Until the Lights Come Back (大停電の夜に, Takashi Minamoto, 2005)

Until the Lights Come Back posterChristmas is, among other things, conveniently held on the same day every year. As such, it can’t help but become a moment of minor introspection inviting a thorough investigation of a life’s trajectory. In Japan, Christmas is also about romance which means it can also be an intense or melancholy occasion in which relationships past and present come up for reappraisal. Takashi Minamoto’s ensemble drama Until the Lights Come Back (大停電の夜に, Daiteiden no Yoru ni) spins a tale of city life as it catches hold of a number of accidentally connected souls and puts them through the emotional ringer thanks to an artificial psychological pause engineered by a power cut on Christmas Eve,

A melancholy barman sets a record going. A boy tracking satellites sees a girl hovering dangerously close to edge of the roof opposite. A conflicted salaryman finds out a dark family secret. A mistress is dumped while a wife wonders how much longer she should wait. A pregnant woman is chased by a yakuza, and an old lady gets an unexpected phone call.

Somehow, all of these events are connected though it takes a moment to figure out how. Christmas is a time for romance, but for the dejected salaryman, Ryotaro (Tomorowo Taguchi), it’s about to become a very difficult day indeed. When his terminally ill father decides to tell him the secrets of his birth, it prompts him into a mild bout of introspection concerning his own familial relationships. Ten years with the patient Shizue (Tomoyo Harada) haven’t cured his philandering and the marriage is strained to breaking point. Still, he thinks nothing of cancelling their special Christmas Eve dinner together to go meet his mistress even if his true purpose is to end things before they get any more complicated.

Missed connections and frustrated love stories continue to dominate. The mistress, Misuzo (Haruka Igawa), gets into a lift with Chinese bellboy Dongdong (Tsuyoshi Abe) who was supposed to be going back to Shanghai to visit his long-distance girlfriend who he worries is losing interest. Meanwhile, the melancholy barman, Mr. Kido (Etsushi Toyokawa), is pining for a failed love of his own – a woman he foolishly abandoned and then tried to pick back up again only to learn she had married someone else and that the marriage was unhappy. Mr. Kido gave up his musical dreams to open a jazz bar in the hope his love would someday return to him, only to be visited by “hope” in a different form – that of the strange young woman, Nozomi (Tomoko Tabata), from the across the way who’s about to have a very big business night in her off the beaten track artisanal candle shop.

Meanwhile, the recently released ex-yakuza, Gin (Koji Kikkawa), pines for his lost love in the form of the heavily pregnant Reiko (Shinobu Terajima) who swore to wait for him but eventually drifted away and married someone else though she seems to be happy enough which, strangely, he seems to find a comfort. When the lights go out there’s nothing much else to do but talk and think and so each of our wounded protagonists is forced to put their pain into focus, considering the wider context of an emotional landscape and attempting to find accommodation within it. Mr. Kido can’t quite let go of his failed love, however much he might want to, but Gin can perhaps learn to be thankful that the woman he loved found someone nice who looked after her when he couldn’t.

While the older generation swap stories of the eerie wartime blackouts and those of the comparatively less worrying power outages born of an inability to keep up with a rapidly recovering economy, the young make the best of it – swapping the twinkling lights of Christmas displays for the wonder of the stars. Candlelight and unexpected friendships give birth to new ways of thinking and create their very own Christmas miracles which seem set to pave a way towards a happier future for all in which forgiveness and understanding rule. Strangely warm yet never sentimental, Until the Lights Come Back captures a brief moment of stillness in a lonely city as its disconnected heroes find themselves pulled into a series of concentric epiphanies, putting the past to rest while learning to embrace an as yet unseen future.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

After School (アフタースクール, Kenji Uchida, 2008)

after school posterKenji Uchida is well known for intricately constructed farces but he takes intrigue to new heights in After School (アフタースクール), allowing a mid-way twist to completely reverse everything you thought you knew. Yet at heart Uchida’s film is as uncynical as it’s possible to be even when our heroes find themselves embroiled in a large-scale conspiracy of corporate corruption, organised crime, and police machinations. What begins with a confession spirals outwards into a complicated web of deception and counter-deception proving it really is all connected, even if not quite in the way you first thought.

A salaryman, Kimura (Masato Sakai), enters a reverie staring at the pregnant woman (Takako Tokiwa) sitting opposite him over breakfast, flashing back to a breezy middle school day when she (presumably) nervously handed him a letter.  Kimura leaves for work and borrows the fancy Porche belonging to his high school teacher middle school friend, Jinno (Yo Oizumi), to go to a work meeting in Yokohama. While he’s away the woman goes into labour leaving Jinno to take care of everything but alarm bells start ringing when no one can reach Kimura the following morning. Meanwhile, Kimura has been seen with a mysterious woman at a hotel which seems to have right royally spooked his bosses who have hired a shady private detective, Kitazawa (Kuranosuke Sasaki), to track Kimura down. Kitazawa thinks his best bet is to start at Kimura’s old middle school – which is where he runs into Jinno who agrees to help look for his friend.

As might be assumed, all is not quite as it seems. Shady PI Kitazawa is in deep with the yakuza to whom he apparently has massive gambling debts. At a low ebb, he decides to ask his male assistant to run away with him to Sapporo (which he agrees to do) but this case just might be his salvation, especially once he works out that both ends are connected and he could technically double his pay out with a little strategic blackmail. Kitazawa is as cynical as they come. He thinks nothing of invading Kimura’s life and is fully prepared to make use of Jinno’s seeming innocence, claiming that naivety and pureheartedness make him sick. Later he attempts a pathetic act of petty revenge against Jinno for no real reason that could have ruined his entire life but instead ends up another cog in the grand wheel of Uchida’s finely crafted farce.

Kitazawa’s cynicism is eventually what leads to his downfall. His detective brain so wired for motives and gains is unable to process the idea that some actions are merely altruistic and offer no further reward than the pleasure of helping a friend. Jinno, at first a goofy school teacher with an improbably expensive car, soon becomes the film’s MVP and the only still point in a constantly turning world. Taken to task by Kitazawa for his continuing goodness, Jinno offers a perfectly schoolmasterly reply to the effect that there’s a snotty kid like him in every class, sneering away too cool for school and decrying everything as boring when really the problem isn’t school, it’s Kitazawa.

What eventually looked like a sordid affair turns into a beautiful romance as the truth is gradually revealed. The title refers not just to the setting of the initial flashback, but also to the entirety of adult life. Jinno’s innocence and goodness are belittled by Kitazawa who accuses him of being stuck in middle school with a childishly naive way of seeing the world. This is in a sense true, Jinno has never lost his childlike sense of justice and fair play, willing to go great lengths to help his friends even if it puts him in danger and forces him into some sticky situations which are not his natural milieu, but Jinno’s faith and loyalty are the qualities which eventually see him through and make possible the poignant, hopeful ending despite all that has gone before. Corrupt politicians preaching “family values” whilst associating themselves with dodgy corporations who are taking back handers from the yakuza, hidden policemen, shady PIs – there’s certainly a lot of darkness here but if anything is going to beat it, it’s sincerity and goodness rather than guile and cunning.


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

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 February 2018
  • Filmhouse – 6 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Masayuki Suo, 2014)

lady-maikoWhen Japan does musicals, even Hollywood style musicals, it tends to go for the backstage variety or a kind of hybrid form in which the idol/singing star protagonist gets a few snazzy numbers which somehow blur into the real world. Masayuki Suo’s previous big hit, Shall We Dance, took its title from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song featured in the King and I but it’s Lerner and Loewe he turns to for an American style song and dance fiesta relocating My Fair Lady to the world of Kyoto geisha, Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Maiko wa Lady) . My Fair Lady was itself inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion though replaces much of its class conscious, feminist questioning with genial romance. Suo’s take leans the same way but suffers somewhat in the inefficacy of its half hearted love story seeing as its heroine is only 15 years old.

Country bumpkin Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) arrives in the elegant Kyoto geisha quarters with only one hope – to become a maiko! However, despite the scarcity of young girls wanting to train, Haruko’s hopes are dashed by the head geisha who finds it impossible to understand anything she’s saying thanks to her extraordinarily rare accent which is an odd mix of north and south country dialects. Luckily for her, a linguistics professor who has an unhealthy obsession with rare dialectical forms overhears her speech patterns and is instantly fascinated. Striking up a bet with another tea house patron, Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa) takes on the challenge of training Haruko to master the elegant Kyoto geisha accent in just six months.

The teahouses and the culture which goes with them are a part of the old world just barely hanging on in the bright new modern era. Haruko first became infatuated with all things maiko thanks to an online blog kept by the teahouse’s only current star, Momoko (Tomoko Tabata) – the daughter of the proprietor still only a maiko at age thirty precisely because of the lack of candidates to succeed her. Despite this intrusion of the modern, the way of the geisha remains essentially the same as it has for centuries with all of the unfairness and exploitation it entails. Hence, most of the women working in the teahouses are part-timers brought in for big events with only rudimentary training and even those who have spent a significant amount of time learning their craft lament that they don’t get paid a real salary and even their kimono and accessories technically belong to the teahouse.

Despite being on the fringes of the sex trade, as the professor’s assistant takes care to warn Haruko, there’s still something glamorous about the the arcane teahouse world bound up in ancient traditions and complicated rituals of elegance. Haruko faces a steep learning curve as a clumsy country girl who doesn’t even know how to sit “seiza” without her legs going numb. Learning to speak like a Kyoto native may be the least of her worries seeing as she has to learn how to dress in kimono, play a taiko drum and shamisen, and perform the traditional dances to perfection.

This is a musical after all and so the maiko dance routines eventually give way to more conventional choreography and large scale broadway numbers. The title song is particularly catchy and resurfaces at several points though the score as a whole is cheerful and inventive, incorporating a classic broadway sound with modern twist fused with the traditional music of the teahouse. Naoto Takenaka makes a typically creepy appearance displaying a fine voice for a comic number dedicated to the art of being a male maid to a geisha house but the big set piece is reserved for a comic take on the “Rain in Spain” in which the linguistics professor oddly wonders where all the water goes when it’s “pissing it down in Kyoto”. Unfortunately much of this revolves around linguistic jokes which are impossible to translate though the scene as a whole does its job well enough in introducing us to Haruko’s travails in the world of elocution. Other routines featuring the backstories of some of the minor characters also have a pleasantly retro quality inspired by period cinema complete with painted backdrops and old fashioned studio bound cinematography.

Though charming enough, Haruko’s progress is perhaps too conventional to move Lady Maiko far beyond the realms of cheerful fluff. Though Suo wisely keeps the romance to a minimum, Haruko’s growing feelings for the professor as well as a possible connection with his assistant are a little uncomfortable given her youth and the age differences involved even if the professor remains completely unaware. Unlike the source material Haruko’s passage is otherwise presented without complication (save for brief forays into the darkside of the geisha trade) as the country girl makes good, achieving her goals through hard work, perseverance, and the support of the community. In the end it’s all just far too nice, but then that’s not such a bad problem to have and there are enough pretty dance routines and warmhearted comedy to charm even the most jaded of viewers.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Yuki Tanada, 2012)

Cowards who looked to the sky posterThe work of director Yuki Tanada has had a predominant focus on the stories of independent young women but The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky sees her shift focus slightly as the troubled relationship between a middle aged housewife who escapes her humdrum life through cosplay and an ordinary high school boy takes centre stage. Based on the novel of the same name by Misumi Kubo, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た, Fugainai Boku wa Sora wo Mita) also tackles the difficult themes of social stigma, the power of rumour, teenage poverty, elder care, childbirth and even pedophilia which is, to be frank, a little too much to be going on with.

Told in a non-linear, overlapping structure the central spine of the film follows unfulfilled housewife Satomi who likes to dress up as her favourite character from the retro anime Magic Girl. Whilst dressed as its heroine, Anzu, she spots a high school boy at a convention who looks eerily like the anime’s hero, Muramasa. Takumi is only at the convention with a friend and has no particular interest in anime but as the two live in the same area “Anzu” convinces Takumi to come and try on a Muramasa outfit at her place. One thing leads to another and the pair embark on a proxy affair which takes the form of role-play between the two anime characters carefully scripted by Satomi. However, Satomi’s hitherto disinterested husband begins to notice a change in her behaviour and has spy cameras installed catching the hot cosplay action for all to see. When he uploads the video to the internet it causes a serious problem for the young and impressionable Takumi.

Actually, there’s a third person in Satomi’s marriage to her feckless husband Keiichiro in the form of his overbearing mother. So far, the couple have no children despite having been married for some time and this has distressed Michiko to the point that she’s the one dragging the couple in for IVF treatment and getting upset when it doesn’t work. Her son, Keiichiro, has weak swimmers and actively doesn’t want children but this doesn’t stop Michiko taking all her frustrations out on Satomi whom she brands as “defective” and gives the impression that she’d like to “fire” her if she could. A shy woman and probably quite bored as a stay at home housewife, Satomi retreats into fantasy by cosplaying as the familiar character from her favourite childhood anime Magic Girl. Becoming Anzu and having an affair with Muramasa isn’t quite cheating, after all, and perhaps she even hopes to have the child that her mother-in-law so desperately wants her to have even if her husband and medical science won’t help her.

Among the younger generation, Takumi lives with his mother, Sumiko, in a residential maternity clinic that she runs where pregnant women can come and be looked after in a more natural and homely environment than the comparatively cold and sterile hospital. Takumi is best friends with a boy who lives near by who, like him, has no father but unlike Takumi his mother is also an absent figure too so Ryota must work part-time at the combini whilst also looking after his grandmother who is suffering with dementia.

Sumiko tries to support Ryota by giving him occasional food parcels but as a young man Ryota sometimes finds this a little embarrassing and is offended by the idea of receiving charity. When it comes right down to it, he resents Takumi’s happy relationship with his mother and their relative financial security. The manager at the store brands Ryota a “ghetto kid” and even blames him for the increase in shoplifting by kids from the estate. He has little time to study even if he wanted to, but all he sees for his future is a great big dead end. Another worker at the store who previously worked as a teacher offers to help Ryota improve his grades and maybe even try for a university scholarship but turns out to have a dark side of his own.

Simply put, there are far too many plot strands in rotation here and the screenplay never manages to corral them into any kind of satisfying arrangement. There is a moment of unity where Ryota’s story meets Takumi’s but it’s a fairly brief point of intersection (though a hugely important one both in terms of themes and storyline) leaving Ryota’s entire subplot feeling like a distraction to the main high school boy meets damaged older woman narrative. That’s without all of the goings on at the clinic, the brief appearance of Takumi’s father and the disappearing act of Ryota’s deadbeat mother who makes off with all his savings. The film’s scope and ambition is admirable but it ultimately fails to unify its disparate plot strands into a convincingly focused form.

That said, other than running too long the The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky does have a lot of interesting elements and is always beautifully shot showing off a rarely seen side of suburban Tokyo. The performances are also of a high quality particularly given the film’s frank erotic content which is played with refreshing realism by the veteran former child actress Tomoko Tabata and the comparatively less experienced Kento Nagayama as the confused high school boy caught in the fire of his first affair. At once too superficial and too deep, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky spreads itself too thin to make a lasting impact though does offer enough rewards to justify its lengthy running time.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

 

Rakugo Monogatari (落語物語, Shinpei Hayashiya, 2011)

program_rakugoWhen it comes to the classic Japanese art forms, kabuki, noh and maybe even bunraku are not so uncommon overseas. Rakugo, however, has not been as lucky. Famously impenetrable for non-native speakers even if their language skills are otherwise top notch, rakugo is the art of traditional comic story telling in which the “rakugo-ka” recites a standard monologue with the aim of mining it for laughs in their own individual fashion. These stories date back to the Edo-era and rely heavily on classic Japanese puns, stock characters and cultural assumptions, consequently, their appeal has been on the wane in Japan for sometime. That’s not to say the art form is quite dead yet though, as real life rakugo-ka Shinpei Hayashiya’s Rakugo Monogatari attempts to prove.

The film begins as youngster Masato catches a Rakugo act and becomes immediately smitten. Hoping to become the disciple of a top master, he parks himself outside the house of Kozaru but is too shy to actually knock on the door. Luckily, Kozaru’s wife arrives home and spots Masato waiting outside. She’s a sharp woman and immediately guesses what Masato’s after so she invites him inside to meet her husband. Kozaru is a bit of a strange man but with a fantastic sense of humour and eventually agrees to take the young hopeful on as his pupil. There will be laughter and tears along the way but Masato is well on the road to achieving his rakugo dreams.

Created by real life rakugo comedian and occasional actor Shinpei Hayashiya, Rakugo Monogatari certainly has the air of authenticity. For a film that’s about an apprentice, we don’t really see a lot of direct training scenes (though there are some) and, in fact, we don’t spend all of our time on the hopeful Masato. After he starts to make some headway, the canvas widens a little to look at the arcane institution of the rakugo association and in particular its reaction to the decision of one of its female members to pursue a career in television which is taking her away from her rakugo roots. The position of female rakugo performers is briefly touched on as, though there are at least two highly proficient female rakugo-ka active on these stages, one of the other association members proclaims that he feels “uncomfortable” with a woman reciting this material at an important event. He says this right in front of an apparently high ranking female member of the association who looks rightfully non-plussed (and in general she is not a woman to be crossed lightly) before trying to back track. The younger female rakugo-ka eventually gets to perform but then has her profile immediately undermined by a personal scandal that would probably not have much effect on a male star’s career.

Hayashiya does give in to melodrama in the third quarter though he largely even manages to work a few laughs into a tragic situation. The other thread of the film is the warm and solid relationship between Kozaru and his wife Aoi, which is filled with a sort of bickering, reciprocal humour as the two become surrogate parents to the nervous Masato. In an odd sort of way it’s Aoi who lends the heart to the film and though her role is purely supportive, she provides the firm foundations which allow her husband and his new apprentice to flourish in their own careers.

A perfect tribute to the art of rakugo, Rakugo Monogatari is an affectionate comedy celebrating all sides of its famously complicated world. Though it runs a little long and has a tendency to run off the point for a while (perhaps an intentional complication), Rakugo Monogatari nevertheless proves an enjoyable foray into the world of this declining art form and finds plenty left to enjoy while it’s there.