Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは, Naoko Ogigami, 2017)

close knit posterWhile studying in the US, director Naoko Ogigami encountered people from all walks of life but on her return to Japan was immediately struck by the invisibility of the LGBT community and particularly that of transgender people. Close-Knit (彼らが本気で編むときは,  Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki wa) is her response to a still prevalent social conservatism which sometimes gives rise to fear, discrimination and prejudice. Moving away from the quirkier sides of her previous work, Ogigami nevertheless opts for a gentle, warm approach to this potentially heavy subject matter, preferring to focus on positivity rather than dwell on suffering.

11 year old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) is home alone, again. Her mother rolls in late, dead drunk, and promptly flops down onto the futon next to Tomo’s still in her work clothes. A note left the next day explains that Tomo’s mother has quit her job and won’t be coming home for a while. This is not the first time she’s done this and the money she’s left is at least enough for a train ticket to visit uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani). When Tomo slaps a collection of manga down in front of him at the bookstore where he works, Makio immediately realises what’s going on and is both infuriated with his sister and glad to take his niece in for a while until her mother comes to her senses.

There’s one potential problem. Makio now has a live-in girlfriend only she’s not quite what Tomo might be expecting. On meeting Rinko (Toma Ikuta), Tomo is indeed shocked but is soon won over by Rinko’s warm and loving nature. Rinko is a transgender woman who’s experienced her share of hardships in life but finally found fulfilment in her relationship with Makio though she has a lot of love to give and would dearly love a child of her own.

Used to being left to her own devices, Tomo is a tough and resourceful child but also one with a thick protective shell. Unused to being mothered, Tomo finds Rinko’s attempts to reach out to her difficult to bear, cycling back and forth through a pattern of affection and rejection. Where her mother left her only store bought onigiri (which she has come to hate) and cash, Rinko makes beautiful character bentos complete with octopus frankfurters and adorable panda faces. So touched is Tomo by this gesture that she can’t quite bring herself to eat it and eventually makes herself ill by finally deciding to enjoy it long after it’s past its best.

Nevertheless even if Tomo comes to bond with Rinko, there are still those who don’t approve of her existence. Tomo has a, well, not quite friend at school, Kai, who is somewhat ostracised by the other children who call him “gay” and write homophobic slurs on the classroom blackboard. Tomo, whilst sometimes hanging out with Kai who lives near to her outside of school, refuses to have anything to do with him in class lest she be rendered guilty by association. Growing closer to Rinko, Tomo also comes to an acceptance of and willingness to fight for Kai who has confided in her about his crush on another boy in their class. Kai’s mother (Eiko Koike), however, is not so understanding and so when she catches sight of Tomo in the supermarket with Rinko she offers to save her from the “weirdo” and later bans Kai from hanging out with his only friend in case he somehow catches “weirdness” from their atypical family setup. This attitude of hers eventually has potentially tragic consequences for her young son, left with nothing other than the prospect of maternal and later societal rejection eased only by Tomo’s firm insistence that there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

Unlike Kai’s mother, Rinko’s instantly understood and remained fully supportive of her child even whilst hauled into school for an explanation of why “Rintaro” has been skipping P.E.. Rinko’s mother not only goes out and buys lacy bras for her daughter, but even knits her a pair of fluffy pink breasts so she won’t feel so depressed about not developing in the same way as all the other girls. Tomo’s mother has a lot of problems of her own but many of these stem back to her own upbringing, unintentionally threatening to pass on some of these same qualities to her own daughter as she allows her to feel just as worthless and unloved as her mother did her. Yet, Ogigami’s camera remains resolutely unjudgemental in trying to understand each of these various facets of motherhood from the immense maternal love of Rinko as it finally finds an outlet in Tomo to the far less positive image of Kai’s mother who presumably thinks she’s doing the best for her son in trying to prevent him veering from the norm but only succeeds in making him feel his life is not worth living.

The title of the film, as grandly punned as it is, refers not just to the quickening family bonds among this idealised yet unusual family but also to Rinko’s favourite method of stress relief – knitting. Like the cooking she is often seen providing for the family, Rinko’s knitting is also largely about warmth in making something for a particular person which is tailor made to keep them warm in the cold, but it also works as a multilayered metaphor as she brings people together, binding them tightly with her own wamth and generosity of spirit. Rather than fighting back with angry words (or well aimed dish soap as a provoked Tomo eventually does), Rinko channels her frustrations into her knitting, using them to create something positive rather allowing negativity to overwhelm her. Ogigami’s film seems to want to do the same, arguing for tolerance, understanding, and acceptance as a pathway to a better world even if it’s clear the road is long and we’re not so far along it as we should be.


Close-Knit was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

There’s also an interesting interview with director Naoko Ogigami and producer Kumi Kobata in the Nikkei Asian Review in which they discuss the casting of actor Toma Ikuta.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fallen Angel (人間失格, Genjiro Arato, 2010)

fallen-angelThe Fallen Angel (人間失格, Ningen Shikkaku), based on one of the best known works of Japanese literary giant Osamu Dazai – No Longer Human, was the last in a series of commemorative film projects marking the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 2009. Like much of Dazai’s work, No Longer Human is semi-autobiographical, fixated on the idea of suicide, and charts the course of its protagonist as he becomes hopelessly lost in a life of dissipation, alcohol, drugs, and overwhelming depression.

Even when we meet him as a small child, Yozo Oba (Toma Ikuta), feels himself set apart from his peers. Unable to connect fully with the people around him, Yozo gets through life by playing the clown. As a teenager, he meets another boy, Takeichi, who can see straight through his mask and encourages him in his artistic pursuits. Eventually, Yozo moves to Tokyo where he meets another artist, Horiki (Yusuke Iseya), who introduces him to the seedier pleasures of the city including drinking and hostess bars.

Yozo still feels adrift and is unable to cement his new found friendship with true connection. After asking Horiki to die with him (which he laughingly refuses to do), Yozo begins an ill-starred romance with a melancholy bar hostess with whom he does actually attempt double suicide. She dies, he doesn’t but his life is changed when he loses access to his familial wealth and is kicked out of university because of the scandal. Yozo has another shot at conventional happiness by briefly forming a family with a single mother and her little girl before leaving them because of problems resulting from his alcoholism. Eventually marrying a kind hearted woman, Yozo kicks the booze for a while and builds a career in manga but sure enough Horiki finds him and ruins his marital bliss by setting him back on the road to dissipation.

Arato makes a few changes to Dazai’s novel, mostly streamlining the book’s tripartite structure by eliding two events into one, but perhaps because of the well known nature of the story, he feels comfortable in making abrupt cuts and wide ranging shifts in terms of time. Dazai’s novel is much more focussed on the mental condition of its protagonist, whereas Arato has opted for a more overt display of the increasingly tense political environment with soldiers lurking in the background, later occupying a train shortly before the scene turns into a surreal segment in which Yozo reacquaints himself with all those he’s wronged throughout the course of the film.

Yozo’s tragedy is his inability to connect with other people even though he leads an ostensibly successful social life. Making himself an amiable presence, Yozo keeps people around him by making himself a figure of fun – a mask which gradually becomes far too heavy to wear. This buffoonish aspect of his personality is not very much in evidence in Arato’s film which focusses much more on his underlying depression than the joviality he uses to try and prevent anyone noticing just how broken he is inside. For this reason it becomes harder to see why everybody lets Yozo get away with his extremely bad behaviour for so long. Toma Ikuta captures Yozo’s listlessness and despair but without the necessary intensity to back them up and, ironically, without his sad clown routine Yozo does not always seem like someone anyone would want to hang out with for any great length of time.

Arato has recreated the novel’s pervading sense of numbness and despair to the letter with the consequence that his film remains resolutely cold. As appropriate as that may be, it makes it harder to achieve the kind of connection forged through Yozo’s first person narrative in the book. This approach brings out Yozo’s unpleasant qualities – his selfishness, weakness, cowardice, and propensity to addiction, but fails to display his better ones which lead to him being characterised as the ruined “angel” of the title. In distancing us from Yozo, Arato encourages us to see him either as a metaphor for the political turmoil taking place in his country during his lifetime, or simply as a someone whose intense self loathing eventually destroys his sense of self. What it does not encourage us to do is see that Yozo’s struggle is our own struggle, his despair is our despair felt to a greater or lesser degree. Too obtuse to be affecting, The Fallen Angel fails to capture the overwhelming nihilism of Dazai’s novel and ironically remains far too distant to achieve true connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Grasshopper (グラスホッパー, Tomoyuki Takimoto, 2015)

grasshopperThe best revenge is living well, but the three damaged individuals at the centre of Tomoyuki Takimoto’s Grasshopper (グラスホッパー) might need some space before they can figure that out. Reuniting with Brain Man star Toma Ikuta, Takimoto moves away from the more overtly sci-fi elements but maintains a level of everyday strangeness that adds weight to this standard B-movie affair. A revenge thriller in which revenge itself is shown to be a fallacy, Grasshopper manages to mix its grimy grind house violence aesthetic with an oddly hopeful view of human nature.

One tragedy connects three very different people. Halloween, Shibuya – a crazed man at the wheel of a 4×4 receives a phone call instructing him to “crush all those bugs”, because he’s “the saviour”. The man obeys and plows into the holiday revellers crushing them like insects under his wheels. One victim, Yuriko (Haru), who died pushing a child out of harm’s way happened to be the fiancée of middle school science teacher, Suzuki (Toma Ikuta). Revisiting the spot where she fell, Suzuki unexpectedly receives a letter informing him that the events which occurred at Halloween were not as straightforward as the media asserts and he should set about investigating the father and son working at “Fraulein”. His mind burning with thoughts of vengeance, Suzuki abandons his old life and launches himself headlong into the criminal underworld in search of answers.

Meanwhile, the evil kingpins at the centre of things have sent their ace hitman with a difference, Kujira (Tadanobu Asano), to silence a troublesome reporter. Kujira’s unusual assassination method involves a kind of hypnosis in which he forces his victims to acknowledge their darkest sins and eventually commit suicide. Though this sounds like the ideal plan for evading detection, the gangsters are nervous that Kujira has learned to much through his near death conversations with his targets and send a duo of slightly less competent killers on his trail. This leads us to our third strand – sociopathic blade wielding killer, Semi (Ryosuke Yamada), and his stray cat rescuing handler, Iwanishi (Jun Murakami).

Suzuki finds himself out of his depth in the murky, crime ridden underworld. Talking to yet another hitman he crosses paths with, Suzuki is offered the grasshopper analogy which lies at the centre of the film. Pusher (Hidetaka Yoshioka) tells him that unlike regular migratory locusts which are generally green, there is a mutant breed which undergoes a “swarm phase” in which their wings grown darker and longer, becoming ever more destructive in the quest to feed themselves in a crowded environment. People, Pusher claims, are no different. The film is filled with these mutant insects, crushing their fellow humans like roaches under boots, yet there’s something to be said for the migratory guys who keep moving and oppose the mutant breed through stealth and cunning.

Each of the three men is looking for a kind of revenge even if it’s ultimately self inflicted. Unusual hitman Kujira has hit the assassin’s version of angel wings in that he can see the faces of all the men and women he has killed, quite literally haunting his every move and offering a running commentary on his life. Setting out for vengeance against the men who’ve ordered his death, Kujira knows he’s nearing the end of his path yet before he gets there he will have to face off against Semi with whom he has no particular quarrel despite having just given Semi a reason to seek vengeance against him. Semi’s quest for revenge is pointed at Kujira but their mutual need for satisfaction will destroy each of them whilst also bringing them together as equals.

Everything prior to the fateful Halloween is bathed in golden light where warm colours predominate in Suzuki’s fond memories of his fiancée, but everything after is dark, reds and blacks tinged with insect green as grasshoppers swarm like harbingers of a great evil. Revenge itself is constantly frustrated and ultimately swept away from each party by shadowy forces secretly working against the darkness. Nothing is quite as it seems, no one is quite telling the truth. Yet as deep as the original conspiracy goes, the counter conspiracy consistently exceeds it.

Filled with impressive action sequences from Semi’s well choreographed balletic knife displays to large scale crowd scenes and good old fashioned fist fights, Grasshopper owns its down and dirty origins but reinvigorates them with a degree of modern sophistication. Yuriko, a soup chef, insists that the true secret ingredient in her cooking is genuine emotion – that this is what’s left behind when everything else is gone. Suzuki could choose to dive inside his cocoon of unresolved vengeance for the rest of his life but that would not have been what Yuriko wanted for him. In this anti-revenge drama, vengeance is the fallacy that detracts from the truth – that the ultimate form of revenge is learning to live with the past rather than wasting time settling scores.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Brain Man 脳男

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Based on the Edogawa Rampo award winning novel by Urio Shudo, Brain Man is a stylish psychological thriller which addresses such themes as guilt, redemption and the effects of childhood trauma. Are some people just born bad, can even those who’ve committed terrible crimes be rehabilitated? People on opposite sides of the legal system seem to have some conflicting ideas but perhaps the answer is never going to be as simple as ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

While a series of explosions rock a small provincial town, forensic psychologist Mariko Washiya (Yasuko Matsuyuki)  is the head of a research programme which aims to help convicted felons come to terms with their crimes through interacting with the victim’s families and there by coming to feel a kind of empathy for all the hurt and destruction they have caused. After leaving the office one day she races to catch the bus only to miss it by seconds while a bunch of bratty kids make faces through the window. Moments after the bus pulls away, it explodes killing all on board. Becoming an unwitting witness to events, Mariko finds herself at odds with the hardline policeman investigating the crime. When the police arrest the perfect suspect, a strange, near silent man discovered at the site of an explosion, Mariko is called upon to examine him. Ichiro Suzuki (Toma Ikuta) presents himself robotically, answering each of Mariko’s questions at face value no matter how strange and otherwise remaining motionless. That is, until something disturbs his sense of justice and he breaks out some killer martial arts moves. As might be expected, nothing is quite as cut and dried as it might seem on the surface and something convinces Mariko that there might be something more ‘human’ locked away deep down in Ichiro’s psyche.

First and foremost Brain Man is pretty mainstream thriller which means it isn’t totally free of a few melodramatic turns and far fetched plot developments but by and large it gets away with them. The first plot line centred around the bombings quickly gives way to the mystery surrounding Brain Man himself before getting back to the bombers towards the end. The two narrative strands sometimes seem at odds with each other and don’t feel as cohesive as they perhaps should. Though having said that though the “bombers” plotline is definitely the film’s second strand it gives ample room for Fumi Nikaido’s gloriously crazed depiction of a drug addled lesbian terrorist which she manages to play in a refreshingly restrained way (well, as far as the part allows – it is a particularly well pitched performance). There is also even a third subplot regarding Mariko’s prestige project of a young man who’s shortly to be released from a young offenders institute (played by Shota Sometani) seemingly rehabilitated and eager rejoin society all thanks to Mariko’s new therapy program which plays in conjunction with a fourth subplot concerning Mariko’s family and its own past traumas. Undoubtedly, there’s a lot to juggle but Brain Man makes a surprisingly valiant attempt at getting it all to work together.

Director Tomoyuki Takimoto is probably best known for his previous film Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit – a low budget though similarly impressive adaptation of a manga. Brain Man has a slightly higher budget and its fair share of flashy direction both of which impress from the get go. Even more so Takimoto has amassed a cast of up and coming stars who each turn in well rounded performances ranging from the completely out there extremes of the aforementioned Fumi Nikaido to Shota Sometani’s small but complicated patient and, of course, Toma Ikuta’s powerful portrayal of the near silent and emotionless killing machine the Brain Man not to mention Yasuo Matsuyuki’s warm hearted doctor.

Although a little slow to get going initially and excusing the odd lacuna brought about by throwing the points on the great train track of narrative, Brain Man manages to pack in a decent amount of excitement into its relatively tightly plotted structure. In many ways it isn’t particularly original, but it does what it does pretty well and mixes in enough twists and turns to keep even the most jaded mystery enthusiast interested. Perhaps a little bit too crazy for its own good, Brain Man is another classy Japanese thriller that isn’t afraid that isn’t afraid to go to some pretty strange places in the name of entertainment.