The Sunday Runoff (決戦は日曜日, Yuichiro Sakashita, 2021)

“I keep choosing a perilous path” the heroine of Yuichiro Sakashita’s political satire The Sunday Runoff (決戦は日曜日, Kessen wa Nichiyobi) explains, “But that’s where change happens”. Change, famously, is not a common occurrence in Japanese politics where the same party has remained in power for all but a handful of years since its foundation in 1955. Part of the reason for that at least according to the reluctant candidate is the nation’s rigid social attitudes in the unwillingness to question the status quo, just going along with however things have always been done, while the main cause is perhaps corruption at the local level in the interplay between supporters groups staffed by influential local businessmen and their representatives along with the collusion of civil staff who have become too blasé about the murky nature of politics. 

That’s especially true for political secretary Tanimura (Masataka Kubota) who had developed a paternal relationship with former defence minster Kawashima who unfortunately is forced to retire from office due to ill health after suffering a stroke. Unable to agree on a suitable candidate to replace him, the supporters groups throw their weight behind Yumi (Rie Miyazawa), Kawashima’s middle-aged, unmarried daughter. The above lines are spoken during her introduction to her staff who find her strange and unconvincing, mocking her Western-style business speak along with her decision to refer to them as her “crew”. 

If “change” was what Yumi wanted, she’s almost certainly standing for the wrong party. Though not explicitly stated, she’s obviously intended to be standing for an LDP stand in and in the opinion of her staff at least her seat is so safe you could paint a face on a rock and get it elected. Their problem is that they assumed Yumi would be easy to manage, though it quickly becomes clear that despite having grown up in politics she is incredibly naive and something of a loose cannon. As she admits, she tells it like it is and doesn’t consider the consequences. She is not media trained and the secretaries, Tanimura included, do not really bother to brief her in part because they assume the election’s a sure thing so they don’t need to. As we can see from her introductory speech, she is essentially playing the part of a politician as she imagines it to be, saying things she perhaps does mean because she thinks it’s what a politician would say such as her offensive reply to a question about the declining birthrate to the effect that childless couples were “slacking off” and “not functioning as humans” leading to a protest outside her office in large part by those who had found her comments hurtful because they had wanted to have children but for various reasons had not been able to. 

It’s Yumi’s political naivety that makes her the ultimate foil for the secretaries and supporters groups as she gradually comes to realise she was never meant to be anything other than a puppet. After a particularly disastrous conference, one of her older male sponsors exasperatedly asks why they couldn’t have picked a better candidate. “At least choose a man”, he adds while one of the secretaries later snaps at Yumi that she’s way out of her league, should “know her position”, and that the only reason an “amateur woman” like her was approved as a candidate was because of the supporters committee so she’s there to do exactly what they say. Forced to apologise to them, Yumi’s face is framed in the lattice work at a restaurant as if she were in prison, a sentiment echoed by Tanimura when he tells her that she has “no choice” but to continue threatening to plant smear stories in the press if she tries to walk away or blow the whistle on all the corruption she has unwittingly uncovered in the local political office. 

That would include the giving and receiving of bribes in an all too cosy relationship with local business and particularly the construction industry. Part of the problem is that the civil staff will all lose their jobs if Yumi is not elected which makes it in their interest not to act with total transparency. Tanimura hadn’t really cared about that before, each time when questioned replying only “that’s just how it is” but slowing beginning to realise that it doesn’t need to be and really it isn’t OK. Despite her eccentricity and impulsiveness Yumi would as Tanimura can see make a good politician if not one ideally suited to a conservative party. Threatening suicide from the roof of a three storey building she decries political apathy in Japan, explaining that they need to remind the people that this is really about them and that politics is not pointless because change can happen while the jaded secretaries roll their eyes and giggle setting up a crash mat in the event that she is not actually bluffing. 

What she decides to do is try to loose deliberately, but everything she tries just backfires. A series of offensive racist rants far from ruining her reputation pick her up new votes from members of the far right who previously felt unrepresented while even planting false stories in the press that she is a drug user with a criminal record doesn’t seem to dent her approval rating. Just as Yumi’s comments about the birthrate echoed those of other gaffe-prone LDP politicians such as Mio Sugita, Yumi and a reformed Tanimura even film a fake video of her pretending to abuse one of her staff directly echoing that of Mayuko Toyota who was forced to stand down after an embarrassing video of her calling her aide “baldly” while beating him went viral, but her popularity only increases. As a last resort they release video footage of her father accepting bribes and have her deny it so it becomes obvious that she lied, but her dishonesty makes no difference to the average voter. 

The cynical secretaries had indicated that ordinarily speaking they’d ride a scandal out because another one will be along before too long to knock it off the front page. Yumi’s whistle blowing plan fails again because of collusion with the local media who despite sniffing around for a story won’t run anything too negative lest they lose their access to the halls of government. The secretaries then get lucky when a possible North Korean missile strike bumps the bribery affair onto the back pages, a video of the staff laughing and cheering their near escape even becoming a meme on social media. Yumi’s resentment is in rooted in her powerless, refusing to be a puppet for local bigwigs, but it may also be true that once she’s elected they have no real power over her and changing the system from the inside may ironically become a real possibility if only she herself can overcome her conviction that nothing is ever going to change. “This is not the world you expected.” Tanimura admits, “accept it and fight”. A throwback to the films of Juzo Itami, Yumi is very much the kind of character Nobuko Miyamoto might have played in one of her “woman” films if perhaps a little more cynical. The Sunday Runoff is decidedly more barbed if at least as pointed in its criticism of incestous local politics, but in the end does believe that real change may indeed be possible if only you’re willing to fight for it. 


The Sunday Runoff streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2021)

“The Showa era’s over. We don’t use guns now, business is our battlefield.” a recently released foot soldier is told, finding himself in a whole new world emerging from a not so distant past of turf wars and street scuffles into a late bubble wonderland of besuited corporatised gangsters. Set in 1988, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Blood of Wolves had been about the twilight of post-war gangsterdom forever associated with an era that was literally about to pass. Set three years later in the twilight of the bubble economy and an already established Heisei, Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Koro no chi: Level 2) finds no longer rookie cop Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) taking on the mantle of his late mentor Ogami, attempting to broker peace by getting uncomfortably close to yakuza. 

At the end of the previous film, Hioka had managed to engineer a truce between rival gangs Odani (with whom he is affiliated), and Irako through pushing top Odani guy Ichinose to take out boss Irako. Three years later, the peace has held and in any case Heisei yakuza no longer take violence to the streets. The release of crazed Irako foot soldier Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki), however, threatens to destabilise the local balance of power. Despite mournfully declaring that he doesn’t intend to wind up back in prison, Uebayashi’s first call on release is to the sister of one of his guards whom he rapes and kills in quite gruesome fashion. Hioka is put on the case and partnered with a genial veteran, Seshima (Yoshiko Miyazaki), weirdly excited about investigating a murder at this late stage of his career, but quickly realises that Uebayashi’s recklessness is primed to destroy everything he’s built. 

Having started out a straightlaced rookie, Hioka has fully incorporated the Ogami persona dressing in sharp suits and sunshades, driving a sports car, and hanging out with the Odani guys, while also using his girlfriend’s little brother Chinta (Nijiro Murakami) as a mole in rival gangs. As a cynical reporter points out, however, Ogami was essentially “undercover” in that he understood hobnobbing with yakuza was part of his job and something he did solely to keep civilians safe by preventing another street war. Hioka has started to lose his way, enjoying himself a little too much and already way out of his depth as the fragile peace he’d brokered by less than ethical means begins to crumble beneath his feet. 

Having been in prison, Uebayashi is unaware of the various ways in which the world has changed seeking to return to old school rules of gangsterdom, ironically lecturing his superiors on the absence of jingi (honour and humanity) in their new corporate existence. He’s a monster and a sadist, but his violence is also a result of the horrific abuse he suffered as a child which led to an equally heinous act of revenge while as a member of the ethnic Korean Zainichi community, like Chinta and his siblings, he continually faces discrimination and social oppression. His first act on release is of revenge against the guards who relentlessly tortured him in prison, the murdered woman’s brother confessing that they wrote him up as a model prisoner in the hope he’d be released early so they wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.  

Yet what Hioka and Uebayashi have in common is that they’re both pawns in a game they were unaware was being played. As it turns out the police corruption Hioka discovered during the previous film did not go away, and in certain senses they liked things the way they were before. Hioka’s truce is very bad for business for a certain subset at least. They might be minded to let a dangerous killer go loose if it disrupts Hioka’s attempt to suppress the criminal underworld to manageable levels. Mimicking the classic jitsuroku, Shiraishi throws in occasional voiceover from an anonymous narrator along with freeze frame and montage while skewing still darker in the levels of depravity among these desperate men fighting over the scraps of a world already in terminal decline even as the bubble seems fit to burst. Shiraishi ends on a note of change with the institution of the organised crime laws which have contributed to the ongoing decline of the yakuza, a relic of the Showa era unfit and unwelcome in the modern society, but also discovers that for good or ill there may yet be wolves in Japan.


Last of the Wolves screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Masayuki Suo, 2019)

Famously, silent cinema was never really “silent” in Japan. As the quote from director Hiroshi Inagaki which appears after the end credits of Masayuki Suo’s ode to the early days of the movies Talking the Pictures (カツベン!, Katsuben!) reminds us, audiences always had the benshi to guide them. These narrators of film were often more of a draw than the pictures themselves, cinemagoers keener to see their favourite storyteller perform than the story up on screen. A relic of a bygone age, the benshi has often been blamed for holding Japanese cinema back as studios continued to craft their films around audience appetites for live performance, but as we’ll see even the benshi themselves could sense their obsolescence lingering on the horizon. 

Beginning in 1915, the film opens with a retro mockup of a Toei logo from the silent era though the studio was only founded in 1938 and therefore produced only sound movies. Shot as a silent picture the opening sequence follows a gang of kids as they make their way towards an active film set where a classic jidaigeki is in production, confused on passing what appears to be a woman peeing standing up against a tree, a reminder that early cinema was largely inspired by kabuki and therefore featured male actors playing female roles. This is a disappointment to young Umeko, the daughter of an itinerant sex worker, who dreams of becoming an actress. Shuntaro, a little boy obsessed with the movies and dreaming of becoming a benshi like his idol the marquee draw Shusei Yamaoka (Masatoshi Nagase), reassures her that plenty of films from other countries feature female actors as the pair bond sneaking into the local picture house together but as in any good melodrama they are separated by time and circumstance only to be reunited 10 years later when neither of them is quite living their best life. 

While Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima) is a struggling actress trying to make it in motion pictures, Shuntaro (Ryo Narita) is living as a “fake benshi” impersonating Yamaoka and others for clueless provincial audiences while the gang he’s running with rob local houses using the movies as a cover. Escaping with some of the loot, he rebrands himself as “Kunisada” after a favourite character from the silver screen and fetches up in his old stomping ground, getting a backstage job at the troubled picture house which finds itself at the mercy of the new outfit in town, a purpose built modern cinema run by local yakuza Tachibana (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his movie-loving modern gal daughter Kotoe (Mao Inoue). Like the film itself, the town is at the nexus of changing times. The Aoki cinema is housed in a former kabuki theatre with the staff dressing in kimono even if Shuntaro and his divaish rival Mogi (Kengo Kora) don suits to talk the pictures. The palatial Tachibana meanwhile boasts modern seating and has the habit of poaching the Aoki’s staff partly because they pay more and partly because no one wants to work with Mogi who is, in his own way, an exemplification of the ways the benshi can interfere with cinematic development in that he forces the projectionist to undercrank the movies to ensure they follow the rhythm of his narration and not vice versa. 

The handsome Mogi is still pulling in the crowds, but the ageing Yamaoka has become a melancholy drunk now convinced that his own art is an act of destruction, actively unhelpful in becoming a barrier between the audience and the movies rather than a bridge. After all, cinema is a visual medium, it shouldn’t need “explaining” in words. He’s actively standing in the way, imposing his own narrative over someone else’s vision just as Shuntaro is a “fake” benshi in that he merely copies the routines of others, adopting a “fake” persona while hiding out in the movie house from the gang he ran away from and the movie-loving cop (Yutaka Takenouchi) who’s chasing them. Yamaoka may have a point, the days of the benshi are numbered though there were those who argued the advent of the talkies was also a regression, the advances of the silent era squandered on the spectacle of sound. Nevertheless, filled as it is with silent-era slapstick, silly farce, melodrama, and romance, Talking the Pictures is a warm and nostalgic tribute to a bygone age of cinema and the men and women who guided us through it. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

One Night (ひとよ, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2019)

“You can live however you want, you’re totally free. You can be anything” a woman tells her children, believing she is freeing them from a cycle of violence and oppression but unwittingly consigning them to another kind of cage in Kazuya Shiraishi’s raw family drama One Night (ひとよ, Hitoyo). Adapting the stage play by Yuko Kuwabara, Shiraishi is the latest in a long line of directors asking questions about the true nature of family, taking the hahamono or “mother movie” in a new direction but ultimately finding faith at least in the concept as the family unit finally begins to repair itself in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. 

The “one night” of the title is that of 23rd May, 2004 on which wife and mother Koharu (Yuko Tanaka) backs over her relentlessly abusive husband in one of the taxis operated by their company. At some point, even if only perhaps in those few moments sitting at the steering wheel, Koharu appears to have given this a great deal of thought. Calmly walking back into her familial home where her three children are each sporting prominent facial wounds from a recent beating, she hands each of them a handmade onigiri and explains that she has just killed their father. Planning to hand herself in she reassures them that an uncle will look after them and the company so they’ve no need to worry. She has no idea how long she’ll be in prison for, but cautions that she may not return for 15 years hoping that by then the stigma will have passed. On her way out, she pauses to tell them that she is proud of what she’s done, saving them from their father’s authoritarian abuse and urging them to be free to live their lives in whichever way they choose. 

15 years later, however, the children find themselves burdened by her words. Yuji (Takeru Satoh) who dreamed of being a novelist has become a cynical journalist working for a pornographic magazine. Daiki (Ryohei Suzuki) who has a stammer and wanted to be a mechanic has never been able to hold down a steady job and is on the brink of divorce after showing signs of becoming abusive himself, while Sonoko (Mayu Matsuoka) who wanted to be a hairdresser is now working as a bar hostess drinking herself into oblivion. Living with the legacy of that one night, none of them has been able to live freely or to achieve their dreams but has remained arrested in some way waiting for Koharu’s return. 

While in her mind she freed them, the children find themselves dealing with the secondary sense of abandonment in her decision to exile herself from their lives, essentially leaving them to deal with the fallout of her “crime” all alone. Not only are they now orphaned, they also have to live with the stigma of being related to a notorious murderess with all of the peculiar burdens that entails in Japanese society from harassment and bullying to reduced employment opportunities and an internalised shame. Meanwhile, their mother’s words ring in their ears, urging them to be free, to be who they wanted to be and achieve their dreams, but they find themselves paralysed by the pressure to live up to the sacrifice Koharu has made on their behalf. While Sonoko is the most sympathetic, the boys are consumed by resentment. Koharu sees her 15 years of wandering as an exile undertaken as a kind of atonement and intended to keep the children safe from further social stigma, but her sons feel only the abandonment. 

Still, “mom’s still mom. It’s we who’ve got to change” Daiki tries to convince his brother, “we’re not kids anymore” he later adds as they recreate a thwarted teenage attempt to save their mother but in a very real sense they are. The problem in Daiki’s marriage turns out be rooted in insecurity, a failure of intimacy that saw him reluctant to let his wife and daughter into his traumatic past which finally expressed itself in violence. Meanwhile another driver at the taxi firm finds himself in a parallel struggle as he processes his own troubled relationship with an estranged teenage son and comes to realise his sins are indeed being visited on him despite his best efforts to prevent it. He sympathises with Koharu against the “ungrateful” children who, like the those of the classic hahamono, fail to understand the quality of their parent’s love as expressed in the sacrifices they have made on their behalf. Yet it’s Yuji who had branded his family a mere simulacrum who eventually fights hardest to save it, paving the way for a reconciliation as they finally bring closure to the events of 15 years previously and begin to move on with the rest of their lives. A raw and painful examination of familial trauma, Shiraishi’s bruising drama eventually allows the family to reclaim the night, repairing their fracturing bonds in sharing their emotional burdens freed at last from the oppressive legacies of abuse and resentment.


One Night streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app on Sept. 6 & 11 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sea of Revival (凪待ち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2019)

“One bad thing leads to another” according to overprotective mother Ayumi (Naomi Nishida) in Kazuya Shirashi’s Sea of Revival (凪待ち, Nagi Machi). She’s not wrong, but breaking the chain proves harder than expected, especially as trouble has a way of following people around and the one thing you can never outrun is yourself. Yet, what might save you in the end is not so much self acceptance as that of others and finding your place along with a sense of belonging as member of a family in the knowledge they have chosen you as one of their own. 

Ikuo (Shingo Katori), the hero, certainly has plenty of demons he’s looking to leave behind. A devotee of the bicycle races, he’s just been laid off from his factory job and is preparing to move to his girlfriend Ayumi’s hometown where she plans to open a hairdressers and care for her ageing father Katsumi (Ken Yoshizawa) who has just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Ayumi left rural Miyagi with her daughter, Minami (Yuri Tsunematsu) whose name is written with the characters for beautiful waves, after the tsunami which devastated the area and took her mother’s life. She hopes that it can be a new start for their family and that Ikuo will finally be able to shape up, knock his gambling habit on the head and ease back on the drinking. 

Things get off to a bad start, however, when Ikuo fails to bond with Katsumi who largely ignores him, while he discovers that Ishinomaki is much more conservative than Kawasaki and not everyone seems to approve of his liminal status in the Konno household. The fact remains that Ayumi and Ikuo, though they’ve been living together for five years, are not legally married and therefore in the eyes of some not a proper family, and more to the point Ikuo is an outsider with relatively little to recommend him. He does however try to make good on his promise, impressing the boss at a printshop where an overly helpful family friend, Onodera (Lily Franky), has found him a job, but quickly succumbs to old habits when a pair of ne’er-do-well colleagues introduce him to an illegal bicycle racing betting club run by local yakuza. 

Matters come to a head when Minami gets fed up with her mother’s overprotective conservatism and decides to pay her back by staying out late with new friends Ayumi doesn’t approve of. Flagging up their differing parenting styles, Ikuo tells Ayumi that she’s overreacting and should be happy for her daughter who is finally living something like a normal teenage life rather than shutting herself up in her room playing games like she did in Kawasaki where the other kids made her life a misery, calling her a “radioactive” transfer student from Fukushima. Ayumi fires back that Ikuo obviously isn’t very invested in Minami because, after all, he’s not her real dad and has no idea what family is. An extraordinarily hurtful thing to say in any circumstances, Ayumi’s words strike a nerve as Ikuo struggles to claim his place as a non-husband who has nevertheless become a father figure but is not recognised as a legitimate member of the family. 

Claim his place he does however when tragedy strikes, rushing into a police cordon shouting “I’m family” but being held back by the forces of social order while Minami cleverly evades them to see something no one should ever have to see. Old Katsumi meanwhile, apparently much like Ikuo in his youth, a fiery scrapper with a self-destructive streak, struggles to accept his failure either to save his wife or die by her side. Recognising something of himself in the younger man, he finally warms up to Ikuo, literally “redeeming” him from vengeful yakuza, offering only the explanation that he does so because “he’s my son”. 

Others such as the weirdly ever present Onodera may think it proper that Ikuo leave the Konno household because he has no more reason to be there, that his presence is now even more inappropriate than it was before. Minami is advised to move in with her birth father (Takuma Otoo) despite the fact Ayumi described him as abusive and that he has remarried and is currently expecting another child. Ikuo’s five years as her father count for nothing, because he was not married to her mother. During the car journey to their new home, Minami had playfully suggested to Ikuo that he should propose but he claimed he had no right to do so as an irresponsible man unable to contribute meaningfully to the household. Ayumi dreamed of the sea and of beautiful Caribbean islands to which Ikuo had promised but failed to take her. She ironically hoped to rebuild their lives in the ruined landscape of Ishinomaki where they’ve put up walls so tall you can no longer see the sea, still beautiful despite all its terrible ferocity. 

“A good wife makes a decent man” Ayumi’s ex bitterly fires back at her though others have found it to be true, Katsumi not least among them, but Ikuo’s problem is an internalised sense of masculine failure which keeps him on the edges of a family which is otherwise his by right. In a strange way, a piece of paper can make all the difference and no difference at all, both legitimate and not, in making it plain who is and is not accepted as “family”. Accepted by others, Ikuo learns to accept himself, still burdened by guilt and regret but also bound by it as he joins his chosen family on new a journey powered by those same beautiful yet destructive forces which have engendered so much grief and hope.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

Dare to stop us posterUntil his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 2012, Koji Wakamatsu had been the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. An irascible but somehow much loved figure, Wakamatsu is most closely associated with a series of provocative sex films which mixed politically radical avant-garde aesthetics with pink film exploitation. Kazuya Shiraishi, himself a former Wakamatsu apprentice, takes a look back at the heady years of Japanese indie cinema in the aptly titled Dare to Stop Us (止められるか、俺たちを, Tomerareruka, Oretachi wo) which explores the backstage environment at Wakamatsu Production from 1969 to 1972 (or, right before everything changed with the death of the student movement in Japan following the Asama-sanso incident).

Rather than follow Wakamatsu (Arata Iura) directly, Shiraishi frames his tale around aspiring director Megumi Yoshizumi (Mugi Kadowaki) – the only female presence (besides the actresses) at the otherwise extremely masculine studio which focusses mainly on artistic soft-core pornography. A Shinjuku hippie and self-confessed fan of Wakamatsu, Megumi finds herself joining the team after being recruited to scout potential starlets who could pass for high schoolers. On arrival at the studio, Megumi is quickly mistaken for an actress or mistress but finally manages to win the guys round and is taken on as an assistant director with the possibility of stepping up to the director’s chair if she lasts three years working under Wakamatsu.

As the gruff director warns her, most don’t even last the month. Megumi is however determined, despite Wakamatsu’s continued show of forgetting her name and harsh on-set demeanour. Commiserating with her, another veteran affirms that the big studios wilfully exploit their ADs, at least with Wakamatsu his heart is in the right place even if he’s only a different sort of difficult. He also, however, hands her a bottle of hooch which serves an unfortunate harbinger of things to come as Megumi finds herself playing along with the hard drinking boys club but becoming ever more confused about her role in the organisation and the further direction of her life.

Wakamatsu and his partner Masao Adachi (Hiroshi Yamamoto) vow to make films to shake the world, but are not above commercial concerns which is why they find themselves making pure sex films under pseudonyms to balance the books, much to the chagrin of some of the studio’s more politically engaged members. These are particularly politically engaged times in which the student movement is at its zenith, protesting not only the renewal of the ANPO treaty, but the Vietnam War, and the fiercely contested building of Narita airport. Mostly thanks to Adachi, Wakamatsu Production gradually shifts from indie film company to activist organisation in which political concerns are beginning to take precedence over the business of filmmaking.

The shift leaves those like Megumi who were not so interested in the political dimension floundering along behind and increasingly disillusioned with the world of Wakamatsu Pro. Megumi may admit that she had other problems that probably should have been better addressed, but remains conflicted as to her involvement with the studio. Feeling as if she has nothing in particular to say, she questions her desire to make films at all while clinging fiercely to the surrogate family that has grown up around the strangely fatherly director and continuing to feel insecure in her atypical femininity in a world which more or less requires her to act like a man but doesn’t quite accept her for doing so.

Wakamatsu said he wanted to hold the masses at knifepoint and create a film to blow up the world, but Megumi increasingly feels as if it’s she who will eventually face Wakamatsu with only one of them surviving. Megumi is, in a sense, a victim and encapsulation of her age in which she wanted a little more than it had to give her and found herself increasingly disillusioned with its various betrayals and disappointments. Given the chance to direct a 30-minute short for love hotels, Megumi spins a tale of Urashima Taro which is, as Adachi puts it, all about how she can’t go back to being a hippie after getting mixed up with Wakamatsu and has lost sight of her true self in her quest for acceptance. Both nostalgic look back to a heady era and a tragic tale of that era’s costs, Dare to Stop Us is a fitting tribute to the Wakamatsu legacy which portrays the irascible director as neither saint nor demon but painfully human and infinitely flawed.


Dare to Stop Us was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no 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)

The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

korou_honpos_0220_fin.aiJapanese cinema, like American cinema, is one of the few in which the hero cop is a recognisable trope. Though they may be bumbling, inefficient, obsessed with bureaucracy, or perhaps just lazy, police in Japanese cinema are rarely corrupt or actively engaged in criminality. Even within the realms of the “jitsuroku” gangster movie, the police maintain a fringe presence, permitting the existence of the underground crime world in order to contain it. “Jitsuroku” is, in a fashion, where we find ourselves with Kazuya Shiraishi’s throwback underworld police story, The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Koro no Chi). Set in 1988, the end of the Showa Era which had seen the rebirth of post-war Japan and the ascendency of yakuza thuggery, The Blood of Wolves is based on a novel by Yuko Yuzuki rather than a “true account” of life on the frontlines of gangsterdom, but otherwise draws inspiration from the Battles Without Honour series in updating the story of nihilistic yakuza violence to the bubble era.

In 1988, a young accountant “goes missing” sending his sister to ask the police for help in locating him. The case gets passed to sleazy detective Ogami (Koji Yakusho) and his new rookie partner, Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka). Ogami leers disturbingly at the dame who just walked into his office before dismissing the newbie and extracting a sexual favour from the distressed relative of the missing man. Unfortunately, the accountant turns up dead and the bank he worked for turns out to be a yakuza front caught up in a burgeoning gang war between the Odani with whom Ogami has long standing connections and the gang from the next town over who are looking to increase their territory.

Ogami, a chain smoking, hard drinking, womanising detective of the old school, has one foot in the yakuza world and the other on the side of law enforcement. Hioka, a recent graduate from the local but also elite Hiroshima University (something of a rarity in his current occupation), is not quite sure what to make of his new boss and his decidedly “unorthodox” methods, becoming increasingly concerned about the way the police force operates in a town defined by organised crime. Deciding that Ogami has gone too far, he eventually makes the decision to go to IA with a list of complaints but there’s still so much he doesn’t know about Hiroshima and it is possible he may have picked the wrong side.

What he discovers is that the police force is so intrinsically rotten as to have become little more than a yakuza gang itself, only one with the legal right to carry guns and a more impressive uniform. Ogami, for all his faults, apparently has his heart in the right place. His “friendships” with gangsters are more means to an end than they are spiritual corruption, gaining leverage that will help him keep a lid on gang war – after all, no one wants a return to the turbulent days of the 1970s when the streets ran red with the blood of unlucky foot soldiers and that of the civilians who got in their way. Meanwhile Hioka, starting out as the straight-laced rookie, is himself “corrupted” by the corruption he uncovers, developing a complex mix of disgust and admiration for Ogami’s practiced methods of manipulation which, apparently, place public safety above all else.

Ogami, as he tells the conflicted Hioka, knows he walks a tightrope every day, neatly straddling the line between cop and yakuza, and the only way to stay alive is to keep on walking knowing one slip may lead to his doom. He may say cops can do whatever they like in pursuit of “justice” (and he does), but Ogami has his lines that cannot be crossed, unlike others in his organisation who care only for themselves and have long since given up any pretence of working for the public good.

Shiraishi channels classic Fukasaku from the noticeably retro Toei logo at the film’s opening to the voice over narration, garish red on screen text, and frequent use of freeze frames familiar from the Battles Without Honour series and associated “jitsuroku” gangster fare that followed in its wake. Moving the action up to 1988, the gangster world is once again in flux as it tries to corporatise itself to get in on the profits of bubble era prosperity which largely has no need for the thuggish gangster antics of the chaotic post-war years in which the yakuza could paint itself as a defender of the poor and oppressed no matter how ridiculous it might have been in reality. Ogami is a dying breed, a relic of the Showa era meeting its natural end, but perhaps you need to be a wolf to catch a wolf and guardian spirits can come in unexpected forms.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English 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)

After School (アフタースクール, Kenji Uchida, 2008)

after school posterKenji Uchida is well known for intricately constructed farces but he takes intrigue to new heights in After School (アフタースクール), allowing a mid-way twist to completely reverse everything you thought you knew. Yet at heart Uchida’s film is as uncynical as it’s possible to be even when our heroes find themselves embroiled in a large-scale conspiracy of corporate corruption, organised crime, and police machinations. What begins with a confession spirals outwards into a complicated web of deception and counter-deception proving it really is all connected, even if not quite in the way you first thought.

A salaryman, Kimura (Masato Sakai), enters a reverie staring at the pregnant woman (Takako Tokiwa) sitting opposite him over breakfast, flashing back to a breezy middle school day when she (presumably) nervously handed him a letter.  Kimura leaves for work and borrows the fancy Porche belonging to his high school teacher middle school friend, Jinno (Yo Oizumi), to go to a work meeting in Yokohama. While he’s away the woman goes into labour leaving Jinno to take care of everything but alarm bells start ringing when no one can reach Kimura the following morning. Meanwhile, Kimura has been seen with a mysterious woman at a hotel which seems to have right royally spooked his bosses who have hired a shady private detective, Kitazawa (Kuranosuke Sasaki), to track Kimura down. Kitazawa thinks his best bet is to start at Kimura’s old middle school – which is where he runs into Jinno who agrees to help look for his friend.

As might be assumed, all is not quite as it seems. Shady PI Kitazawa is in deep with the yakuza to whom he apparently has massive gambling debts. At a low ebb, he decides to ask his male assistant to run away with him to Sapporo (which he agrees to do) but this case just might be his salvation, especially once he works out that both ends are connected and he could technically double his pay out with a little strategic blackmail. Kitazawa is as cynical as they come. He thinks nothing of invading Kimura’s life and is fully prepared to make use of Jinno’s seeming innocence, claiming that naivety and pureheartedness make him sick. Later he attempts a pathetic act of petty revenge against Jinno for no real reason that could have ruined his entire life but instead ends up another cog in the grand wheel of Uchida’s finely crafted farce.

Kitazawa’s cynicism is eventually what leads to his downfall. His detective brain so wired for motives and gains is unable to process the idea that some actions are merely altruistic and offer no further reward than the pleasure of helping a friend. Jinno, at first a goofy school teacher with an improbably expensive car, soon becomes the film’s MVP and the only still point in a constantly turning world. Taken to task by Kitazawa for his continuing goodness, Jinno offers a perfectly schoolmasterly reply to the effect that there’s a snotty kid like him in every class, sneering away too cool for school and decrying everything as boring when really the problem isn’t school, it’s Kitazawa.

What eventually looked like a sordid affair turns into a beautiful romance as the truth is gradually revealed. The title refers not just to the setting of the initial flashback, but also to the entirety of adult life. Jinno’s innocence and goodness are belittled by Kitazawa who accuses him of being stuck in middle school with a childishly naive way of seeing the world. This is in a sense true, Jinno has never lost his childlike sense of justice and fair play, willing to go great lengths to help his friends even if it puts him in danger and forces him into some sticky situations which are not his natural milieu, but Jinno’s faith and loyalty are the qualities which eventually see him through and make possible the poignant, hopeful ending despite all that has gone before. Corrupt politicians preaching “family values” whilst associating themselves with dodgy corporations who are taking back handers from the yakuza, hidden policemen, shady PIs – there’s certainly a lot of darkness here but if anything is going to beat it, it’s sincerity and goodness rather than guile and cunning.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 February 2018
  • Filmhouse – 6 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)