Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Masahiro Takada, 2006)

honey and clover blu-rayAh youth! Chica Umino’s phenomenally popular manga Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Hachimitsu to Clover) is, essentially, a coming of age story in which love, requited and otherwise, plays a significant part. Masahiro Takada’s adaptation is no different in this respect as its central group of friends learn to come into themselves through various different kinds of heart break leading to soul searching and eventual self actualisation. The path to adulthood is rocky and strewn with anxieties, but has its own charms as our self branded Mr. Youth seems to have figured out, romanticising his own adolescence even while he lives it.

The action kicks off at an art college in Tokyo where a circle of friends is temporarily shaken by the arrival of a new student – a distant relative of a popular professor, Hanamoto (Masato Sakai). Our youth loving hero, Takemoto (Sho Sakurai), falls instantly in love with Hagu (Yu Aoi) – a genius self-taught painter with a dreamy, ethereal personality and negligible interpersonal skills. Hagu, however, seems to have developed a strange connection with conceited sculptor Morita (Yusuke Iseya) who continues to struggle with his conflicting interests in art and commerce. Meanwhile, geeky design student Mayama (Ryo Kase) has a problematic crush on his boss, Rika (Naomi Nishida), whose husband went missing some years ago, and has begun semi-stalking her. Unbeknownst to him, Mayama is also being semi-stalked by Yamada (Megumi Seki) – a spiky ceramicist who refuses to give up on her unrequited crush despite being fully aware of his one sided love for a brokenhearted middle-aged woman.

In actuality all of our protagonists are a little older than one might assume – all past the regular age for graduating college and either hanging around after being unable to complete their studies or pursuing additional training in the hope of furthering their art. They are all also hopelessly lost in terms of figuring out who they are – perhaps why they haven’t quite got a handle on their art, either. Hagu, younger than the others, seems to have an additional problem in existing outside of the mainstream, experiencing difficulties with communication and needing some additional help to get into the swing of college life. Perhaps for this reason, maverick professor Hanamoto palms her off on the “least arty” (read “most responsible”) of his students, Takemoto, who is tasked with accompanying her for meals – something for which he is quite grateful given his first brush with love on catching sight of her at her easel.

Hagu is also, however, the most sensitive and perceptive of the students even if she can only truly express herself through canvas. Her most instantaneous connection is with Morita, whose instinctive approach perhaps most closely mirrors her own though where Hagu is quiet and soulful, Morita is loud and impetuous. Watching him creating his centrepiece sculpture, Hagu is honest enough to tell Morita that he’s overdone it. Morita agrees but ends up exhibiting the piece anyway and not only that – he sells it for a serious amount of money despite knowing that it lacks artistic integrity. Hagu is unimpressed and her disapproval only adds to Morita’s sense of self loathing in his ambivalence towards to the fleeting rewards of superficial success versus the creation of artistic truth.

A similar sense of ambivalence imbues the romantic difficulties which neatly divide the group into a series of concentric love triangles. Takemoto, the selfless hero, realises the best thing he can do for Hagu is try to help Morita be less of a self-centred idiot while simultaneously dwelling on his fleeting youth and actively pursuing himself while debating whether or not to hit the road and leave his lovelorn friends to it. Mayama and Yamada, by contrast, are content to dance around each other, understanding the irony of their respective unreturned crushes while not quite bonding over them but both determined not to give up on their dreams (romantic and professional).

Despite the central positioning of our shy hero as he walks towards the end goal of being able to state his feelings plainly, the drama revolves around the enigmatic Hagu whose descent into an intense depression after an ill-advised moment on a beach is only eased by the careful attentions of her new friends finally realising that their artistic souls benefit from compassion for others rather than remaining solipsistically obsessed with their own romantic heartbreak. Despite its noble intentions, Honey and Clover misses the mark in charting the heady days of youth though our confused heroes do eventually manage to find themselves and each other along the road to adulthood as they chase down disappointments romantic and professional and discover what is they really want in the process.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン, SABU, 2005)

hold-up-downReteaming with popular boy band V6, SABU returns with another madcap caper in the form of surreal farce Hold Up Down (ホールドアップダウン). Holding up is, as usual, not on SABU’s roadmap as he proceeds at a necessarily brisk pace, weaving these disparate plot strands into their inevitable climax. Perhaps a little shallower than the director’s other similarly themed offerings, Hold Up Down mixes everything from reverse Father Christmasing gone wrong, to gun obsessed policemen, train obsessed policewomen, clumsy defrocked priests carrying the cross of frozen Jesus, and a Shining-esque hotel filled with creepy ghosts. Quite a lot to be going on with but if SABU has proved anything it’s that he’s very adept at juggling.

Christmas Eve – two guys hold up a bank whilst cunningly disguised as Santas, but emerging with the money they find their getaway car getting away from them on the back of a tow truck. Still dressed as Father Christmases, the guys head for the subway and decide to stash the cash in a coin locker only neither of them has any change. After robbing a busker at gunpoint for 800 yen, the duo get rid of the loot but the guy chases after them at which point they lose the key which the busker swallows after being hit by a speeding police car. Trying to cover up the crime the two policeman bundle him into the car but crash a short time later at which time the busker gets thrown in a lake and then retrieved by a defrocked priest under the misapprehension that he is Japanese Jesus!

Following SABU’s usual spiralling chase formula, events quickly escalate as one random incident eventually leads to another. Christmas is a time of romance in Japan, though encountering the love of your life during a bank robbery is less than ideal. After a love at first sight moment heralded by a musical cue, the thieves head back on the run with the girl in tow but the course of true love never did run smooth. If romance is one motivator – death is another. On this holiest of days, our defrocked priest is caught in a moment of despair, contemplating the ultimate religious taboo in taking his own life and ending the torment he feels in having failed God so badly. Therefore, when our scruffy hippy busker washes up right nearby he draws the obvious conclusion – Jesus has returned to save him! Attempting to make up for his numerous mistakes, the priest is determined to save and preserve his Lord, but, again, his clumsiness results in more catastrophes.

The situation resolves itself as each of the players winds up at the same abandoned hot springs resort which turns out to be not quite so closed down as everyone thought. Filled with ghostly charm, the gloomy haunted house atmosphere sends everyone over the edge as they thrash out their various issues as if possessed by madness. Culminating in a sequence of extreme slapstick in which everyone fights with everyone else and frozen Jesus plays an unexpectedly active part, Hold Up Down brings all of its surreal goings on to a suitably absurd conclusion in which it seems perfectly reasonable that those wishing to leave limbo land could take a 2.5hr bus trip back to the afterlife.

Pure farce and lacking the heavier themes of other SABU outings, Hold Up Down, can’t help but feel something of a lightweight exercise but that’s not to belittle the extreme intricacy of the plotting or elegance of its resolution. An innovativeIy integrated early fantasy sequence begins the voyage into the surreal which is completed in the strangely spiritual haunted house set piece as the disillusioned priest spends some time with congenial demons before attempting to make his peace with God only for it all to go wrong again. If there is a god here, it’s the Lord of Misrule but thankfully they prove a benevolent one as somehow everything seems to shake itself out with each of our troubled protagonists discovering some kind of inner calm as a result of their strange adventure, as improbable as it seems (in one way or another). Christmas is a time for ghost stories, after all, but you’ll rarely find one as joyful as Hold Up Down.


Scene from the end of the film:

Kabukicho Love Hotel (さよなら歌舞伎町, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2014)

165709_02Kabukicho Love Hotel (さよなら歌舞伎町, Sayonara Kabukicho), to go by its more prosaic English title, is a Runyonesque portrait of Tokyo’s red light district centered around the comings and goings of the Hotel Atlas – an establishment which rents by the hour and takes care not to ask too many questions of its clientele. The real aim of the collection of intersecting stories is more easily seen in the original Japanese title, Sayonara Kabukicho, as the vast majority of our protagonists decide to use today’s chaotic events to finally get out of this dead end town once and for all.

The first couple we meet, Toru and Saya are young and apparently in love though the relationship may have all but run its course. She’s a singer-songwriter chasing her artistic dreams while he longs for a successful career in the hotel industry. He hasn’t told her that far from working at a top hotel in the city, he’s currently slumming it at the Atlas. Our next two hopefuls are a couple of (illegal) Korean migrants – she wants to open a boutique, he a restaurant. She told him she works as a hostess (which he’s not so keen on but it pays well), but she’s a high class call girl well known to the staff at the Atlas. Our third couple are a little older – Satomi works at the Atlas as a cleaner but she has a secret at home in the form of her man, Yasuo, who can’t go outside because the couple is wanted for a violent crime nearly 15 years previously. In fact, in 48hrs the statute of limitations will pass and they can finally get on with their lives but until then Satomi will continue to check the wanted posters on the way to work. That’s not to mention the tale of the teenage runaway and the hard nosed yakuza who wanted to recruit her as a call girl but had a change of heart or the porn shoot on the second floor which stars a lady with an unexpected relationship to one of the hotel’s employees…

It’s all go in Kabukicho. The punters come (ahem), go and leave barely a mark save for the odd tragedy to remind you that this is the place nobody wanted to end up. In fact, the picture Hiroki paints of Kabukicho is the oddly realistic one of someone hovering on its fringes, acknowledging the darkness of the place but refusing to meet its eyes. Everybody is, or was, dreaming of something better – Toru with his job at a five star hotel and a sparkling career in hospitality, Satomi and her romance or the Korean couple who want to make enough money to go home and start again. In short, this isn’t the place you make your life – it’s the one you fall into after you’ve hit rock bottom and promptly want to forget all about after you’ve clawed your way out.

However, while you’re there, you’re invested in the idea of it not being all that bad, really. There’s warmth and humour among the staff at the hotel who treat this pretty much the same as any other job despite its occasional messiness. In fact, the agency for the which the Korean hopeful works is run by an oddly paternalistic “pimp” (this seems far to strong a word somehow) who sits around in an apron and chats, offering comfort and fatherly advice in between dispatching various pretty young girls off to any skeevy guy who wants to rent them for an hour or two.

That’s not to say anyone is happy here though, all anyone’s focussed on is getting out and by the end the majority of them decide it’s just not worth it and the time to leave is now. Kabukicho Love Hotel may be one of Hiroki’s most mainstream efforts (despite its far less frequent than you might expect though frank sexual content) but its overlong running time and its failure to fully unify its disperate ensemble stories make it a slightly flawed one. An interestingly whimsical black comedy that takes a humorous view of Kabukicho’s darkside, Kabukicho Love Hotel is perhaps one it’s fairly easy to check out of well before the end of your stay but does offer a few of its own particular charms over the duration of your visit.


Or perhaps, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave? We are all just prisoners here, of our own device….