27 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 28 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Eternal Cause (海軍特別年少兵, Tadashi Imai, 1972)

Marines cadets posterOften regarded as a “left-wing” filmmaker, even later pledging allegiance to the Communist Party of Japan, Tadashi Imai began his career making propaganda films under the militarist regime. Describing this unfortunate period as the biggest mistake of his life, Imai’s later career was dedicated to socially conscious filmmaking often focusing on those oppressed by Japan’s conservative social structure including the disenfranchised poor and the continued unfairness that often marks the life of women. 1972’s Eternal Cause (海軍特別年少兵, Kaigun Tokubetsu Nensho-hei, AKA Marines Cadets/ Special Boy Soldiers of the Navy) sends him back to those early propaganda days but with the opposite spin. Painting Japan’s tendency towards authoritarianism and its headlong descent into the folly of warfare as a direct result of social inequalities and the hierarchical society, Imai tells the dark story of the “special cadets”, children from military academies who eventually found themselves on the battlefield as members of the last, desperate defence of an already lost empire.

Imai opens at the grim conclusion – February 1945, Iwo Jima. A squad of young men catch sight of their “Instructor” just as he falls and are shortly all killed themselves by approaching American forces. The Americans, sympathetically portrayed, wander the corpse laden battlefield and lift the arm of one particular body lamenting that the fallen soldier is “just a boy”, and that Japan must be in a very bad state indeed if it has come to this. One of the soldiers, not quite dead as it turns out, manages to get to his feet. The Americans are wary but give him time in case he wants to surrender but the boy tries to charge them, crying out that he is a “Marine Cadet”. They have no choice but to shoot him dead.

Moving back around 18 months to June 1943, the “Marine Cadets” are new students at a military academy. On arrival they are instructed that everything they brought with them, including the clothes they are wearing, must be sent home. They are now at war and must forget civilian life. This dividing line neatly marks out the central contradiction in the Marine Cadets’ existence – they are children, but also marines.

Enrolment in the school is voluntary rather than conscription based and the young men have many reasons for having decided to enter the military, most of them having little to do with dying bravely for the Emperor. There is, however, a persistent strain of patriotism which brought them to this point as they find the sacrifice they offer to make all too readily accepted by their nation. The education on offer is wide-ranging and of high quality – the boys will learn English as well as geography, history, science and maths, all of which will hopefully turn them into well educated, efficient military officers, but there is profound disagreement between the teaching staff and “instructors” as to how that education should be delivered.

Sympathethetic teacher Yoshinaga (Katsuhiko Sasaki) believes in education and wants to contribute to raising these children in love seeing as he is in loco parentis. Kudo (Takeo Chii) the military instructor, however, disagrees. He believes in harsh discipline in which progress is encouraged through physical punishment and a strong shame culture. Yoshinaga reminds Kudo that the boys are just children and that such punishment based motivational techniques place the boys at each other’s throats and will undermine the spirit of comradeship and togetherness which is essential for the well functioning of any military unit. Kudo counters that the boys became men when they enlisted, that he was raised this way himself, and that a culture of violence binds the men together into a kind of hive mind which moves and thinks as one. Kudo does not waver in this belief even after his tactics have tragic consequences, but does come to love the children in his care, entrusting them to Yoshinaga as he prepares to face the battlefield himself.

As Kudo leaves, he stops to admit that the boys are children but also wants Yoshinaga to understand something he thinks may not have occurred to him. The boys are mostly poor children, who, he says, have only themselves to rely on unlike the officers who are by and large from middle-class families with extended safety nets of privilege. Kudo’s doctrine of progress through strength is born of being born at the bottom of the heap and needing to struggle to survive. They have made themselves strong in order to resist the consistent oppression of their economic circumstances which often prize nothing other than their physical capabilities.

Poverty is indeed a major motivator. The most sympathetic of the boys, Hayashi (Michiko Araki), has enlisted alongside another boy from his village, Enami (Taketoshi Naito), whose teacher father has fallen headlong for the militarist folly and is even allowing military representatives into his classroom to offer recruitment talks to the boys. He recommends Hayashi join the Marine Cadets as a matter of practically – Hayashi’s family is dirt poor and his father is a drunkard. Joining the academy means reducing the burden on the family who have many other children and also that he will eventually be able to send money home as well as being well provided for himself. Despite a lack of aptitude for soldiering, Hayashi is eventually grateful – in the academy he gets a taste of comfort he never knew at home as well as a sense of comradeship and brotherhood away from the hostile home environment dominated by the violence of a drunken father. Another boy makes a similar decision to escape his indifferent foster family after being orphaned. Despite the fact that his sister has embarked on a life of prostitution to support him, his relatives offer him only scant comfort and keep most of her money for themselves.

Yoshinaga’s complaints about the nature of the education the boys receive is quite naturally countered with a question as to why he is at the school at all given that these boys are destined only to become cannon fodder in a war which clearly all but over. His pleas for kindness and compassion largely fall on deaf ears. The boys are still children – our narrator is 14 when he enlists at the academy, but they have been encouraged to think of themselves as men. Their halfling status embarrasses them and they’re keen to prove themselves as brave soldiers of Japan. Yoshinaga, true to his word, tries to save the boys – ordering them to hide during final attack sure that the Americans will take pity on these child soldiers and prevent their lives from becoming meaningless sacrifices laid on the altar of an uncaring nation. He is unsuccessful because the boys’ heads are already filled with the idea of glorious sacrifice. Ashamed to be thought of anything other than Marine Cadets, they launch their own attack and sacrifice their lives willingly.

Imai is at great pains to remind us that this society cares nothing for the boys, 5,020 of whom fall on the battlefield, or for the poor in general who bear the brunt of a war that is waged against their interests. The approach is distinctly old fashioned for 1972 and the message at times unsubtle, but given that the film appears less than thirty years later than the events it depicts when those who survived would themselves still be young, perhaps fathers of teenage sons themselves, it serves as a timely reminder of past madness and a pointed warning for the consumerist future.


A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Kei Kumai, 1965)

nihon retto posterKei Kumai made just 19 films films in his 40 year career, but even since his earliest days he ranked among the most fearless of directors, ready to confront the most unpleasant or taboo aspects of contemporary Japan. His first film, The Long Death, interrogated wartime guilt through drawing inspiration from a real life 1948 mass poisoning case in which materials manufactured in a Manchurian lab may have led to the deaths of post-war civilians. Having begun in this possibly controversial vein, Kumai pressed on with 1965’s A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Nihon Retto, AKA The Japanese Archipelago) which he set in 1959 as Japanese youth protested the renewal of the ANPO treaty which placed Japan under the military protection of the American Armed forces in return for allowing the presence of those forces on Japanese soil.

Despite the contemporary setting Kumai opens with a explanatory voice over detailing the depth of the American military presence and the function of the CID which exists solely to investigate crimes committed by American servicemen. The CID is staffed by both Americans and Japanese nationals who, the voiceover explains, often feel conflicted in stepping onto American soil each morning as prolonged exposure gradually erodes their sense of difference and finally of “Japaneseness”. Akiyama (Jukichi Uno) is a translator/investigator at CID and he’s about to be handed an unusual request from his boss – reopen a cold case from the previous summer in which an American Sergeant was found floating in Tokyo bay. Akiyama’s new boss was a friend of the late soldier and would like to know what happened.

Akiyama’s investigations lead him down a dark path of corruption, murder, conspiracy, and governmental complicity. Beginning to investigate the case, Akiyama discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. A couple of policeman from the original investigation arrive to help him and echo their frustrations with the way the case was handled. Despite the police investigation, the American authorities did their best to interfere – commandeering the body and claiming jurisdiction in contravention of Japan’s standing as a sovereign nation. The Americans are no longer occupying forces but honoured guests who should obey international protocol in cases like these, but they rarely do. Despite the existence of the CID, crimes by American servicemen are generally covered up as the military insists the matter will be dealt with internally only for suspects to be suddenly “transferred” overseas.

Sgt. Limit was, however, one of the good ones and Akiyama’s investigation seems to point towards a murder and cover up instigated because Limit had got too close to the truth in investigating a sudden flood of counterfeit cash. The Americans, to the surprise of all, are only the middle man in the grand conspiracy which leads right back to the dark heart of Japan and the vast spy networks operated during the militarist era. As might be expected, these valuable networks are left wide open with the collapse of Japanese fascism but are perfectly primed to facilitate widespread crime spanning the Asian world and all with the tacit approval of the American and Japanese states.

Kumai also implicates the spy ring in a series of “mysterious” rail incidents, but makes sure to reserve some of his ire more the more usual injustices. Akiyama is caring for his young nephew whose father was killed in mining explosion which has claimed the lives of nearly every young man in the village leaving his sister unable to cope with her children alone. He is also battling a personal tragedy which is intensely connected to his decision to join CID which is currently inundated with cases of rape and murder in which American servicemen are implicated. The “foreign” becomes suspect but mostly for its hypocrisy as in the Catholic priest who becomes a major suspect in subverting the legitimate devotion of a Godly woman who only sought to live under the Christian teachings of love and kindness, while the American forces claim to stand for honour and justice but actively facilitate organised crime at an interstate level to further the progress of Capitalism whilst also facilitating civil unrest in volatile nations for financial and political gains.

That all of this happens immediately before the renewal of the ANPO treaty is no coincidence and Kumai even includes aerial footage of the mass protests filling the streets around the Diet building as the youth of Japan question why their nation has seen fit to make itself so complicit in the questionable foreign policy of another country. The outcome looks bleak for our protagonists who discover themselves to be mere pawns at the mercy of greater forces which cannot be circumvented or denied, but just as it all looks hopeless a new hope arises. Pledging to fight harder and continue the work which has been started, those left behind dedicate themselves to equipping the young with the tools to build a happier, fairer world in contrast to the one they seem primed to inherit from those who should know better. The final sequence shows us a young woman walking gloomily past the Diet building which seems to be looming over her as a veritable symbol of oppression but then her face brightens, her step quickens and she leaves the Diet far behind to walk forward towards the work which awaits her. 


A comprehensive overview of the 1960 ANPO protests.

Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Hideo Gosha, 1987)

yoshiwara-enjoHideo Gosha maybe best known for the “manly way” movies of his early career in which angry young men fought for honour and justice, but mostly just to to survive. Late into his career, Gosha decided to change tack for a while with a series of female orientated films either remaining within the familiar gangster genre as in Yakuza Wives, or shifting into world of the red light district as in Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Yoshiwara Enjo). Presumably an attempt to get past the unfamiliarity of the Yoshiwara name, the film’s English title is perhaps a little more obviously salacious than the original Japanese which translates as Yoshiwara Conflagration and directly relates to the real life fire of 1911 in which 300 people were killed and much of the area razed to the ground. Gosha himself grew up not far from the location of the Yoshiwara as it existed in the mid-20th century where it was still a largely lower class area filled with cardsharps, yakuza, and, yes, prostitution (legal in Japan until 1958, outlawed in during the US occupation). The Yoshiwara of the late Meiji era was not so different as the women imprisoned there suffered at the hands of men, exploited by a cruelly misogynistic social system and often driven mad by internalised rage at their continued lack of agency.

Opening with a voice over narration from Kyoko Kishida, the film introduces us to the heroine, 19 year old Hisano (Yuko Natori), as she is unwillingly sold to the red light district in payment for her father’s debts. After a strange orientation ceremony from the Yoshiwara police force where one “kindly” officer explains to her about the necessity of faking orgasms to save her stamina, Hisano is taken to the brothel which is now her home to begin her training. Some months later when Hisano is due to serve her first customer, she runs from him in sheer panic, leaping into a lake where a young Salvation Army campaigner, Furushima (Jinpachi Nezu), tries and fails to help her escape.

Taken back to the brothel and tied up in punishment, Hisano receives a lesson in pleasure from the current head geisha, Kiku (Rino Katase), after which she appears to settle into her work, getting promoted through various ranks until she too becomes one of the top geisha in the area. Sometime later, Furushima reappears as a wealthy young man. Regretting his inability to save her at the river and apparently having given up on his Salvation Army activities, Furushima becomes Hisano’s number one patron even though he refuses to sleep with her. Though they eventually fall in love, Hisano’s position as a geisha continues to present a barrier between the pair, forcing them apart for very different reasons.

Despite having spent a small fortune accurately recreating the main street of the Yoshiwara immediately prior to the 1911 fire, Gosha is not interested in romanticising the the pleasure quarters but depicts them as what they were – a hellish prison for enslaved women. As Hisano and Furushima later reflect, the Yoshiwara is indeed all built on lies – a place which claims to offer freedom, love, and pleasure but offers only the shadow of each of these things in an elaborate fake pageantry built on female suffering. Hisano, like many of the other women, was sold to pay a debt. Others found themselves sucked in by a continuous circle of abuse and exploitation, but none of them are free to leave until the debt, and any interest, is paid. Two of Hisako’s compatriots find other ways out of the Yoshiwara, one by her own hand, and another driven mad through illness is left alone to die like an animal coughing up blood surrounded by bright red futons in a storage cupboard.

As Kiku is quick to point out, the Yoshiwara is covered in cherry blossoms in spring but there is no place here for a tree which no longer flowers. The career of the courtesan is a short one and there are only two routes forward – become a madam or marry a wealthy client. Kiku’s plans don’t work out the way she originally envisioned, trapping her firmly within the Yoshiwara long after she had hoped to escape. Hisano is tempted by a marriage proposal from a man she truly loves but finds herself turning it down for complicated reasons. Worried that her lover does not see her as a woman, she is determined to take part in the upcoming geisha parade to force him to see her as everything she is, but her desires are never fully understood and she risks her future happiness in a futile gesture of defiance.

Defiance is the true theme of the film as each of the women fight with themselves and each other to reclaim their own freedom and individuality even whilst imprisoned and exploited by unassailable forces. Hisano, as Kiku constantly reminds her (in contrast to herself), never accepts that she is “just another whore” and therefore is able to first conquer and then escape the Yoshiwara even if it’s through a second choice compromise solution (albeit one which might bring her a degree of ordinary happiness in later life). Land of lies, the Yoshiwara promises the myth of unbridled pleasure to men who willingly make women suffer for just that purpose, further playing into Gosha’s ongoing themes of insecurity and self loathing lying at the heart of all physical or emotional violence. Though the ending voiceover is overly optimistic about the climactic fire ending centuries of female oppression as the Yoshiwara burns, Hisano, at least, may at last be free from its legacy of shame even whilst she watches the object of her desire destroyed by its very own flames.


Oiran parade scene (dialogue free)

Patisserie Coin de rue (洋菓子店コアンドル, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2011)

coin de rue posterYou know how it is, when you’re from a small town perhaps you feel like a big fish but when you swim up to the great lake that is the city, you suddenly feel very small. Natsume has come to Tokyo from her rural backwater town in Kagoshima to look for her boyfriend, Umi, who’s not been in contact (even with his parents). When she arrives at the patisserie he’d been working at she discovers that he suddenly quit a while ago without telling anyone where he was going. Natsume is distressed and heartbroken but notices that the cafe is currently hiring and so asks if she may take Umi’s place – after all she grew up helping out at her family’s cake shop!

However, as you might expect, even if her cakes are perfectly nice in a “homecooking” sort of way, they won’t cut it at a top cafe like Patisserie Coin de rue. Natsume is not someone who takes criticism well and is hurt that her skills aren’t appreciated but vows to stay and become the best kind of pastry chef she can be.

At heart, Patisserie Coin de rue (洋菓子店コアンドル, Yougashiten Koandoru) is a fairly generic apprentice story as Natsume starts off as a slightly arrogant country girl with an over inflated opinion of her abilities but gradually develops the humility to help her learn from others around her. Natsume, played by the very talented Yu Aoi, is not an easy woman herself and often rides a rollercoaster of emotions in just a single sentence. She’s loud but passionate and she does work hard even if her over confidence and slapdash approach sometimes cause problems for her fellow workers.

Patisserie Coin de Rue is also refreshing in that it’s one of the few films of this nature that do not attempt to pack in a romantic element. Natsume may have come to Tokyo to look for her boyfriend but no attention is paid to the possibility of winning him back or finding someone else, after calling time on her quest Natsume simply buckles down to learning her craft.

This is doubly true of the film’s secondary plot strand which centres on former international pastry star Tomura (Yosuke Eguchi) who mysteriously abandoned his cooking career eight years ago and now mostly works as a critic with some teaching on the side. He cuts a fairly sad figure as a regular visitor to Patisserie Coin de rue where he’s also an old friend of the owner and Natsume’s mentor, Yuriko. Natsume finally manages to coax him out of his self imposed isolation but the relationship is more paternal than anything else and, thankfully, never attempts to go down any kind of romantic route.

It’s a story that’s familiar enough on its own to have become something of a cliché and Patisserie Coin de rue doesn’t even try to put much of a new spin on it but it does at least carry it off with a decent amount of sophistication. Occasionally the film falls into the televisual but its production values are strong with the tone neatly flitting between mainstream aesthetics and a slightly alienated indie perspective. Of course, being a cake based film there are plenty of enticing shots of the baked goods on offer which do at least create a feast for the eyes.

The saving grace of the film is its leading actors who each turn in naturalistic, nuanced performances even given the lacklustre nature of the script. Yu Aoi carries the film as her surprisingly feisty Natsume dominates each scene she’s in while support is offered by the silent, brooding Yosuke Eguchi and the wise and patient shop owner Yuriko played by Keiko Toda. The film really owes a lot to the talent and commitment of its leading players who help to elevate its rather ordinary nature into something that’s a little less disposable.

That said Patisserie Coin de Rue is a little like a pleasant cafe you find in an unfamiliar area – the coffee’s good and the pastries are pleasant enough, you might drop in again if you’re in this part of town but you probably won’t make a special journey. A little bit formulaic and ultimately too sweet, Patisserie Coin de Rue is a shop bought cake in a boutique box which though enjoyable enough at the time is unlikely to linger long in the memory.


The R3 Hong Kong DVD release of Patisserie Coin de rue includes English subtitles.

(Unsubtitled trailer)