Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2017)

mukoku posterThe way of the sword is fraught with contradictions. Like many martial arts, kendo is not primarily intended for practical usage but for self improvement, emotional centring, and fostering a big hearted love of country designed to ensure lasting peace between men. Nevertheless, it tends to attract people who struggle with just those issues, hoping to find the peace within themselves though mastery of the sword. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s long and varied career has often focussed on outsiders dealing with extreme emotions and Mukoku (武曲 MUKOKU) is no different in this regard as the two men at its centre lock swords at cross purposes, each fighting something or someone else within themselves rather than the flesh and blood opponent standing before them.

Kengo Yatabe’s (Go Ayano) life has been defined by the sword. As a young boy his father, Shozo (Kaoru Kobayashi), began training Kengo intensively but his standards were high, too high for a small boy who only wanted to please his dad but found himself beaten with the weapon he was failing to master. Twenty years later Kengo is a broken man after a long deferred violent confrontation between father and son has left Shozo in a vegetative state, neither dead nor alive, no longer a figure of fear and hate but of guilt and ambivalence. Kengo has given up kendo partly out of guilt but also as a kind of rebellion mixed with self harm and is currently working as a security guard. He spends his days lost in an alcoholic fog, trailing an equally drunken casual girlfriend (Atsuko Maeda) behind him.

Meanwhile, high school boy Toru (Nijiro Murakami) is a classic angry young man working out his frustrations through a hip-hop infused punk band for which he writes the angst ridden poetry that serves as their lyrics. Toru has no interest in something as stuffy as Kendo but when he’s set upon by a bunch of Kendo jocks he decides he’s not going down without a fight. Winning through underhanded street punk moves would normally be frowned upon but the ageing monk who runs the high school kendo club, Mitsumura (Akira Emoto), is struck by his nifty footwork and decides to convince the troubled young man that the path to spiritual enlightenment lies in mastery over the self through mastery of the sword.

The wise old monk pits the self-destructive older man against the scrappy young one, hoping to bring them both to some kind of peaceful equilibrium, with near tragic results. Kengo’s ongoing troubles are born of a terrible sense of guilt, but also from intense self-loathing in refusing to accept that he’s become the man he hated, as broken and embittered as the father who made him that way. Shozo was a kendo master, but as the monk points out, in technique only – his heart was forever unquiet and he never achieved the the true peace necessary to master his art. Knowing this to be the truth only made it worse yet Shozo also knew the burden he’d placed on his son. They say every man must kill his father, but Kengo can’t let the ghost of his go – clinging on to a mix of filial piety and resentful loathing which is slowly turning him into everything he hates.

Toru’s problem’s are pushed into the background but seeing as his enemy is not the flesh and blood threat of an overbearing father but the elements and more particularly water, it will be much harder to overcome. Water becomes a constant symbol for each man – for Toru it’s an inescapable symbol of death and powerlessness, but for Kengo it represents happiness and harmony in rediscovering the good memories he has of his father from joyful family outings to less abusive summer training sessions. Mukoku is the story of three ages of man – the scrappy rebellious teen, the struggling middle-aged man, and the elderly veteran whose own heart is settled enough to see the battles others are waging. The “warrior’s song” as “mukoku” seems to mean changes with each passing season, nudged into tune by the graceful art of kendo.

Kumakiri embraces his expressionist impulses as a young boy finds himself suddenly underwater, vomiting mud and fish while Kengo has constant visions of his father, mother, and younger self ensuring the past is forever present. The ominous score and strange occurrences including ghostly graveyard old women who appear from nowhere in order to offer a lecture on the five buddhist sins lend a more urgent quality to Kengo’s disintegration, though interesting subplots involving a possibly alcoholic girlfriend and a mamasan (Jun Fubuki) at a local bar who might have been Shozo’s mistress are left underdeveloped. Two men face each other to face themselves, trying to beat their demons into submission with wooden swords, but even if the battle is far from over the tide has turned and something at least has begun to shift.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Miwa Nishikawa, 2016)

long excuse posterSelf disgust is self obsession as the old adage goes. It certainly seems to ring true for the “hero” of Miwa Nishikawa’s latest feature, The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Nagai Iiwake) , in which she adapts her own Naoki Prize nominated novel. In part inspired by the devastating earthquake which struck Japan in March 2011, The Long Excuse is a tale of grief deferred but also one of redemption and self recognition as this same refusal to grieve forces a self-centred novelist to remember that other people also exist in the world and have their own lives, emotions, and broken futures to dwell on.

Sachio Kinugasa (Masahiro Motoki) is a formerly successful novelist turned TV pundit. As his hairstylist wife, Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu), gives his hair a trim he angrily turns off the television on which one of the programmes he appears on is playing and returns to petulantly needle his wife about perceived slights including “deliberately” using his real name in front of important publishers “to embarrass him”. Upset but bearing it, Natsuko takes all of this in her stride though her husband is in a particularly maudlin mood today, reminding her once again about his intense feelings of self loathing. Shortly after finishing Sachio’s haircut, Natsuko throws on a coat and grabs a suitcase – she’s late to meet a friend with whom she is going on a trip. Sachio barely waits for the door to close before picking up his phone and texting his mistress to let her know that his wife is away.

Later, Sachio figures out that at the moment his wife, her friend Yuki (Keiko Horiuchi), and a busload of other people plunged over a guard rail on a mountain road and into a frozen lake, he was rolling around in his marital bed with a much younger woman. Now playing the grieving husband, Sachio seems fairly indifferent to his recent tragedy but writes an improbably literary funeral speech which boils down to wondering who is going to cut his hair, which he also makes a point of checking in the rear view mirror of the funeral car, now that his wife is gone.

So self obsessed is Sachio that he can’t even answer most of the policeman’s simple questions regarding the identification of his wife – what was she wearing, what did she eat for dinner, is there anything at all he can tell them to confirm the identity of his wife’s body? The answer is always no – he doesn’t remember what she wore (he was busy thinking about texting his mistress), ate dinner separately, and didn’t even know the name of the friend Natsuko was going to meet. The policeman tries to comfort him with the rationale that it’s normal enough to have grown apart a little over 20 years, but the truth is that Sachio was never very interested in his wife. As a funeral guest points out, Natsuko had her own life filled with other people who loved her and would have appreciated the chance to pay their respects in the normal fashion rather than becoming mere guests at Sachio’s stage managed memorial service.

Sachio’s lack of sincere reaction to his wife’s passing stands in stark contrast to the husband of her friend, Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), who is a wailing, broken man and now a widowed single father to two young children. Yoichi is excited to finally meet Sachio about whom he heard so much from “Nacchan” his wife’s best friend and the children’s favourite auntie. Sachio knew nothing of this important relationship in his wife’s life, or much of anything about her activities outside of their home.

When Natsuko left that last time, she paused in the doorway somewhat finally to remind Sachio to take care of the house in her absence but neither of these two men know how to look after themselves from basic household chores like using the washing machine to cooking and cleaning, having gone from a mother to a wife and left all of the “domestic” tasks to their women. Eventually feeling low, Sachio decides to respond to Yoichi’s suggestion they try to ease their shared grief by taking the family out for dinner, only he invites them to a fancy, upscale place he goes to often which is neither child friendly nor particularly comfortable for them seeing as they aren’t used to such extravagant dining. Yoichi, otherwise a doting father but often absent due to his job as a long distance truck driver, neglects to think about his daughter’s dangerous crab allergy and necessity of carrying epinephrin just in case, never having had to worry about something as basic as feeding her.

Hearing that Yuki’s son Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) is quitting studying for middle school exams because he needs to take care of his sister, Sachio makes the improbable suggestion that he come over and help out while Yoichi is away on the road. Becoming a second father to someone else’s children forces Sachio into a consideration of his new role but his publicist cautions him against it. Whipping out some photos of his own, he tells Sachio that kids are great because they make you forget what a terrible person you are but that it’s just the ultimate act of indulgence, basking in adoration you know you don’t deserve. Sachio frequently reminds people that he’s no good, almost making it their own fault that he’s hurt them through his constant need for external validation and thinly disguised insecurity. Sachio’s personal tragedy is that his attempts at self-deception largely fail, he knows exactly what he is but that only makes it worse.

The Long Excuse, such as it is, is the title of Sachio’s autobiographical story of grief and an attempt to explain all of this through a process of self discovery and acceptance. Though appearing indifferent to his wife’s death, Sachio’s reaction is one informed by his ongoing self delusions in which he tries to convince himself to ignore the issue and attempt to simply forget about it and move on. Yoichi, by contrast, feels differently – he can’t let his wife go and wants to keep her alive by talking about her all the time but his bighearted grief is too much for his sensitive son who has more than a little in common with Sachio and would rather hit the pause button to come back to this later. The best way out is always through, however difficult and painful it may turn out to be. Making The Long Excuse is Sachio’s way of explaining himself and learning to reconcile the person he is with the one he would like to be, and even if he’s still talking to himself he’s at least moving in the right direction.


The Long Excuse was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

La La La at Rock Bottom (AKA Misono Universe, 味園ユニバース, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2015)

プリントNobuhiro Yamashita has made something of a career out of championing the underdog and La La La at Rock Bottom (味園ユニバース, Misono Universe) provides yet another foray into the lives of the disposed and degraded. With a lighter touch than some of his previous work, the once again musically inflected film is another testament to the power of redemption and that you can still turn your life around if you only have the courage to take the chance.

The film begins with a young man being released from prison. The guard apologises about the smell of mothballs emanating from the man’s jacket, usually the family bring clean clothes. No family has come for this inmate though – just a couple of cool seeming characters who profess their gratitude for “what you’ve done for us” but the reunion is anything but warm. A little while later the man is unceremoniously bundled into a car and taken off to a quiet place where he is beaten half to death by thugs using baseball bats. After waking up, he stumbles around and eventually chances on a summer festival with a band playing on the mainstage. Zombified, the man grabs the mic and starts singing before promptly collapsing again.

The band’s manager, a young girl, takes the man home whereupon she discovers he’s lost his memory. Giving him the ironic nickname of “Pooch” (Kasumi also has a habit of picking up stray dogs), the band and local villagers quickly “adopt” the confused stranger and let him work at their karaoke rooms and studio whilst coaching him to become their new lead singer. However, as Pooch’s memories start to return it seems that his former life may not have been as tranquil as his laid-back amnesiac persona might suggest.

Like much of Yamashita’s previous work, music plays a central role with the one thing that Pooch remembers from his former life being the lyrics to a particular song and his innate singing talent. The leading role of Pooch himself is played by real life singing star Subaru Shibutani of Kansai based idol band Kanjani Eight who proves himself more than capable of belting out these hard rock/enka tracks as well as being able to imbue Pooch’s amnesiac blankness with his own specific character. He is ably supported by the popular young actress Fumi Nikaido who turns in yet another impressively nuanced performance as the older than her years Kasumi.

The beginning of the film gives us quite an idea of the man Pooch may have been and the kind of life he’s led. As the revelations pile on and Pooch’s memories inevitably return threatening the new life and personality he’s begun to build with the band and the possibility of fulfilling a long abandoned dream of being a singer, his dark side begins to break through and we’re shown a man lost in rage and violence left with nowhere to turn. At the end of the day, “Pooch” has been given a valuable opportunity to start all over again but it requires him to make the choice to do so. Go back to being “Shigeo”, a self hating thug who’s alienated absolutely everyone in his life or choose to become Pooch and earn a second chance to be the man he always wanted to be.

Like Yamshita’s previous film, Tamako in Moratorium, with which it also shares a lot in terms of style, La La La offers no great revelations or technical bells and whistles but revels in the simple pleasure of a tale told well. Like much of his other work, the central message is that it’s never too late to begin again (even if there are bridges which have been burned beyond repair) only that it requires you to make the sometimes scary choice to take a chance on something new. That choice rests with one person but is greatly aided by the support of others and the unusual bond between the two central characters (which stops short of romance) plus the uncompromising faith which Kasumi places in Pooch are some of the greatest joys of the film.

Perhaps not a career best from this still vastly underrated director, La La La at Rock Bottom is nevertheless another beautifully constructed addition to his filmography. Offering an extreme depth of performance from each of its ensemble cast, the film is rich with detail whilst also reflecting Yamashita’s trademark cinematic naturalism. Once again a musical feast for the ears, La La La at Rock Bottom is destined to become one of the director’s best loved films even in a career which has already offered so many as yet undiscovered gems.