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!