Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2017)

wilderness posterWhen Shuji Terayama published his only novel in 1966, Japan was riding high – the 1964 Olympics had put the nation back on the global map and post-war desperation was beginning shift towards economic prosperity. In adapting Terayama’s jazz-inspired avant-garde prose experiment for the screen, Yoshiyuki Kishi updates the action to 2021 and a slightly futuristic Tokyo once again feeling a mild sense of post-Olympic malaise. Terayama, like the twin heroes of Wilderness (あゝ、荒野, Ah, Koya), got his “education” on the streets of Shinjuku, claiming that more could be learned from boxing and horse races than any course of study. Both damaged young men, these lonely souls begin to find a place for themselves within the ring but discover only emptiness in place of the freedom they so desperately long for.

Shinji (Masaki Suda), abandoned to an orphanage by his mother after his father committed suicide, has just been released from juvie after being involved in a street fight which left one of his best friends paralysed. Discovering that his old gang won’t take him back he’s at a loss for what to do. Meanwhile, shy barber Kenji (Yang Ik-june) who stammers so badly that he barely speaks at all, is battling the possessive stranglehold his drunken, violent ex-military father weilds over him. Raised in Korea until his mother died and his father brought him back to Japan, Kenji has always struggled to feel a part of the world he inhabits. The two meet by chance when Shinji decides to confront the man who attacked his gang, Yuji (Yuki Yamada) – now an up and coming prize fighter. Shinji is badly injured by the professional boxer while Kenji comes to his rescue, bringing them to the attention of rival boxing manager Horiguchi (Yusuke Santamaria) who manages to recruit them both for his fledgling studio.

The Tokyo of 2021 is, perhaps like its 1966 counterpart, one of intense confusion and anxiety. Plagued by mysterious terrorist attacks, the nation is also facing an extension of very real social problems exacerbated by a tail off from the temporary Olympic economic bump. As the economy continues to decline with unemployment on the rise, crime and suicides increase while social attitudes harden. In an ageing society, love hotels are being turned into care homes and wedding halls into funeral parlours. The elder care industry is in crisis, necessitating a controversial law which promises certain benefits to those who commit to dedicating themselves either to the caring professions or to the self defence forces.

Yet nothing much of this matters to a man like Shinji who ignores the crowds fleeing in terror from the latest attack in favour of “free” ramen left behind by the man who recently vacated the seat next to him out of a prudent desire to make a speedy escape. Shinji takes up boxing as way of getting public revenge on Yuji but also finds that suits him, not just as an outlet for his youthful frustrations but in the discipline and rigour of the training hall as well as the camaraderie among the small team at the gym. Kenji, by contrast, is kind hearted and so shy he can barely look his opponent in the eye. He comes to boxing as a way of finally learning to stand up for himself against his bullying father, but eventually discovers that it might be a way for him achieve what he has always dreamed of – connection.

Asked why he thinks it is we’re born at all if all we do if suffer and long for death, Kenji replies that must be “to connect” though he has no answer when asked if he ever has. For Kenji boxing is a spiritual as well as physical “contact sport” through which he hopes to finally build the kind of bridges to others that Shinji perhaps builds in a more usual way. Shinji tells himself that the only way to win is to hate, that in boxing the man who hates the hardest becomes the champion but all Kenji wants from the violence of the ring is love and acceptance. Shinji’s friend, Ryuki (Katsuya Kobayashi), has forgiven the man who crippled him and moved on with his life while Shinji is consumed by rage, warped beyond recognition in his need to prove himself superior to the forces which have already defeated him – his father’s suicide, his mother’s abandonment, and his friend’s betrayal.

While Shinji blusters, shows off, and throws it all away, Kenji patiently hones his craft hoping to meet him again in the boxing ring and “connect” in the way they never could before. There’s something essentially sad in Kenji’s deep sense of loneliness, the sketches in his notebook and strange relationship with an equally sad-eyed gangster/promoter (Satoru Kawaguchi) suggesting a hankering for something more than brotherhood. Nevertheless what each of the men responds to is the positive familial environment they have never previously known, anchored by the paternalism of coach Horiguchi and cemented by unconditional brotherly love.

Caught at cross purposes, the two young men battle each other looking for the same thing – a sense of freedom and of being connected to the world, but emerge with little more than scars and broken hearts, finding release only in a final transcendent moment of poetic tragedy. Kishi’s vision of the immediate future is bleak in the extreme, a nihilistic society in which hope has become a poison and death its only antidote. A tragedy of those who want to live but don’t know how, Wilderness is a minor miracle which proves infinitely affecting even in the depths of its despair.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Interview with director Yoshiyuki Kishi conducted at the Busan International Film Festival (Japanese with English subtitles)

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)

All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

all around usRyosuke Hashiguchi returns after an eight year absence with All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。Gururi no Koto) and eschews most of his pressing themes up this by point by opting to depict a few “scenes from a marriage” in post-bubble era Japan. Set against the backdrop of an extremely turbulent decade which was plagued by natural disasters, terrorism, and shocking criminal activity Hashiguchi shows us the enduring love of one ordinary couple who, finding themselves pulled apart by tragedy, gradually grow closer through their shared grief and disappointment.

Tokyo, 1993. Kanao (Lily Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kimura) have had an “on and off” (but seemingly solid) relationship since their art school days. She works at a publishing house and he’s kind of a slacker with a job in a shoe repair booth. Shoko worries that Kanao plays around too much (but actually doesn’t seem that bothered about it) whilst continuing to attempt to micromanage their entire existence with her clearly marked calendar planning out the most intimate of actions. When Shoko discovers she’s expecting a child, the pair decide to finally get married and begin their lives as a family. Kanao also gets an opportunity on the work side when an old college friend helps him get a job as a courtroom artist for a news agency.

However, their joy is short-lived as an abrupt jump forward in time shows us a tiny shrine underneath the calendar (shorn of its red crosses) dedicated to the memory of their infant daughter. Kanao is the keep calm and carry on sort so he just tries to bluster through but Shoko is distraught and slowly descending into a mental breakdown. If that weren’t enough to contend with, Shoko’s estranged father has been tracked down and is apparently very ill dredging up even more pain an uncertainty from the long buried past.

We follow Shoko and Kanao over a period of nine years. As well as the ever present motif of the calendar, we feel the passage of time through Kanao’s work at the court house which sees him become the artistic recorder of some of the most traumatic moments of the age. Having entered into an era of economic turmoil following the end of the bubble economy, the 1990s saw not only the devastating Kobe Earthquake but also the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground perpetrated by a dangerous religious cult, members of which wind up in court in front of Kanao, tasked with the thankless task of bearing witness to their testimony.

Kanao evidently decided not to discuss his personal tragedy with his work colleagues or, one would assume, his boss would not have reacted so harshly when he made the reasonable request to turn down the opportunity to sit in on yet another child murder trial – either by accident or design, the trials which present themselves to Kanao (and are all real, sensationalised media events of the time) involve the horrific murders of small children with only one of the defendants voicing any kind of regret or remorse.

Meanwhile, Shoko has been trying to get on with life as best she can but finds herself sinking ever deeper into depression. Her uptight, controlling personality cannot cope with this perceived “failure” on her part or of the destruction of all her plans by a truly unforeseen tragedy. Having had her doubts before regarding Kanao’s commitment to her, she finds his lack of reaction puzzling. Mistaking Kanao’s lack of outward emotion for indifference, Shoko finds it hard to continue believing in their shared destiny and wonders if her husband ever really cared for her at all. Kanao is a laid-back soul, someone who’s learned to become used to disappointment by accepting it quickly and then trying to move on. His more grounded approach might be just the one Shoko needs in order to come to terms with what’s happened – never pushing or complaining Kanao is contented simply by her presence and is prepared to give her the space she needs whilst always being around to offer support.

Hashiguchi relies on visual cues to help navigate the shifting dynamics including the repeated use of the calendar as a symbol of Shoko and Kanao’s marital status, the now unneeded pregnancy books bundled to be thrown out, or rice discarded in the sink as a marker of a house proud woman’s slide into crippling depression. Small moments make all the difference from a mother’s bandaged wrists and a cutback to the only person who’s noticed them, to the repeated joke of all the veteran journalists suddenly falling over themselves in an attempt to escape the courtroom and be the first to file their copy. A necessarily sad story, but an oddly warm one as two people worried they may be mismatched grow into each other in the face of their shared tragedy. Anchored by the strong performances of its two leads (particularly Tae Kimura who manages some convincing on screen crying in a difficult role) All Around Us is another beautifully pitched human drama from Hashiguchi who proves himself an adept chronicler of the human condition even whilst stepping away from his trademark themes.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

University of Laughs (笑の大学, Mamoru Hoshi, 2004)

warainodaigakuUniversity of Laughs (笑の大学, Warai no Daigaku) is certainly an apt name for a film which aims to teach the universal power of comedy. Based on a 1997 stage play by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani and directed by Mamoru Hoshi, the film is set in 1940 at the height of Japan’s militaristic fervour. With the annexation of Manchuria only three years previously and the war in full swing, there is no room for such petty bourgeois pleasures as slapstick comedy shows. The censor’s stamp rules all and if the piece doesn’t exult the glorious nature of the empire, then what good is it?

Or so thinks recent Manchurian returnee Sakisaka (Koji Yakusho) – the newly appointed occupier of the censor’s chair. Sakisaka has been appointed because he has no sense of humour at all and very little in the way of human feeling. In fact, he even thinks this censorship business is a little pointless and it would be better to just ban everything outright. Then, one day, he encounters quite the stupidest piece of low comedy he’s ever come across in the form of the latest play by a company called “University of Laughs” written by their company director, Tsubaki (Goro Inagaki).

Tsubaki is a nervous, neurotic young man. “Don’t worry, we very rarely use torture” Sakisaka reassures him. Still, Tsubaki tries to talk him through his parodic play script called “The Tragedy of Juleo and Romiet”. However, Tsubaki’s play is no good at all! It’s full of foreigners! And there’s romance, and no one talks about how amazing Japan is, what the hell sort of play is this!? Sakisaka tells him to bring it back tomorrow with the requisite changes. However, tomorrow’s effort is only a little better. Maybe another day? Gradually over the course of a week the pair become uneasy collaborators as Sakisaka eventually rediscovers his sense of humour.

The central irony being that in trying to eliminate all subversive elements in the script, Sakisaka actually ends up in the position of editor – all of the changes he suggests only succeed in making the play funnier and more coherent. The more advice he receives from Sakisaka, the better a writer Tsubaki becomes. However, Sakisaka is the representative of everything the true artists abhors as the tool of an oppressive state which seeks to repress all independent thought. In going along with Sakisaka’s recommendations, isn’t Tsubaki becoming just another government lapdog? Is it better to compromise, go as far as you can go, and stay open or should you staunchly refuse and boycott the regime in its entirety?

For Tsubaki, comedy is a religion. He’s a comedy writer, if he can’t write comedies he may as well not exist at all and the way he sees it, this stuff is making the work better so who cares what it’s all about, really, so long as the work is good. His actors, though, feel differently and Tsubaki is paying a heavy price for his awkward quasi-friendship with the government stooge. Nevertheless, the two develop a strange bond with the previously stiff Sakisaka bucking his rigid adherence to government doublespeak in opening up to Tsubaki’s comedic education. However, their friendship may not be as deep as Tsubaki hopes when he unwisely reveals his real feelings about the regime causing Sakisaka to remind him where his loyalties lie. This is 1940 after all and the spectre of war lies all around. In the end, even if Tsubaki’s now near perfect work is passed for presentation, he may be unable to realise it in person.

Consciously old fashioned, University of Laughs has echoes of Fellini though perhaps filtered through mid period Woody Allen. The Nino Rota-esque score further enhances the association as does the idea of the fascist state as a mad circus where one is forced repeat the same actions over and over again until the ringmasters finally applaud. Warm, witty and surprisingly engaging for a film that is essentially two guys in a room for two hours, University of Laughs is another impressive effort from the pen of Mitani which offers both a cutting critique of oppressive censorship, a defence of the artist and an exultation of the universal power of laughter.