I’m Flash! (Toshiaki Toyoda, 2012)

A conflicted cult leader’s existential crisis plays havoc with the “family business” he’s unwillingly inherited in Toshiaki Toyoda’s ironic contemplation of life, death, and everything in-between, I’m Flash!. Taken from a Sheena & The Rokkets song, the slightly awkward title refers not to the hero’s taste for visible wealth, but to the briefness of life. Shot in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, Toyoda apparently intended the film to “shake off death” but ultimately casts off only its shadow while suggesting once again that “death is the ultimate salvation” and the only true path to freedom. 

As the film opens, “guru” Rui (Tatsuya Fujiwara) literally collides with destiny as the bright red sports car he’s driving meets a motorcyclist coming in the other direction. The unnamed cyclist (Tasuku Emoto) is killed instantly and thereafter callously forgotten while the girl in the passenger seat next to him (Kiko Mizuhara) who’d he’d only met that evening in a bar is now in a coma with no indication of when or if she may wake up. Rui is shaken, however, most in being confronted with the real world cost of his phoney religion something which he has perhaps been ignoring in order to continue living his life. “If you want to make serious money there’s nothing better than religion” he’d cynically joked, playing the playboy enjoying the attention his gurudom grants him, particularly with the opposite sex, while living a life of undeserved luxury built on exploiting the vulnerability of others. 

Yet as we come to realise his troubles are not only moral or spiritual but personal in realising that he is but a puppet of his own organisation which is in reality run by his pragmatic mother (Michiyo Okusu) and hard-nosed sister (Mayu Harada) to whose marketing genius he attributes the cult’s recent success. One of three bodyguards hired to protect him quips that Rui is “kind of like a mob boss”, and he’s not far off except that Rui is only the face of the organisation with no real power to affect change. The cult, which runs under the slogan “Life is Beautiful”, was apparently founded by his grandfather and can only be inherited through the male line but Rui later discovers that both his grandfather and father whose skulls sit in his ossuary may have died unnatural deaths suggesting perhaps that they too came to experience this same sense of existential impotence or fell victim to the machinations of others. Feeling emasculated, Rui was forced to become the guru when his middle sister decided to transition, joining older sister Sakura and his mother as part of the matriarchal governing body while refusing the burden Rui must now carry. 

“Everyone needs something to cling to” Rui’s mother rationalises, justifying herself that the members of the cult would merely have joined another organisation if not theirs. Veteran hitman Kamimura (Shigeru Nakano) says something similar when the bodyguards are asked to switch sides and take Rui out of the picture, insisting that if they don’t do it someone else will. Rui’s decision to dissolve the church sparked by his meeting with the girl in the bar creates a serious business problem for his mother and sisters, yet reflecting he realises that he had plenty of opportunities to change his life and let each of them pass him by. “Is life supposed to be enjoyable?” zen hitman/bodyguard Fujiwara (Ryuhei Matsuda) answers when Rui asks him if he’s happy living on the sidelines, but it’s he alone who seems to see the value of living in the present ironically embodying the cult’s central messages that it’s only the fear of death that prevents one living a happy life while also correcting Rui’s minder that the contemplation of mortality shouldn’t be as “effortless” as the solutions they offer profess.  

Rui’s only escape lies in the ocean, in a sense diving into life while swimming towards the sun in search of rebirth while Fujiwara asks himself if he’s completely free if the world is but a fleeting dream and after death everything disappears as if it never existed. The guru may have fallen victim to his own philosophy, looking for salvation in death while perhaps selfishly prioritising his own liberation rather than destroying the corrupt system of which he was a part and in which he will simply be replaced. “Not at any time will the illusion of hope be destroyed” according to an ethereal voiceover casting doubt over its own message of positivity even while its hero swims toward the light. 


I’m Flash! is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th October as part of the Toshiaki Toyoda: 2005 to 2021 box set courtesy of Third Window Films accompanied by a typically insightful commentary from Tom Mes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

No Longer Human (人間失格 太宰治と3人の女たち, Mika Ninagawa, 2019)

Like a character from one of his novels, Osamu Dazai is remembered as a figure of intense romanticism, an image fuelled by his love suicide with a woman who was neither his wife nor the mistress with whom he had conceived a child. A proponent of the “I novel”, Dazai lived as he wrote, but crucially gives the hero of his final book, No Longer Human, a less destructive ending than he eventually gave himself in that he finally accepts his toxicity and chooses self-exile in the belief that he has fallen so far as to lose the right to regard himself as “human”. Mika Ninagawa’s biographical treatment of Dazai borrows the title from his most famous novel (人間失格 太宰治と3人の女たち, Ningen Shikkaku: Dazai Osamu to 3-nin no Onnatachi), but gives it a subtitle which pulls focus from the author himself towards the three women who each in their own way made him what he was. 

Yet what he was, in Ninagawa’s characterisation at least, was hollow. Late into the film, she includes a famous literary anecdote in which a young Yukio Mishima (Kengo Kora) turns up to a party where Dazai (Shun Oguri) is holding court following the publication of The Setting Sun and accuses him of being a poseur, a coward who writes endlessly about death but has no real intention of following through. That’s something of which he was often accused, having already failed to die as we see in the film’s opening in a love suicide in which the woman died calling out another man’s name. Intensely insecure, he carps on about being disrespected by the literary establishment, in fact using his final days and one of his last chances to pen an embittered screed against the famous authors who read but apparently did not care for his work. His editor despairs of him, resenting him not only for the debauched lifestyle which interferes with his writing but his essential caddishness that sees him both mistreat his loyal wife and use countless women as fuel for his art never quite caring about what happens to them afterwards. 

Dazai claims that Michiko (Rie Miyazawa), his legal wife and mother of his children, is OK with his affairs because it is “love in the service of art”. There is some truth in that, though as Michiko points out, Dazai himself would have no interest in a woman so passively self-sacrificing as that of Villon’s Wife. When the children catch sight of their father embracing another woman at a festival, she calmly tells them that he is “working” before pulling them on in embarrassment, putting up with it perhaps more because she has no other option than in respect for Dazai the great artist. 

Yet as his new lover Shizuko (Erika Sawajiri) claims, beautiful art comes from broken people, an idea which perhaps enables Dazai’s grandiose vision of himself as an unjustly dismissed literary genius. Just as Villon’s Wife was “inspired” by his relationship with Michiko, The Setting Sun is about Shizuko, only this time Shizuko is more collaborator than muse. He plunders her diaries and the most famous line from his novel, “Men are made for love and revolution” was in fact not written by him but stolen from her (she eventually asks for a co-writing credit but evidently did not get one, penning her own book instead). What she asks him for in return is a child, a strangely common request also made of him by Tomie (Fumi Nikaido), the woman with whom he eventually dies largely, the film suggests, because despite the longing for life that birth represents she pulled him towards death and he was too indifferent to resist. Dazai’s resistance, if you can call it that, is listlessness in which he has no desire to live but equally perhaps no real desire to die. 

Despite the foregrounding of the title, the three women are perhaps three paths he could take – the conventional as a husband and father, the radical as man standing equal with a woman who is not a wife with whom he births “a new art”, and finally the nihilistic “death” which is the route he eventually takes. With or perhaps for Tomie he writes the work he knows will destroy him in which he excoriates himself rather than her but, unlike in life, receives the gift of self-awareness and then lets himself (partially) off the hook. In Ninagawa’s visual complexity he is perhaps to an extent already dead, collapsing in the snow after haemorrhaging blood in the later stages of TB next to a red circle looking oddly like the flag of Japan only for white petals to begin raining down on him as if he were already in his coffin. We see repeated shots of shimmering water reminding us of his death by drowning, and for all of Ninagawa’s characteristically colourful compositions it’s the women who are surrounded by the vibrancy of flowers in full bloom never Dazai himself. On her husband’s death, Michiko can exclaim only (and ironically) that the sun has finally come out as she gets on with her life putting out the washing. Shizuko affirms that Dazai was the love of her life while asserting her own artistic identity in pushing her book which is an inversion of his. Meanwhile, Dazai has consumed himself, a cad to the last, overdosing on romanticism as an artist who fears he has nothing else to say.


Hong Kong trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2018)

Miracle of Crybaby Shottan poster 1Toshiaki Toyoda burst onto the scene in the late ‘90s with a series of visually stunning expressions of millennial malaise in which the dejected, mostly male, heroes found themselves adrift without hope or purpose in post-bubble Japan. For all their essential nihilism however, Toyoda’s films most often ended with melancholic consolation, or at least a sense of determination in the face of impossibility. Returning after a lengthy hiatus, Toyoda’s adaptation of the autobiography by shogi player Shoji “Shottan” Segawa, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki), finds him in a defiantly hopeful mood as his mild-mannered protagonist discovers that “losing is not the end” and the choice to continue following your dreams even when everything tells you they are no longer achievable is not only legitimate but a moral imperative.

An aspiring Shogi player himself in his youth, Toyoda opens with the young Shoji discovering a love of the game and determining to turn pro. Encouraged by his surprisingly supportive parents who tell him that doing what you love is the most important thing in life, Shoji (Ryuhei Matsuda) devotes himself to mastering his skills forsaking all else. The catch is, that to become a professional shogi player you have to pass through the official association and ascend to the fourth rank before your 26th birthday. Shoji has eight chances to succeed, but in the end he doesn’t make it and is all washed up at 26 with no qualifications or further possibilities seeing as he has essentially “wasted” his adolescence on acquiring skills which are now entirely meaningless.

As his inspirational primary school teacher (Takako Matsu) tells him, however, if you spend time indulging in a passion, no matter what it is, and learn something by it then nothing is ever really wasted. Shoji’s father says the same thing – he wants his son to follow his dreams, though his brother has much more conventional views and often berates him for dedicating himself to shogi when the odds of success are so slim. It may well be “irresponsible”, in one sense at least, to blindly follow a dream to the exclusion of all else, but then again it may also be irresponsible to resentfully throw oneself into the conventionality of salaryman success.

Nevertheless, shogi is a game that drives men mad. Unlike the similarly themed Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, also inspired by a real life shogi star, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan has a classically “happy” ending but is also unafraid to explore the dark sides of the game as young men fail to make the grade, realise they’ve wasted their youths, and retreat into despair and hopelessness. Shoji accepts his fate, internalises his failure, and begins to move on neither hating the game nor loving it, until finally reconnecting with his childhood friend and rediscovering his natural affinity free from ambition or desire.

Another defeated challenger, expressing envy for Shoji’s talent, told him he was quitting because you can’t win if you can’t learn to lose friends and he didn’t want to play that way. Shoji doesn’t really want to play that way either, freely giving up chances to prosper in underhanded ways and genuinely happy for others when they achieve the thing he most wants but cannot get. He does in one sense “give up” in that he accepts he will never play professionally because of the arbitrary rules of the shogi world, but retains his love of the game and eventually achieves “amateur” success at which point he finds himself a figurehead for a campaign targeted squarely at the unfair rigidity of the sport’s governing body.

Shoji’s rebellion finds unexpected support from all quarters as the oppressed masses of Japan rally themselves behind him in protest of the often arcane rules which govern the society. As his teacher told him, just keep doing what you’re doing – it is enough, and it will be OK. Accepting that “losing is not the end” and there are always second chances even after you hit rock bottom and everyone tells you it’s too late, a newly re-energised Shoji is finally able to embrace victory on equal terms carried solely by his pure hearted love of shogi rather than by ambition or resentment. A surprisingly upbeat effort from the usually melancholy director, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan is a beautifully pitched reminder that it really is never too late, success comes to those who master failure, and being soft hearted is no failing when you’re prepared to devote yourself body and soul to one particular cause.


The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Memoirs of a Murderer (22年目の告白―私が殺人犯です―, Yu Irie, 2017)

Memoirs of a MurdererJung Byung-gil’s Confession of Murder may have been a slightly ridiculous revenge drama, but it had at its heart the necessity of dealing with the traumatic past head on in order to bring an end to a cycle of pain and destruction. Yu Irie retools Jung’s tale of a haunted policeman for a wider examination of the legacy of internalised impotence in the face of unavoidable mass violence – in this case the traumatic year of 1995 marked not only by the devastating Kobe earthquake but also by Japan’s only exposure to an act of large scale terrorism. Persistent feelings of powerlessness and nihilistic despair conspire to push fragile minds towards violence as a misguided kind of revenge against their own sense of insignificance but when a killer, safe in the knowledge that they are immune from prosecution after surviving the statute of limitations for their crimes, attempts to profit from their unusual status, what should a society do?

22 years ago, in early 1995, a spate of mysterious stranglings rocked an already anxious Tokyo. In 2010, Japan removed the statute of limitations on capital crimes such as serial killings, mass killings, child killings, and acts of terror, which had previously stood at 15 years, leaving the perpetrator free of the threat of prosecution by only a matter of seconds. Then, all of a sudden, a book is published claiming to be written by the murderer himself as piece of confessional literature. Sonezaki (Tatsuya Fujiwara), revealing himself as the book’s author at a high profile media event, becomes a pop-culture phenomenon while the victims’ surviving families, and the detective who was in charge of the original case, Makimura (Hideaki Ito), incur only more suffering.

Unlike Jung’s version, Irie avoids action for tense cerebral drama though he maintains the outrageous nature of the original and even adds an additional layer of intrigue to the already loaded narrative. Whereas police in Korean films are universally corrupt, violent, or bumbling, Japanese cops are usually heroes even if occasionally frustrated by the bureaucracy of their organisation or by prevalent social taboos. Makimura falls into hero cop territory as he becomes a defender of the wronged whilst sticking steadfastly to the letter of the law in insisting that the killer be caught and brought to justice by the proper means rather than sinking to his level with a dose of mob justice.

Justice is, however, hard to come by now that, legally speaking, the killer’s crimes are an irrelevance. Sonezaki can literally go on TV and confess and nothing can be done. The media, however, have other ideas. The Japanese press has often been criticised for its toothlessness and tendency towards self-censorship, but maverick newscaster and former war correspondent Sendo (Toru Nakamura) is determined to make trial by media a more positive move than it sounds. He invites Sonezaki on live TV to discuss his book, claiming that it’s the opportunity to get to the truth rather than the viewing figures which has spurred his decision, but many of his colleagues remain skeptical of allowing a self-confessed murderer to peddle his macabre memoirs on what they would like to believe is a respectable news outlet.

The killer forces the loved ones of his victims to watch while he goes about his bloody business, making them feel as powerless as he once did while he remains ascendent and all powerful. It is these feelings of powerlessness and ever present unseen threats born of extensive personal or national traumas which are responsible for producing such heinous crimes and by turns leave behind them only more dark and destructive emotions in the desire for violence returned as revenge. Focussing in more tightly on the despair and survivors guilt which plagues those left behind, Irie opts for a different kind of darkness to his Korean counterpart but refuses to venture so far into it, avowing that the law deserves respect and will ultimately serve the justice all so desperately need. Irie’s artier approach, shifting to grainier 16:9 for the ‘90s sequences, mixing in soundscapes of confusing distortion and TV news stock footage, often works against the outrageous quality of the convoluted narrative and its increasingly over the top revelations, but nevertheless he manages to add something to the Korean original in his instance on violence as sickness spread by fear which can only be cured through the calm and dispassionate application of the law.


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

Screening again:

  • Showroom Cinema – 22 March 2018
  • Broadway – 23 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 24 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 24 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 25 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death Note: Light Up The NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

Death Note- Light up the NEW WorldTsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata’s Death Note manga has already spawned three live action films, an acclaimed TV anime, live action TV drama, musical, and various other forms of media becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. A return to cinema screens was therefore inevitable – Death Note: Light up the NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World) positions itself as the first in a possible new strand of the ongoing franchise, casting its net wider to embrace a new, global world. Directed by Shinsuke Sato – one of the foremost blockbuster directors in Japan responsible for Gantz, Library Wars, and the zombie comedy I am a Hero, Light up the NEW World is a new kind of Death Note movie which moves away from the adversarial nature of the series for a more traditional kind of existential procedural which takes its cues from noir rather the eccentric detectives the franchise is known for.

Ten years after Kira, the Shinigami are bored out of their minds and hoping to find themselves a new puppet to play with and so they drop six notebooks at different places across the world and wait to see who picks them up. The first is a Russian doctor who uses it out of curiosity and compassion when faced with the desperate pleas of a suffering, terminally ill man. Others are not so altruistic, as a young girl with reaper eyes goes on a mass random killing spree in the busy Shibuya streets while the police attempt to cover their faces so they can’t fall victim to her relentless writing. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) of the special Death Note task force hesitates, uncertain whether he should disobey orders and shoot the girl to end her killing spree, but his dilemma is solved when a strangely dressed masked man appears and shoots her for him. He is special detective Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) – L’s successor, and a crucial ally in discovering the Shinigami’s intentions as well as the counter plan to obtain the six books and lock them away to permanently disable the Death Note threat.

As in the original series, Kira has his devotees including the cybercriminal Shien (Masaki Suda) who is intent on frustrating the police’s plan by getting his hands on the books and using them to complete Kira’s grand design. This time around, there’s less questioning of the nature of justice or of the police but at least that means there’s little respect given to Kira’s cryptofascist ideas about crime and punishment. At one point a very wealthy woman begins to voice her support of Kira because something needs to be done about “the poor” and all their “crimes” but she is quickly cut down herself as her well dressed friends attempt to rally around her.

The focus is the police, or more specifically their internal political disputes and divisions. Mishima, described as a Kira geek, heads a special squad dedicated to Death Note related crimes, where he is asssited by the flamboyant private detective Ryuzaki who is apparently the last remaining inheritor of L’s DNA. Mishima remains distrustful of his colleague but the bond between the rest of the team is a tight one. In order to frustrate possible Death Note users, none of the squad is using their real names which places a barrier between comrades in arms when it comes to building trust and solidarity in addition to leaving a backdoor open for unexpected secrets.

Sato’s focus, as it has been in the majority of his career, is genre rather than character or exploring the wider themes of the Death Note franchise from the corrupting influence of absolute power to vigilante justice and the failings of the judicial system. The new Death Note world is a more conventional one loyal to the police procedural in which dogged detectives chase mad killers through whatever means necessary whether on foot or online.

The action, however, is generally exciting as the police engage in a cat and mouse game with Shien even if not as complex as that between Kira and L. The Death Notes are an unstoppable force, corrupting otherwise fair-minded people and turning them into vengeful killing machines acting like gods in deciding who should live and who die. Moving away from the series trademark, Light up the NEW World is, essentially, the generic thriller spin-off to the main franchise but is no less fun for it even if it necessarily loses a little of itself in the process.


Death Note: Light up the NEW World was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Erased (僕だけがいない街, Yuichiro Hirakawa, 2016)

erasedErased (僕だけがいない街, Boku Dake ga Inai Machi), a best selling manga by Kai Sanbe, has become this year’s big media spectacle with a 12 episode TV anime adaptation and spin-off novel series all preceding the release of this big budget blockbuster movie. Directed by TV drama stalwart Yuichiro Hirakawa, the live action iteration of the admittedly complicated yet ultimately affecting story of a man who decides to sacrifice himself to ensure his friends’ happiness, acquits itself well enough for the most part but changes two crucial details in its concluding section which unwisely undermine its internal logic and make for an unsatisfying conclusion to the ongoing puzzle.

Beginning in the “present” of 2006, Satoru Fujinuma (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is an aspiring mangaka making ends meet with a part-time job as a pizza delivery guy (a kind of “Hiro Protagonist”, if you will). Aloof and sullen, Satoru has no real friends but does possess an unusual supernatural ability – if a tragedy is about to occur in his general vicinity, he will enter a “Revival” loop in which he temporarily rewinds time, allowing him to figure out the problem and save everyone’s lives. Rescuing a child about to be hit by an out of control lorry, Satoru rides his pizza delivery bike into an oncoming car and winds up in hospital.

When he comes to he finds cheerful co-worker Airi (Kasumi Arimura), who witnessed the accident, waiting for him as well as his mother (Yuriko Ishida) coming in for visit. Reconnecting with his mother and getting closer to Airi (albeit reluctantly) Satoru’s life appears to be brightening up but the good times are short lived as Satoru’s mother is brutally murdered in his apartment leaving him looking like the prime suspect. This time when Revival kicks in it doesn’t just rewind a few minutes but 18 years, back to the winter of 1988 when Satoru’s small town was rocked by a series of child murders and abductions which resulted in the arrest of a local boy (Kento Hayashi) whom Satoru had always believed to be innocent.

Repossessing his childhood body but with a grown man’s mind, the “younger” Satoru is considerably less jaded than his 2006 counterpart, determined to change the future and save his mother’s life. The root causes of her death, he is sure, rest in this unresolved and traumatic period of his childhood. Swapping back and forth between 2006 and 1988 as Satoru makes the best of his opportunity to investigate from both sides, Erased is a tightly controlled time travel puzzle of trial and error in which Satoru must use all of the evidence he can gather to unmask the criminal in order to save both the lives of his friends in 1988 and that of his mother in 2006.

As in many similarly themed franchises, the plot turns on the bonds formed in childhood as the connections between Satoru and his friends become the binding glue in an otherwise fluid time travel dilemma. Older Satoru is better equipped to recognise the trouble one of his friends is in – Kayo, a sad and lonely girl who, in the original timeline, eventually became one of the victims attributed to the serial murders plaguing the town. Trapped in an abusive home environment, Kayo isolates herself for reasons of self preservation, both too afraid and too ashamed to let anyone know what’s going on at home. Managing to befriend her, Satoru does indeed help to change something for the better but only finds himself becoming more deeply entrenched in the central mystery.

It’s at this point that the film begins to diverge from its source material as Satoru is attacked by the murderer and “wakes up” back in 2006 but rather than having been in a coma for 18 years has apparently been leading a much more successful life than his previous incarnation. Within the peculiar laws of the franchise which don’t always match standard time travel logic, Satoru’s central timeline does not change – only his mind moves between bodies, he retains full knowledge of his original timeline as well as the changes he brings about. However, he now seems to magically receive memories of the life he never lived whilst also retaining his previous ones. Now knowing the identity of the real murderer and the probability that they are still out there, Satoru decides to re-team with his old friends but his showdown with the psychotic killer is entirely contrived to engineer a “tragic” ending, oddly more like something that might have befallen the 11yr old Satoru than his older counterpart, further undermining the already shaken sense of internal consistency.

The film’s Japanese title, Boku Dake ga Inai Machi (the town where only I am missing), takes inspiration from the short story which Kayo writes in school. Wishing that she alone could be transported to another life free of abuse and loneliness, Kayo writes herself into a better place. Satoru reimagines a similar scenario with himself in the lead as he makes the decision to sacrifice himself to save his friends. The ending of the original source material both undercuts and reinforces this idea as Satoru’s friends are both extremely proud and grateful for his efforts, but are also keen to point out that the world is a much better place with him in it than without. In removing the opportunity for Satoru’s friends to come to his rescue, the live action version of Erased also removes its most crucial message – that heroes are never “alone”, and Satoru’s salvation lies in that of his friends and family.

Yuichiro Hirakawa mostly opts for a lighter tone than the children investigating a serial killer whilst also trying to rescue their friend from her abusive mother narrative might indicate. There are some nice visual ideas including a switch to POV during the first time skip to 1988, the repeated hero of justice hand gestures, and thoughtful use of manga, but given the obvious problems with internal consistency, the high quality of the performances and cinematography can’t reconcile the various cracks within the film’s structure. Uneven, but strong until its contrived and illogical end point, Erased is a slightly disappointing live action adaptation of its source material in which it might have been (ironically enough) better to have more faith rather than pushing for the predictably melodramatic conclusion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Snakes and Earrings (蛇にピアス, Yukio Ninagawa, 2008)

91+iM1s07LL._SL1500_When 21 year old Hitomi Kanehara’s Snakes and Earrings (蛇にピアス, Hebi ni Piasu) was published back in 2003 it took the coveted Akutagawa prize for literature and the country by storm. Its scandalous depictions of the dark and nihilistic sex life of its outsider youngsters outraged and fascinated enough people to get it onto the best seller lists and earn a cinematic adaptation from Japan’s top theatre director Yukio Ninagawa in only his second foray into the world of moving pictures. However, Snakes and Earrings is perhaps that rare instance of an adaptation which clings to closely to its source material as its detached, emotionless and straightforward approach end in something of a miss fire.

Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) is a typical “gyaru” – for those of you reading from the future, this is an “ultra feminine” fashion trend which encourages young women to barbie doll it up to the max. It’s a little strange then when she catches sight of young punk Ama (Kengo Kora) in a nightclub and becomes fascinated with his forked tongue. In actuality, it’s the tongue she falls for, not the guy, but the two become a couple and she moves into his apartment. Before long she too gets a tongue ring and becomes determined on splitting her own tongue as well as getting herself a large tattoo. That’s how she meets Ama’s tattooist friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who becomes equally fascinated with Lui. Lui trades sex with Shiba in return for designing her body art and the two begin an illicit, sado-masochistic affair behind Ama’s back but even after Lui’s tattoo is completed it only sends her further into a spiral of nihilistic self annihilation.

Snakes and Earrings opens with a beautifully shot near silent sequence which pans across the skyline of modern Tokyo picking out the neon lights and advertising boards that proclaim it as a city which belongs to the young. Even when we’re with Lui inside the nightclub, the sound remains muted as young men and women dance to music that we cannot hear – even when Lui spots Ama it’s only the visuals that hang until he comes over and talks to her and we realise she’s had her headphones in the entire time. This sequence is neatly echoed at the film’s conclusion but is, however, something of an anomaly when it comes to the prevailing style of the film which is relentlessly detached and straightforward in approach.

Lui – short for “Louis Vuitton” remains something of a cypher. She’s torn between her two lovers – the punkish dope Ama who would kill for her and the cold, sadistic Shiba who would kill her given half the chance. She doesn’t seem to know what she wants or who she is and quickly loses herself in alcoholism and self disgust. It feels as if there should be more to this – a critique of the emptiness of modern life or the dehumanising effects of the city but all there is is a great nothingness. Perhaps that’s the point, there is nothing to Lui – not even a real name. She possesses no clearly defined identity and therefore does not exist. This is a fine idea, on paper, but does leave a great gaping hole where the protagonist ought to be.

Lui’s two love interests, the oddly vibrant Ama and the restrained Shiba represent two sides of the same thing as Lui is torn between pleasure in pain and pain in love. Kengo Kora does what he can with a thinly defined role which often feels more like a plot device than anything else. Arata Iura fares a little better with the meatier role of Shiba who is accorded more screen time but the film remains resolutely cold and distant. In a minor instance of distraction, Shun Oguri and more prominently Tatsuya Fujiwara turn up as bit players in the roles of two street punks who get into a fight with Ama which is, frankly, baffling.

Though opting for simplistic, straightforward compositions much of Snakes and Earrings is beautifully captured even if deliberately alienating. As in the book, even the frequent, semi-explicit sex scenes are shot in such a matter of fact way as to render them totally neutered, devoid of any kind of sensation. Ultimately, Snakes and Earrings finishes as a noble failure, neatly echoing its heroine’s nihilistic mindset whilst simultaneously failing to engage.


The Hong Kong DVD/blu-ray release (as well as the Japanese blu-ray) of Snakes and Earrings includes English Subtitles.

 

Monsterz (2014)

Monsterz_2014Hideo Nakata is best remembered as one of the driving forces of the J-Horror boom of the late ’90s thanks to his hugely influential Ring movies. However, despite a few notable hits including Dark Water, his career has seen something of a slump following a foray into American filmmaking with The Ring 2 – a sequel to the remake of his own Ring (though entirely different from his Japanese language Ring 2 completed in 1999). Monsterz sees him helming a remake of another foreign property – this time the Korean sci-fi thriller Haunters.

The film begins from the POV of Monster no. 1 (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara), who narrates much of the story and refers to himself solely as “monster”. Blindfolded, a small boy is dragged home by his mother only to be discovered by his abusive father who beats him and berates his mother whilst insisting “the monster” needs to die. At this point the blindfold comes off and the boy controls his fathers actions eventually persuading him to snap his own neck. Beginning to also control his mother, the boy stops short of giving her the same treatment and wanders off into the rain. Fast forward 20 years and the monster is now a criminal mastermind who uses his time freezing and mind control capabilities to make a living as a bank robber. However, one day he discovers someone who seems to be immune to his powers (Takayuki Yamada) and his whole world is shaken. The monster sets about removing this threat to his supremacy but it appears his opponent is also “a monster” – a man with super healing properties who cannot die! It takes a “monster” to fight a monster but which one will come out on top?

Yes, lots of predictably comic book style action adventures begin as the two guys with opposing super powers face off against each other. The most interesting aspect of the film is that it’s mainly told from the point of view of the otherwise unnamed “monster” though Nakata’s attempts to make him a sympathetic anti-hero never quite work out despite Fujiwara’s committed performance. The film’s ending is also unconventionally unresolved (though also very true to its American comic book roots) with a pleasing note of tolerance and inclusivity thrown in. However, that is in part facilitated by the lack of tension in the central dynamic – the two opposing forces are at a perpetual stalemate which only ends up feeling, well, stale – in a word. The monster’s freezing and mind control powers are impressive but the action sequences are much of a muchness and just get bigger rather than more interesting.

Having said that the action sequences aren’t unexciting, there are some impressive moments (bar the odd use of dodgy CGI and green screen). The main problem with the film is a slight mismatch in tones between Nakata’s portentous doom laden fatalism and the playful lightness of its comic book inspiration. The conventional hero, Shuichi, takes second lead here with his gang of sidekicks – otaku Akira and flaming queen Jun offering odd moments of comic relief. Though actually the role of Jun is another interesting inclusion as, despite offering a stereotypically “gay” character camping things up spectacularly, Jun is also presented fairly normally as a valued friend and comrade of the hero. His sexuality is merely a character trait, never a joke in itself which is a refreshing element particularly in a Japanese film. In the end, Monsterz aims to offer a message of tolerance and inclusiveness – that, oddly, there are no monsters and would be no villains if we could all just learn to accept each other’s differences and live together in harmony. However, the message is a little hamfisted and clumsily delivered and, some might feel, out of place in an action orientated film such as this.

Very typical of the comic book movie genre (though perhaps more Fantastic 4 than Dark Knight), Monsterz is middling mainstream fare which, while mildly diverting, fails to offer anything particularly memorable. A fine way to spend 90 minutes, Monsterz never outstays its welcome and offers generally high production values plus Nakata’s trademark visual flair but is unlikely to satisfy more genre savvy fans.

Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno (UK Anime Network Review)

ruruoni_kenshin_the_kyoto_inferno_still(saito’s just so cool!)

Review of the first Rurouni Kenshin sequel, Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno up at UK Anime Network.


At the end of the first Rurouni Kenshin live action film, you might have been forgiven for thinking that this once wandering warrior had finally found a place to hang up his (reverse blade) sword for good. As fans of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s much loved manga and its anime adaptation will know, there’s no such luck for Himura Kenshin or the long suffering Kaoru as once again Kenshin will be called upon to put his unique skills to use and this time the very survival of Japan’s new era of modernism and equality is at stake!

Having successfully seen off would be drug baron Kanryuu and the false Battosai Jin-e, once remorseless killer Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) has moved into the dojo run by Kaoru (Emi Takei) and made a seemingly joyful life alongside Kaoru’s only pupil, the boy Yahiko (Kaito Oyagi), the doctor Megumi (Yu Aoi) and loud mouth Sanosuke (Munekata Aoki). However, the happy family’s peace is about to be rudely interrupted as an envoy from the Home Minister arrives and requests a private meeting with Kenshin. It seems an old enemy once believed dead has been discovered to be alive and currently plotting terrible vengeance against the new government in Kyoto. Shishio’s skills are matched only by Kenshin and so the government wishes to make use of his services once again to stop this new threat to the development of the modernising Japan. However, Kenshin has laid down his sword and dedicated his life to atoning for the lives he took as a warrior – will he really return to the life of a wandering swordsman? Originally reluctant and very much against the wishes of Kaoru, a tragic event finally convinces Kenshin he has no choice but to stop Shishio whatever the cost!

Even more so that the first film, Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno is set against the backdrop of a Japan in the middle of earth shattering cultural shifts. The age of the Shogun is over, there are no more samurai or feudal loyalties to fulfil. This fresh new world of possibilities has no place left in it for the men who fought so bravely to bring it into being. Some, like Kenshin, hung up their swords and set themselves into atoning for the violence of the past by vowing to build a better, kinder, future. Others, however, like Shishio, were left with nothing other than the desire to return to a world where their skills mattered – the familiar world of lords and castles and glorious battles. Kenshin and Shishio are two sides of the same coin – light and shadow. Having been assassinated and thrown on a funeral pyre before miraculously surviving thanks to a fortuitous fall of snow, Shishio has made fire his very own symbol and primary weapon of attack. This new world is a hell for him and along with his bandage clad gang of followers, he’s about to plunge all of Japan into a fiery abyss too.

The first instalment was also notable for its fairly high production values and if anything, Kyoto Inferno even improves upon the original film’s impressive aesthetics. Fire in particular has often proved something of a bug bear for the modern action film and as you might expect from the title Kyoto Inferno is jam packed with flaming action. From its extremely striking opening scene, Kyoto Inferno lays on some of the most complex and beautifully filmed action sequences to be seen in a Japanese film in quite some time. Where it falls down slightly is bound up with its nature as the first part of a two part film as it is does begin to pile on the sub plots and risks becoming overloaded while the original gang (and particularly Yu Aoi’s doctor Megumi) end up with relatively little to do. Likewise, as with the first film the more manga-like elements such as some of the overly broad comedy or a couple of characters who are just the wrong sort of outrageous don’t quite fit with the otherwise classical feeling of the film though fans of the manga franchise may appreciate this attempt at remaining faithful to the source material.

In many ways the Rurouni Kenshin movies are just fluffy mainstream action films (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno is that rarest of beasts in that it manages to build on the foundations of the first film to become something greater with the result that it even helps to elevate the original. Of course, this largely hinges on how well the last part of the trilogy, appropriately entitled The Legend Ends will fare but suffice to say the first two thirds have stood it in very good stead. Action packed but with a tightly plotted storyline, convincing characters, good performances and high production values Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno offers everything that’s good about blockbusters without any of the drawbacks. In fact the only real problem that the film presents is the likely long wait until The Lengend Ends finally arrives!


 

This is out in UK cinemas from Friday 28th November 2014 when it’ll play all these cool places:

  • Cineworld Enfield
  • Cineworld Crawley
  • Cineworld Sheffield
  • Cineworld West India Quay
  • Cineworld Glasgow RS
  • Cineworld Cardiff
  • Cineworld Stevenage
  • Cineworld Bolton
  • Vue Piccadilly (London)

Well worth seeing on the big screen, might even be better than the first one!