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)

The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.

 

The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Masato Harada, 2015)

bbc56b4fff657dfc4fcc0499f8be9741How exactly do you lose a war? It’s not as if you can simply telephone your opponents and say “so sorry, I’m a little busy today so perhaps we could agree not to kill each other for bit? Talk later, tata.” The Emperor in August examines the last few days in the summer of 1945 as Japan attempts to convince itself to end the conflict. Previously recounted by Kihachi Okamoto in 1967 under the title Japan’s Longest Day, The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi) proves that stately events are not always as gracefully carried off as they may appear on the surface.

By the summer of 1945, it’s clear that the situation as deteriorated significantly and Japan can no longer cling to any kind of hope of victory in the wider scale. Tokyo has been firebombed almost out of existence leaving only the Imperial Palace untouched – even the Emperor and his wife have been reduced to eating gruel. Everyone knows it’s time for a solution, but no one is quite ready to say it. In the wake of the atomic bomb, the situation becomes ever more desperate and even if the Emperor himself advocates a surrender, he needs the approval of his advisors. The Prime Minister, Navy and other officials are in favour but the Army, represented by General Anami, is committed to fighting on to the last man. Eventually, Anami comes around to the Emperor’s point of view but some of his men prove much harder to convince…

It might seem like a strange time to make a film about grace in the face of defeat given the recent political troubles stemming back to Japan’s wartime activities, but director Masato Harada is not lamenting the course of the war or trying to advocate for any rightwing agenda so much as trying to make plain the final absurdity of recognising when the battle is over. The civilians and even the Navy might be in favour of accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and ending the war as quickly as possible but a soldier is a soldier and the Army wants to go down fighting. They aren’t alone, of course, there are ordinary people who feel this way too but the writing is well and truly on the wall here.

The bulk of the film takes place within the palace, debating halls or army buildings all of which have escaped major damaged but every time we venture outside we’re shown a scene of utter desolation. A great, gaping hole where once there was a city. Anami’s wife undertakes a four hour walk to try and get in contact with a man who knew their son and can tell them how it was that he fell somewhere in Manchuria. She sees people fleeing, some thinking the enemy are about to descend any minute or that Tokyo will be the next target for an atomic bomb, and walks on through a barren, eerie landscape emerging soot covered and, finally, too late.

Closer to home, the situation among the soldiers is reaching boiling point. Originally committed to rejecting the terms of the treaty, Anami is now in favour of a surrender (with a few caveats) and is desperately working against the threat of an internal coup. Though the top brass have seen enough of warfare to know when it’s time to put down your weapons, the young hotheads have not yet learned the value of pragmatism. Seeing themselves as a second incarnation of the February 26th rebels, a cadre of young officers breaks ranks to try and stop the Emperor’s message of surrender from hitting the airwaves, hoping instead to spread the false message that the Russians have invaded and it’s all hands on deck. Needless to say, they don’t fare any better than the young officers of 1936 and if anything their bullheaded refusal to see sense becomes a microcosmic allegory for the years of militarism as a whole.

In the midst of all this chaos, the real heart of the film is Koji Yakusho’s conflicted general who feels his era passing right in front of him. Grieving for his fallen son yet also clinging to his military duty which dictates no surrender, no retreat he finally sees each of his ideals crumbling and comes to the realisation that the only way to save Japan is to abandon the military. Making a sacrifice of himself, he ensures the safe passage of his nation along a road on which he cannot travel.

The Emperor is a sympathetic figure here, gentle, soft, wanting the suffering to end for everyone but being more or less powerless to effect it despite his title. All he can do is advocate and try to convince his council that surrender is the right course of action as his country burns all around him.

Harada manages to keep the tension high even though a lot of the film comes down to a group of men discussing the proper wording for a treaty. A timely and beautifully photographed exploration of the last days of a war, The Emperor in August is another much needed reminder that decisions which will affect millions of lives are made by handfuls of men in tiny, closed up rooms that most people will never get to see.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of The Emperor in August includes English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer: