Roar (轟音, Ryo Katayama, 2019)

Two powerful stories of agency denied run in parallel in Ryo Katayama’s gritty debut, Roar (轟音, Go-on). Does violence free or constrain, and if the world itself is defined by access to it what does that say about the nature of our society? Burdened by familial failure and persistent misogyny Katayama’s heroes seek escape from their sense of futility but find it finally only in fighting their way out as they struggle to liberate themselves from constraints both societal and self-imposed. 

Makoto (Ryo Anraku) has always looked up to his big brother Tadashi (whose name literally means “correct”) but for reasons which remain unclear, Tadashi’s life has veered off course. Resentful of his authoritarian father who he claims has done nothing for him, Tadashi quits his job and eventually commits an act of heinous and senseless violence, placing his family at the centre of a campaign of social shaming. “My future is ruined because of him, what should I do now?” Makoto asks of his mother, but she turns away and tells him only to figure it out for himself while his father too abnegates his responsibility leaving Makoto in sole charge of his brother’s affairs. Burdened by further tragedies, he runs away and finds himself taking shelter with a mysterious vagrant (Ryo Katayama) who appears to earn money as an enforcer beating up targets on behalf of a shady petty gangster. 

Across town, meanwhile, cheerful radio host Hiromi (Mie Ohta) is stuck in a dead end “romance” with her overbearing boss (Shoji Omiya) who, despite being married to someone else, is jealous and possessive, regularly following her around outside of work to make sure she’s not seeing other men and stowing away in the footwell under the back seat of her car to “surprise” her. Nomura pressures her into illicit make-out sessions in the office, but also into voyeuristic public sex acts. Hiromi does not seem to be invested in the relationship even if, on the surface at least, not unhappy about going along with it, but is nevertheless constrained by the fact he is her boss and therefore she likely cannot end the affair without damaging her career nor does Nomura seem the sort of man who will respect her decision if she decides not to continue allowing him access to her body. 

Both Hiromi and Makoto are, in one way or another struggling to escape from their respective positions in society or perhaps to assume those they feel they should have. As the little brother, Makoto is the one who is protected, by his big brother and by his family, but both have deserted him. Tadashi swore he was “invincible”, yet he’s stumbled and is now in need of protection himself but Makoto is not in a position to protect him. In Manabu, the silent thug, he sees an image of his brother which can still be redeemed. He sees that his violence is born of pain and is as much about self harm as it is about hurting others. Makoto begins to care for him, hoping to save him from a life of senseless violence but finally cannot escape the capacity for violence in himself, exacting rage on an innocent bystander but failing to find a sense of power or liberation only deepening his sense of hopelessness. 

Hiromi meanwhile wrestles with being a middle-aged career woman who struggles to accept that perhaps she deserves more than the skeevy boss and has the right to refuse him. Her mind starts to change when a friend, Mayuko (Mari Kishi), introduces her to a handsome young man who offers her the possibility of a happier romantic future, forcing her to reflect on her present and the toxicity of her relationship with the controlling, manipulative Nomura. Her options are however limited, and finally like Makoto her rage boils over into unavoidable violence that is also the catalyst for her liberation in directly defying pervasive societal misogyny in the shape of her lecherous boss. 

Mayuko, Hiromi’s friend, faces a similar problem in discovering that her brothers intend to leave her father’s care to her despite the fact that she has a life and career in the city both because they think such things are women’s work and because they find her status as an unmarried middle-aged woman embarrassing, invalidating her choices in insisting she return to her “proper” familial role as caregiver if not as a wife or mother then as a daughter. She too struggles with herself, but finally opts for compromise rejecting violence in favour of compassion. 

Nevertheless, Katayama opens with a lengthy POV shot which places us directly into the role of Tadashi, forcing us to reckon with our own latent violence in making us complicit with the harm his actions cause to others in his quest for power and agency. Where he leaves us, however, is on the run both towards and away as Makoto and Hiromi attempt to liberate themselves from the sense of futility which defines their lives but find scant release in the senseless act of mindless violence. 


Roar is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Projects (団地, AKA Danchi, Junji Sakamoto, 2016)

danchi posterTimes change so quickly. The “danchi” was a symbol of post-war aspiration and rising economic prosperity as it sought to give young professionals an affordable yet modern, convenient way of life. The term itself is a little hard to translate though loosely enough just means a housing estate but unlike “The Projects” (団地, Danchi) of the title, these are generally not areas of social housing or lower class neighbourhoods but a kind of vertical village which one should never need to leave (except to go to work) as they also include all the necessary amenities for everyday life from shops and supermarkets to bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, aspirations change across generations and what was once considered a dreamlike promise of futuristic convenience now seems run down and squalid. Cramped apartments with tiny rooms, washing machines on the balconies, no lifts – young people do not see these things as convenient and so the danchi is mostly home to the older generation, downsizers, or the down on their luck.

The Yamashitas – Hinako (Naomi Fujiyama) and her husband Seiji (Ittoku Kishibe), moved into the danchi just a few months ago after abruptly closing their herbal medicine business. The couple have integrated into the mini community fairly well, but as newcomers their neighbours remain a little suspicious and stand offish while Hinako and Seiji have their own reasons for moving and mostly want to be left alone. To make ends meet, Hinako is working part-time at the local supermarket but Seiji is mostly left alone in his thoughts and likes to wander through the nearby woodland behind the estate, eventually earning a nomination for head of the housing committee thanks to his calm and reliable character.

Despite being the last thing he wanted Seiji warms to the idea and has quite a few suggestions for improvements to the estate if he gets elected. Sadly, he loses out at the last second when the incumbent decides to stand again. Depressed and humiliated, Seiji decides to hide inside the mini storage compartment under the couple’s kitchen floor, only emerging for meals and to use the bathroom. Seeing as no one has seen Seiji in weeks, the danchi is ripe with gossip. What can have happened to him? Has he run away with his tail between his legs? Found another woman? Disappeared? Another new resident whose husband is a TV reporter has different idea – Hinako must have killed him!

The village mentality is very much alive in the danchi where the dwindling population and host of empty apartments mean that everyone is very invested in everyone else’s business. Thus the gaggle of women who make up the chief gossip society are suddenly convinced they have a murderer in their midst! Hinako, disinterested in her neighbours’ petty chitchat, ignores them and tries to go on with her business whilst putting up with Seiji’s odd antics as best she can. The neighbours’ suspicions are further aroused by the couple’s mysterious visitor, Shinjo (Takumi Saito), who speaks extremely strange Japanese with oddly robotic delivery.

However much the residents like to tell tales about each other, they are still reluctant to get involved in each other’s affairs. Everyone seems to know that the bossy man from across the way is abusive towards his wife and step-son but no one wants to do anything about it. The boy wanders the same woodland as Seiji, loudly singing the Gatchaman theme song with its cheerful chorus of the world being as one, and trying to keep out of his stepfather’s way. Only Hinako, witnessing the man about to inflict some harsh discipline on his step-son is brave enough to say something but her intervention only provides a momentary reprieve.

Though largely played for laughs there are some darker sides to the world of the danchi – the covert affairs, the gossip, the boredom, and the wilful ignoring of other people’s distress, to name but a few. In true Osakan style there is however a warmth to the comedy coupled with an endearing silliness which contrasts nicely with the more melancholy aspects hanging around the edges. Taking in everything from petty local politics to murder accusations and over zealous TV reporting, not to mention aliens, The Projects’ ambitions are wild and the tone oddly surreal but then again, nothing’s impossible in the danchi!


The Projects was screened as part of the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2007)

Tsubaki Sanjiro horizontalGenerally speaking, where a film has been inspired by already existing source material, it’s unfair to refer to it as a “remake” even if there has been an iconic previous adaptation. That said, in the case of Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎), “remake” is very much at the heart of the idea as the film uses the exact same script as the massively influential 1962 version directed by Akira Kurosawa which also starred his muse Toshiro Mifune. Director Yoshimitsu Morita is less interested in returning to the story’s novelistic roots than he is in engaging with Kurosawa’s cinematic legacy.

Sanjuro is a more populist offering from Kurosawa in any case and adheres to a fairly simple plot which picks up with the hero of the previous year’s Yojimbo, still a wandering ronin living on his wits and his sword. In actuality the script was altered a little to connect the two films even though the original novel has nothing to do with Yojimbo. Anyway, the story is set in a small town in which the hotheaded young men have got a bee in their bonnets about corruption at the higher levels and have taken it upon themselves to do something about it. Unfortunately they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into and are about to make things even worse. Sanjuro duly arrives, overhears their idiocy and gives them some advice before heroically saving all their lives through cleverness. Later, when one of the young men’s relatives is kidnapped, Sanjuro decides to stay and help them sort this giant mess out before they do themselves a mischief.

Obviously, Morita uses the same script so Tsubaki Sanjuro has exactly the same plot as the 1962 film. This does lend it a slightly uncanny quality as its use of language and the structure of the script itself are much more of their own time – a fact brought out by the very theatrical performances of the only two female faces in the film who speak in very pointed and deliberate manners. That said, what Morita attempts to do is bring out even more of the ironic, dark comedy that underpins Kurosawa’s film but is very much played as background. Morita isn’t playing it as farce or as parody, but brings the same wry, almost mocking eye to the proceedings as he brings to to his contemporary satirical comedies.

Bayside Shakedown star Yuji Oda is cast in the role of Sanjuro but really of course he’s expected to play Mifune. He doesn’t have Mifune’s sheer presence and force of personality – who does? but he does a good job of adopting his wiseguy, casual grifter with a sentimental heart persona. We don’t know who Sanjuro is – he gives what is fairly obvious to be a fake name and seems to be a masterless swordsman content to travel in rags and live on the “kindess” of strangers, but you get the feeling he’s already got it all figured out and always knows the best way to handle any situation no matter how desperate it might seem.

If what Morita is trying to do is make a modern Kurosawa movie, he somewhat succeeds. Though he throws in the odd homage to the Kurosawa corpus, mostly he opts for a contemporary approach though one with an old fashioned kind of stateliness – no handheld camera here, wide and tracking shots rule the day. The score too remains in the classical jidaigeki realm with obvious call outs to Sanjuro’s own western leaning themes.

Morita himself can be something of a chameleon in the director’s chair, his style isn’t so personally defined but tailored to the project itself which can make him seem a little dull where he isn’t trying to add a layer of experimentation which is the thing which really interests him. Tsubaki Sanjuro’s experimentation is closer to mirroring – he’s not doing a Gus Van Sant Psycho style experiment, but he’s refracting Kurosawa for a modern audience raised on TV drama and idol stars. It works, to be sure, but perhaps it worked better for Kurosawa (unfair as that is to say).

Ultimately, Tsubaki Sanjuro is something of a curate’s egg. As it is intended to, the film has its generic sides in its fairly ordinary modern samurai movie aesthetic, though it never overplays these and cleverly adds in a more modern approach with a perfectly matched subtlety. Its cast of young men skew younger than in the original film making their naivety even more believable and lending weight to Oda’s performance which captures both his character’s gruff aloofness and his instant born leader abilities. Enjoyable enough in its own right, Tsubaki Sanjuro can’t reach the heights of the film which inspired it, but then perhaps it is not intended to, but simply to entertain with a familiar tale retold as broad comedy rather than mild satire.


Available with English subtitles on region free DVD in the US from Bonzai Media Corp. RSP

Unsubtitled trailer: