Last Winter, We Parted (去年の冬、きみと別れ, Tomoyuki Takimoto, 2018)

Last Winter we Parted posterAmong the most promising young writers of Japan, the work of Fuminori Nakamura is, it has to be said, extremely dark. Adapted by Grasshopper’s Tomoyuki Takimoto, Last Winter We, We Parted (去年の冬、きみと別れ, Kyonen no Fuyu, Kimi to Wakare) is as poetic an exploration of the dark side of desire as its title implies. Parting is, it turns out, not so much sweet sorrow as a wrenching act of existential dissonance that requires an absenting of the self and the creation of a new dark entity rising from the ashes of a once pure soul.

The tale begins in flames as a blind model, Akiko (Kaho Tsuchimura), burns to death in the studio of a respected photographer, Kiharazaka (Takumi Saito). Kiharazaka claims the fire was an accident and that he tried to save the victim but was not able to. Others claim that Kiharazaka had kidnapped Akiko and held her prisoner before deliberately setting fire to her in order to photograph a body burning alive. Released on a suspended sentence, Kiharazaka remains the focus of media attention which is where freelance writer Yakumo (Takanori Iwata) enters the picture. He is convinced Akiko’s death was not an accident and fascinated by an eerily oppressive photograph taken by Kiharazaka has approached a mainstream news organisation with a pitch for a book profiling the famously enigmatic figure with the ulterior motive of exposing the darkness of his soul.

The exposure of the authentic is the concern that binds Yakumo and Kiharazaka in a mutually destructive act of artistic inquiry. Kiharazaka’s most famous and only real success of a photograph features a whirl of butterflies that feels oddly like drowning as if pulled towards something dark and oppressive. Like the butterflies he observed, Kiharazaka instils fear while beguiling, a good looking man who seems to make a habit of luring vulnerable women into his web of destruction with a promise of intimate recognition, that he alone is able to truly see them and bring their true selves to the surface in act of artistic connection. Inspired by Akutagawa’s Hell Screen, he photographs only what he sees but craves darkness and violence, eventually, as Yakumo fears, allowing his need for fiery visions of hellish brutality to push him into heinous acts of human cruelty.

Meanwhile, Yakumo searches for an explanation behind Kiharazaka’s unsettling nature, trying to expose his own true face through (ostensibly) less violent means. He discovers that Kiharazaka and his sister Akari (Reina Asami) were orphaned after a violent attack in their home during which they were also injured. He hears that they may have endured years of abuse and cruelty at the hands of their father and that both are in some way warped, locked into an incestuous world of pain and suffering. A high school friend warns him that Kiharazaka has a magpie-like tendency to steal the things of others and that Akiko probably had a boyfriend which is what made her sparkle to Kiharazaka’s monstrous eyes. Still, Yakumo dangles his own fiancée, Yuriko (Mizuki Yamamoto), in front of the dangerous man as if daring him to take her while Kiharazaka declares himself captivated by her failure to know her “true self” which only he can expose.

Of course, not all is as it seems and there are several layers of “truth” in play as Yakumo continues his investigation and becomes further entangled in the spiderweb of Kiharazaka’s warped existence. Later, hearing from Akiko, she reminds us that there are other ways of “seeing” and that in the end she was not the one who was “blind” to the reality. Akiko’s boyfriend lost her precisely because he feared doing so, became over protective and patronising, and ruined their true connection through an over anxious preoccupation with unseen threat. Love can constrain as well as liberate, it makes people do dark things in its name and provokes chaos and confusion in place of happiness and harmony. Like the butterflies it can beguile while instilling fear.

Yet that same darkness also fuels art as in Kiharazaka’s distressing photographs and Yakumo’s all encompassing need to fulfil his “dream” of becoming an author. Vengeance takes many forms but all of them are destructive and in order to achieve it, one must enact a murder of the self leaving nothing behind other than a burnt out husk once the bloody business is done. A wretched tale of inescapable torments, the legacy of violence, frustrated loves, and the dark side of desire, Last Winter, We Parted is a suitably poetic exploration of the nihilistic despair in the hearts of its corrupted heroes living for love but only through a spiritual death.


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.