The Island Closest to Heaven (天国にいちばん近い島, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1984)

On its publication in the mid-1960s, Katsura Morimura’s autobiographical travelogue The Island Closest to Heaven (天国にいちばん近い島, Tengoku ni Ichiban Chikai Shima) became something of a publishing phenomenon and is credited with creating a romanticised image of the Pacific islands in the post-war Japanese imagination. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1984 film adaptation in fact prominently features adverts for the UTA New Caledonia tour and acts as something like a tourist information video showcasing the idyllic island scenery and well appointed resort accommodation if also later featuring the decidedly less well appointed establishments on the other side of town where the locals live and and work. 

It is however first and foremost a vehicle for Kadokawa idol star Tomoyo Harada who had made her debut in Obayashi’s The Little Girl Who Conquered Time and was now onto her third lead having starred in Curtain Call earlier in the year which Haruki Kadokawa had directed himself. As such, the film is only loosely based on Morimura’s novel, recasting the heroine as a recently bereaved 16-year-old embarking on a coming-of-age adventure while travelling overseas looking for herself and a sense of the safety and stability she experienced before her father’s death. 

In the prologue sequence which opens the film, shot with a muted, pink-tinted colour filter, a younger Mari sits on the edge of a bridge with her father holding her from behind. As both she and her father are dressed in yukata, as are others who pass them on the bridge, we can assume that it is summer and possibly around the time of Bon festival which adds an extra degree of poignancy to their conversation in which her father quietly clearly anticipates his own death. He tells her about a distant island far to the south and close enough to Heaven for God to call on where it is always warm and sunny and the people always happy. Mari asks for the name of the place and is told it is called New Caledonia, possibly a name her father picked out of the air without thinking but becomes to her a symbol of the bond that existed between them and place she must visit now that her father is no longer physically present in her life. 

What she’s looking for is in a sense a path back to her father or at least a means a coming to terms with his absence. Her mother (Kayo Matsuo) may appear somewhat indifferent, but it’s clear that it’s a kind of pride she feels in her daughter’s first steps into adulthood knowing that she has raised a determined young woman if one with her head in the clouds like her father. Her sentiment is later echoed by an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) who has come to New Caledonia in order to make peace with the death of her husband 39 years previously when his submarine was sunk during the war, stating that all these years later her abiding memory is pride that she fell in love with someone she could be proud of. “Love is the story of your whole life” she tells Mari, who is herself just beginning to understand that life is a process of love and loss as she searches for her island and eventually finds it in the eyes of a local boy who yearns for an island far to the north where it’s always bright and sunny and the people are always happy. 

Mari’s interactions on the island are torn between two men, the young Taro (Ryoichi Takayanagi) who is fascinated by the idea of Japan where his grandfather first came from to dig nickel, and a much older man, Yuichi (Toru Minegishi), who seems to be arrested, stuck on the island and unable to move forward with his life because of a youthful broken heart. Mari reminds him of the young woman he loved and lost, trying to recapture the magic with a moment that seems to reference Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, but of course failing to do so. There is something uncomfortable in their relationship given that Mari is only 16 and this man is perhaps already in his 40s, yet her decision to leave the safety of the tour group and venture astray with him to find what she is looking for rather than what the tour guide wants to show her demonstrates her independent spirt and impending adulthood in taking an active control over her life and future. 

In this way the island is a liminal space in more ways than one, symbolically connecting the mortal world and the other while allowing Mari to transition into adulthood as symbolised by her return home now no longer wearing her glasses in having opened her eyes to a fuller reality. Nevertheless, the film does follow the line of the book which is very of its time in its presentation of the indigenous community which is bound up with the idea of a smiling island people lazing in the sun of a tropical paradise while possessing profound spiritual knowledge. Mari’s literal coming of age is symbolised by a fever she endures after being stung by a sting ray, coming to during a tribal dance and then collapsing again to awaken as if reborn into adulthood.  

After this transition it’s implied that her relationship with Taro will have to end, that this brief summer adventure like so many in Obayashi’s films was just about making memories to carry forward in the further course of life. But then as her seemingly unburdened tour group friend had pointed out, Mari found Taro by chance twice before and so may someday find him again just as Mari’s intervention has earned Yuichi and his first love a second chance no longer so enthral to the illusionary power of the green ray but making choices informed by the realities of love that may still be “romantic” if no longer quite so naive. Shifting into a more contemplative register than other similarly themed Kadokawa idol movies, The Island Closest to Heaven is one of Obayashi’s most straightforward features save for its brief use of colour filters in the opening and closing scenes and the lengthy title sequence which draws inspiration from classic Hollywood melodrama, but engages with some of his key themes in the romantic nostalgia of love and loss as his heroine comes to a new understanding of herself while bidding goodbye to the past. 


The Island Closest to Heaven is released on blu-ray on 17th October courtesy of Third Window Films as part of the Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 80s Kadokawa Years box set alongside School in the Crosshairs, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and His Motorbike, Her Island.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Theme song performed by Tomoyo Harada

Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle, Arthur Harari, 2021)

For most people, the Pacific War ended in 1945. For Hiroo Onoda it may in a sense never have ended though he laid down his arms in 1974, 30 years after his initial dispatch, having spent the intervening three decades pursuing guerrilla warfare in the Philippine jungle the last two of them entirely alone. Arthur Harari’s three-hour existential epic, Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle (Onoda, 10 000 nuits dans la jungle), explores the psychological dimensions of his quasi-religious conviction in the righteousness of a mission which is in one sense no more than to survive along with his refusal to accept that the war is over and his personal struggle has been pointless. 

Immediately in opening the film in 1974 with a young man identified only as a “tourist” (Taiga Nakano) arriving on the island in search of Onoda (Kanji Tsuda), Harari draws a direct contrast between these two arrivals and subsequent departures. As he says, the Tourist is just that in town for a specific purpose after which he will leave and though you might be able to say the same of Onoda who came to the island of Lubang in late 1944 his reality was very different. On luring him out of the jungle by playing the patriotic war song he had sung with the other soldiers who unlike him accepted the surrender, the Tourist poignantly tells Onoda that he has travelled to over 50 countries whereas Onoda in a certain sense has never left Japan. “This island belongs to us” he’s fond of insisting seeing it as a piece of the Japanese empire which others are trying to take from him but he alone must defend. 

As we discover, the young Onoda (Yuya Endo) had wanted to become a pilot but washed out of the training program because of a fear of heights and was subsequently put forward for a kamikaze squadron. The irony of his life is that he is a man who refused to die for the emperor, his will to survive bringing him to the attention of Major Taniguchi (Issey Ogata) of the notorious Nakano spy school who sells his students a line that they are the good guys helping to liberate East Asia from Western imperialism. Trained in guerrilla warfare part of Onoda’s mission is to foster an uprising in the local population whom he assumes will also oppose American influence never realising that he is in fact a part of a destructive colonising force they will also seek to repel not least because of the way they have been treated by Japanese forces. 

Onoda’s first meeting with his captain on arriving on Lubang is interrupted by the arrival of the mayor of a nearby town who has come to complain that Japanese soldiers have been stealing food supplies from local farmers. This comes as a surprise to Onoda who is obviously not fully aware of the reality on the ground. His initial orders are largely ignored by the remaining NCOs who get up and leave during his briefing knowing that what he’s proposing is impossible. These men are already battle weary, many of them are sick, and they are running low on supplies. Onoda is 22 and fresh faced, arriving full of energy and patriotic zeal assuming these men are simply lazy or lack ideological commitment. He has no grounds to wield authority and no combat experience that would permit him to understand the circumstances in which he finds himself. In an especial irony, his first kill occurs after the war has (for everyone else) ended and he will himself go on to commit acts of atrocity against the local population which he justifies as acts of war. 

The military song which he is fond of singing celebrates there being no more bandits, yet banditry is essentially what he has been reduced to calling into question any idea of heroism which might be attributed to his refusal to accept the wartime defeat. In his Nakano spy school training, Onoda had been encouraged to ignore the accepted rules of war, that all is permissible in the pursuit of victory. He is also told that the prize for the “secret war” he is conducting will be a “secret glory” that goes unrecognised by others while he alone will possess true integrity in knowing that he never wavered in his mission. Yet there is something in him which weakens when he encounters the Tourist and is told that most of Japan believes him to be dead, rendering his struggle an irrelevance. 

He begins to admit the concept of surrender but only if given new orders from Taniguchi whose contradictory teachings have informed the course of his life, yet Taniguchi like many of his generation in the Japan of 1974 does not want to face his wartime past. The bookshop he now runs sells no military books and he claims not to remember Onoda or Lubang refusing his responsibility for his role in the conflict now filled with shame and regret. Yet it’s also possible that Onoda misunderstood the nature of the mission he’d been assigned, that in saving him from the kamikaze squadron because he did not want to die, Taniguchi gave him only one order – to survive. “You do not have the right to die” he reminds the recruits while giving them the ultra-individualist mantra that they must be their own officers which is in essence the paradoxical instruction to obey no orders but their own meaning that Onoda was always free to accept defeat. 

The psychological consequences of doing so, however, may have been too great. Coming of age in a militarised society, he already feels himself emasculated and embarrassed by his failure to become a pilot essentially because he is afraid to die. An awkward meeting with his father (played by film director Nobuhiro Suwa) resembles that of a Spartan woman sending her son to war with the instruction to return with his shield or on it. To return in defeat is psychologically impossible and suicide forbidden and so the only choice is inertia. In this Onoda may be hiding in the jungle unable to face a post-war future, descending into delusional conspiracy when presented with evidence that the war is over choosing to see the attempts of others to discourage him from his mission as proof of its importance, as if he and the remaining soldier sticking with him are key players in geopolitical manoeuvring worthy of such an elaborate plot. To believe the world is wrong is easier than to accept that he’s wasted his life in service of a mistaken ideal while failing to prove himself a man by the standards of a heavily militarised society. 

He’s tempted out of his delusion only by the Tourist who confronts him with the face of a new Japan entirely unknown to him, a Japan of economic prosperity, of the Shinkansen, of democracy. Being taken off the island means he must finally leave his dreams and delusions behind to enter a new post-war reality. Harari frames the island of Lubang as a psychological realm, the topography of Onoda’s delusion, but is also mindful of the islanders living outside it whom Onoda terrorises under the justification of war no better than a bandit in his quest for survival. In Harari’s oneiric landscapes, Onoda’s vistas are forever haunted by the spectres of his latent regret in the reflections of the boy he once was who came to Lubang to prove himself a man only to leave it a ghost. 


Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle opens in UK cinemas April 15 courtesy of Third Window Films. It will also be released on blu-ray May 16 in a set which also features an interview with actor Kanji Tsuda plus an interview with director Arthur Harari, DOP Tom Harari and assistant director Benjamin Papin.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Warped Forest (あさっての森, Shunichiro Miki, 2011)

“Life is about making the most of what you get” according to a former blackmailer seeing the error of his ways when his attempt to use his ill-gotten gains to woo a lover abruptly fails, but you can always dream in the wild and wacky world of Shunichiro Miki’s The Warped Forest (あさっての森, Asatte no Mori). A quasi-sequel to Funky Forest: The First Contact which Miki also co-directed, Warped Forest is in someways more conventional lending a loose overarching narrative to its otherwise disconnected scenes set in a bizarre village where the residents can spend acorns and pinecones to tinker with their dreams assuming they don’t mind the possibility of emerging with a curse. 

Like Funky Forest, the film revolves around three trios in the black and white sequence which opens the film two staying at the same inn but adopting vastly different personas in the full colour alternate universe to which we are soon transported. The older male trio are informed they’ve been “missing” for two days though they don’t remember going anywhere and are very confused by the apparent forward motion of time. One does remember, however, that some of his students with whom he’d been on a camping trip turned up at his door and explained they’d been mysteriously beamed to a forest and had to hike their way back. 

The Japanese title simply means the forest of two days from now, but warped might be a good way to describe it if it weren’t for its judgemental implications seeing as it is indeed somehow out of shape seemingly inhabited by giants and tiny people who co-exist in the same space with tinys prioritised, the giants squashing themselves into tiny chairs and drinking tiny coffees while appearing to also occupy spaces of their own (in which tiny people are not really seen). In any case, this is also a place where everyone is obsessed with the very suggestive Kattka fruit which pulses and gyrates, oozing a sweet liquid and growing from trees in the form of human women which Miss Au Lait, one of the sisters from the inn but here in kimono and walking with a cane, waters by drinking from her flask and passing liquid via her mouth. 

Even here, everyone is lovelorn and unhappy. “If only we could have fun in our dreams” one young man laments after trying out a positive thinking training hall where they’re told to repeat the phrase “I am happy” only to discover their instructor is far from happy himself. They know they can’t have real happiness, so all they can do is dream of it which is why some of them are intent on “dream-tinkering” despite the rumours of negative consequences and vast costs required. Each of the inn trio, all romantically frustrated store owners in this reality, eventually decide to give it a go after one of them gets hold of a special guide that apparently allows them to bypass the curse by promising to sacrifice two days. Appli (Fumi Nikaido) meanwhile is wracked with guilt after having asked to see her whole family happy in her dreams only for her sister to encounter an accident which is why she roams the forest with a gun which shoots white liquid from its penis-shaped tip to trap a “pinky panky” monster and get hold of a weird bug to get the worms out of Miss Au Lait’s leg. 

As for Miss Au Lait, “dreams are just dreams. I have to accept reality” she sadly remarks on turning down a invitation, “I’ll leave my beautiful dream untouched” too fearful and insecure to chase happiness while her suitor later echoes her words unwilling to run away in flights of fancy. Even so we might wonder which is the dream world and which the real, the hotel guests later finding each other and experiencing a kind of true happiness in togetherness unknown in the forest where everything seems to be not quite right. Continuing the slightly vulgar aesthetic of Funky Forest with his fleshy fruits and frequent innuendo, Miki conjures a bizarre world which nevertheless possesses an internal normality in which people are distanced from one another, not least by their respective size differentials, but each longing for something more which they fear cannot be found not even in dreams. 


The Warped Forest is released on blu-ray in the UK on 21st March courtesy of Third Window Films alongside Funky Forest: The First Contact in a set which also includes a feature length commentary, director interview, and introduction.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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Funky Forest: The First Contact (ナイスの森 The First Contact, Katsuhito Ishii & Hajime Ishimine & Shunichiro Miki, 2005)

“Is that normal?” someone asks watching a previously mild-mannered doctor having a right old go at a tiny man baby currently attached to a high school girl’s armpit after being pulled free of its aquatic carapace, “don’t be rude” his companion shushes him. Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki’s Funky Forest: The First Contact (ナイスの森 The First Contact, Nice Mori: The First Contact) became the best known example of the short-lived trend in surreal comedy which came to dominate a certain kind of Japanese cinema from the late ’90s to early 2000s while perhaps surviving into the present day in a more arthouse friendly form in the deadpan absurdist cinema of filmmakers such as Akira Ikeda (Ambitious Places, The Blue Danube) or Isamu Hirabayashi (Shell and Joint).  

Even so, Funky Forest is wilfully anarchic skipping between a series of interconnected skits that eventually coalesce as something like a unique universe loosely revolving around three “unpopular with women” brothers and a “delusional” high school teacher in a non-relationship with a former student who thinks he’s seen a UFO and is engaged in a battle to save the aliens from the planet Piko-Riko. Two and a half hours long, which is admittedly pushing it for a non-linear sketch comedy, the film is split into two parts, Side A and Side B, joined by a short intermission after which the surrealism intensifies, the design of the title cards changes, and the action shifts in focus from a quiet onsen to an ordinary high school where the teacher and the two adult brothers each work. 

The action begins however with a pair of manzai comedians seemingly performing on some kind of space ship and to an audience consisting of identical military personnel each like the comedians dressed in white and silver while the show is broadcast to a man sitting in a tiny pod-like dream ship. The “Mole Brothers” recur throughout, their set routinely dividing one skit from another while one, Kazushi, also turns up on his own in a couple of other sketches as part of the great connected universe, and though their act being kind of a dud is part of the joke their variety-style humour is an otherwise key indicator of the kind of comedy which is being employed and subverted even as the action becomes ever more surreal. As it happens, each of the major plot strands seems to lead us towards a dance sequence such as that which closes the first half in Takefumi’s (Ryo Kase) strange fever dream which culminates in a Mandarin-language group routine and the first appearance of the weird, shrimp-like creatures which dominate Side B. 

Side B is indeed somewhat through the looking glass as we find the high school kids literally playing these alien creatures like musical instruments some of which need to be plugged in to the human body in one way or another such as the strangely cute rat/shrimplike beings which attach directly to the tongue. Sitting right in front of the high school class which is taught by lovelorn brother Katsuichi (Susumu Terajima) is none other than the film director and Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno who later turns up again to discuss contemporary anime with guitar bother Masaru (Tadanobu Asano) in one of his many part-time jobs, though the class also includes the young primary school student who featured in the first skit in which she lamented having so much homework and escaped to the dreamscape in order to fight giant orbs with her mind. 

In an odd way perhaps that’s what our three directors are doing too, away on flights of fancy which make little literal sense but seem to have their own internal logic even though the directorial force the film presents is an adorable little scottie dog whose thoughts are translated by someone wearing a giant papier-mâché head. “Thinking is too scary, so I’ll forget about it”, someone explains which may be good advice in deciding to just accept the crazy randomness and play along. Often interrupting the action by cutting to black to mimic old-fashioned channel hopping the directors also throw in a random 20s intermission in the middle of a scene, animation of various styles, and surreal body-horror-adjacent practical effects, before winding up at the funky forest itself, a weird dreamscape somewhere in Hokkaido ruled by a dream-hopping girlband.  “What a strange dream” one character exclaims though in the great scheme of things perhaps it’s easier to make sense of a dream than a defiantly surreal reality.  


Funky Forest: The First Contact is released on blu-ray in the UK on 21st March courtesy of Third Window Films alongside quasi-sequel Warped Forest in a set which includes a feature length commentary from all three directors and a series of deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (腑抜けども、悲しみの愛を見せろ, Daihachi Yoshida, 2007)

“We’re family, I’m sure we’ll understand each other” a conciliatory big brother tries to console, but family is it seems a much more complicated matter than one might assume it to be in Daihachi Yoshida’s debut feature, Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (腑抜けども、悲しみの愛を見せろ Funukedomo, Kanashimi no Ai wo Misero), adapted from the novel by Yukiko Motoya. Released in 2007, Yoshida’s film is one among a series of cynical reevaluations of the meaning of “family” in the contemporary society but eventually skews towards the uncomfortably conservative in its implicit suggestion that a family which is not bound by blood cannot succeed while even blood connection may prove inherently toxic. 

Fittingly the film opens with a freak yet largely offscreen accident as Mrs & Mrs Wago are killed by a runaway bus while attempting to save a stray cat, an event witnessed by their 18-year-old daughter Kiyomi (Aimi Satsukawa). The Wagos were a blended household, Kazuko and Shutaro having married later in life and bringing with them their children from previous marriages in Kazuko’s daughters Sumika (Eriko Sato) and Kiyomi, and Shutaro’s son Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase). Four years previously, Sumika left home after a traumatic family incident with the aim of becoming an actress in Tokyo, while her place has perhaps been taken by Shinji’s new wife Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku) whom he has only recently married. Yet Kiyomi seems more perturbed by the possibility of her sister’s return than she is grief-stricken by her parents’ death, while Sumika barely glances at the altar on her arrival immediately treating Machiko as a servant sent out to pay the taxi and collect her bags. 

As we quickly gather, Sumika is an intensely narcissistic, self-absorbed sociopath intent on manipulating everyone around her in order to assume a position of dominance yet her resentment is perhaps the only thing glueing the family together. Her grudge against Kiyomi apparently stems back to her having used her for inspiration for a manga about a young woman driven to psychotic violence in her ambition to become an actress which later won a prize and was printed under her real name with the consequence that everyone in town quickly realised it was about her. Sumika repeatedly uses this excuse as to why she hasn’t been successful, that the manga forced her into a moment of introspection that destroyed her self-confidence, later saying something similar to an unresponsive audition panel bearing out her tendency to blame her failures on others. Yet Kiyomi apparently feels intensely guilty. “I never thought of myself as the kind of person who’d turn her family into manga for money” she laments shortly after Sumika attempted to boil her to death in the bath, “I want to transform into the kind of person who can sympathise with family members’ pain”. 

“Family means supporting each other at times like this” the relentlessly cheerful Machiko had tried to comfort Kiyomi at the funeral, yet she is constantly reminded that she is not quite included as a family member. Shinji tells her to keep out of family business and later to avoid getting between the sisters, denying her an equal status within the home despite the reality of their marriage. Ironically enough, Machiko was abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage apparently so desperate to belong to a family that she willingly puts up with Shinji’s abusive treatment while making creepy dolls as a hobby. Yet at the end of the film it’s she who is left on her own, inheriting the family home, while the two blood sisters are eventually forced out but bound to each other if only in unresolved and continual resentment. 

Nevertheless there is also a degree of pathos in the series of frustrated dreams which prevent each of the siblings from escaping the otherwise perfectly nice if dull rural hometown where they were born. Sumika’s tragedy is her refusal to accept she has no talent and is unlikely to find career success because she is an unpleasant person, a meta plot strand seeing her writing letters to a director whose new movie is apparently about whether you can love someone you’ve only communicated with remotely and never met. Sumika seeks only dominance, manipulating her siblings through guilt and shame in order to encourage a sense of dependence while also dependent on them for financial support. Her need prevents either Kiyomi or Shinji finding happiness, their attempts to escape her control eventually leading in very different directions. 

Unlike similarly themed familial dramas, Funuke situates the fault line in its dysfunctional family not in the changing society but in its lack of blood relation while eventually suggesting that even the blood bond between the two sisters is more grimly toxic than it is supportive. In an odd way, it leaves Machiko as the winner while uncomfortably implying that her orphanhood prevents her from becoming part of a conventional family, literally left home alone. A more literal translation of the title might be “show some miserable love, you cowards”, suggesting that these anxious siblings are too afraid of themselves and each other to embrace familial affection Kiyomi eventually affirming “In the end I couldn’t change either, sorry”. While the limitations of early digital photography may not stand up a decade and change later, Yoshida’s occasionally experimental flair including an entire sequence playing out as manga panels helps to overcome the unfortunate lifelessness of a typically 2000s low budget aesthetic while the universally strong performances do their best to gain our sympathy in an otherwise cruelly cynical, if darkly humorous, take on post-millennial family dynamics. 


Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! is available on blu-ray in the UK from Third Window Films.

Trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Monsters Club (モンスターズクラブ, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2011)

“I’m disappointed in you. Very disappointed. You’re still in love with the world” a young man is told in a dream or perhaps delusion by a man he respected but by whom he may also in a sense have been betrayed. Partly inspired by the life and writings of the Unabomber, Toshiaki Toyoda’s Monsters Club (モンスターズクラブ) is less a treatise on post-millennial Japan than it is a profoundly moving character study in trauma and isolation in which an orphaned young man struggles to find meaning in world in which he feels he has no control over his existence. 

The second son of a noble family, Ryoichi Kakiuchi (Eita Nagayama) has retreated from “this stench-filled society” to live alone in a small cabin in the woods. In an opening voiceover he reads from a manifesto railing against the “industrial society” which he believes railroads those born into it towards a life of wage slavery from the day they are born. Yet his existence is more 19th century than it is a primitive return to the land, his appearance meticulously well maintained in an incongruous clash with his rejection of social conformity, and he must necessarily in some sense still be connected with the outside world given that he will need to obtain batteries and gunpowder used for constructing the bombs he’s been mailing to CEOs of advertising and entertainment companies, not to mention the cigars he is often seen smoking after repurposing their packaging. 

Though he is aware people have died because of his bombs, Ryoichi regards them not as murder but as a “message”, later penning a letter to the prime minister which he ultimately discards in favour of sending him the poems of Kenji Miyazawa instead. Ryoichi’s dilemma is that, as one of the ghosts who visits him suggests, he still wants to save a world he believes is beyond salvation. The bombs are therefore a wake up call, but an awkward one which fails to deliver the message he intended in urging a corrective course away from empty capitalism towards a less regimented social order in which he is master of his own destiny. “Freedom is power” he later writes, resentful of a society he feels infantilises him by removing his “right to self-determination” while his life “depends on the decisions of others” whom he doesn’t even know. 

It might be easy to sympathise with his philosophy in the Japan of 2011 entering another decade of a stagnant economy in a rigid and conformist social culture in which the rewards of playing by the rules have all but disappeared. But Ryoichi’s nihilism is born as much of his successive traumas as it is by dissatisfaction with a world devoid of meaningful opportunity. Formerly the son of a wealthy man with no need to worry about the future, uncertainty enters his consciousness with the death of his father, followed soon after by his mother’s from illness, his younger brother’s in an accident, and his older’s by suicide leaving only he and his younger sister (whom he has also abandoned) as the last of his line. Literally orphaned he finds himself unanchored, forced into retreat and choosing self-isolation. Yet if retreat was all he wanted he could have achieved it, living quietly alone in the woods with no need for bombs or indeed any kind of communication at all. Taunted by the ghost of his brother Yuki (Yosuke Kubozuka), he at once takes aim at the “system” which drives those who cannot accommodate themselves with it to suicide, while flirting with the nihilism that suggests suicide is the only true expression of freedom in an oppressive society. 

Nevertheless, Ryoichi eventually loses faith in his brother’s philosophy rationalising that if he had managed to find the pathway to the ideal world he spoke of he would not have needed to take his own life and could have lived in “relative happiness” even if in “a forest of monsters”. He claims to have found this happiness himself and urges his sister to do the same, ignoring the ghosts of their brothers should they visit. Haunted both by familial trauma and a maddening demon, Ryoichi makes a monster of himself but is ironically later chased out of the forest and back towards civilisation, gradually removing his mask as he goes. In an ending he would later repeat in the similarly themed anti-Olympic treatise Day of Destruction, Toyoda leaves his hero screaming in the centre of the city left with no other outlet for his rage and grief, but uncertain if this represents defeat or victory, defiance or surrender. Elegiac and in its own way profoundly sad, Monster’s Club is the story of a man haunted by himself, unable to break free from the legacy of trauma and embracing his loneliness all alone surrounded by snow but ultimately still in love with an imperfect world and finally learning to play “that pipe organ made of light that fills the sky”. 


Monsters Club is released on bluray in the UK on 18th October as part of the Toshiaki Toyoda: 2005 to 2021 box set courtesy of Third Window Films and is accompanied by a richly detailed audio commentary by film scholar Jasper Sharp.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, Ujicha, 2013)

“There are many strange things happening in this world” according to the mysterious young woman who appears in the brief live action sequences bookending Ujicha’s debut feature, The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, Moeru Butsuzo Ningen). Who is she? One of the “space people” mentioned in the accompanying voice over which also points out that humans are hard to trust seeing as they don’t even trust each other, or merely a stand in for the omnipotent artist sitting down as she does and looking over her creation her butler dutifully waiting at her side? Who can say, it’s just one of many mysteries at the heart of Ujicha’s beguiling retro sci-fi/horror Buddhist conspiracy thriller animated in his now trademark and equally retro “gekimation” style. 

Taking place in the director’s native Kyoto, the action opens with a strange, alien-like creature breaking into a temple and firing some kind of laser from a phallic device on his belt directly into the head of a colossal Buddha statue. The couple who look after the family-run temple, mindful of their duty to protect their ancestral legacy, are perturbed and politely ask the creature to stop but are later caught in the crossfire when the statue suddenly disappears leaving only their bottom halves behind. Cue the arrival of teenage daughter Beniko (Yuka Iguchi) in her school uniform who is quickly taken in by weird old monk Enju (Minori Terada) who explains that he’s an old friend of her parents and that the theft of the statue is part of a spate of similar heists across the Kyoto area perpetrated by a crazed cult who are apparently intent on “rescuing” neglected Buddha statues from “disrespectful” modern people. Staying with him in his temple, however, Beniko starts to have doubts especially after encountering the strange-looking children who run wild in the grounds Enju claims are “disadvantaged” kids he’s taken in after they were abandoned by their parents because of their odd appearances, not to mention an encounter with Enju’s sculptor grandson Enji (Ryuki Kitaoka) who suddenly frees a small dog apparently trapped inside the uchiguri cavity of an Buddhist statue after being caught in the range of the “Matter Transference Device” used by the thieves to teleport the neglected icons to “safety”. 

A weird tale of spiritual fusion, The Burning Buddha Man’s villains have apparently forgotten all their Buddhist teachings and become “addicted” to melding with statues in order to harness their power and become all powerful beings. Beniko, however, is still pure of heart and is not after revenge for what happened to her parents but to save the wrongdoers by making them “reform”. To do so, however, she’ll have to undergo an apparently reversible transformation herself as well as journeying to another world where, she discovers, her elderly catatonic grandmother (Chisako Hara) has apparently been in training for just such an eventuality for the last couple of decades. “It’s easy just to kill them” Beniko later explains, “but no one can get out from their suffering that way” apparently hoping to undo some of the pain in the world caused by this strange new technology through an act of healing. 

As showcased in the live action intro/extro sequences in which the young woman painstakingly assembles and then disassembles her world, pausing briefly to look admiringly at a figure perhaps representing herself before handing it back to her gloved butler for safekeeping, Burning Buddha Man’s aesthetics consist of a series of beautifully painted backdrops and paper cut out puppets of its strange cast of characters which include a gang of Giger-esque biomechanical former Buddhist monks rendered monstrous by their experiments in spiritual enhancement. Amping up the body horror quotient, real liquid often oozes from their mouths made sickening in its viscosity while blood later fills the screen. Yet for all that there’s a strangely childlike glee in the macabre grimness as the wholesome heroine and her pure-hearted friends push back against the corruptions of hyper-religiosity and spiritual madness hoping to restore rather than destroy but ultimately finding themselves forging a purifying hellscape that ends only in fire (and a peculiar kind of sludge making its way towards the drain of all humanity). Deeply strange yet strangely charming Ujicha’s Buddhist body horror conspiracy thriller is undeniably dark but also imbued with a sense of ironic playfulness in its truly bizarre cosmology.


The Burning Buddha Man is available on blu-ray in the UK courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes Ujicha’s second feature Violence Voyager as well as a selection of shorts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999)

Shinya Tsukamoto made his name as a punk provocateur with a series of visually arresting, experimental indie films set to a pounding industrial score and imbued with Bubble-era urban anxiety. Inspired by an Edogawa Rampo short story, 1999’s Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Soseiji Gemini) is something of a stylistic departure from the frenetic cyberpunk energy of his earlier career, marked as much by stillness as by movement in its strikingly beautiful classical composition and intense color play. Like much of his work, however, Gemini is very much a tale of societal corruption and a man who struggles against himself, unable to resist the social codes which were handed down to him while simultaneously knowing that they are morally wrong and offend his sense of humanity. 

Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) is a war hero, decorated for his service as a battlefield medic saving the life of a prominent general during the first Sino-Japanese War. He’s since come home and taken over the family business where his fame seems to have half the well-to-do residents of the area inventing spurious excuses to visit his practice, at least according to one little boy whose mum has brought him in with a bump on the head after being beset by kids from the slums. “They’re just like that from birth” Yukio later tells his wife echoing his authoritarian father, “the whole place should be burned to the ground”. A literal plague is spreading, but for Yukio the slums are a source of deadly societal corruption that presents an existential threat to his way of life, primed to infect with crime and inequity. His home, which houses his practice, is hermetically sealed from those sorts of people but lately he’s begun to feel uneasy in it. There’s a nostalgia, a sadness, a shadowy presence, not to mention a fetid stench of decay which indicates an infection has already taken place, the perimeter has been penetrated. 

The shadowy presence turns out to belong to his double, Sutekichi whose name literally means “abandoned fortune”, a twin exposed at birth as unworthy of the family name owing to his imperfection in the form of a snake-like birthmark on his leg and raised by a travelling player in the slums. Having become aware of his lineage, Sutekichi has returned to make war on the old order in the form of the parents who so callously condemned him to death, engineering their demise and then pushing Yukio into a disused well with the intention of stealing his identity which comes with the added bonus that Yukio’s wife, Rin (Ryo), was once his. 

Rin’s presence had already presented a point of conflict in the household, viewed with contempt and suspicion by Yukio’s mother because of her supposed amnesia brought on by a fire which destroyed her home and family. Yukio had reassured her that “you can judge a person by their clothes”, insisting that Rin is one of them, a member of the entrenched upper-middle class which finds itself in a perilous position in the society of late Meiji in which the samurai have fallen but the new order has not quite arrived. In Rin modernity has already entered the house, a slum dweller among them bringing with her not crime and disease but a freeing from traditional austerity. In opposing his parents’ will and convincing them to permit his marriage, Yukio has already signalled his motion towards the new but struggles to free himself from the oppressive thought of his father. He confesses that as a battlefield physician he doubted himself, wondering if it might not have been kinder to simply ease the suffering of those who could not be saved while his father reminds him that the German medical philosophy in which he has been trained insists that you must continue treatment to the very last. 

This is the internal struggle Yukio continues to face between human compassion and the obligation to obey the accepted order which includes his father’s feelings on the inherent corruption of the slum dwellers which leads him to deny them his medical knowledge which he perhaps thinks should belong to all. The dilemma is brought home to him one night when a young woman is found violently pounding on his door wanting help for her sickly baby, but just as he makes up his mind to admit her, putting on his plague suit, a messenger arrives exclaiming that the mayor has impaled himself on something after having too much to drink. Yukio treats the mayor and tells his nurses to shoo the woman away, an action which brings him into conflict with the more compassionate Rin who cannot believe he could be so cynical or heartless. 

Where Yukio is repressed kindness, a gentle soul struggling against himself, Sutekichi is passion and rage. Having taken over Yukio’s life, he takes to bed with Rin who laughs and asks him why it is he’s suddenly so amorous. She sees or thinks she sees through him, recognising Sutekichi for whose return she had been longing but also lamenting the absent Yukio who was at least soft with her in ways Sutekichi never was. “It’s a terrible world because people like you exist” Sutekichi is told by a man whose fiancée he robbed and killed. Yukio by contrast is unable to understand why this is happening to him, believing that he’s only ever tried to make people happy and has not done anything to merit being thrown in a well, failing to realise that his very position of privilege is itself oppressive, that he bears his parents’ sin in continuing to subscribe to their philosophy in insisting on their innate superiority to the slum dwellers who must be kept in their place so that they can continue to occupy theirs. 

Apart, both men are opposing destructive forces in excess austerity and violent passion, only through reintegration of the self can there be a viable future. Tsukamoto casts the austerity of the medical practice in a melancholy blue, contrasting with the fiery red of the post-apocalyptic slums, eventually finding a happy medium with the house bathed in sunshine and the family seemingly repaired as a doctor in a white suit prepares to minister to the poor. Having healed himself, he begins to heal his society, treating the plague of human indifference in resistance to the prevalent anxiety of the late Meiji society. 


Gemini is released on blu-ray in the UK on 2nd November courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a commentary by Tom Mes, making of featurette directed by Takashi Miike, behind the scenes, make up demonstration featurette, Venice Film Festival featurette, and original trailer.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)