The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Saiji Yakumo, 2017)

dark maidens posterThe world of teenage girls is often arcane and impenetrable to those outside of its extremely exclusive bubble, but The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Ankoku Joshi), Saiji Yakumo’s adaptation of the Rikako Akiyoshi novel, takes duplicity to new heights. When the school darling dies by falling (oh so beautifully) off a roof, speculation is rife and a rumour quickly spreads through the otherwise repressive educational environment that her very best friends are somehow to blame. Each implicates the others in turn, indulging their petty grudges and jealousies seemingly falling over themselves to express their closeness to the departed “sun”, but all is not quite as it seems and these collective acts of fantasy perhaps expose a little more than they were first intended to.

Itsumi Shiraishi (Marie Iitoyo) is dead. The daughter of the chairman at the elite all girls Catholic high school, Virgin Mary Academy, Itsumi was loved by all as the radiant sun whose innate goodness was the very embodiment of the school’s Christian aims. Immediately before the school holidays, the literature club – the most prestigious and exclusive of school associations of which Itsumi had been founder and president, are to meet one last time presided over by Itsumi’s best friend Sayuri (Fumika Shimizu). The girls will each read a story they have written “inspired” by Itsumi’s death, each of which attempts to tell her story from their perspective but ultimately paints themselves in a favourable light whilst casting doubt on the others. 

The sole clue to the mystery is the lily of the valley Itsumi clutched to her breast, Snow White-like, as she lay pale and wan amid the flowers, elegantly arranged as always despite an apparently violent death. Quickly the girls run through a series of possible motives each with a degree of internal consistency but veering off in their own particular directions. Three of the girls awkwardly hint at their (unrequited?) love for their dead friend, insisting on a kind of ownership of her memory and of their rightful place at her side while the fourth descends into a xenophobic horror story casting the half-Bulgarian girl as a “vampire” come to suck the life out of the previously warm and vivacious Itsumi.

Yakumo delights in sending up the ever present girls school trope of repressed lesbianism and passionate friendships, but it remains true enough that the love card was apparently not one which Itsumi was afraid to play. The stories are all, in part at least, fabrications intended to cover up the various skeletons each of the girls has in their closets, but what they reveal is the series of manipulative machinations which underpins this seemingly sweet and elegant collection of conservative young ladies indulging a love for literature and the Christian virtues. Affairs, blackmail, inappropriate sexual relationships, forced abortions (at a Catholic school!), arson, all of these precede the presumed murder of Itsumi in a vast web of deception and illicit activity.

Teenage girls are often desperate to fit in, to be accepted by the “elite”, at the best of times but especially in an environment as otherwise repressive and exacting as an all girls Catholic high school. Adolescence is a time for trying on different personalities, but there can be something inherently plastic about the identity of a high school girl wanting in to the popular club. Hiding their true feelings, their fears and jealousies, the girls play the parts of they’ve been assigned – supporting cast in the tragic history of Itsumi, a girl betrayed who remained beautiful even in death. Then again, there might be some push back from those growing to resent their peripheral status and beginning to wonder if the spotlight was not theirs for the taking all along. A sun, however, will always need its lesser stars to demonstrate how much brighter it can shine.

Adapted from the novel by Rikako Akiyoshi, The Dark Maidens is a perfect mix of European drawing room mystery and gothic melodrama. Yakumo ups the camp fantastically with the girls sitting round a mysterious pot of stew in a room lit only by candlelight while a storm rages outside and each revelation is accompanied by crashing thunder and flashes of light. The setting is oppressive and sinister, but the only horror in the room is entirely human as each of these young women eagerly submits themselves to someone else’s control in fear of being, in some way, exposed, while those who seek to play the lead have to stoop to underhanded methods just to make “friends” who are really just minions rather than true believers. A sad and sorry state of affairs – who knew teenage cliques could be so, well, dark?


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

Screening again:

  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 February 2018
  • Macrobert Arts Centre – 19 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 1 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Policeman And Me (PとJK, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

policeman 2The world of shojo manga is a particular one. Aimed squarely at younger teenage girls, the genre focuses heavily on idealised, aspirational romance as the usually female protagonist finds innocent love with a charming if sometimes shy or diffident suitor. Then again, sometimes that all feels a little dull meaning there is always space to send the drama into strange or uncomfortable areas. Policeman and Me (PとJK, P to JK), adapted from the shojo manga by Maki Miyoshi is just one of these slightly problematic romances in which a high school girl ends up married to a 26 year old policeman who somehow thinks having an official certificate will make all of this seem less ill-advised than it perhaps is.

Kako (Tao Tsuchiya) is only 16 and, truth be told, a little innocent, even naive when it comes to love though she desperately wants to get herself a proper boyfriend. Dragged by a friend to singles mixer where she’s abruptly told that’s she’s 22 for the next few hours, Kako is bashful and dutifully refrains from underage drinking or inappropriate behaviour. Against the odds she hits it off with handsome policeman, Kota (Kazuya Kamenashi), who still thinks she’s 22 and that her reticence is a sign both of shyness and of maturity. Inadvertently blurting out her real age, Kako blows things with Kota who, as policeman, has no interest in dating a 16 year old. However, leaving Kako to walk home alone after the last train has left through a dodgy area of town is not a good idea and she’s soon beset by a gang of moody boys! Luckily, Kota’s policeman instincts have kicked in and he turns up to save the day with some delinquent moves of his own.

Despite the age difference, Kota and Kako have a genuine connection but Kota is anxious not to do anything dishonourable or untoward. Thus, facing the prospect of breaking up with his teenage sweetheart, he abruptly proposes marriage! After all, when the government rubber stamps something it must be OK and no-one can be accused of doing anything morally wrong, right? The surprising thing is, Kota puts on a fancy suit and goes to break the news to Kako’s parents only to have them give up almost without a fight. Her father may be angry to begin with but he’s soon won over and left with nothing other to say than please look after my girl (and try not to get her pregnant until she’s finished her education).

Kako is then placed in the incongruous position of being both a regular high school girl and a married housewife. Kota is stationed at the local police box with two other officers – one an older guy and the other a young woman who both support him in his new life as a married man. The couple live in an improbably large house inherited from Kota’s late parents but their relationship remains chaste and innocent. Perhaps realising that this unusual union will not be welcomed by all Kako has not told anyone at school about her marriage whilst she goes about trying to rescue the sensitive delinquent, Okami (Mahiro Takasugi), who accidentally put her in the hospital before she was valiantly rescued by Kota.

Okami and Kota lock horns over several things from Kako to the rule of law but they have more in common than it might first seem. Kota, once a violent teen himself, is nursing a huge debt to his policeman father killed in the line of duty. Taking on his father’s mission, Kota has dedicated himself to serving and protecting even if he once rebelled against that very thing as the kind of teenage punk Okami currently aspires to be. Okami has his own share of troubles at home which explain most of his behaviour as well as his aversion to law enforcement but Kako sees straight through his tough facade for the damaged boy inside. Kota too comes to find him more of a kindred spirit in need of rescue than a danger to society who needs locking up and also views him as an ally in being another of Kako’s admirers.

Ryuichi Hiroki thrives on this sort of uncomfortable drama, bringing a touch of moral queasiness to an otherwise cute story of innocent romance. Kota and Kako never particularly deal with the elephant in the room aside from Kako’s worries that Kota sees her a little girl who needs protecting rather than a wife who wants to stand alongside him as an equal. Then again Kako is quite happy in a subservient role, playing directly into her romantic fantasies. Hiroki directs all of this in true shojo style, keeping it all very chaste and innocent, overcoming all obstacles related to the inappropriateness in the central relationship and reaffirming the fact that true love is real, occurs in unexpected places, and is waiting for every romantic young girl who dreams of a tall guy in a dashing uniform. Unrealistic? Perhaps, but that’s shojo.


Policeman and Me was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

30s trailer (no subtitles)

Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, SABU, 2015)

jon_chirashiNo fate but what we make – to steal the lines from another film just as one of the heavenly scriptwriters might in the latest film from the prolific Japanese director SABU (otherwise known as the actor Hiroyuki Tanaka), Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, Ten no Chasuke). Adapting his own novel for the screen (though the book was actually published after the film was completed), Sabu creates a romantic fantasy in which a lowly tea boy from heaven descends to Earth on a quest to save the woman he loves from certain death.

Chasuke (Kenichi Matsuyama) is the tea boy in “heaven” (his name, “Chasuke” literally means “tea assistant”). Here, there is a room full of scriptwriters who draft life stories for the people down below in service to The Man. Their task is a difficult one as each change in one person’s screenplay necessitates a change in all the others. It’s the butterfly effect gone mad. So, when The Man sends in a request for everything to suddenly go “more avant-garde” everyone is a little bit overworked. One writer asks Chasuke’s advice on what this might mean but all he comes up with is moving the action to a karaoke booth which has the unfortunate effect on the scene of getting the man’s proposal of marriage rejected causing him to leave in a mood and callously run Yuri (Ito Ono), whom Chasuke has developed a fondness for, over. Yuri’s screenwriter begs Chasuke to go down to Earth and use his unique powers to save her before it’s too late.

Luckily two of the other scriptwriters have pledged to support Chasuke’s mission from up above so he gets help from a former aspiring actor who now runs a small antique shop (Ren Osugi) and a broken hearted former boxer who now runs a ramen bar (Yusuke Iseya). Co-incidentally, both know and like Yuri who is a regular customer at both of their establishments. Coming from up above, Chasuke is already quite familiar with each of the character’s backstories and is able to fill us in with a touch of storytelling of his own. SABU has a dig here at unimaginative screenwriters who’ve ripped off most of their best ideas from other movies, which is sort of ignoring the fact that someone must have crafted the movies from up above anyway though the thought of screenwriters scripting screenwriters writing scripts about scriptwriters sort of makes your head spin.

Anyway, without venturing too far into spoiler territory, Chasuke’s quest is finished within the first half of the film with the remainder given over to a confused series of episodes featuring him as a celebrity healer committed to correcting all the awful scripts full of misery that his hack friends have come up with. That’s in addition to the constant threats of correction to Chasuke’s edits threatened by the jilted lover and a policeman who’ve both been given white painted faces (to be more “avant-garde”, as requested). Oh, and Chasuke’s memories of a former mortal life also start to return with a fairly surprising backstory of his own.

In truth, it’s all a little messy – almost as if someone were still working on the second draft even as we’re watching it. However, that’s sort of the point – we are watching someone re-writing on the hoof, trying to accommodate for someone else’s notes right as the keys are hitting the paper (or in this case, the ink splashing the parchment). When you come right down to it, life is a messy business and rarely makes any kind of sense during the “live broadcast”. Chasuke’s final message proves something of a riddle as he at once advises you to stick to The Man by living your own life and forging your own destiny whilst also putting his salvation down to the power of prayer which is about as close as you can get to an existential paradox.

Often beautifully photographed with Chasuke’s escape from up above an early highlight, Chasuke’s Journey is certainly a handsome looking film whatever faults it may have. Though the performances are committed, it never quite makes the jump from gentle satire to anything more emotionally engaging undermining the impact of its final sequence. However, for the vast majority of its running time Chasuke’s Journey does prove an interesting, if slightly flippant, take on freewill versus predestination with a hearty dose of social criticism thrown in to boot.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of Chasuke’s Journey includes English subtitles.

(Unsubtitled trailer again though, sorry).