Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2019)

The thing about hotels is, people often go to them when they want to be someone else, so how can you be on the look out for suspicious behaviour when everyone is to some degree acting out of character? Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best known authors particularly praised for his elaborately plotted mysteries. In contrast to some of his famous detective novels, Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル) leans into his softer side, taking its cues from Agatha Christie in its ultimately cheerful exploration of the strange world of hotels while praising the detective acumen both of cynical policemen and eager to please hoteliers. 

The police are hot on the trail of a serial killer and, due to clues found at the previous crime scenes, have concluded the next killing will take place at the Hotel Cotesia Tokyo. To scout out the potential crime scene, the detectives have co-opted the hotel’s basement as an incident room and are preparing to go undercover to keep an eye on things upstairs. Dishevelled detective Nitta (Takuya Kimura) has been assigned to the front desk because of his English skills apparently honed while living abroad in his youth, and is to be paired with earnest hotelier Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) who will do her best to turn him into a first rate hotelman. 

As might be expected, Nitta and Naomi do not exactly hit it off. Gruff and given to giving everyone in 50m radius the hard stare, Nitta is a shaggy haired middle-aged man in creased suits and shiny shoes. The first thing Naomi makes him do is get a haircut which does wonders for his image, but also plays into the peculiar art of masquerade which defines hotel life. Nitta is in the habit of calling the guests “customers” which instantly irritates Naomi who has spent the entirety of her professional life learning to be deferent. She reminds him that in here the guests are in charge, they make the rules and therefore can never break them. Her job is to provide the best service, which means she often has to set her personal pride aside and allow the sometimes unpleasant clientele, the ones who like to come to posh hotels to throw their weight around and abuse the staff, to get away with being obtuse because that’s just part of her job. 

That’s a big ask from Nitta who is both a proud man and a justice loving policeman to whom the idea of letting people act badly is almost anathema. To do his job, however, he’ll have to learn to bear it or risk letting a potential serial killer slip through his fingers. What Naomi realises is that they’re more alike than they first seemed. Both of their jobs rely on an astute assessment of their targets, even if they come at it from opposite ends. Naomi knows that each of her guests is wearing a kind of mask, taking on a slightly different persona when they enter her hotel, but her job is to see past it without ever letting on. A good hotelier knows what the guest wants before they do and is always ready to provide it, that’s the nature of service. So Naomi trusts her guests and is careful not to judge them. Nitta, meanwhile, is a policeman so he’s trained to question everything and suspect everyone. His job is to unmask and confront his suspects with who they really are. 

They both, however got into this game essentially because they want to protect people even if she wants to protect them inside and he out. Which means of course that they can work together after all, learning a little something from each other along the way. Naomi, well versed in the liberties often taken by her guests, is nearly taken in by an obvious scam that only Nitta is quick enough to catch thanks to his cynical policeman’s logic. He’s also first to suspect that there’s something not quite right with a harmless little old lady, and though Naomi senses it too she’s minded to let it go and doubles down on being the perfect servant thanks to her animosity towards Nitta. That “not quite right”, however, proves to be a slight misreading of the guest who, like many Nitta encounters, is pretending to be something they’re not for reasons that prove perfectly understandable once revealed. 

But then, Higashino characteristically pulls the rug out from under us and asks if we haven’t been suckered in buying all those reasonable excuses. Thanks to his conversations with Naomi, Nitta begins to get a grip on the crime, while she struggles with her conscience after learning that her guests may be in much more danger than she thought. Staking all on justice, the pair of them vow to abandon their respective professions if a guest gets hurt, but fail to realise that the crime may hit far closer to home than they’d anticipated. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a strangely whimsical admiration for the weird world of hotels where no one is quite the same person they were before they walked through the revolving doors.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Honnouji Hotel (本能寺ホテル, Masayuki Suzuki, 2017)

According to the opening quote from Otto von Bismark, fools learn from experience and the wise man from history, but in truth you’ll need a little of the former to correctly interpret the latter. The heroine of Honnoji Hotel (本能寺ホテル) is not exactly lacking in life experience, but hers has been of the passive variety. She’s blithely gone along with the path her society laid out for her, but now she’s hit an unexpected bump in the road it’s prompted her into a reconsideration of where it was she was going. Most people wouldn’t meet such a crisis by asking “what would Nobunaga do?”, but that’s where our heroine finds herself after accidentally exiting a hotel lift right into the middle of the Sengoku era. 

20-something Mayuko (Haruka Ayase) is in Kyoto for a short holiday and to meet up with her fiancé to be formally introduced to his family. The problem begins when it transpires that owing to an administrative error, her hotel reservation has been made for the following month and everything is currently fully booked seeing as the city is such a tourist hotspot. After wandering around a while, she stumbles across a dated, slightly musty establishment named the “Honnouji Hotel” which, she realises even given her shaky grasp of history, is a fairly inauspicious name. Everyone knows that 16th century general and noted tyrant Oda Nobunaga committed seppuku at the Honno temple after he was betrayed by one of his retainers who rose against him. Nobunaga had been primed to bring peace to Japan after more than a century of destructive warfare, paving the way for unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate, but is a somewhat ambiguous figure known for his extreme volatility and tendency towards cruel authoritarianism. 

That vision of Nobunaga is indeed the one Mayuko first encounters when she finds herself accidentally thrown back into the Sengoku era after exiting the lift in her hotel. The first person that she meets turns out to be Mori Ranmaru (Gaku Hamada) with whom she bonds over a shared sense of anxiety, she over meeting her boyfriend’s family, and he over an important tea ceremony with life or death consequences. She gives him some modern-day stomach medicine while he warns her that his lord is “cruel and demonic”. Still not quite grasping that things work differently (to a point at least) in the feudal world, she advises him to quit rather than allow himself to be exploited to the point that it’s ruining his health but he exasperatedly reminds her that you can’t simply drop out of samurai society. Mayuko gets another cruel awakening when observing the tea ceremony and witnessing a man, whom she later realises to be Nobunaga (Shinichi Tsutsumi), extorting a tea caddy from a distressed master who tries to protest that he’d only been informed that the caddy would be displayed and is unwilling to give it away. Nobunaga reminds him that the nation will soon be unified under his banner, at which point he will be in control of business affairs, threatening him with economic consequences backed up with the possibility of immediate violence. 

Despite her essential passivity, Mayuko cannot bear injustice and immediately springs into action, handing the caddy back to its original owner and instructing him that he shouldn’t allow himself to be intimidated into giving up his prized possessions. In her own life, however, she’s nowhere near as certain. We find out that she’s only known her fiancé for six months, and is still ambivalent about the idea of marriage. When the company she’d been working for suddenly went bust, she found herself at a loss, told that the teacher’s certificate she’d taken as a backup is largely useless because even teaching is oversaturated in today’s difficult job market. Now, it’s not feudal times anymore, but many people in Japan still expect a woman to give up her career to get married, which is what most of her friends advise her to do especially seeing as she had no particular ambitions or goals in life. Kyoichi’s (Hiroyuki Hirayama) proposal comes at an opportune moment, but she finds herself asking opportune for whom and if this is really what she wants or if she’s just allowing herself to be railroaded into conventional “success” without really thinking it through. 

It might be going too far to read too much in to a similarity between Nobunaga’s dictatorial dynamism and Kyoichi’s domineering manliness, but that’s largely where Mayuko seems to be. Beginning to realise his mistakes, Kyoichi confesses that he cynically took advantage of the situation to manipulate Mayuko into marrying him, believing that she was “insecure and unreliable”, “unable to do anything alone” and in need of his protection. Talking with Kyoichi’s father and beginning to assert herself in opposition to Nobunaga’s injustices, she begins to realise that she can take charge of her own destiny and has a duty to find what it is she wants to do, and do that as best she can.

The lesson is, however, somewhat problematically learned in her realisation both that she can’t change “history” and that she can because history is a consequence of our collective choices. This Nobunaga, apparently wanted a peaceful society for all, one in which class divisions had been eradicated and equality ruled. He sees our world and deems it good enough to sacrifice his life for, but Mayuko by turns becomes enamoured of the past, finding her vocation as a teacher of history in a move which is both progressive in seeing her reject a marriage of “convenience” to strike out under her own steam, but also backward looking in its reevaluation of Nobunaga and his unfinished revolution as if there is no real need for change “now”. Granted, Honnouji Hotel is partly concerned with selling the charms of Kyoto as an unchanging historical centre, but it’s difficult to escape the slightly sour note of conservatism as Mayuko finds her forward path only by embracing the samurai past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kingdom (キングダム, Shinsuke Sato, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Kingdom poster 1The class war arrives in feudal China via modern Japan in Shinsuke Sato’s big budget adaptation of the wuxia-inspired manga by Yasuhisa Hara, Kingdom (キングダム). Set in China’s Warring States period, Kingdom offers a surprisingly progressive message, if mildly tempered by a failure to tackle the system in its entirety, in which the oppressed (which in this case includes the king) rise up against sneering aristocracy fuelled mostly by righteousness and fierce defence of the right to dream.

The tale begins with a fateful meeting between enslaved war orphans Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) and Xin (Kento Yamazaki) on a small farm somewhere in rural China. The boys, realising there is no way out of their enslavement save the sword, commit themselves to perfecting their martial arts with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s greatest generals. Their intense bond is broken when a mysterious man, Lord Chang . Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima), appears and offers Piao a job at the palace. Though he agonises over leaving his brother behind, Piao seizes his destiny little knowing he has been hired not quite so much for his sword skills as for his resemblance to weakened king Ying Zheng (also played by Ryo Yoshizawa). Sometime later, Piao returns close to death, entrusting Xin with an important mission – go to Ying Zheng and seek his own destiny by restoring rightful rule.

The two boys are about as oppressed as it’s possible to be – orphaned slaves with no prospect of improving their condition save the one they’ve already decided on, fighting in a war. This doesn’t quite explain how they can release themselves from the farm, but Xin’s eventual flight, in which his master does not attempt to stop him, might suggest the first hurdle is not as big as it seems. In any case, Xin finds an unlikely ally in Ying Zheng who has been deposed from the throne by his younger brother for not being royal enough because his birth was illegitimate and his mother was a dancer.

Of course, Ying Zheng’s intention to regain his “rightful” throne is in defence of a necessarily unequal social order, but it’s also a blow against the kind of elitism which mark’s his brother Cheng Jiao’s (Kanata Hongo) philosophy. Cheng Jiao believes that he is the most rightful king because his blood is the most royal. He looks down on Ying Zheng as low born, and has no respect for his subjects or the lower orders. “A peasant in fine clothes is still a peasant” one of his minions intones to intimidate an opponent, but someone with a sword is still someone with a sword no matter their circumstances of birth and provided you have access to acquire one, perhaps swordsmanship is a truly egalitarian art given that it largely depends on how well you wield a blade. Eventually, Ying Zheng makes an ally of another oppressed people – the mountain dwellers subjugated, and previously betrayed, by the powers that be who lend their strength to toppling a corrupt power structure in order to restore something like peace and balance to the land.

Indeed, asked to give a brief manifesto speech, Ying Zheng cooly declares that he aims to create a unified China by eliminating borders and therefore the need for war. Insisting that when a king picks up a sword it ought to be in service of his people, he makes the case for a borderless world, little caring that, as his general points out, history may brand him a tyrant. Nevertheless, he remains a “puppet king” whose status is dependent on the loyalty of key general Wang Yi (Takao Ohsawa) with whom true power lies. Wang Yi, as we later find out seems to be a “good” person who used his troops to protect the innocent and ensure no civilians were harmed during the chaos of the insurrection but he does indeed wield dangerously vast power for just one man. Meanwhile, Ying Zheng may reject the primacy of blood, but does dare to claim his birthright as an oldest son and is of course acting in service of an inherently oppressive system even if he means to make minor improvements towards the kind of meritocracy that allows men like Xin to embrace the power of their dreams.

The power of dreams is indeed the key. Though Cheng Jiao’s hardline mercenary may sneer that “dreams are bullshit” and deny a slave like Xin’s right to have one at all, to men like Xin dreams are all they have. As he says, they get you back on your feet when everything else seems hopeless. Learning that Piao achieved his dream even if it was only for a few moments gives him the strength to pursue his own in service not just of himself but his brother, friends, and kingdom.

Appropriating the aesthetics of wuxia may prove problematic for some, but like many Japanese manga with international settings, Kingdom’s mechanics are essentially home grown which is perhaps why Sato heavily leans on Kurosawa’s legacy, possibly overusing the distinctive side wipe and giving his heroine a look echoing that from Hidden Fortress while other influences seem to feed back from Star Wars in the strangely cute masked mountain elders and gleaming golden armour of bad ass warrior queen Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa). A surprisingly positive, perhaps ironically bold plea for a borderless world and if not actual equality at least a friendly kind of egalitarian nobility, Kingdom hands victory to those who fight hardest for their right to dream while subtly advocating for their right to rebel against an inherently unjust social order in order to claim it. 


Kingdom was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be screened in US cinemas from Aug. 16 courtesy of Funimation.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Shuichi Okita, 2009)

If there’s one thing which unites the universes present in the films of Shuichi Okita, aside from their warm and humorous atmosphere, it’s their tendency to take a generally genial, calm and laid back protagonist and throw them into an inhospitable environment which they don’t quite understand. When it comes to “inhospitable”, the hero of The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Nankyoku Ryourinin) couldn’t have it much worse, unfairly transferred to a polar research station where the air temperature is so cold nothing, not even bacteria, can survive outside. Still, like all of Okita’s laid back guys, he handles his difficult circumstances with a kind of stoical resignation until, of course, the situation can be handled no more!

Separated from his wife and children, Jun Nishimura (Masato Sakai) previously worked for the Japanese coastguard but has now been transferred (not altogether of his own volition) to a polar research station where he is responsible for all the culinary needs of the seven men who will be working together during the expedition which is intended to last one year. Each of the other men has his own part to play in the scientific endeavours but cooped up as they are, the greater issue is downtime as the guys revert to a kind of high school camp, divided into various groups and activities from the “Chinese Research Club” to a bar being run by the doctor who is also training for a triathlon. 365 days in the freezing cold does eventually begin to take its toll but all of the crazy only serves to remind people how important it is that they all get on and make it through this together.

Based on the autobiographical writings of the real Jun Nishimura, Okita’s isolation experiment has a pleasantly authentic feeling as the titular chef laments the difficulties of the conditions but continues to churn out beautifully presented culinary treats despite the hostile environment. Resources are also strictly limited as the original provisions are intended to last the entire expedition – hence why most of the foodstuffs are canned, vacuum packed or frozen but there are a few luxuries on offer including some prize shrimp apparently left behind, uneaten, by a previous team which proves an additional occasion for celebration just as despair is beginning to set it in. Seeing as the men are all here for more than a year, celebratory occasions do present themselves with regularity from birthdays to “mid winter holiday” and even a good go at the Japanese festival of Setsubun with peanuts instead of beans.

Despite these brief moments of respite, being completely cut off from the outside world for such a long time with little natural light and hardly anything to do outside of research places its own kind of pressure on the minds of these top scientists. As their hair gets shaggier and their beards progressively less kempt, sanity also begins to slip. Each of the guys has their own particular marker, something they’re missing that’s playing on their minds until they eventually break completely. For some this could be realising they’ve eaten all of the ramen which exists in their tiny world and now have nothing left to live for, missing their kids, or realising that their girlfriend might have met someone else while they’ve been busy devoting themselves to science, but this being an Okita film even if an axe is raised it rarely falls where intended and the only cure for mass hysteria is guilt ridden kindness and a willingness to work together to put everything right again.

Of course, the other thing the guys have to put up with is the attitude of the outside world as everyone is very keen to ask them about the cute penguins and seals which they are sure must be everywhere at the South Pole, only to have to explain that it’s just too cold for cuteness though it does lead them to the epiphany that they are the only living creatures in this desolate place and so share a special kind of kinship. Filled with Okita’s usual brand of off the wall humour and gentle humanity, The Chef of South Polar is another warm and friendly tale of nice people triumphing over adversity through cooperation, mutual understanding and sustained belief in the healing power of ramen.


Original trailer (no subtitles)