Erica 38 (エリカ38, Yuichi Hibi, 2019)

Erica 38 poster“Everybody’s life is in someway unfulfilling”, admits the philosophical victim of a con woman in ripped from the headlines tale Erica 38 (エリカ38). “It’s like a crutch” he adds, without a little fantasy you can’t go on. Like the “Erica” of the title, her victims are also looking for escape from an unsatisfying reality, and unfortunately for them already have what she feels would make her life more bearable – vast wealth. Returning to Japan after three decades abroad, director Yuichi Hibi does his best to humanise the figure of the coldhearted grifter, painting her as just another disappointed, lonely old woman desperately trying to recapture the sense of possibility so cruelly denied her in youth.

Later rebranding herself as “Erica”, a 38-year-old woman of means, our “heroine” is Satoko Watanabe (Miyoko Asada), an ageing bar hostess supplementing her income by peddling a dodgy multi-vitamin pyramid scheme to bored housewives eager to make a few extra bucks. Her sales pitch, however, gets her noticed by a refined old woman sitting close by in an upscale hotel during in one of her sessions. The woman, Mrs. Ito (Midori Kiuchi), introduces her to a “friend”, Hirasawa (Takehiro Hira), who cuts in with a sales pitch of his own in branding himself as a paid up member of the global elite who works with the Pentagon on important international matters. Hirasawa heavily implies his business is not quite on the level, but Satoko, captivated by his suave sophistication, fails to realise just how dodgy he really is. Before long, she’s joined him in his “consultation” business, selling fraudulent investment opportunities in the emerging market of Cambodia.

It is surprisingly easy to sympathise with the dejected Satoko as she falls under Hirasawa’s spell. Already well into her 50s when the film begins and clearly over 60 when she rebrands herself as the 38-year-old Erica, Satoko has led an unhappy life beginning with a traumatic childhood lived in the shadow of an abusive, adulterous father. The only memory of joy from her youth is when she and her mother (Kirin Kiki) giggled together after accidentally tipping rat poison into dad’s miso soup. Life since then, it seems, has been one disappointment after another spent in the hostess bars of Kabukicho. What all of that means, however, is that she’s become skilled in the art of selling fantasy. All that time invested in extracting cold hard cash from lonely men has set her in good stead for selling unrealistic investment opportunities to the already comfortably off.

Unrepentant, Satoko tells herself that she bears no responsibility towards those who lost money in her scams because they were chasing exactly the same thing she was – escape, and they both found it at least for a moment. Her victims made the decision themselves, she never forced anyone, and so it’s their own fault that they fell for her patter while she perhaps laments only that she’s been foolish and profligate in not planning better for the eventual implosion of all her schemes.

“There’s a thin line between real and fake”, she tells a party guest admiring one of her paintings, “if someone sees it as real then real it is”. Satoko’s cons are, in essence, an extension of the paradox of the hostess business. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have seen that the business isn’t legitimate, but like a salaryman in a hostess bar they invest in the semblance of connection while knowing in a sense that isn’t “real”. Ironically enough, Satoko is forced to realise that the first victim of her subterfuge is herself. Chasing a dream of love, she fell hard for Hirasawa without thinking him through. Hirasawa succeeds in his schemes because he’s scrupulously careful in maintaining his persona – he operates out of hotels, has no fixed address, and uses several cellphones. As Satoko later finds out, he is effectively running a harem, romancing several women all like herself bringing in the big bucks while he sits back relatively risk free. She has been used, once again.

The implosion of her dream of romantic escape is what sends her to Thailand where she ponders a reset, rebranding herself as the 38-year-old Erica of the title and beginning an affair with a young and handsome Thai man she rescued from gangsters with her ill-gotten gains. Porche (Woraphop Klaisang) later describes her as “My Angel”, of course realising that she was much older than she claimed but claiming not to care. It may be that he really did love her, but you can’t ignore the corruption of all that money and the power that it buys. In the end, money can’t buy you love, or a path out of loneliness, or a cure for disappointment.

Satoko was, like many, just another lonely, disappointed old lady trying to escape an unsatisfying present through a fantasy of returning to the past, rebooting herself as a successful business woman, loved and in love, as someone with a brighter future to look forward to. Her sales patter worked because it was “true”, the similarly dejected could sense in her the desperation for escape and as they wanted to escape too they let her take them with her. A melancholy tale of delusion and disillusionment, Erica 38 has immense sympathy for the scammer and the scammed painting them both as victims of an often unfair, conformist society in which freedom is the rarest commodity of them all.


Erica 38 screens in New York on July 25 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Killing for the Prosecution (検察側の罪人, Masato Harada, 2018)

Killing for the Prosecution posterThe vagaries of the Japanese legal system have become a persistent preoccupation for anxious filmmakers keen to interrogate the continuing rightward shift of the contemporary society. Stretching right back into the post-war world, filmmakers from Yoji Yamada and Yoshitaro Nomura to the more contemporary Masayuki Suo and Gen Takahashi all had their questions to ask about the courts system before Hirokazu Koreeda pushed the dialogue in a slightly different direction with the probing The Third Murder. Killing for the Prosecution (検察側の罪人, Kensatsugawa no Zainin) picks up Koreeda’s baton and brings with it all the baggage of the aforementioned films in asking similar questions about the nature of justice and most particularly within the context of Japan under the conservative government of Shinzo Abe.

In the contemporary era, rookie prosector Okino (Kazunari Ninomiya) gets a prime Tokyo job working for his mentor Mogami (Takuya Kimura) which begins with investigating a bloody double murder of an elderly couple who were apparently running an illicit side business in usurious loans. The suspect list includes a series of shady characters, but one catches Mogami’s eye – Matsukura (Yoshi Sako), a man arrested and subsequently released in relation to a brutal murder of a school girl Mogami had known and liked while he was a student. Unable to let the case rest, Mogami finds himself fixated on the idea of nailing Matsukura for the pensioner murder in order to get justice for the previous killing which has now passed the statute of limitations.

Meanwhile, Mogami himself is also embroiled in a conspiracy surrounding an old friend, Tanno (Takehiro Hira), now a senator accused of corruption. Harada opens with a brief prologue set during Okino’s final pre-graduation briefing in which Mogami offers a somewhat cynical lecture on the role of the prosecution and the nature of justice. Like the lawyers at the centre of The Third Murder, he is keen to emphasise that the truth is rarely relevant in the face of the law and that justice is a game won by constructing impenetrable narrative. He insists that “there is no such thing as rain which washes away guilt”. Yet his love of justice is so fierce that he collects and displays gavels – a complicated symbol seeing as Japan doesn’t use them but like many other countries has internalised an association with them thanks to American movies.

America, in itself, becomes a complicated facet of Mogami’s judicial confusion as he finds himself pulled between left and right. In his meetings with Tanno, we originally find him complicit with the regime, presumably acting to protect his friend and thereby enabling his corruption but we later come to realise that the opposite is true – that the pair of them are complicit in the system in order to undermine it. Tanno, apparently disillusioned with right wing politics and committed to pacifist ideals, attempted to blow the whistle on systemic political corruption and has been hung out to dry. Lamenting that there is no press freedom in Japan, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to frustrate a persistent shift towards remilitarisation (apparently hastened by his own wife who has embarrassingly enough been photographed at a neo-nazi rally) but coldly cuts off Mogami’s offer of further assistance by reminding him that he too is “part of the system”.

Mogami goes rogue, but he does so more for reasons of personal vengeance than pursuit of justice. Desperate to nail Matsukura he begins to bend his narrative while his earnest rookie underling, Okino, remains conflicted about his boss’ increasingly suspicious behaviour. Yet the possibility remains, if Matsukura didn’t do it someone else did. If Mogami has Matsukura pay for this crime rather than another one, perhaps a kind of justice is served but a dangerous man would still be out there. In the end, Mogami transgresses in pursuit of his own kind of justice becoming the kind of “criminal” prosecutor he cautioned Okino against becoming in his already cynical opening speech.

That aside, Mogami ties his crimes to a long history of injustice and oppression in allusion to his grandfather’s accidental survival of the battle of Imphal thanks to a kind of purgatorial space known as “Hotel Tanang” to which he returns in an oddly surreal dream sequence which places himself and Tanno as descendants of men who refused to die for oppressive imperialistic concerns. The “Skeleton Road” buys him an uneasy alliance with a genial yakuza (Yutaka Matsushige) who provides another source of temptation to turn to the dark side, but the question he seems to be left with is whether it’s acceptable to pursue one’s own kind of justice in the knowledge that the justice system is inherently corrupt.

Okino, who might ordinarily be our hero, seems to say no but lacks the courage to resist – unlike his steadfast assistant, Saho (Yuriko Yoshitaka), who is combating injustice in her own though perhaps no more ethical (and still less than altruistic) ways. “People die, things break, all the same”, Matsukura rambles as if to lay bare the film’s nihilistic leanings as it points out a litany of seemingly irreparable social ills. Mogami breaks cover for an instant when meeting with a police officer after overhearing a woman trying to press a rape charge and being rebuffed, stopping briefly on his way out to encourage her to keep pressing her case in solidarity with her solitary quest against a seemingly impenetrable wall of indifference, while the mild foreshadowing of a contemporary preoccupation about what to do with the problem of elderly drivers in an ageing society becomes an odd kind of punchline in a bleak existential joke. Dark and cynical, Killing for the Prosecution sees little cause for hope in the increasing murkiness of its constantly declining moral universe, finding release only in its final, frustrated scream.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sekigahara (関ヶ原, Masato Harada, 2017)

Sekigahara posterWhen considering a before and an after, you’d be hard pressed to find a moment as perfectly situated as the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原). Taking place on 21st October 1600 (by the Western calendar), Sekigahara came at the end of a long and drawn out process of consolidation and finally ended the Sengoku (or “warring states”) era, paving the way for the modern concept of “Japan” as a distinct and unified nation. In actuality there were three unifiers of Japan – the first being Oda Nobunaga who brought much of Japan under his control before being betrayed by one of his own retainers. The second, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued Oda’s work and died a peaceful death leaving a son too young behind him which created a power vacuum and paved the way for our third and final creator of the modern Japanese state – Tokugawa Ieyasu whose dynasty would last 260 years encompassing the lengthy period of isolation that was finally ended by the tall black ships and some gunboat diplomacy.

Loosely, we begin our tale towards the end of the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Kenichi Takito) though, in a nod to the novel, director Masato Harada includes a temporal framing sequence in which our author depicts himself as a boy during another war sitting in these same halls and hearing stories of heroes past. As well he might given where he was sitting, the narrator reframes his tale – our hero is not the eventual victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, but a noble hearted retainer of the Toyotomi, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada).

Riding into battle, Mitsunari reminds his men that this is a war of “justice and injustice” – they cannot lose. Yet lose they do. The narrator recounts Mitsunari’s improbable rise as an orphan taken in by Hideyoshi on a whim who nevertheless became one of the most powerful men in late 16th century Japan. Despite his loyalty to his master, Mitsunari cannot abide the cruelty of the samurai world or its various modes of oppression both in terms of social class and even in terms of gender. He resents the subversion of samurai ethics to facilitate “politics” and longs to restore honour, justice, and fairness to a world ruled by chaos. Rather than the bloody uncertainty and self-centred politicking that define his era, Mitsunari hopes to enshrine these values as the guiding principles of his nation.

On the other hand, his opponent, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho) is famed for his intelligence and particularly for his political skill. Hoping to swoop into the spot vacated by Hideyoshi which his young son Hideyori is too weak to occupy, Ieyasu has been playing a long game of winning alliances and disrupting those other candidates had assumed they had secured. Unlike Mitsunari, Ieyasu is ruthless and prepared to sacrifice all to win his hand, caring little for honour or justice or true human feeling.

The framing sequence now seems a little more pointed. Sekigahara becomes a turning point not just of political but ideological consolidation in which Mitsunari’s ideas of just rule and compassionate fair mindedness creating order from chaos are relegated to the romantic past while self interest triumphs in the rule of soulless politickers which, it seems, travels on through the ages to find its zenith in the age of militarism. Mitsunari is the last good man, prepared to die for his ideals but equally prepared to live for them. His tragedy is romantic in the grander sense but also in the more obvious one in that his innate honour code will not let him act on the love he feels for a poor girl displaced from Iga whose ninja service becomes invaluable to his plan. With a wife and children to consider, he would not commit the “injustice” of creating a concubine but dreams of one day, after all this is over, resigning his name and position and travelling to foreign lands with the woman he loves at his side.

Working on a scale unseen since the age of Kurosawa, Harada patiently lays the groundwork before condensing the six hours of battle to forty minutes of fury. The contrast between the purity of the past and the muddied future is once again thrown into stark relief in the vastly different strategies of Ieyasu and Mitsunari with Ieyasu’s troops armed to the teeth with modernity – they fire muskets and shout cannon commands in Portuguese while Mitsunari’s veteran warriors attempt to face them with only their pikes and wooden shields. Unable to adapt to “modern” warfare and trusting too deeply in the loyalty of his comrades, Mitsunari’s final blow comes not by will but by chance as a young and inexperienced vassal vacillates until his men make his decision for him, betraying an alliance he may have wished (in his heart) to maintain. Goodness dies a bloody death, but there is peace at last even if it comes at a price. That price, for some at least, may have been too great.


Original trailer (no subtitles)