Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍, Naoki Segi, 2011)

Ramen Samurai posterSet in the ‘90s, Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍) is in many ways a post-Showa story or a tale of one man’s reaction to bubble era disillusionment. It’s also in the fine tradition of legacy movies in which a troubled child reflects on a complicated relationship with a late parent and struggles to accept their role as an inheritor of skills and knowledge they’d spent much of their youth attempting to reject. Yet the hero of Ramen Samurai, though he maybe reluctant, is more willing than most to pick up his father’s burden, walking back through family history with his long-suffering mother and rediscovering the heroism which lay behind his sometimes difficult father’s tough guy exterior. Hikaru (Dai Watanabe) does not see himself as a man like his father – he’s no “hero” and bears no natural inclination towards rebellion, but only through addressing his father’s life can he learn to define his own. This is all, of course, a roundabout way to discovering the soul of ramen lies in the confidence of the chef.

In 1990 Hikaru, a graphic designer, gets a call at work from his mum to let him know his father has had a stroke. Hikaru left town in a hurry some years earlier, rejecting the idea of taking over the ramen restaurant for a life in bubble era Tokyo. On his father’s death he assumes his natural responsibility and comes home but customers say his ramen’s not as good as his dad’s, and he has trouble keeping his staff in line because they simply don’t accept him. Try as he might, Hikaru just can’t seem to find a way to replicate his father’s recipe, in the store or in life.

Yet there’s a nostalgia in him that sees him want to try. Kurume, a small town in Kyushu, is defined by its ramen – a local delicacy that once brought tourists and general prosperity to the area, but during bubble era “modernisation”, the “backward” yatai ramen stands with their colourful tarpaulins were deemed too reminiscent of post-war privation to survive. The carts were shunted away from the new sophisticated city centre while the police started restricting licenses to run them, eventually prohibiting their sale and limiting their inheritance to direct family members. Hikaru is at least his father’s son and so has a natural right to take over the business even if he has hitherto rejected it.

Rather than a cooking tale, Ramen Samurai steps back to tell the story of its vicarious protagonist – the problematic figure of Hikaru’s dad who is, in many ways, the idealised figure of the Showa era “hero”. That’s not to say he was perfect – he drank to the point of financial ruin and frequently caused problems for his family, but his heart was always in the right place and so he was mostly forgiven. A salt of the Earth type and cool with it, Hikaru’s dad was the big man around town and the defacto leader of the yatai owner community. He brooked no injustice, stood up to the yakuza (who only had the profoundest respect for him), and sought to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. Seeing a sleazy yakuza molesting a young girl, Hikaru’s dad kicked him out and later offered the girl, who is mute, a job and a place to stay, almost adopting her into his family until another act of random kindness accidentally reunites her with her own long-lost father.

Faced with such an intense legacy, it’s no wonder Hikaru struggled. A sensitive, artistic soul he tried his luck in bubble era Tokyo working in an advertising agency where he found the coolness of his colleagues puzzling and difficult to bear. Hikaru’s boss loudly discusses pub lunches and evenings spent in hostess bars, often throwing away the lovingly made bento provided by his wife. Returning home with an empty lunchbox is, he says, his way of showing love though his refusal to eat it perhaps a reaction against a salaryman’s lack of freedom. Nevertheless, even if they clashed in terms of personal morality, Hikaru’s boss compliments him on his commitment to hard work and growth as an artist even whilst admitting that the work itself is often frivolous and ultimately thankless.

Hikaru eventually learns to channel his artistic inclinations into his ramen, seeing himself as a “ramen artist” incorporating his father’s legacy into a dish which is entirely his own. In a sense, Hikaru retreats into the safety of the Showa era past, or that is the cosy 1970s in which he lived a comfortable, if eventful, childhood under a yatai’s awning while dad made trouble but only for the best of reasons. A samurai’s duty is, after all, to protect and Hikaru has decided to do exactly that in “restoring” his hometown to its former glory, dragging retro yatai culture into the rapidly disintegrating post-bubble world and bringing warmth and community back with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Eisuke Naito, 2018)

(C)押切蓮介/双葉社 (C)2017「ミスミソウ」製作委員会

Liverleaf poster“How have things turned out this way?” Asks the heroine of Eisuke Naito’s Liverleaf (ミスミソウ, Misumisou) after receiving a poignant (non)explanation for the cause of all her sufferings. Adolescence is cruel at the best of times, but when you’re stuck in a tiny no horse town with nothing to do, violence can become an easy pastime. The kids of Liverleaf take the art of bullying to all new heights, stopping not at humiliation, ostracisation, or conspiratorial acts of emotional ruin but allowing their petty games to run all the way to arson and murder.

Haruka (Anna Yamada), unlike most of her classmates, is a relatively new resident of a small rural town where she and her family have moved for her father’s job. Her only friend at school, and the only one to stand up for her against the gang of popular kids making her life a misery, is another transfer student, Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu), living alone with his grandmother for mysterious reasons. The usual high school girl tricks of making another girl feel unwelcome – stolen shoes, name calling, silent stalking etc eventually progress into direct violence at which point her father (Masahiro Toda) tries to go to the school to complain. Unfortunately, Haruka’s teacher (Aki Morita) is an almost absent, hollow source of authority who cannot control the kids and nor does she try. She tells Haruka’s dad that as the school will be closing down at the end of the academic year it’s hardly the time to make waves and she sees no need to get involved in such trivial matters. Matters come to a head when the kids, egging each other on, set fire to Haruka’s house with her mother (Reiko Kataoka), father, and little sister Shoko (Sena Tamayori) trapped inside.

It’s true enough to say Haruka reacted to her bullying in the way that society expects – she kept her head down and tried to put up with it without making a fuss. Some may read Liverleaf as a tale of vengeance, but it isn’t. As passive as she’s always been, Haruka’s acts of violence are a matter of extreme self defence. She doesn’t go looking for the ones who’ve done her wrong, but they come looking for her and thereafter pay a heavy price for their continued campaign of subjugation.

Haruka became an easy subject for bullying because she was a literal outsider – Aiba escaped this particular fate through being male, conventionally attractive, and with a confidence and maturity which set him apart from the bratty kids trying to prove their status by belittling others. Once Haruka decides to sit out the rest of the school term rather than put up with constant torment, she activates an extreme chain of events when the next likely target, a strange girl with a stammer (Rena Ohtsuka), decides to do whatever it takes to become one of the bullies rather than their latest victim. Morality goes out the window when fear takes over and some will to whatever it takes to make sure it’s someone else in the firing line rather than themselves.

Yet for all the fear and violence, there’s another, perhaps more interesting, story buried under all the senseless bloodletting. It’s not so much that teenage emotions are running wild, but that they barely have them at all and those they do have find no available outlet. Romantic jealousy spirals out of control, turning in on itself as love denied masquerades as hate. Unable to freely voice their innermost anxieties, the kids take their resentments out on each other, getting their kicks through cruel games which bind them with complicity in the absence of real feeling.

Naito attempts to lend an air of realism to the increasingly bizarre middle school warfare but cannot escape the manga origins of his source material. The violence itself is cartoonish and absurd, but there’s also an unpleasant layer of fetishisation which takes over as the blood starts flowing, almost revelling in acts of extreme cruelty as a young man exults in beating the face of a young girl to a bloody pulp. Unremittingly bleak, Liverleaf makes a bid for pathos in its closing coda as it takes us back to a case of ruined friendships and broken dreams but it can’t overcome the uneasy stylisation of all that’s gone before in swapping emptiness for wistful melancholy.


Liverleaf screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 8th July, 7pm with director Eisuke Naito in attendance for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

My House (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2012)

my houseYukihiko Tsutsumi has made some of the most popular films at the Japanese box office yet his name might not be one that’s instantly familiar to filmgoers. Tsutsumi has become a top level creator of mainstream blockbusters, often inspired by established franchises such as TV drama or manga. Skilled in many genres from the epic sci-fi of Twentieth Century Boys to the mysterious comedy of Trick and the action of SPEC, Tsutsumi’s consumate abilities have taken on an anonymous quality as the franchise takes centre stage which makes this indie leaning black and white exploration of the lives of a group of homeless people in Nagoya all the more surprising.

The film begins with its hero, Suzumoto, pulling a cart followed by his friends with other supplies and equipment. Arriving at their appointed destination, the men and women embark on a process they’ve obviously enacted a thousand times before. Dismantling their cart, they arrange the components for a kind of prefab house made out of found materials and propped up on crates.

Though the life may seem impossible to those from the outside – as it does to the well meaning men from the council eager to get the mini commune to move on by dangling a promise of sheltered accommodation or assistance, but thanks to Suzumoto’s innovations they have access to many of the benefits of the modern world from television to laptops. The main source of income comes from recycling – collecting tin cans, bottles, cardboard etc to be sold back to scrap merchants and recycling plants. It’s not easy money to make and there isn’t much of it but Suzumoto has his routine well worked out and is able to maximise his takings by cutting deals with householders and businesses for handiwork in return for what is essentially rubbish.

Getting into a discussion with a hotelier, Suzumoto is offered a regular job and a place in company accommodation but turns it down. He likes his life. It might seem hard to others and it is annoying to be continually dismantling and rebuilding your house, but the innovation appeals to him. He likes to work and to make things work. He wouldn’t want to be cooped up and constrained by the world of contracts and salaries and taxes.

The freedom and simplicity of Suzumoto’s life is contrasted with a seemingly ordinary middle class household which is defined by its tension and sterility. School boy Shota is an ace student but his austere father pushes him hard, allowing him little freedom or responsibility. Nursing a mild addiction to Pepsi, Shota’s only friend is the pet turtle he keeps in a tank in his wardrobe. While his father returns home only to shout at everyone and then go to bed, Shota’s mother is as obsessed with cleaning as he is with Pepsi and rarely leaves the house. Talking to almost no one, Shota’s mother’s existence is one of cold rigidity, living in fear of her domineering husband and accidentally neglecting her stressed out son in the process.

Through a series of inevitable coincidences the two worlds will clash with tragic consequences on each side. Tsutsumi doesn’t seek to glamorise life on the streets or paint it as some kind of hippyish quest for better living, but he does dare to suggest that Suzumoto’s self reliance and inner calm are much more healthy than the fear and repression which make Shota’s home as much of a prison as the tank he traps his turtle in. Suzumoto and his friends are looked down on, hassled by the authorities, and accused of crimes they did not commit but they are the victims and not the instigators of violence. Tension bubbles over and misses its target as rage against authority and society at large is redirected towards its most vulnerable citizens.

Suzumoto takes all of this in his stride, as he always does, dismantling his house only to rebuild somewhere else hoping only to continue the cycle while Shota is left to ruminate on the consequences of his actions still trapped inside the empty pressure cooker of his family home. Tsutsumi’s elegantly composed black and white aesthetic adds to the contemplative edge as two worlds are thrown into stark contrast but the one central tenet is the enabling factor for both – the intense pressures and total indifference of the mainstream world towards those attempting to live within in it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)