The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sonatine (ソナチネ, Takeshi Kitano, 1993)

The problem with being a yakuza is that there is never any rest. Staying alive means constant vigilance, make a mistake and it could be the end of you or, conversely, get too good at your job and place a target on your own back. The hero of Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine (ソナチネ) declares himself tired, not just of the life but life itself. By his fourth picture, Kitano was perhaps feeling something similar, later describing the near-fatal motorcycle accident he encountered some months after the film’s completion as an unconscious suicide attempt. For years he’d been one of Japan’s top TV personalities working a breakneck schedule that left him little time for other outlets such as painting, novels, and acting for others, but still he longed to be taken more seriously as an artist in his home nation where audiences largely stayed away from his “serious” films, as they did with Sonatine which flopped at the box office and put an end to his arrangement with Shochiku who had distributed his first two features in which he had also starred. 

For this third film, A Scene at the Sea, Kitano remained behind the camera and distanced himself from the themes of crime and violence which defined his early career, crafting instead an intensely melancholy tone poem about a deaf surfer falling in love with the ocean. In Sonatine he casts himself as the lead for the first time since Violent Cop, this time as a gangster experiencing extreme existential malaise when confronted with the futility and emptiness of his life in organised crime. Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano) is aware he has probably reached the zenith of his career as a mid-tier gang boss working as a, by all accounts, unexpectedly successful enforcer in a rundown area of the city. His first crisis concerns the owner of a mahjong parlour who thinks the yakuza are an outdated institution and refuses to take their threats seriously. He sees no need to pay them the customary protection money and assumes they’ll back off he simply tells them he’s not interested, but he is very wrong. Murakawa has him kidnapped to teach him a lesson, observing while his minions attach him to a crane and threaten him by dunking him in a large pool of water. Immediately apologetic, the man sees the error of his ways, but Murakawa doesn’t really care about the money anymore and so they dunk him again to see how long it takes a man to drown, barely shrugging as they realise he really died. 

Either because he’s an unusual man, or because he is simply tired of everything, Murakawa no longer bothers to abide by the rules of petty gangsterdom. He doesn’t do deference, smoking away long before his boss offers permission to do so and feeling unafraid to voice his reluctance when he’s ordered to take some of his guys to Okinawa to settle a nascent gang war involving one of their affiliates. Murakawa doesn’t want to go because he lost three men in a similar job in Hokkaido, but in reality has little choice. Later events prove he was right to be suspicious. The Okinawan gang boss tells him that he reported some minor friction with another gang out of courtesy and is confused he’s been sent reinforcements, not that he’s not glad to see them. As soon as they arrive, however, the tension rises and Murakawa and the guys are forced into hiding, holing up at the beach as they await orders from head office or word on a possible truce. 

Murakawa, his two right-hand men, and the Okinawan gangsters adjust to tranquil island life, playing on the beach and taking the time to master the art of Okinawan folk dance, but the grim spectres of death and violence present themselves even here in empty games of Russian roulette and Murakawa’s childish prank of digging sand traps for the guys to fall into as if into their graves. While he’s busy admiring the night sky, the silence is ruptured by a local tough chasing a young woman onto the beach where he proceeds to rape her. Murakawa doesn’t intervene but is challenged anyway and then forced to kill the puffed up youngster while the young woman, Miyuki (Aya Kokumai), becomes strangely attached to him, impressed by his cool dispatch of her attacker. 

Murakawa’s somehow innocent relationship with the young woman creates a minor rift with his men who resent the absence of his leadership at a time of crisis while he ponders alternate futures outside of the gangster brotherhood. But deep down he knows that his idyllic beach holiday cannot last forever and that he will have to leave this liminal space eventually for a destination of which he is all too aware. As he explains to Miyuki, when you fear death so intensely you begin to long for it if only for an end to its terrible anxiety. 

The title “Sonatine” is apparently inspired by the “sonatina”, a short, tripartite piece piano players attempt to mark an attainment of skills before choosing the future direction of their musical career. Murakawa undergoes three distinct arcs, from the city to the beach and back again, but perhaps knows there is no future direction in which for him to travel only the nihilistic fatalism of a life of violence. As for Kitano, it does perhaps draw a line in the sand marking the end of an apprenticeship and its associated compromises as he fully embraces an authentic personal style, like Murakawa no longer prepared to be deferent in an admittedly exhausting world. 


Sonatine is the third of three films included in the BFI’s Takeshi Kitano Collection blu-ray box set and is accompanied by an audio commentary by Chris D recorded in 2008. The first pressing includes a 44-page booklet featuring an essay on Sonatine and introduction to Kitano’s career by Jasper Sharp,  an essay on Violent Cop by Tom Mes, a piece on Boiling Point from Mark Schilling, an archival review by Geoff Andrew, and an appreciation of Beat Takeshi by James-Masaki Ryan.

The Takeshi Kitano Collection is released 29th June while Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Sonatine will also be available to stream via BFI Player from 27th July as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Violent Cop (その男、凶暴につき, Takeshi Kitano, 1989)

By and large, policemen in Japanese cinema are at least nominally a force for good. They may be bumbling and inefficient, occasionally idiotic and easily outclassed by a master detective, but are not generally depicted as actively corrupt or malicious. A notable exception would be within the films of Kinji Fukasaku whose jitsuroku gangster movies were never afraid to suggest that the line between thug and cop can be surprisingly thin. Fukasaku was originally slated to direct Violent Cop (その男、凶暴につき, Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni tsuki), casting top TV variety star “Beat” Takeshi in the title role in an adaptation of a hardboiled parody by Hisashi Nozawa. The project later fell apart due to Kitano’s heavy work schedule which eventually led to him directing the film himself, heavily rewriting the script in order to boil it down to its nihilistic essence while rejecting the broad comedy his TV fans would doubtless have been expecting. 

Kitano’s trademark deadpan is, however, very much in evidence even in this his debut feature in which he struggled to convince a veteran crew to accept his idiosyncratic directorial vision. He opens not with the “hero”, but with a toothless old man, a hobo beset by petty delinquents so bored by the ease of their comfortable upperclass lives that they terrorise the less fortunate for fun. Azuma (Takeshi Kitano), the violent cop, does not approve but neither does he intervene, later explaining to his boss that it would have been foolish to do so without backup. Having observed from the shadows, he tails one of the boys to his well-appointed home, barges past his mother, and asks to have a word, immediately punching the kid in the face as soon as he opens the door. Rather than simply arrest him, he strongly encourages that he and his friends turn themselves in at the police station the next day or, he implies, expect more of the same. The kid complies. 

Azuma embodies a certain kind of justice acting in direct opposition to the corruptions of the Bubble era which are indirectly responsible for the creation of these infinitely bored teens who live only for sadistic thrills. He arrives too late, however, to have any effect on the next generation, cheerfully smiling at a bunch of primary school children running off to play after throwing cans at an old man on a boat. Children always seem to be standing by, witnessing and absorbing violence from the world around them as when a fellow officer is badly assaulted by a suspect following Azuma’s botched attempt to arrest him in serial rather than parallel with his equally thuggish colleagues. But for all that Azuma’s violence is inappropriate for a man of the law, it is never condemned by his fellow officers who regard him only as slightly eccentric and a potential liability. Even his new boss on hearing of his reputation tells him that he doesn’t necessarily disapprove but would appreciate it if Azuma could avoid making the kind of trouble that would cause him inconvenience. 

That’s obviously not going to happen. What we gradually realise is that Azuma may be in some ways the most sane of men or at least the most in tune with the world in which he lives, only losing his cool when a suspect spits back that he’s just as crazy as his sister who has recently been discharged from a psychiatric institution. Azuma has accepted that his world is defined by violence and no longer expects to be spared a violent end. He smirks ironically as he slaps his suspects, connecting with them on more than one level in indulging in the cosmic joke of existential battery. To Kitano, violence is cartoonish, unreal, and absurd. The only time the violence is shocking and seems as if it actually hurts is when it is visited directly on Azuma, the camera suddenly shifting into a quasi-PV shot as a foot strikes just below the frame. The targets are otherwise misdirected, a young woman caught by a stray bullet while waiting outside a cinema or a cop shot in the tussle over a gun, and again the children who only witness but are raised in the normalisation of violence. 

Meanwhile, organised crime has attempted to subvert its violent image by adopting the trappings of the age, swapping post-war scrappiness for Bubble-era sophistication. Nito (Ittoku Kishibe), the big bad, has an entire floor as an office containing just his oversize desk and that of his secretary. These days, even gangsters have admin staff. Minimalist in the extreme with its plain white walls and spacious sense of emptiness, the office ought to be a peaceful space but the effect of its deliberately unstimulating decor is quite the reverse, intimidating and filled with anxiety. Behind Nito the ordinary office blinds look almost like prison bars. Meanwhile, the police locker room in much the same colours has a similarly claustrophobic quality, almost embodying a sense of violence as if the walls themselves are intensifying the pressure on all within them. 

Azuma is indeed constrained, even while also the most “free” in having decided to live by his own codes in rejection of those offered by his increasingly corrupt society. He walks a dark and nihilistic path fuelled by the futility of violence, ending in a Hamlet-esque tableaux with only a dubious Fortinbras on hand to offer the ironic commentary that “they’re all mad”, before stepping neatly into another vacated space in willing collaboration with the systemic madness of the world in which he lives. With its incongruously whimsical score and deadpan humour Violent Cop never shies away from life’s absurdity, but has only a lyrical sadness for those seeking to numb the pain in a world of constant anxiety. 


Violent Cop is the first of three films included in the BFI’s Takeshi Kitano Collection blu-ray box set and is accompanied by an audio commentary by Chris D recorded in 2008, plus a featurette recorded in 2016. The first pressing includes a 44-page booklet featuring an essay on Violent Cop by Tom Mes, as well as an introduction to Kitano’s career & writing on Sonatine by Jasper Sharp, a piece on Boiling Point from Mark Schilling, an archival review by Geoff Andrew, and an appreciation of Beat Takeshi by James-Masaki Ryan.

The Takeshi Kitano Collection is released 29th June while Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Sonatine will also be available to stream via BFI Player from 27th July as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love’s Twisting Path (多十郎殉愛記, Sadao Nakajima, 2019)

Sadao Nakajima joined Toei in 1959 and worked for the studio throughout its golden age, mostly associated with jidaigeki and gangster movies which were Toei’s stock in trade well into the 1970s and perhaps beyond. Now in his 80s, Nakajima’s last narrative feature was released over 20 years ago. A kind of last hurrah, Love’s Twisting Path (多十郎殉愛記, Tajuro Junai-ki) is a willing throwback to the glory days of chanbara, even bearing a dedication title card to genre giant Daisuke Ito, and doing its best to resurrect the classic Toei programmer magic. 

Appropriately enough, the action takes place at a moment of intense change. As the film opens, the men of Choshu who have left their clan to foster their own brand of revolution in opposing the shogunate in favour of the emperor and a desire to reject Western influence, are hiding out in a shack while bad mouthing soon-to-be-allies Satsuma and the man who seeks to unite them, Sakamoto Ryoma. They are soon discovered by Kyoto’s elite Shogunate police, the Mimawarigumi, and ambushed. Their leader, the famed Katsura Kogoro (Masatoshi Nagase), signals that times have indeed changed by pulling out a pistol and defending himself at distance. 

Meanwhile, Choshu fugitive in hiding Tajuro (Kengo Kora) is trying to make ends meet with his painting, designing patterns for ladies kimonos but seemingly with little success. He has the sunken cheeks, vacant eyes, and slight slowness of someone who drinks too much and hasn’t had a decent meal in a very long time. We learn that he left Choshu with the others on the pretext of revolution, but his real purpose was escape from a restrictive samurai existence and most pertinently from his miserable poverty. Having long since given up the idea of a being a samurai, he’s already sold his sword and is attempting to live under the radar, unaware that similarly troubled bar hostess Otoyo (Mikako Tabe) has fallen in love with him. Otoyo was adopted by the bar’s owner, Omitsu (Yuriko Mishima), a former geisha, who intended to sell her to a geisha house. She eloped with a man she loved instead, but it turned out that he was minded to sell her too so she came back and now runs the bar while taking care of the ageing Omitsu. 

The crisis occurs when men of Choshu arrive in search of Tajuro in the hope that he will rejoin their cause. He doesn’t want to, showing off his samurai skills (and neatly disguising the fact that he has no blade through advanced technique) but pointedly asking for a hefty payment from his former mentor Sanzaemon (Asahi Kurizuka) in belief that it would not be paid. Sanzaemon, however, comes through and leaves a message for Tajuro to meet him behind a nearby shrine. He however spends the entirety of his money getting blind drunk in Otoyo’s bar, during which time Sanzaemon is caught by the Mimawarigumi, breathing his last words to Tajuro’s younger half-brother Kazuma (Ryo Kimura) to the effect that he must reunite with Tajuro and fight for the good of the country. 

On the run and holed up with a patient priest and his beloved wife, Tajuro is asked why it is he’s decided to pick up his sword once again despite his reluctance. Asked if was for country or for money Tajuro shakes his head, leaving the priest to correctly guess that it was for love. Tajuro has fallen in love with Otoyo, the only person who either doesn’t believe he is a failed samurai and drunken fool, or doesn’t care. The world however is still too chaotic for romance, and so their pure love will have to wait. 

Tajuro’s fate is in many ways the direct result of his attempt reject his responsibility as a samurai, daring to live as a common man with all of the freedoms and burdens that entails. The force which constrains him in both worlds is poverty. Whatever else he is, he is too poor for love, unable to feed himself let alone a wife either as a low wage samurai or a ronin. The price he pays is in his desire to cross borders. The samurai world is not done with him yet and while the denizens of this small backwater worry about paying their rent paying little mind to what’s going on in the capital, political intrigue is not something that he can go on ignoring. After all, not picking a side is in a sense also picking a side. The Mimawarigumi pride themselves on not being as savage as the Shinsengumi (which largely consists of ronin, lower ranked samurai, and commoners whereas the Mimawarigumi are elite samurai and direct retainers to the Shogunate), but their job is still to bring in fugitive rebels like Tajuro and his bid for “freedom” may be doomed to failure in a world still constrained by the law of the samurai. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hana (花よりもなほ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2006)

Hana poster 1The heart of the samurai movie lies in the conflict between human feeling and duty to one’s code, unexpectedly the code usually wins but its victory is often tragic. Following a series of bleak modern dramas, Hirokazu Koreeda took his first (and so far only) foray into the jidaigeki with Hana (花よりもなほ, Hana yori mo Naho), stopping to ask if the entirety of the samurai ethos was founded more on pride and a sense of entitlement than a supposedly high ideal of honour of justice, and if perhaps the negative legacy of the samurai era is one that continues to be passed on through toxic masculinity and the patriarchal primacy of problematic fathers.

Set in 1702, the action revolves around noble hearted samurai Soza (Junichi Okada) who has been living in a rundown tenement ally for the last three years looking for the man who killed his father in a pointless quarrel over a game of Go in order to avenge his death. Despite being a fine samurai and heir to a dojo, Soza’s big secret is that he’s not much of a swordsman and is also tenderhearted which leaves him doubly conflicted in his mission. Unwilling to admit he has simply come to like living among these “ordinary” people, and most particularly alongside the widow Osae (Rie Miyazawa) and her young son Shinbo, Soza has perhaps begun to slack off and no is longer looking very hard for his quarry, willingly allowing himself to be conned into buying meals for the cheeky Sado (Arata Furuta) who already has tabs running all over town.

Unlike the majority of samurai tales, Koreeda deliberately shifts the focus to the poor – routinely oppressed by an unscrupulous landlord who has even taken to selling their excrement for extra money just to make sure they are as thoroughly exploited as possible. These people exist so far out of the samurai world that it might as well not exist for them and its rules are nothing more than a ridiculous affectation when your primary concerns are how to keep yourself fed for the day and make sure your house doesn’t suddenly fall down while you’re out. These facts are well and truly brought home to Soza when, knowing he has little chance of winning anyway, he is challenged to a fight by jaded street punk Sode (Ryo Kase) who is keen to prove to little Shinbo that dojo skills mean nothing in the real world. Soza gets a pounding, but somehow wins people’s hearts anyway if only for being so easily humiliated and bearing it with good grace.

Lessons to little Shinbo, who has figured out his father is probably dead but worries that maybe his mother still doesn’t know, becomes a persistent motif as Koreeda embraces his favourite theme – good fathers and bad. Soza’s samurai code pushes him towards martial rigour and the necessity of obeying his father’s wishes which in this case would be hating the man who killed him and avenging his death. Hate is, however, something the fair-minded Soza finds difficult even if he seems to have a fair amount of inner conflict towards his father whom even his cheerful uncle describes as a joyless prude. Osae, sensing Soza’s inner pain, points him in the right direction in remarking that if all his father left behind for him was hate then that legacy would be too sad. Eventually, Soza remembers that there were other things, better things, that his father taught him and that he could pass on to Shinbo which aren’t about pointless cycles of revenge killing and century old grudges. He can honour the spirit of his duty without having to obey it to the letter.

Meanwhile, Koreeda deliberately contrasts Soza’s gradual confidence in his humanitarianism with the stubborn pride of the 47 ronin who are also hiding out in the tenement ally while they bide their time waiting to strike. Soza manages to effect his “revenge” with some theatrical subterfuge, whereas the 47 (well, in the end 46) ronin take theirs for real but not altogether honourably and end up becoming legend overnight, earning the tenement a brief reprieve after the landlord threatens to close it down through becoming a tourist spot. The title, apparently inspired by the death poem of Lord Asano whose seppuku triggered the series of incidents later retold as the legend of the Chushingura, alludes to the nihilistic pointlessness of the samurai ideal of a death as elegant as falling cherry blossoms, later imbuing it with earthier, warmer wisdom as an unexpected fount of profundity affirms that the reason cherry blossoms fall so beautifully is that they know they will soon bloom again.


Hana was screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective playing at the BFI Southbank in April and May 2019.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Distance (ディスタンス, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2001)

Distance DVDHirokazu Koreeda has become known predominantly for his nation’s representative genre – the family drama. He has, however, maintained a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the idea of family and more specifically what it means in the contemporary society. Koreeda’s later work might have found more faith in the healing power of familial bonds, but his third film, Distance (ディスタンス), is among his bleakest and finds little cause for hope when relations between people remain necessarily oblique. Another of the post-Aum films from the 2000s, Distance does not concern itself primarily with the immediacy of terrorist cult violence but its wider causes and implications.

As the opening news report informs us, three years previously the Ark of Truth cult released a genetically engineered virus into the Tokyo water system leading to the deaths of 128 people with thousands poisoned. In quick succession we meet four ordinary Tokyoites variously affected by the disaster but trying to go about their everyday lives. Schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), salaryman Kai (Susumu Terajima), punkish student Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), and sensitive florist, Atsushi (Arata). Eventually each of them, somewhat reluctantly, prepares for a trip. Ending up in a small rural town, they’ve gathered to commemorate the attack but, crucially, they are not relatives of those who were poisoned but of the cultists who committed the atrocity.

The relatives are, in a sense, secondary victims – they have all lost loved ones and are forced to bear the vicarious stigma the conformist society heaps on them simply for being related to someone who has committed a crime. When the group’s car is randomly stolen in the middle of nowhere, they are “rescued” by the mysterious Sakata (Tadanobu Asano) who is the only surviving member of the cult cell which carried out the terrorist attack and was subsequently wiped out by fellow cultists presumably horrified by what they had done to discredit the movement. Holing up in the remote mountain lodge where the cult had lived, the relatives are forced to confront their complicated emotions towards their late loved ones and the various ways their lives continue to be influenced by their loss.

The “distance” to which the title refers, is that between the relatives and the cultists to whose eventual slide into fanaticism they were largely blind. There are secrets, things left unsaid, a growing gap between a perception of a person and the “reality”. Most joined a cult because they were frustrated with the modern world and bought into its dubious messages from spiritual healing to saving the environment, but they were also each lonely and looking for a replacement for the traditional family which they had failed to find in their ordinary lives. Now remarried with a small daughter, Kai thinks back on the disastrous dinner during which his then wife told him she was leaving with another man to join a cult because Kai was never willing to fully face her. Only in the cult where there is full and total trust, did she finally find a reason for living – something which did not exist within her (presumably unhappy) marriage.

Yet even these flashbacks cannot be taken at face value. Our former cultist, Sakata, appears meek and apologetic among the relatives, once again describing the cult as “family” (perhaps insensitively) with fathers, sisters, and brothers who all loved him “unconditionally” though he eventually betrayed them. His description to a policeman immediately after the event is somewhat different, as is his attitude towards “quiet” sister Yuko (Ryo) who follows her brother’s lead in describing herself as an inhabitant of “Silent Blue” and subsequently views herself as part of a revolution – an engineer of the systemic crash which will reset the world.

With varying degrees of truth and self-deception, the relatives interrogate themselves and their place within the actions taken by the cultists while attempting to process the future with greater clarity. The divisions, however remain – in the strained relationship between in Kai and his wife, and that between Masaru and his suspicious girlfriend. Lonely souls look for forgiveness through reparation, but ultimately decide that perhaps the only solution really is to burn the whole thing down. A formal experiment for the increasingly formalist director, Distance is an unusually bleak negation of the concept of family which refuses the possibility of genuine connection in a world so often built on guile and subterfuge.


Distance screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

Afterlife posterAt the end of your life, if someone asks you what it all meant, what will you say? It’s a question that can’t be answered until after you’ve turned the final page, but there is an idea at least that death brings clarity, rendering all things simple from a strange perspective of subjective objectivity. This is the central idea behind Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta existential fantasy After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Wonderful Life) in which the recently deceased are given seven days grace in order to decide on their most precious memory so that a small collection of clerks working in an old-fashioned government building can “recreate” it through the medium of cinema, allowing a departing soul to take refuge in a single memory preserved in eternity.

Heaven’s waiting room, as it turns out, is apparently located inside the ghost of the Japanese studio system. The recently deceased give their names at the door and patiently wait for their turn with their allotted case manager whose job it is to offer after life counselling designed to bring them to the point of boiling their existence down to the single moment which defines it within the arbitrary three day time limit which gives the crew the time to put their memories into pre-production complete with old-fashioned stage sets and studio-era special effects.

The purpose of all of this is not is exactly clear, though a clue is perhaps offered when we discover that the clerks are able to order VHS tapes of the entirety of their subjects’ lives in the event that they are struggling to think of relevant moments in an existence which seems to have disappointed them. The point is not so much the literal truth of the memory, be it accurate or not, but its sensation and the transience of feeling which is then re-experienced through the medium of cinema, captured in celluloid as momentary permanence.

Consequently, the chosen moments are necessarily often ones of stillness which promise the kind of peace and serenity one is supposed to find in death. The moments are ones of silent togetherness, of natural beauty, of childish innocence, or unbridled joy but is each is perhaps the key to unlocking the enigma of a life and as such is a solution which points towards a question. One older gentleman, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), finds himself unable to choose. He views his life as the epitome of mediocrity and can find nothing in it that seems worthy of “eternity”. Watching the videotapes of his life, he sees himself as a young man vowing to make a mark and is desperate to find some evidence that he lived but like many does not find it. His life was happy by virtue of being not unhappy for all that it was perhaps unfulfilled but only through communing with himself after death is he able to reclaim the memory of his late wife (Kyoko Kagawa) with whom he never quite bonded in mild jealousy of her lingering attachment to her first love who fell in war.

This being a film from 1998 and mostly featuring those in their ‘70s and above, the war looms large from painful battlefield memories of fear and starvation to unexpected reunions and the joy of simple pleasures found even in the midst of hardship. The clerks who died young may look on in envy of Watanabe’s “ordinary” life in the knowledge of all they were denied, while others mourn for a future they will never see. Yet there are shorter sad stories here too from a high school girl (Sayaka Yoshino) whose original choice of a day out at Disneyland is deemed too prosaic, to a middle-aged bar hostess (Kazuko Shirakawa) reminiscing about an old lover who let her down, and a rebellious young punk (Yusuke Iseya) who flat out refuses to choose because he feels that is the best way to accept responsibility. Forced into a reconsideration of his own life, even a clerk is eventually moved by the realisation that even if he had previously believed his existence devoid of meaningful moments he has achieved something by featuring in those of others and is therefore also a meaningful part of a considered whole.

Making the most of his documentary background, interspersing “genuine” memories among the imagined, Koreeda’s heavenly fantasy is one firmly tied to the ground where seasons still pass, time still flows, and the relentlessly efficient march of bureaucracy continues on apace undaunted by the presence of death. Death may give life meaning, but it’s living that’s the prize in all of its glorious complexity filled with both beauty and sadness but always with light even in the darkest corners.


After Life screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Go Find a Psychic! (曲がれ!スプーン, Katsuyuki Motohiro, 2009)

go find a psychic posterHow old is too old to still believe in Santa? Yone Sakurai (Masami Nagasawa), the heroine of Katsuyuki Motohiro’s Go Find a Psychic! (曲がれ!スプーン, Magare! Spoon) longs to believe the truth is out there even if everyone else thinks she must be a bit touched in the head. If there really are people with psychic powers, however, they might not feel very comfortable coming forward. After all, who wants to be the go to sofa moving guy when everyone finds out you have telekinesis? That’s not even factoring in the fear of being abducted by the government and experimented on!

In any case, Yone has her work cut out for her when the TV variety show she works for which has a special focus on paranormal abilities sends her out out in search of “true” psychics after a series of on air disasters has their viewer credibility ratings plummeting. Ideally speaking, Yone needs to find some quality superhero action in time for the big Christmas Eve special, but her lengthy quest up and down Japan brings her only the disappointment of fake yetis and charlatan monks. That is until she unwittingly ends up at Cafe Kinesis which holds its very own psychics anonymous meeting every Christmas Eve so the paranormal community can come together in solidarity without fearing the consequences of revealing their abilities.

Based on a comic stage play, Go Find a Psychic! roots its humour in the everyday. The psychics of Cafe Kinesis are a bunch of ordinary middle-aged men of the kind you might find in any small town watering hole anywhere in Japan. The only difference is, they have a collection of almost useless superhuman abilities including the manipulation of electronic waves (useful for getting an extra item out of a vending machine), telekinesis (“useful” for throwing your annoying boss halfway across the room), X-ray vision (which has a number of obvious applications), and mind reading (or more like image transmission). The bar owner is not a psychic himself but was once helped by one which is why he set up the bar, hoping to meet and thank the person who frightened off an angry dog that was trying to bite him. Seeing as all the guests are psychic, no one is afraid to show off their talents but when a newcomer, Mr. Kanda (Hideto Iwai), suddenly shows up it creates a problem when the gang realise his “ability” of being “thin” is just the normal kind of skinniness. Seeing as he’s not a proper psychic, can they really let him leave and risk exposing the secrets of Cafe Kinesis?

Meanwhile, Yone’s quest continues – bringing her into contact with a strange man who claims he can withstand the bite of a poisonous African spider. Needless to say, the spider will be back later when the psychics become convinced Yone’s brought it with her presenting them with a conflict. They don’t want her to find out about their psychic powers and risk getting put on TV, but they can’t very well let her walk off with a poisonous spider trapped about her person. Despite small qualms about letting Kanda leave in one piece, the psychics aren’t bad guys and it is Christmas after all. Realising Yone just really loves all sort of psychic stuff and is becoming depressed after getting her illusions repeatedly shattered, the gang decide to put on a real Christmas show to rekindle her faith in the supernatural.

Just because you invite a UFO to your party and it doesn’t turn up it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Some things can’t be explained by science. Maybe those old guys from the bar really can make miracles if only someone points them in the right direction. Like a good magic trick, perhaps it’s better to keep a few secrets and not ask too many questions about how things really work. For Yone the world is better with a little magic in it, even if you have to admit that people who want to go on TV aren’t usually going to be very “genuine”. That doesn’t mean that “genuine” isn’t out there, but if you find it you might be better to keep it to yourself or risk losing it entirely.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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)

Wild Berries (蛇イチゴ, Miwa Nishikawa, 2003)

wild berries posterThe family drama was once the representative genre of Japanese cinema. In the turbulent post-war world, the one unchanging, unbreakable touchstone was the bonds between parents and their children even if it must also be realised that those bonds will necessarily change over time. Tiny cracks might have been visible even in Ozu’s Tokyo Story in the growing disconnection between the old folks in the country and their city kids, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s when Japan’s economic recovery had fully taken hold that the family itself began to come under fire. Yoshimitu Morita’s The Family Game kickstarted a trend of family implosion movies which implied that familial bonds were more social affectation than genuine connection, but post-bubble the tables turned again. These days, Hirokazu Koreeda has picked up the family drama mantle, depicting broadly positive pictures of normal family life. It is then all the stranger that his protege, Miwa Nishikawa, should be the one to ask again if family really is all it’s cracked up to be.

An ordinary breakfast in the Akechi household. Grandpa (Matsunosuke Shofukutei ) is dipping his toast in the coffee again while salaryman dad Yoshiro (Sei Hiraizumi) reads his paper. Schoolteacher Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki) barely has time to look at her breakfast before her mother, Akiko (Naoko Otani), reminds her that today is “Wednesday” – not only does she need her PE kit, but it’s also the day that her fiancé, Kamata (Toru Tezuka), is coming round to tea to meet the folks. The atmosphere is pleasant, genial, but why has Yoshiro had his mobile phone cut off and is the bald spot Akiko has just discovered on the top of her head really anything to worry about?

The Akechis are the archetype of a modern middle-class family, living a comfortable life in a nice home while dad goes out to work and mum does everything else. It is not, however, quite as it seems. Yoshiro’s phone has been cut off because he hasn’t paid the bill. He hasn’t paid the bill because he’s lost his job. He hasn’t told his wife he’s lost his job because he’s too ashamed, so he’s taken out vast loans from gangsters rather than trying to find a more honest solution. Mum Akiko plays the dutiful housewife, cooking, cleaning, putting up with Yoshiro’s imperious behaviour and looking after grandpa who has advanced dementia and thinks he’s still at war. In reality she’s bored and resentful, tired of the burden of looking after her husband’s ungrateful father and longing to have some time for herself. The only uncorrupted member of the family is schoolteacher Tomoko who finds herself giving a strange lesson on the evils of lying to her class of small children. Tomoko is perhaps too uncorrupted, prim as a schoolmarm but dull with it.

When grandpa meets an unfortunate end, the longstanding family secret is revealed – Tomoko is not an only child, she had an older brother, Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who had been expelled from the family for his immoral ways – i.e, lying, cheating, and stealing. In fact, Shuji’s return was an accident – his main job is stealing the condolence money from funerals and he just happened to be at the one next door. Shuji’s conman credentials might be just what the family needs, but could they and should they let him save them and is “saving” the family that rejected him really a part of Shuji’s grand plan?

Japan’s rapid economic recovery is usually blamed for the collapse of the family, sending sons away from the villages and prizing the commercial over the spiritual. Tomoko’s fiance, Kamata, has a slightly different take on the problem. After his first meal with the Akechis he’s touched by the warm and friendly family atmosphere, comparing them favourably with his own upperclass family which he feels to be cold and austere. The class difference and Kamata’s obvious discomfort surrounding it is one problem as is his problematic characterisation of Tomoko’s family as earnest and hardworking as, perhaps, he thinks people without inherited wealth ought to be is another, but the real irony is reserved for Kamata’s eventual reaction to discovering the truth. Yoshiro didn’t take to Kamata because he thought him “unconventional” with his unkempt hair and pretentious tastes, but Kamata proves himself the most conventional of all in his cruel rejection of his fiancée over what he sees as a betrayal by her family.

Wild berries, once they take root, quickly take over, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Secrets, and the need to keep them, have eaten away at the foundations of the Akechi family but which is the best way to repair them – starting all over again and working hard to put things right, as Tomoko would have it, or opting for Shuji’s dishonest quick fix? The youngsters battle it out amongst themselves for the soul of the family unit while mum and dad are just too world weary to even care anymore. Faith in the family may be running at an all time low, but Nishikawa at least manages to mine the situation for all of its bleak irony, laughing along knowingly with each dark revelation or small tragedy.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (no subtitles)