Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2017)

Hanagatami posterIn time the past becomes a dream. A world in and of itself, conjured from feeling and memory and painted in the imprecise strokes of one attempting to recreate a long forgotten scene. The melancholy heroes of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s long career were each trapped in a sense by nostalgia, a yearning for another time and place, or more precisely another, more innocent, version of themselves only with the benefit of hindsight and the confidence of age. Finally realising a long dreamt of project in dramatising Kazuo Dan’s classic wartime youth novel Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI), Obayashi reunites with another melancholy young man who as he puts it in the opening text wants to tell his story not out of a sense of nostalgia but out of longing for the things which were lost. Those like him who had the misfortune to be young before the war saw their whole world swept away by a kind of madness far beyond their control, losing not only a past but a future too.

When Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) returns home from Amsterdam where he had been living with his parents, Japan is already at war in China. Though the times are changing, Toshihiko’s life remains relatively untouched by conflict, insulated from the concerns of the day by the pleasant natural surroundings of his old-fashioned country town. Returning to the family estate presided over by his war-widow aunt, Keiko (Takako Tokiwa), Toshihiko strikes up a friendship with her sickly sister-in-law, Mina (Honoka Yahagi), whose proximity to death only seems to enhance her beauty. At school he finds himself caught between two polar opposites – the strong and silent Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) and the cynical nihilist Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), while his two sets of social circles finally combine with the addition of Mina’s friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) who also happens to be Kira’s cousin. The world is on the brink of ruin, but there are dances and picnics and festivals and everywhere everyone is desperate to live even in the midst of such foreboding.

Obayashi opens with a quote from one of Dan’s poems in which he mourns the flowers in full bloom shortly to be cut down in their prime. Hanagatami itself means “flower basket” but is also the title of a noh play about a woman driven mad by love for a man from whom she is separated by the arbitrary rules of her society. Japan itself has become a basket of flowers, offering up its youth on a senseless altar to political hubris while a generation attends its own funeral and becomes obsessed with the idea of permanence in a permanently uncertain world. Chitose carries about her camera, bitterly claiming that she will confer immortality on her subjects while privately longing for an end to her loneliness and suffering.

Like the heroine of the noh play, our protagonists too are driven mad by love as the madness of their times spurs them on and holds them back in equal measure. Mina, in all her etherial beauty, becomes the symbol of an age – innocence about die, drowned in its own blood. All in love with Mina, or perhaps with death itself, the men sink further into petty rivalries and conflicted friendships all the while staving off the inevitabilities of their times – that soon they too will be expected to sacrifice themselves for a cause they don’t believe in or risk being left behind alone.

Toshihiko finds himself torn between his two friends – the light and the dark, the robust Ukai and the gloomy Kira. While Toshihiko’s wide-eyed hero worship of Ukai and his idealised male physique takes on an inescapable homoerotic quality, his relationship with Kira leads him towards a darker path on which everything is “worthless” and all pleasures impossible in a world apparently so close to its end. Kira, having committed a truly heinous act, reminds his friends that they routinely kill and eat animals, and that one day they too will be gobbled up, swallowed whole by the cruelty of their times.

One by one the war takes them, if indirectly, leaving only Toshihiko behind. Describing his youth as like a game of hide and seek in which he suddenly realised it had gotten dark and all his friends had gone home, Toshihiko recasts his tale as a ghost story in which he remains haunted by the visions of his younger self and longs for his long absent friends, robbed of the futures promised to them by right of birth. Free floating through dreams and memory, Obayashi conjures an etherial world overshadowed by tragedy but coloured with wistful melancholy as pale-faced soldiers march off for the land of the dead while youth does its best to live all its tomorrows today in rejecting the senseless cruelty of its age.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Goodbye for Tomorrow (あした, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1995)

goodbye for tomorrowAfter completing his first “Onomichi Trilogy” in the 1980s, Obayashi returned a decade later for round two with another three films using his picturesque home town as a backdrop. Goodbye For Tomorrow (あした, Ashita) is the second of these, but unlike Chizuko’s Younger Sister or One Summer’s Day which both return to Obayashi’s concern with youth, Goodbye For Tomorrow casts its net a little wider as it explores the grief stricken inertia of a group of people from all ages and backgrounds left behind when a routine ferry journey turns into an unexpected tragedy.

Three months after nine people were drowned when a local ferry sank in the harbour, friends and relatives of the dead begin to receive messages signed by their loved ones instructing them to be at a small island at midnight. Cruel joke or not, each of the still grieving recipients makes their way to the boathouse, clutching the desperate hope that the dead will really return to them. Sure enough, on the stroke of midnight the ghostly boat rises from the ocean floor bringing a collection of lost souls with it, but its stay is a temporary one – just long enough to say goodbye.

Obayashi once again begins the film with an intertile-style message to the effect that sometimes meetings are arranged just to say goodbye. He then includes two brief “prequel” sequences to the contemporary set main narrative. The first of these takes place ten years previously in which a boy called Mitsugu throws a message wrapped around a rock into a school room where his friend Noriko is studying. We then flash forward to three months before the main action, around the time of the boat accident, where an assassination attempt is made on the life of a local gangster in a barber shop. At first the connection between these events is unclear as messages begin to arrive in innovative ways in the film’s “present”. After a while we begin to realise that the recipients of the messages are so shocked to receive them because they believe the senders to be dead.

At three months since the sinking, the grief is still raw and each of our protagonists has found themselves trapped in a kind of inertia, left alone so suddenly without the chance to say goodbye. The left behind range from a teenager whose young love story has been severed by tragedy, a middle aged man who lost a wife and daughter and now regrets spending so much time on something as trivial as work, a middle aged trophy wife and the colleague who both loved a successful businessman, two swimmers with unresolved romances, and the yakuza boss who lost his wife and grandson. For some the desire is to join their loved ones wherever it is that they’re going, others feel they need to live on with double the passion in the name of the dead but they are all brought together by a need to meet the past head on and come to terms with it so that they can emerge from a living limbo and decide which side of the divide they need to be on.

Aside from the temporary transparency of the border between the mortal world and that of the dead, the living make an intrusion in the form of the ongoing yakuza gang war. The Noriko (Kaori Takahashi) from the film’s prequel sequence also ends up at the meeting point through sheer chance, as does the Mitsugu (Yasufumi Hayashi), now a gangster and charged with the unpleasant task of offing the old man despite his longstanding debt of loyalty to him. These are the only two still living souls brought together by an unresolved message bringing the events full circle as they achieve a kind of closure (with the hope of a new beginning) on their frustrated childhood romance.

The other two hangers on, an ambitious yakuza with a toothache played by frequent Obayashi collaborator Ittoku Kishibe, and a lunatic wildcat sociopath played by the ubiquitous Tomorowo Taguchi, are more or less comic relief as they hide out in the forrest confused by the massing group of unexpected visitors who’ve completely ruined their plot to assassinate the old yakuza boss and assume control of the clan. However, they too are also forced to face the relationship problems which bought them to this point and receive unexpected support from the boss’ retuned spouse who points out that this situation is partly his own fault for failing to appreciate the skills of each of his men individually. The boss decides to make a sacrifice in favour of the younger generation but his final acts are those of forgiveness and a plea for those staying behind to forget their differences and work together.

Revisiting Obayashi’s frequent themes of loss and the need to keep living after tragedy strikes, Goodbye For Tomorrow is a melancholy character study of the effects of grief when loved ones are taken without the chance for goodbyes. Aside from the earliest sepia tinged sequence, Obayashi plays with colour less than in his other films but manages to make the improbable sight of the sunken boat rising from the bottom of the sea genuinely unsettling. The supernatural mixes with the natural in unexplained ways and Obayashi even makes room for The Little Girl Who Conquered Time’s Tomoyo Harada as a mysterious spirit of loneliness, as well as a cameo for ‘80s leading man Toshinori Omi. The Japanese title of the film simply means “tomorrow” which gives a hint as to the broadly positive sense of forward motion in the film though the importance “goodbye” is also paramount. The slight awkwardness of the English title is therefore explained – saying goodbye to yesterday is a painful act but necessary for tomorrow’s sake.