Samurai Kids (水の旅人-侍KIDS-, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993)

“I’ve always believed that dreams and fantasies have infinite power” an eccentric teacher explains though it might as well be a mission statement for the films of Nobuhiko Obayashi. 1993’s family adventure movie Samurai Kids (水の旅人-侍KIDS-, Mizu no Tabibito: Samurai Kids) draws inspiration from the classic Japanese folktale Issun Boshi about a pint sized warrior who floats off to the city in a bowl, but is at heart a gentle coming-of-age tale as little boy grows in self-confidence and vows to protect Japan’s beautiful natural environment from human mismanagement. 

As his mother (Jun Fubuki) describes him, Satoru (Ryou Yoshida) is a little different and slow to make friends. The confusion he feels is reflected in the persistent fast cutting that adds a note of tension to the otherwise pleasant family home. Like many small boys he is obsessed with collecting mini treasures for his collection along with frogs and insects which is how he comes across a mysterious creature knocked off a log floating in the river by a flying baseball from the game his sister Chizuko (Ayumi Ito) is playing across the way. To his surprise, the bundle of rags Satoru picks up turns out to be a tiny old man in samurai clothes complete with sword who gives his name as Suminoe no Sukunahiko. Sukunahiko (Tsutomu Yamazaki) as he explains had been on his way to the sea where he plans to “evaporate”. The river only flows in one direction after all and you can’t turn back time, everyone dies eventually. 

Having lost his grandfather a couple of years previously (a photo cameo from Ishiro Honda of Godzilla fame), loss is something Satoru hasn’t quite processed though he understands that Sukunahiko has his own path to follow even if he’ll miss him when he’s gone. Nevertheless, he feels a responsibility to look after him so he can recover sufficiently to make his journey to the sea. Through his strange friendship with the tiny old man, Satoru begins to learn more of and draw closer to the natural world. When Sukunahiko’s kimono is pinched by a cheeky crow for some reason continually hanging round Satoru’s home, Sukunahiko is forced to fight him and ends up cutting off his beak but later carves the bird a new prosthetic replacement because no to do so would have been “impolite”. 

Meanwhile a visit to his father’s hometown brings home the realities of contemporary Japan in learning that the area is soon to be sunk as a giant reservoir to prevent the flooding of other nearby villages. On a school trip, Satoru is quick to take issue with some of his classmates who throw their rubbish out of the bus windows as they pass a dam, reminding them they’re being disrespectful to the town that once existed beneath the water. The climax occurs when the children are camping further up the mountain near what Satoru assumes must be Sukunahiko’s “hometown” at the source of the river. It just so happens that the trip coincides with a fading local festival dedicated to the river god which might account for why it’s raining so much. “It’s celebratory rain” an old man explains, “but when people try to control the water it causes problems like this” implying that the water is “rebelling” against humanity’s attempts to channel it. When he and his sister’s frenemy Miyuki are trapped by rockfall, Satoru has to learn to trust the healing properties of water so that he can repay her kindness in protecting him before eventually helping Sukunahiko return to source in the company of his eccentric yokai-obsessed teacher (Tomoyo Harada) and newly sympathetic sister. 

Adapted from a story by Masumi Suetani who also penned the screenplay, Samurai Kids is perfectly suited to Obayashi’s key concerns lamenting that the adults often forget the promises to nature they made while young, Satoru calling out that he’ll protect the rivers and waters of Japan with a warrior spirit like Sukunahiko’s while the Jo Hisaishi score is also reminiscent of the similarly themed movies of Studio Ghibli. Chizuko’s parallel dilemma may be less well explored leaving it unclear whether her tomboyishness is born of discontent over her looks or a part of her essential personality struggling for acceptance in a conformist and heavily gendered society but does at least allow her to find common ground with friend/rival Miyuki who is struggling with something similar stressing the importance of friendship and mutual understanding among the children. It may be the case that the special effects have entered the realms of being classic rather than merely dated but hold up surprisingly well almost 30 years later possessed of their own strange charm yet syncing perfectly with the world around them. A quietly magical tale of loyal yet laidback family cats, parental nostalgia for simpler times, and unexpected friendships between solitary boys and ancient water gods, Samurai Kids is a surprisingly poignant children’s adventure with an important message in its fierce love of a disappearing natural beauty. 


Short clip (no dialogue)

Under the Stars (星の子, Tatsushi Omori, 2020)

“The time of realisation comes and then that person changes” according to the words of a new religion guru. The sentiment is true enough, even if the meaning is slightly different from that which she’d intended. Young Chihiro, however, the heroine of Tatsushi Omori’s adaptation of the novel by Natsuko Imamura Under the Stars (星の子, Hoshi no Ko), is indeed approaching a moment of realisation as she begins to question everything about the world around her as it had been presented throughout the course of her life. 

As a baby, Chichiro (Mana Ashida) had suffered from severe eczema which had left her in terrible pain and her parents suffering with her in witnessing her distress. On the advice of a colleague, Chichiro’s father (Masatoshi Nagase) decides to try using “Venus Blessed Water” which is apparently full of cosmic energy that can cure all ills. Chihiro begins to recover and her parents become devotees of the cult which produces it eventually alienating her older sister, Ma (Aju Makita), who is unable to reconcile herself with the outlandish beliefs they advance and rituals they conduct. 

For Chihiro, however, the cult is all she’s ever known so it is in that way “normal” and it’s never really occurred to her to question it even after her sister’s mysterious “disappearance”. But as she approaches the end of middle-school, a few well placed questions from her classmates give her pause for thought wondering if her parents’ claims about the miracle water could possibly be true or if, as her best friend Watanabe (Ninon) wonders, they are simply being scammed. After all, if water could solve all the world’s problems it would either be ridiculously expensive or completely free and if you could stay healthy by placing a damp towel on your head then everyone would be doing it. Her parents claim they don’t get colds because the water boosts their immune system, but perhaps they’re just lucky enough to be the kind of people who don’t often get that kind of sick or the fact that they obviously spend almost all their time in the bubble of the cult reduces their exposure. 

Her crunch point comes when her handsome maths teacher (Masaki Okada) on whom she has a crush spots her parents doing the ritual in a park and exasperatedly points them out as complete nutcases. When she eventually tells him who they are, he inappropriately calls her out in front of the entire class by telling her to get rid of her “weird” water while subtly undermining her religious beliefs with advice about how to avoid getting colds or other potentially dangerous seasonal viruses. Omori presents the cult neutrally, hinting that the discrimination Chihiro is facing as a member of a “new religion” may be unfair while the beliefs of traditional religions may seem no stranger to the unfamiliar and to criticise them so directly would be deemed unacceptable in any liberal society. In a sense perhaps we all grow up in a kind of cult only latterly questioning the things our parents taught us to be true. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo meanwhile had once tried to use science and experience to undermine her parents’ beliefs, he and Ma swapping out their holy water for the tap variety to prove to them that they are being duped only for them to double down and refuse to accept the “truth”. 

Uncle Yuzo and his family eventually offer Chihiro a place to stay in the hope of getting her out of the cult but are also of course asking her to betray her parents by leaving them. She remains preoccupied by the fate of her sister, particularly hearing rumours about the cult supposedly disappearing those who turn against them, but is torn between her growing doubts and love for her parents while privately suspicious about the fate of a child much like herself kept locked up by his mum and dad who say he’s terribly ill and unable to speak (which doesn’t exactly support the cult’s claims of universal healing), but who knows what might actually be true.

Shoko (Haru Kuroki), the wife of the guru Kairo (Kengo Kora), is fond of reminding the younger members that they are not there of their own free will which is of course true whatever the implications for fate and determinism because they are children whose parents have forced them to attend which might explain their sense of resentment or what she implies is “resistance” to their spiritual messaging in urging them to make an active choice to accept the cult’s teachings. Chihiro is coming to a realisation that she may be on a different path than her parents but delaying her exit while they too are possibly preparing her for more independent life. Lighter than much of Omori’s previous work despite its weighty themes, Under the Stars is also in its way about the end of childhood and the bittersweet compromises that accompany it. 


Under The Stars streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (c) 2020 “Under the Stars” Production Committee

Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Yukiko Mishima, 2012)

“Plain bread is nice too” a short-term visitor concedes having reached an epiphany after a few days’ stay at Cafe Mani in Yukiko Mishima’s slice of comfort cinema, Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Shiawase no Pan). Perhaps in its own way a reaction to the devastating earthquake and tsunami of the previous year which is referenced in the closing arc, Mishima’s drama is one of a series of films from the 2010s advocating for a simpler life built on empathy and mutual compassion as a bulwark against the increasing disappointments of a relentlessly consumerist society. 

The heroine, Rie (Tomoyo Harada), was a lonely child who buried herself in a fantastical children’s book about a little boy, Mani, who was best friends with the Moon. Touched by Mani’s words when the Moon asked him to take down the sun because its brightness made his life unbearable that “what matters most is that it shines on you and that you shine on others”, Rie resolved to find her own Mani but has long since given up. She and her her husband Mizushima (Yo Oizumi) have recently relocated to a Hokkaido ranch where they run a cafe bakery that has quickly become a community hub tending to the wounded souls of the local area and sometimes even beyond. 

The urban/rural contrast is rammed home by the couple’s first guest, Kaori (Kanna Mori ), a young shop girl from Tokyo who was supposed to be going to Okinawa with her boyfriend but he stood her up and she’s come to Hokkaido instead. Although originally grumpy and sullen, Kaori begins to warm to the charms of rural life complaining that in Tokyo people have to force themselves to smile. Her words accidentally hurt the feelings of local boy Tokio (Yuta Hiraoka), conversely jealous of big city opportunity but lacking the courage to strike out from his small-town life in which ironically enough he works as a points switcher at the local railway. What Kaori learns through her various experiences and the kindness of the Mizushimas isn’t that country life is better just that small happinesses are often all you need, there is pleasure in simplicity, and there’s no need to submit herself to the pretentiousness of city life explaining that she’s going to tell her coworkers the truth about her Okinawan holiday and bring some of the wholesome homemade bread back for them too. 

But then, it isn’t always so easy as the couple discover trying to help a sad little girl in the wake of marital breakdown. In a slightly surprising twist, Maki (Yuki Yagi) has been abandoned by her mother who has left the family and is struggling to accept both her loss and the change in circumstances which goes with it. The dilemma revolves around a bowl of pumpkin soup which Maki refuses to eat despite having previously longed to taste her mother’s signature dish. The realisation she comes to is that something can be different but that doesn’t make it bad, bonding with her equally dejected father (Ken Mitsuishi) thanks to the gentle support of the Mizushimas who seem to have a knack for knowing just what everyone who comes through their door needs. 

That goes double for the elderly couple who turn up late one night in the dead of winter, husband Fumio (Katsuo Nakamura) worryingly explaining that they’ve lived long enough, that while you’re young you still have the possibility of change, of becoming “a different you”, but old age has no further possibility nor the ability to change. Having lost their daughter in the tsunami the old couple are trapped in an inertia of grief from which they are gradually awakened by the gentle care of the Mizushimas and the sight of the beautiful moon that shines down on Cafe Mani. 

Rie meanwhile remains privately dejected, longing for her own Mani but convinced she’ll never find him only to realise he’s been there all along. Just like the words in the picture book, Rie and Mizushima have resolved to be the light, Fumio later sending them a letter claiming that they have discovered the ideal form of happiness in their simple life doing as they please surrounded by friends who have already become family and offering love and support to all who come through their doors through the medium of delicious seasonal food. With a host of quirky side characters including an omniscient glass blower (Kimiko Yo), genial postie (Chikara Honda), farmers with an ever expanding family, and a regular customer who carries a mysterious trunk around, while narrated (seemingly) by a sheep with the voice of a child Mishima’s gentle drama is foodie pure comfort cinema in which good bread and a warm fire may yet save the world.


Bread of Happiness until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Blood & Bones in a Flowing Galaxy (砕け散るところを見せてあげる, SABU, 2020)

“Do heroes need a reason to be heroes?” asks the hero of SABU’s adaptation of the light novel by Yuyuko Takemiya My Blood & Bones in a Flowing Galaxy (砕け散るところを見せてあげる, Kudakechiru Tokoro wo Misete Ageru). A little lighter than the Japanese title which translates as “I will show you a broken place”, SABU’s latest collaboration with EXILE TRIBE is a sometimes surreal tale of the great confluence of love, undercutting and repurposing a traditional idea of masculinity as the young man at its centre tries and fails to overcome himself to be the hero he longs to be while finally discovering that true heroism lies in the capacity to lend courage to others in a world often haunted by violence and despair. 

SABU opens, however, with a brief framing sequence in which another young man (Takumi Kitamura) meditates on the legacy of his father who died a hero trying to save a little girl from a submerged car. A flashback to sometime in the ‘90s introduces us to Kiyosumi (Taishi Nakagawa) running full pelt late for school and surreptitiously joining the back of the assembly hall behind a class of younger students hoping to avoid detection. Once there, however, he witnesses a young woman being relentlessly bullied by her classmates and intervenes. After the assembly concludes he tries to make sure the girl is OK, but when he touches her in comfort she begins screaming uncontrollably and leaves the room. Kiyosumi, however, is undeterred and continues trying to protect her, eventually earning her trust after rescuing her when she’s doused in water and locked up in a bathroom storage cupboard. The pair soon become friends, Kiyosumi apparently falling for the melancholy young woman but naively failing to realise that her problems may be bigger than he realises and that there are some monsters you can’t fight alone. 

During one of their early conversations, Hari (Anna Ishii), the young woman, outlines her UFO theory of universe in which she visualises each of the forces which oppress her as alien spaceships floating ominously in the sky above. Standing in for unresolved trauma, the ever present threat of violence, and the pain of loneliness, the presence of the UFOs both brings the pair together and overshadows their growing romance, Kiyosumi’s voiceover hinting at an unhappy ending in which he will not fulfil his dream of being forever by her side. He continues to doubt himself, unsure if he can really be the hero that Hari believes him to be while she draws confidence from his kindness to become one herself. 

There is, it has to be said, an air of chauvinism and a mild saviour complex in Kiyosumi’s otherwise altruistic desire to stand up to injustice. He doesn’t stop to ask himself if Hari wants saving or if his intervention may end up making things worse for her as it eventually does if in an unexpected way. Childishly naive, he fails to look beyond the immediate problem of high school bullying, recalling his own days as a lonely first year rejected by the cool crowd only later finding a friend, while certain that he can protect Hari solely with the force of his presence. To begin with, he may be right, his initial intervention allowing other like-minded souls to stand up against the school’s bullying culture and earning Hari another friend in the equally defiant Ozaki (Kaya Kiyohara). But only too late does he begin to realise that the bruises on her wrists may not be caused in class and that her victimisation does not end at the school gates. 

Rescued from the storecupboard, Hari tried to defend her aggressors citing the fact that they used clean tap water the last bucket of which was even warm as a sign of “kindness”. So brutalised is she that she expects nothing more. The irony is Kiyosumi cannot in the end protect her, but does perhaps lend her the strength to protect herself as she in fact saves him. Yet as Kiyosumi points out, the “UFOs” do not simply disappear in the midst of red rain but may strike again at any moment, his attempts to rescue a drowning girl a kind of metaphor for his desire to drag Hari free of the source of her trauma and show her “the glowing beauty of this world”, a desire he can only realise by becoming one with a galaxy of eternal love. True heroism, he eventually realises, is just being there if only in spirit as a source of constant support and reassurance in a world of dizzying anxiety. At times infinitely bleak but coloured with teenage sunniness and youthful naivety, SABU’s empathic drama both recognises and forgives its hero’s chauvinistic self-obsession while allowing the heroine to save herself each bolstered by a sense of mutual solitary born of a deep compassion with love perhaps the best weapon against the circling UFOs of a sometimes cruel existence. 


My Blood & Bones in a Flowing Galaxy streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Yoichi Sai, 1987)

Lady in a Black Dress posterHaruki Kadokawa had become almost synonymous with commercial filmmaking throughout the 1980s and his steady stream of idol-led teen movies was indeed in full swing by 1987, but his idols, as well as his audiences, were perhaps beginning to grow up. Yoichi Sai’s first outing for Kadokawa had been with the typically cheery Someday, Someone Will Be Killed which was inspired by the most genre’s representative author, Jiro Akagawa, and followed the adventures of an upperclass girl who is suddenly plunged into a world of intrigue when her reporter father disappears after dropping a floppy disk into her handbag. A year later he’d skewed darker with a hardboiled yakuza tale starring Tatsuya Fuji as part of Kadokawa’s gritty action line, but he neatly brings to two together in The Lady in a Black Dress (黒いドレスの女, Kuroi Dress no Onna) which features the then 20-year-old star of The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Tomoyo Harada, in another noir-inflected crime thriller again adapted from a novel by Kenzo Kitakata.

We first meet the titular “lady in a black dress” walking alone alone along a busy motorway until she is kerb crawled by a yakuza in a fancy car. Declaring she intends to walk to Tokyo (a very long way), Reiko (Tomoyo Harada) nevertheless ends up getting into the mysterious man’s vehicle despite avowing that she “hates yakuza”. The yakuza goon does however drive her safely into the city and drop her off at her chosen destination – a race course, where she begins her quest to look for “someone”. By coincidence, the yakuza was also heading to the race course where he intended to stab a rival gangster – Shoji (Bunta Sugawara), who makes no attempt to get away and seemingly allows himself to be stabbed by the younger man. Shoji, as it happens, is the temporary responsibility of the man Reiko has been looking for – Tamura (Toshiyuki Nagashima), a former salaryman turned bar owner with fringe ties to the yakuza. Putting on her little black dress, Reiko finally finds herself at his upscale jazz bar where she petitions him for a job and a place to stay, dropping the name of Tamura’s sister-in-law who apparently advised her to try hiding out with him.

Reiko is, after a fashion, the dame who walked into Tamura’s gin joint with the (mild) intention to cause trouble, but, in keeping with the nature of the material, what she arouses in Tamura and later Shoji is a latent white knight paternalism. Curious enough to rifle through her luggage while she’s out, Tamura is concerned to find a pistol hidden among her belongings but when caught with it, Reiko offers the somewhat dark confession that the gun is less for her “protection” than her suicide. Not quite believing her, Tamura advises Reiko not to try anything like that in his place of business and to take it somewhere else. Nevertheless, Reiko stays in Tamura’s bar, eventually sharing a room with melancholy yakuza Shoji who is also hiding out there until the plan comes together to get him out of the country and away from the rival gangsters out for his blood.

As it turns out, Reiko had good reason to “hate yakuza” but she can’t seem to get away from them even in the city. Tamura’s life has also been ruined by organised crime as we later find out, and it’s these coincidental ties which eventually bring Reiko to him through his embittered sister-in-law who had been the mistress of Reiko’s lecherous step-father. The codes of honour and revenge create their own chaos as Shoji attempts to embrace and avoid his inevitable fate while his trusted underling (the yakuza who gave Reiko a lift) tries to help him – first by an act of symbolic though non-life threatening stabbing and then through a brotherly vow to face him himself to bring the situation to a close in the kindest way possible.

Meanwhile, a storm brews around a missing notebook which supposedly contains all the sordid details of the dodgy business deals brokered by a now corporatised yakuza who, while still engaging in general thuggery, are careful to mediate their world of organised crime through legitimate business enterprises. Reiko, like many a Kadokawa heroine, is an upperclass girl – somewhat sheltered and innocent, but trying to seem less so in order to win support and protection against the forces which are pursuing her. Though the film slots neatly into the “idol” subgenre, Harada takes much less of a leading role than in the studio’s regular idol output, retaining the mysterious air of the “lady in a black dress” while the men fight back against the yakuza only gradually exposing the truths behind the threat posed to Reiko.

Consequently, Reiko occupies a strangely liminal space as an adolescent girl, by turns femme fatale and damsel in distress. Wily and resourceful, Reiko formulates her own plan for getting the gangsters off her back, even if it’s one which may result in a partial compromise rather than victory. Though Kadokawa’s idol movies could be surprisingly dark, The Lady in a Black Dress pushes the genre into more adult territory as Reiko faces quite real dangers including sexual violence while wielding her femininity as a weapon (albeit inexpertly) – something quite unthinkable in the generally innocent idol movie world in which the heroine’s safety is always assured. Sai reframes the idol drama as a hardboiled B-movie noir scored by sophisticated jazz and peopled by melancholy barmen and worn-out yakuza weighed down by life’s regrets, while occasionally switching back to Reiko who attempts to bury her fear and anxiety by dancing furiously in a very hip 1987 nightclub. Darker than Kadokawa’s generally “cute” tales of plucky heroines and completely devoid of musical sequences (Harada does not sing nor provide the theme tune), The Lady in a Black dress is a surprisingly mature crime drama which nevertheless makes room for its heroine’s eventual triumph and subsequent exit from the murky Tokyo underground for the brighter skies of her more natural environment.


TV spot (no subtitles)

Theme song – Kuroi Dress no Onna -Ritual- by dip in the pool.

Injured Angels (傷だらけの天使, Junji Sakamoto, 1997)

injured-angelsDespite having started his career in the action field with the boxing film Dotsuitarunen and an entry in the New Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, Junji Sakamoto has increasingly moved into gentler, socially conscious films including the Thai set Children of the Dark and the Toei 60th Anniversary prestige picture A Chorus of Angels. Injured Angels (傷だらけの天使, Kizudarake no Tenshi) marries both of aspects of his career but leans towards the softer side as it finds genial private detective Mitsuru (Etsushi Toyokawa) accepting a request from a dying man to ensure the safe passage of his young son to the boy’s mother in Northern Japan.

Reluctantly taking on an assignment to question the last remaining tenant of an office block, Mitsuru discovers the man inside already mortally wounded. During their conversation, the man offers him all the money he has left to take his young son to his estranged wife, currently living in a small town in the North of Japan. Mitsuru doesn’t really want this kind of hassle but feels sorry for the man and his son and eventually decides to make sure the boy, Hotaru, gets to someone who can take of him. The pair set off on a kind of road trip eventually joined by Mitsuru’s partner Hisashi (Claude Maki) meeting friends old and new along the way.

Inspired by the 1970s TV series of the same title, Injured Angels adopts an oddly jokey tone throughout as Mitsuru has various strange adventures whilst trying to guide a small child to someone willing to take him in. At one stage, the film goes off on a long and improbable tangent in which Mitsuru runs into an old friend who is currently wearing a lucha libre mask “for work”. The pair then board the bus with the wrestlers before Mitsuru himself ends up in the ring. Though fun, the sequence has little to do with the ongoing plot other than adding to the already absurd atmosphere.

Predictably, when Mitsuru reaches the address he’s been given, Hotaru’s mother has already moved on but even when they eventually find her, the reaction is not the one you’d expect. Soon to be married again, Hotaru’s mother (Kimiko Yo) is not keen to resume custody of her son (or rather, her husband to be has no desire to raise another man’s child and even goes so far as to use physical violence on Mitsuru to show the strength of his feeling). Hotaru starts to grow attached to the two detectives who are probably giving him the most normal kind of family life that he has known for a very longtime. The guys seem to know they can’t keep him indefinitely and are intent on finding another relative but the mini family they’ve formed may be painful to break up.

While all of this is going on, Mitsuru also has a series of meetings with a woman from Tokyo, Eiko (Tomoyo Harada), who keeps bumping into him. Though an obvious attraction develops, Eiko is also fleeing her own kind of trouble and the pair seem content to leave things up to fate and possible drinks in Tokyo at an unspecified point in time, but this oddly integrated plot strand fails to have a real impact within the narrative as a whole. It does, however, add to Mitsuru’s ongoing existential dilemma as he begins to reexamine his life and relationships after bonding with Hotaru. Ultimately he opts for asking his partner, Hiasashi, to move in with him when they get back to Tokyo but at the same time Mitsuru seems to know he may be headed for another destination entirely.

This tonal strangeness is a serious weakness where would expect a more nihilistic atmosphere as Mitsuru’s journey begins to take shape but the inconsequential humour and mildly absurdist approach continues right until the anticlimactic ending. Perhaps feeling a need to recreate the feeling of the TV series, Sakamoto fails to reconcile these differing levels of seriousness into a convincing whole in allowing for the kind of light and breezy action in which everything is definitely going to be OK by next week’s episode. For what’s actually a look at neglected, abandoned children coupled with intense friendships and romantic dilemmas, the bouncy, ridiculous tone is an odd fit and robs the piece of its dramatic weight. Nevertheless, despite the structural problems, Injured Angels is often a fairly enjoyable, if odd, character drama even it ultimately fails to amount to very much as a whole.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Goodbye for Tomorrow (あした, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1995)

goodbye for tomorrowAfter completing his first “Onomichi Trilogy” in the 1980s, Obayashi returned a decade later for round two with another three films using his picturesque home town as a backdrop. Goodbye For Tomorrow (あした, Ashita) is the second of these, but unlike Chizuko’s Younger Sister or One Summer’s Day which both return to Obayashi’s concern with youth, Goodbye For Tomorrow casts its net a little wider as it explores the grief stricken inertia of a group of people from all ages and backgrounds left behind when a routine ferry journey turns into an unexpected tragedy.

Three months after nine people were drowned when a local ferry sank in the harbour, friends and relatives of the dead begin to receive messages signed by their loved ones instructing them to be at a small island at midnight. Cruel joke or not, each of the still grieving recipients makes their way to the boathouse, clutching the desperate hope that the dead will really return to them. Sure enough, on the stroke of midnight the ghostly boat rises from the ocean floor bringing a collection of lost souls with it, but its stay is a temporary one – just long enough to say goodbye.

Obayashi once again begins the film with an intertile-style message to the effect that sometimes meetings are arranged just to say goodbye. He then includes two brief “prequel” sequences to the contemporary set main narrative. The first of these takes place ten years previously in which a boy called Mitsugu throws a message wrapped around a rock into a school room where his friend Noriko is studying. We then flash forward to three months before the main action, around the time of the boat accident, where an assassination attempt is made on the life of a local gangster in a barber shop. At first the connection between these events is unclear as messages begin to arrive in innovative ways in the film’s “present”. After a while we begin to realise that the recipients of the messages are so shocked to receive them because they believe the senders to be dead.

At three months since the sinking, the grief is still raw and each of our protagonists has found themselves trapped in a kind of inertia, left alone so suddenly without the chance to say goodbye. The left behind range from a teenager whose young love story has been severed by tragedy, a middle aged man who lost a wife and daughter and now regrets spending so much time on something as trivial as work, a middle aged trophy wife and the colleague who both loved a successful businessman, two swimmers with unresolved romances, and the yakuza boss who lost his wife and grandson. For some the desire is to join their loved ones wherever it is that they’re going, others feel they need to live on with double the passion in the name of the dead but they are all brought together by a need to meet the past head on and come to terms with it so that they can emerge from a living limbo and decide which side of the divide they need to be on.

Aside from the temporary transparency of the border between the mortal world and that of the dead, the living make an intrusion in the form of the ongoing yakuza gang war. The Noriko (Kaori Takahashi) from the film’s prequel sequence also ends up at the meeting point through sheer chance, as does the Mitsugu (Yasufumi Hayashi), now a gangster and charged with the unpleasant task of offing the old man despite his longstanding debt of loyalty to him. These are the only two still living souls brought together by an unresolved message bringing the events full circle as they achieve a kind of closure (with the hope of a new beginning) on their frustrated childhood romance.

The other two hangers on, an ambitious yakuza with a toothache played by frequent Obayashi collaborator Ittoku Kishibe, and a lunatic wildcat sociopath played by the ubiquitous Tomorowo Taguchi, are more or less comic relief as they hide out in the forrest confused by the massing group of unexpected visitors who’ve completely ruined their plot to assassinate the old yakuza boss and assume control of the clan. However, they too are also forced to face the relationship problems which bought them to this point and receive unexpected support from the boss’ retuned spouse who points out that this situation is partly his own fault for failing to appreciate the skills of each of his men individually. The boss decides to make a sacrifice in favour of the younger generation but his final acts are those of forgiveness and a plea for those staying behind to forget their differences and work together.

Revisiting Obayashi’s frequent themes of loss and the need to keep living after tragedy strikes, Goodbye For Tomorrow is a melancholy character study of the effects of grief when loved ones are taken without the chance for goodbyes. Aside from the earliest sepia tinged sequence, Obayashi plays with colour less than in his other films but manages to make the improbable sight of the sunken boat rising from the bottom of the sea genuinely unsettling. The supernatural mixes with the natural in unexplained ways and Obayashi even makes room for The Little Girl Who Conquered Time’s Tomoyo Harada as a mysterious spirit of loneliness, as well as a cameo for ‘80s leading man Toshinori Omi. The Japanese title of the film simply means “tomorrow” which gives a hint as to the broadly positive sense of forward motion in the film though the importance “goodbye” is also paramount. The slight awkwardness of the English title is therefore explained – saying goodbye to yesterday is a painful act but necessary for tomorrow’s sake.


 

The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (時をかける少女, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1983)

Little Girl Who Conquered TImeThe Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a perennial favourite in its native Japan. Yasutaka Tsutsui’s original novel was first published back in 1967 giving rise to a host of multimedia incarnations right up to the present day with Mamoru Hosoda’s 2006 animated film of the same name which is actually a kind of sequel to Tsutsui’s story. Arguably among the best known, or at least the best loved to a generation of fans, is Hausu director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1983 movie The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (時をかける少女, Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo) which is, once again, a Kadokawa teen idol flick complete with a music video end credits sequence.

As in the novel, the story centres around regular high school girl Kazuko Yoshiyama (Tomoyo Harada). She has two extremely close male friends (generally a recipe for disaster, or at least for melodrama but this is not that kind of story) – Horikawa and Fukamachi, and one Saturday while all three are charged with cleaning up the schoolroom, Kazuko ventures into the science lab where she sees a beaker on the floor emitting thick white smoke which smells strongly of lavender causing her to pass out. Everyone seems to think it’s either hunger, anaemia, or that old favourite “woman’s troubles” but from this day on Kazuko’s life begins to change. The same day repeats itself over and over again with minor differences and Kazuko also begins to experience multilayered dreams in which her friends are in some kind of peril.

Tsutsui’s original novel was a Kadokawa Shoten property (though first published 15 years previously) which made it a natural fit for the Kadokawa effect so when legendary idol master Haruki Kadokawa found an idol he was particularly taken with in Tomoyo Harada the stars aligned. Obayashi set the story in his own hometown, the pleasantly old fashioned port village of Onomichi, which adds a nicely personal feel to his take on the original story. Although The Little Girl Who Conquered Time is an adaptation of a classic novel, many of Obayashi’s regular concerns are present from the wistful tone to the transience of emotion and the importance of memory.

Kazuko is another of Obayashi’s young women at a crossroads as she finds herself wondering what to do with the rest of her life. The original timeline seems to point to a romance and possibly a life of pleasant, if dull, domesticity with one of her best friends but with this time travelling intrusion everything diverges. Though assured that she will not remember most of the strange events that have been happening to her, something of her adventures seems to have stuck in Kazuko’s mind even if she couldn’t quite say why. Much to the consternation of her mother, Kazuko’s purpose in life begins to lean to towards the scientific rather than the romantic, almost as if she’s waiting for the return of someone whom she has no recollection of having met.

Obayashi once again uses conflicting colour schemes to anchor his story. Beginning with black and white as Kazuko has her first encounter with someone she’s known all her life under the brightly shining stars, he gradually re-introduces us to the “real” world through sporadically adding colour during her bus ride home to her small town which does have a noticeably more old fashioned aesthetic when compared to Tokyo set features of the era. The effects are highly stylised and very much of their time including the celebrated time travel sequence which has Kazuko framed by a neon blue halo. The most touching sequence occurs near the end of the film in which Kazuko crosses paths with a familiar face that she doesn’t quite recognise, the camera perspective actively changes physically pulling us away from the encounter until Kazuko turns around and walks away in the opposite direction and into yet another empty corridor.

Tomoyo Harada developed into a fine actress with a long standing and successful career in both television and feature films as well as releasing a number of full length albums. As is usual with this kind of film she also sings the theme tune which has the same title as the movie though in an unusual movie Obayashi includes a music video retelling of the events of the film over the end credits featuring all of the cast helping Harada to perform the song with silly grins on their faces all the way through. Harada proves herself much more adept at convincingly carrying a feature length movie than some of her fellow idols but the same cannot be said for many of her co-stars though she is well backed up by established adult cast members including Ittoku Kishibe as Kazuko’s romantically distressed teacher.

The Little Girl Who Conquered Time is first and foremost a Kadokawa idol movie and has all the hallmarks of this short lived though extremely successful genre. Necessarily very much of its time, the film has taken on an additional layer of nostalgic charm on top of that which has been deliberated injected into it. Nevertheless, in keeping with Obayashi’s other work The Little Girl Who Conquered Time has a melancholic, wistful tone which is sentimental at times but, crucially, always sincere.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s the famous music video for the title song (which is of course sung by Tomoyo Harada herself). English Subtitles!

Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):