Intolerance (空白, Keisuke Yoshida, 2021)

At times of tragedy it may be natural to look for someone to blame, as if being able to pin all of this pain and anger on a single source would somehow help you to accept it. But in other ways tragedy is just a confluence of circumstances that are either everyone’s fault or no one’s. How far back can you really trace the blame? There would be no end it. That’s perhaps the conclusion that the protagonists of Keisuke Yoshida’s Intolerance (空白, Kuhaku) eventually come to, realising that their attempts to blame others are often born of a desire to deny their own responsibility or else to protect something else they fear losing. 

At least that’s how it is for grizzled fisherman Mitsuru (Arata Furuta), a man well liked by no one. A rude and violent bully, he terrorises all around him not least his teenage daughter Kanon (Aoi Ito) who is meek and passive with a slightly ethereal quality as if she’s learned that blending into the background is the best way to protect herself. Stopping in to a local convenience store on her way home from school, she’s accosted by resentful store manager Naoto (Tori Matsuzaka) who grabs her by the arm and accuses her of shoplifting nail polish. At some point, Kanon panics and bolts out of the store. Naoto chases her along a busy highway until she suddenly darts out into the road trying to get away from him and is hit first by a car driven by a young woman and then by a truck travelling in the opposite direction. Despite his gruff exterior, Mitsuru is quite clearly destroyed by his daughter’s death but becomes fixated on clearing her name of the shoplifting, insisting that he never saw her wear any makeup and that Naoto is to blame for her death in acting with such a heavy hand. 

Of course, it doesn’t occur to Mitsuru that Kanon may have worn makeup in secret and made sure to keep it from him knowing how he’d likely react. Likewise, perhaps she ran from the store because Naoto would have called her father and she was frightened of what he’d do if he found out she was caught pilfering, and pilfering nail polish at that. He remembers that she wanted to talk to him about something to do with school the night before she died but he didn’t listen, assuming she must have been being bullied and was forced to steal the nail polish only to hear that no one at school really even remembers her. She was a just a vague presence they can’t even quite identify. Her teacher meanwhile begins to reproach herself, realising that she failed in her duty of care repeatedly shouting at Kanon that she had “no motivation” rather than trying to help her find some or to get along in her own way, let alone figuring out what caused her to behave the way she did or if there were problems at home. Sick of Mitsuru’s belligerence the school finally set him on the new target of Naoto who was once accused of molesting a teenage girl he accused of shoplifting. 

Like Kanon, Naoto is a slightly hollow presence who also had a strained relationship with his father. As he lay dying, Naoto failed to answer his calls because he was playing pachinko and felt ashamed, afraid of another lecture from his dad about wasting his life on gambling. He struggles with his role in Kanon’s death, on the one hand guilty feeling he overreacted and inadvertently caused her to stray into harm’s way while otherwise resentful, justifying himself that it’s only natural for a storeowner to chase a shoplifter down the street. Both he and Mitsuru soon fall foul of a media culture that likes sympathetic victims and heartless villains, the media shocked by Mitsuru’s boorish behaviour but more so by Naoto’s callous indifference trimming an otherwise nuanced statement to imply that he feels his supermarket is the real victim as customers stay away or else issue complaints about their obviously heavy-handed shoplifter policy. 

“Imposing your own views on others is nothing more than torture” Naoto tells a well-meaning middle aged woman whose narcissistic cheerfulness is a neat mirror of Mitsuru’s intimidating aggression. Aggressively mothered by Kusakabe (Shinobu Terajima), Naoto carries an additional burden of guilt in realising he’s lost the store his father left to him, but she embarks on a tasteless “real victim” campaign insisting they did nothing wrong and it’s all Kanon’s fault for stealing in the first place. Kusakabe can’t bear to lose the store because it seems there’s not much else in her life. The film’s Japanese title translates as “blank” or “void” and it is indeed a void that Kusakabe is trying to fill in needing to feel needed by centring herself in her various volunteer activities such as working at a soup kitchen in addition to her crusade to save the store. 

It’s this giant abyss of grief and guilt which pulls each of them towards the edge, but in the end there’s really no way to apportion blame. The poor woman who first knocked Kanon down is completely undone by the experience though it really wasn’t her fault, repeatedly approaching Mitsuru asking for his forgiveness only to be cruelly rebuffed. It’s her mother’s (Reiko Kataoka) quiet show of dignity which stands in such stark contrast to his own white hot rage that finally forces him to realise the destructive quality of his intimidating behaviour, accepting his responsibility in his daughter’s death while understanding that in his fierce desire to control he robbed himself of the ability to know her. Really you can’t say whose fault it was, Mitsuru’s for the fear he instilled into his daughter, Naoto’s for his insecurity and misplaced zeal in hunting down a thief, the drivers’ for failing to brake, Kanon’s mother’s (Tomoko Tabata) for remarrying and having another child, the teacher’s for making Kanon feel useless, the other kids’ for rejecting her, or Kanon’s own for darting out into the road. For each of those there are a hundred other branches. There would be no end to it. But then, the strange thing is that Kanon shares her name with Buddhist deity of mercy, Mitsuru beginning to soften now willing to offer an apology where it’s due and to bear his own degree of guilt if not yet entirely able to forgive. In any case, ending in bright sunshine, Yoshida concludes with a return of the gaze between father and daughter that suggests forgiveness may indeed have arrived. 


Intolerance screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Yuichiro Hirakawa, 2012)

If you had the opportunity to reunite with someone no longer here for a single night, would you take it? The young hero of Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Tsunagu) is beginning to wonder whether or not it’s a good thing to be able to converse with the dead, if some people regret their choice to meet again, and if it’s better to just move on accepting that there will always be unanswered questions at the end of a life. Arriving shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Hirakawa’s moving drama is a meditation on grief and living with loss, but also on life and legacy and everything it means to be alive. 

High schooler Ayumi (Tori Matsuzaka) is being apprenticed by his grandmother Aiko (Kirin Kiki) to become a “connector” able to meet with spirits of the dead. As he explains to his potential clients, each person is allowed to meet only one other from the other side for one time only and should the deceased decline the invitation the petitioner will not be permitted to make another. If all goes to plan, Ayumi sets up a meeting at a fancy hotel where the pair can stay until dawn on the night of a full moon. Obviously this is not exactly a well publicised activity and the first customer Ayumi meets, Hatada (Kenichi Endo), is reluctant to trust him assuming it’s some kind of scam no better than an end of the pier clairvoyant despite repeated assurances that they accept no money and even the hotel expenses are covered.  

Tellingly, in the first reunions which we see the deceased does not tell the living anything they did not already know, Hatada claiming that he wanted to talk to his mother to find out where she put the deeds for their house only for her to tell him he already knows where they are and obviously had some other reason for wanting to see her. Even Aiko admits that she can’t be sure she’s really summoning the spirit of the deceased, Ayumi wondering if they really call someone back from the other side or if it’s more like the memories of a person who is no longer alive that have remained in the world are pulled back to together building a composite picture of someone as others saw and remembered them. He isn’t sure if what they’re doing is ethical, or if some people might wish they’d never chosen to meet again. The subject of another meeting, a young woman who died while presumed missing, is uncertain whether to meet her former boyfriend on hearing that he had spent the last few years waiting for her return realising that the her that had remained in him will die when he is forced to accept her death but deciding it’s worth it so that they both can achieve some closure and he can perhaps begin to move on. 

Moving on is something Ayumi is himself struggling to do, presented with the option of setting up a meeting of his own before he prepares to take over from his grandmother as the connector while meditating on the deaths of his parents wondering if he should meet one of them and simply ask why they left him behind. Meanwhile, he also finds himself proximate to death when a classmate is killed in a traffic accident, her guilt-stricken friend unknowingly asking for his services though for less than altruistic reasons worried her friend may use the service to tell others about their falling out. She’s fond of repeating the phrase that you regret more the things you didn’t do than the things you did though her reunion turns out to have a sting in the tail she may not have been expecting hinting at the bad outcomes Aiko had also warned were possible in such emotionally fraught situations. 

The conclusion that he comes to is to embrace the true nature of his calling as a connector hearing that Aiko only got the power from her brother (Tatsuya Nakadai) to keep her connected to the family while she later gave it to her son for the same reason only to harbour a sense of guilt that her imperfect instruction may have contributed to his death. Learning to see with his heart, Ayumi comes to understand that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there discovering a source of comfort in the feeling of someone gently watching over those below while accepting that perhaps it doesn’t matter if the reunions are real or illusionary because their true purpose is to comfort those left behind. A gentle meditation on grief and living with loss, Hirakawa’s quietly moving film eventually makes the case for growing old happily with no regrets living to the full until the break of dawn.


Until the Break of Dawn streamed as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2021)

“The Showa era’s over. We don’t use guns now, business is our battlefield.” a recently released foot soldier is told, finding himself in a whole new world emerging from a not so distant past of turf wars and street scuffles into a late bubble wonderland of besuited corporatised gangsters. Set in 1988, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Blood of Wolves had been about the twilight of post-war gangsterdom forever associated with an era that was literally about to pass. Set three years later in the twilight of the bubble economy and an already established Heisei, Last of the Wolves (孤狼の血 LEVEL2, Koro no chi: Level 2) finds no longer rookie cop Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) taking on the mantle of his late mentor Ogami, attempting to broker peace by getting uncomfortably close to yakuza. 

At the end of the previous film, Hioka had managed to engineer a truce between rival gangs Odani (with whom he is affiliated), and Irako through pushing top Odani guy Ichinose to take out boss Irako. Three years later, the peace has held and in any case Heisei yakuza no longer take violence to the streets. The release of crazed Irako foot soldier Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki), however, threatens to destabilise the local balance of power. Despite mournfully declaring that he doesn’t intend to wind up back in prison, Uebayashi’s first call on release is to the sister of one of his guards whom he rapes and kills in quite gruesome fashion. Hioka is put on the case and partnered with a genial veteran, Seshima (Yoshiko Miyazaki), weirdly excited about investigating a murder at this late stage of his career, but quickly realises that Uebayashi’s recklessness is primed to destroy everything he’s built. 

Having started out a straightlaced rookie, Hioka has fully incorporated the Ogami persona dressing in sharp suits and sunshades, driving a sports car, and hanging out with the Odani guys, while also using his girlfriend’s little brother Chinta (Nijiro Murakami) as a mole in rival gangs. As a cynical reporter points out, however, Ogami was essentially “undercover” in that he understood hobnobbing with yakuza was part of his job and something he did solely to keep civilians safe by preventing another street war. Hioka has started to lose his way, enjoying himself a little too much and already way out of his depth as the fragile peace he’d brokered by less than ethical means begins to crumble beneath his feet. 

Having been in prison, Uebayashi is unaware of the various ways in which the world has changed seeking to return to old school rules of gangsterdom, ironically lecturing his superiors on the absence of jingi (honour and humanity) in their new corporate existence. He’s a monster and a sadist, but his violence is also a result of the horrific abuse he suffered as a child which led to an equally heinous act of revenge while as a member of the ethnic Korean Zainichi community, like Chinta and his siblings, he continually faces discrimination and social oppression. His first act on release is of revenge against the guards who relentlessly tortured him in prison, the murdered woman’s brother confessing that they wrote him up as a model prisoner in the hope he’d be released early so they wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.  

Yet what Hioka and Uebayashi have in common is that they’re both pawns in a game they were unaware was being played. As it turns out the police corruption Hioka discovered during the previous film did not go away, and in certain senses they liked things the way they were before. Hioka’s truce is very bad for business for a certain subset at least. They might be minded to let a dangerous killer go loose if it disrupts Hioka’s attempt to suppress the criminal underworld to manageable levels. Mimicking the classic jitsuroku, Shiraishi throws in occasional voiceover from an anonymous narrator along with freeze frame and montage while skewing still darker in the levels of depravity among these desperate men fighting over the scraps of a world already in terminal decline even as the bubble seems fit to burst. Shiraishi ends on a note of change with the institution of the organised crime laws which have contributed to the ongoing decline of the yakuza, a relic of the Showa era unfit and unwelcome in the modern society, but also discovers that for good or ill there may yet be wolves in Japan.


Last of the Wolves screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Hello World (ハロー・ワールド, Tomohiko Ito, 2019)

“Hello World” is a phrase familiar to many as the first line of text given to a new program. It signals firstly that the code is functioning correctly, but also expresses a sense of excitement and positivity as if a new entity were standing on the shores of an unfamiliar land eager for adventure. Tomohiko Ito’s sci-fi-inflected anime carefully places the phrase not at its beginning but at its conclusion, affirming that the hero has managed to step into himself, discover his place, and come to an understanding that grants him a sense of agency and possibility in a brand new world that is in a sense of his own creation and choosing. 

Before all that, however, Naomi Katagaki (Takumi Kitamura) is a textbook “regular high school boy” who fears he is just an extra in his own life quietly reading away at the back of the classroom and last in line in the dinner queue. Reading a self-help book on becoming more assertive helps less than he might have hoped, but two changes are slowly introduced into his life albeit passively the first being he is press-ganged onto the library committee and the second that he is approached by a strange man who claims to be himself a decade older. Future Naomi (Tori Matsuzaka) claims not to have come from another time but from “reality”, explaining that the world Naomi currently inhabits is a simulacrum designed to perfectly preserve the city of Kyoto as a digital archive housed inside supercomputer Alltale which has infinite memory. His older self tells him that he is fated to fall in love with classmate Ruri (Minami Hamabe) but she will then be killed by a lightning strike at a festival in three months’ time. Though their actions will have no effect on the “real” world, Future Naomi claims it’s enough for him to “save” Ruri even if it’s only virtually seemingly caring little that he will in fact be completely ruining the Chronicle Kyoto project by introducing a note of the inauthentic perfectly primed for the butterfly effect. 

In any case, what Naomi eventually discovers is that you can’t always trust “yourself” especially if you’re apparently merely data and therefore perhaps infinitely expendable. Young Naomi doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the revelation that his world is not “real”, and is perhaps overly trusting of his new mentor’s guidance following his instructions to the letter in accordance with the “Ultimate Manual” he’s been given to facilitate his romance with Ruri whom he originally claims not to fancy because like many immature teenage boys he only likes “cute” girls like transfer student Misuzu (Haruka Fukuhara) who literally sparkles while Ruri is like him a wallflower obsessed with books, shy and with an aloof, slightly intense aura. What Future Naomi offers him is pure male adolescent fantasy wish fulfilment in gifting him both the means for romantic success and literal superpowers in the form of the Hand of God which allows him to conjure objects from the digital world and will apparently help to save Ruri from her cruel fate.

The universe, however, has other plans. Soon enough he’s being chased by the forces of order, Homeostasis System Droids, trained to eliminate and correct inconsistencies in data appearing as oversize policemen in kitsune masks. Nothing in Naomi’s world makes much concrete sense, even as he’s been told he’s the creation of a simulacrum. Why would Future Naomi fetch up three months before the accident to train him rather than simply altering code, why would someone bother to create these universal super powers, and what exactly are the connections between this world and the “real” from which Future Naomi claims to have come? Some of this might well be explained by a final twist which turns everything we thought we knew upside down, implying perhaps that the gaps and contradictions we see are down to the vagaries of analogue rather than digital memory mixed with trauma both physical and emotional. Nevertheless, it turns out that Naomi’s mission is less to save Ruri than to save himself twice over, allowing Future Naomi to find an accommodation with the traumatic past while essentially giving birth to a “new world” of adulthood in which he is the fully actualised protagonist rather than the bit-playing extra he’s always believed himself to be. 

Featuring character designs by Kyoto Animation stalwart Yukiko Horiguchi, Hello World’s 3D animation fusion of 2D reality and the digital realm makes for interesting production design as Naomi’s world eventually crumbles around him in multi-coloured pixel while he’s chased by giant neon hands under an angry red sky. Nevertheless, its wilful incoherence often proves frustrating even if its myriad plot holes might be explained in part by the final revelation which itself introduces another note of bafflement in its parting scene. Asking some minor questions about the collection, use, and storage of personal data, archival practice, the limits of digital technology, and the nature of “reality”, Hello World is nevertheless a coming of age romance at heart in which the hero saves himself twice over while learning to rediscover a sense of wonder in future possibility.


Hello World streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Journalist (新聞記者, Michihito Fujii, 2019)

The Journalist poster 2In these days of “fake news” and misinformation, a robust press is more important than ever. In Japan, however, the news media institution has long been decried as toothless, if not actually in league with the ruling regime. A timely and appropriately exasperated conspiracy thriller, Michihito Fujii’s The Journalist (新聞記者, Shinbun kisha) is inspired by the non-fiction book by newspaper reporter Isoko Mochizuki who makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the film and has herself been singled out as “problematic” by politicians unused to being held to account and objecting to her intensive interview technique.

Mochizuki’s fictionalised stand in, Erika Yoshioka (Shim Eun-kyung), is a rookie reporter who grew up in America with her Japanese journalist father and Korean mother. Following her father’s “suicide” she returned to Japan and is currently working for Toto News where she receives a mysterious fax containing information about a suspicious government plan to found a new medical university.

Meanwhile, idealistic former international diplomat Sugihara is on temporary secondment to CIRO (Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office) – a secretive organisation set up under the occupation to mirror the US’ CIA but often criticised for acting like a secret police force and expending too much effort on spying on ordinary Japanese citizens on Japanese soil rather than gathering useful international intelligence. Sugihara (Tori Matsuzaka) finds himself conflicted in his new work, the first assignment of which is handling a smear campaign against a young woman (clearly inspired by the Shiori Ito case) who has accused a high ranking journalist close to the government of rape. A married man with a baby on the way, he fears rocking the boat but resents his complicity with such obvious government finagling and failure to counter the misogynistic narrative that passes for office banter.

When his former mentor, Kanzaki (Kazuya Takahashi), commits suicide, no longer able to live with his compromises, Sugihara begins to reconsider his decision not to go against his superiors but finds it difficult to countenance “betraying” his organisation even in the knowledge that they are no longer working in the best interests of the people. Yoshioka, with whom he eventually bonds after witnessing her sympathetic treatment of Kanzaki’s bereaved daughter, may in some senses be better placed to resist given her overseas upbringing. Where Sugihara and the news media at large struggle with the idea of standing up to authority, Yoshioka is keen to sell the ideals of journalistic integrity, insisting that a robust press is essential in holding power to account.

Meanwhile, she finds herself a lone voice adrift in the largely patriarchal world of Japanese news media. Leaving the press conference called by the woman accusing the government crony of rape, she stops to tell off a pair of journalists making sexist comments but receives only a brief eye roll before they walk away laughing. She also finds herself resented by her colleagues for pointing out that their hounding of Kanzaki’s bereaved wife and daughter at his funeral is insensitive and inappropriate, but refuses to back down in fierce determination to do what is right even if it is not popular.

Meanwhile, Sugihara’s odious boss Tada (Tetsushi Tanaka) is desperately trying to keep a grip on power from the shadows. He uses Sugihara’s conflicted loyalties against him, subtlety reminding him that he has a wife and newborn daughter to whom he has a greater responsibility, and insisting that there is no “shame” in complicity when it comes to maintaining “the illusion of democracy”. CIRO, it has to be said, does not come out of this well as it wilfully does the government’s dirty work – covering up the indiscretions of “valuable” politicians and their relatives in order to avoid the unpleasant chaos of unwelcome political scandals. Kanzaki’s compromises left him a broken and defeated man, Sugihara wonders what kind of man his daughter would think him to be if he too just went along with the government line and enabled their subversion of democracy solely for personal and economic security.

The press may be waking up, but The Journalist’s chief takeaway is that change comes when enough people find the courage to keep saying no. As the ending implies, the battle is far from over but it has perhaps begun thanks to the efforts of those like Mochizuki and her filmic counterpart Yoshioka as well as the courage of whistleblowers like Sugihara who risk personal ruin merely for speaking out. A timely, urgent defence of press freedom in the face of tightening authoritarianism, The Journalist is an all too plausible conspiracy thriller in which the last guardians of liberal democracy are the nails which refuse to be hammered down.


The Journalist screens in New York on July 27 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yurigokoro (ユリゴコロ, Naoto Kumazawa, 2017)

Yurigokoro posterThose who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, as they say, but is it better to acknowledge the dark parts of yourself as part of an inherited legacy or ignore a nagging sense of incompleteness in favour of a harmonious existence? The hero at the centre of Naoto Kumazawa’s Yurigokoro (ユリゴコロ), adapted from the mystery novel by Mahokaru Numata, is about to discover a side of himself he might not like just as storm clouds seem to gather over his previously idyllic childhood home.

For Ryosuke (Tori Matsuzaka), everything had been looking up. He’d set up his own business – a charming cafe and summer lodge, with the woman he intended to marry, Chie (Nana Seino). However, no sooner has he introduced his fiancée to his father than she disappears, gone without trace. Meanwhile, his father informs him that he has stage four pancreatic cancer. Suddenly everything is falling apart and the braver the face he tries to put on it, the worse he seems to feel. Perhaps that’s why he can’t resist opening up a mysterious old box hidden in a cupboard in his father’s study that almost calls out to him to be opened. Inside the box is an old exercise book with the title “Yurigokoro” pencilled on the front. Ryosuke only reads the first few pages but they’re enough to disturb and fascinate him. The book, written in the first person, recounts the dark history of a murderess (Yuriko Yoshitaka) from silent, disconnected child to vengeful spirit.

“Yurigokoro” as the diary’s protagonist later explains is a made-up word, one she childishly misheard from the mouth of a well meaning doctor (who probably meant “yoridokoro” which means something like grounding). It could, however, almost translate as a shaking heart – something the doctor seems to imply the child does not quite have which is why she feels disconnected from the world around her and unable, or unwilling, to speak. The girl in the book travels through life looking for something that makes her heart beat and originally finds it only in the strange pleasure of watching something die, at first by accident and later by design. She drifts into an intense relationship with a damaged young woman (Aimi Satsukawa) who, like her in a fashion at least, resorts to self harm in order to feel alive. She thinks she finds her home, but it slips away from her or perhaps changes in form as it succumbs to inevitable disappointment.

Yet, in the grownup crimes at least, there is a kind of love in amongst grudging resentment. Ryosuke reads the diary and declares he does not relate to it at all but something about it gets under his skin and he can’t let it rest. He hears from an older woman (Tae Kimura) that Chie may have a past he knew nothing about, largely because he failed to ask, and that she may be in danger. He begins to feel rage surfacing within him like the dark violence of the diary’s protagonist and it both frightens and enthrals him.

The owner of the diary likens her experience of existing in the world to being prickled by hundreds of tiny thorns. She seeks relief through bloodletting and violence, as if she could shake herself free of the tiny stings that remind her of nothing other than her sense of emptiness. Later she discovers that love too can shake the heart, but the old darkness remains and even the most positive of emotions may require an act of violence in order to sustain it. The diarist remains ambivalent, knowing that there is no salvation for her except death and that any attempt to stave off the darkness with light will eventually fail, but determined to cling on to her brief moment of wholeness however inauthentic for as long as it lasts.

Ryosuke, meanwhile, who’d apparently never sensed in himself the kind of gaping emptiness that the diary’s owner describes, is forced to wonder if the diary is legacy and destiny, if he too is destined to commit random acts of inescapable violence as someone unfit for living as a human being among other human beings. Love might not have “cured” the darkness inside the diarist, but it did change it in quite a fundamental way, a way that eventually provided him with the means of his “salvation” perhaps at the cost of her own if only he is willing to accept it. Ryosuke might wish he’d never opened that particular box, but in doing so he discovers not only the path towards a fully integrated self but that his own darkness can be tempered precisely because of the sacrifice that was made on his behalf.


Yurigokoro was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018)

korou_honpos_0220_fin.aiJapanese cinema, like American cinema, is one of the few in which the hero cop is a recognisable trope. Though they may be bumbling, inefficient, obsessed with bureaucracy, or perhaps just lazy, police in Japanese cinema are rarely corrupt or actively engaged in criminality. Even within the realms of the “jitsuroku” gangster movie, the police maintain a fringe presence, permitting the existence of the underground crime world in order to contain it. “Jitsuroku” is, in a fashion, where we find ourselves with Kazuya Shiraishi’s throwback underworld police story, The Blood of Wolves (孤狼の血, Koro no Chi). Set in 1988, the end of the Showa Era which had seen the rebirth of post-war Japan and the ascendency of yakuza thuggery, The Blood of Wolves is based on a novel by Yuko Yuzuki rather than a “true account” of life on the frontlines of gangsterdom, but otherwise draws inspiration from the Battles Without Honour series in updating the story of nihilistic yakuza violence to the bubble era.

In 1988, a young accountant “goes missing” sending his sister to ask the police for help in locating him. The case gets passed to sleazy detective Ogami (Koji Yakusho) and his new rookie partner, Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka). Ogami leers disturbingly at the dame who just walked into his office before dismissing the newbie and extracting a sexual favour from the distressed relative of the missing man. Unfortunately, the accountant turns up dead and the bank he worked for turns out to be a yakuza front caught up in a burgeoning gang war between the Odani with whom Ogami has long standing connections and the gang from the next town over who are looking to increase their territory.

Ogami, a chain smoking, hard drinking, womanising detective of the old school, has one foot in the yakuza world and the other on the side of law enforcement. Hioka, a recent graduate from the local but also elite Hiroshima University (something of a rarity in his current occupation), is not quite sure what to make of his new boss and his decidedly “unorthodox” methods, becoming increasingly concerned about the way the police force operates in a town defined by organised crime. Deciding that Ogami has gone too far, he eventually makes the decision to go to IA with a list of complaints but there’s still so much he doesn’t know about Hiroshima and it is possible he may have picked the wrong side.

What he discovers is that the police force is so intrinsically rotten as to have become little more than a yakuza gang itself, only one with the legal right to carry guns and a more impressive uniform. Ogami, for all his faults, apparently has his heart in the right place. His “friendships” with gangsters are more means to an end than they are spiritual corruption, gaining leverage that will help him keep a lid on gang war – after all, no one wants a return to the turbulent days of the 1970s when the streets ran red with the blood of unlucky foot soldiers and that of the civilians who got in their way. Meanwhile Hioka, starting out as the straight-laced rookie, is himself “corrupted” by the corruption he uncovers, developing a complex mix of disgust and admiration for Ogami’s practiced methods of manipulation which, apparently, place public safety above all else.

Ogami, as he tells the conflicted Hioka, knows he walks a tightrope every day, neatly straddling the line between cop and yakuza, and the only way to stay alive is to keep on walking knowing one slip may lead to his doom. He may say cops can do whatever they like in pursuit of “justice” (and he does), but Ogami has his lines that cannot be crossed, unlike others in his organisation who care only for themselves and have long since given up any pretence of working for the public good.

Shiraishi channels classic Fukasaku from the noticeably retro Toei logo at the film’s opening to the voice over narration, garish red on screen text, and frequent use of freeze frames familiar from the Battles Without Honour series and associated “jitsuroku” gangster fare that followed in its wake. Moving the action up to 1988, the gangster world is once again in flux as it tries to corporatise itself to get in on the profits of bubble era prosperity which largely has no need for the thuggish gangster antics of the chaotic post-war years in which the yakuza could paint itself as a defender of the poor and oppressed no matter how ridiculous it might have been in reality. Ogami is a dying breed, a relic of the Showa era meeting its natural end, but perhaps you need to be a wolf to catch a wolf and guardian spirits can come in unexpected forms.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Birds Without Names (彼女がその名を知らない鳥たち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2017)

Birds Without Names poster“Human beings are lonely by nature”, a statement offered by someone who could well think he’s lying but accidentally tells the truth in Kazuya Shiraishi’s Birds Without Names (彼女がその名を知らない鳥たち, Kanojo ga Sono Na wo Shiranai Toritachi). Loneliness, of an existential more than physical kind, eats away at the souls of those unable to connect with what it is they truly want until they eventually destroy themselves through explosive acts of irrepressible rage or, perhaps, of love. The bad look good and the good look bad but appearances can be deceptive, as can memory, and when it comes to the truths of emotional connection the sands are always shifting.

Towako (Yu Aoi), an unmarried woman in her 30s, does not work and spends most of her time angrily ringing up customer service departments to complain about things in the hope of getting some kind of compensation. She lives with an older man, Jinji (Sadao Abe) – a construction worker, who is completely devoted to her and provides both financial and emotional support despite Towako’s obvious contempt for him. Referring to him as a “slug”, Towako consistently rejects Jinji’s amorous advances and resents his, in her view, overly controlling behaviour in which he rings her several times a day and keeps general tabs on her whereabouts.

Depressed and on edge, Towako’s life takes a turn when she gets into a dispute with an upscale jewellery store over a watch repair and ends up beginning an affair with the handsome salesman who visits her apartment with a selection of possible replacements. Around the same time, Towako rings an ex-boyfriend’s number in a moment of weakness only to reconsider and hangup right away. The next day a policeman arrives and informs her that they’ve been monitoring her ex’s phone because his wife reported him missing five years ago and he’s not been seen since.

Towako views Jinji’s behaviour as possessive and his continuing devotion pathetic in his eagerness to debase himself for her benefit. Her sister Misuzu (Mukku Akazawa), however, thinks Jinji is good for her and berates Towako for her ill treatment of him. Despite the fact that Towako’s relationship with her ex, Kurosaki (Yutaka Takenouchi), ended eight years previously, Misuzu is paranoid Towako is still seeing him on the sly and will eventually try to get back together with him. Misuzu does not want this to happen because Kurosaki beat Towako so badly she landed in hospital, but despite this and worse, Towako cannot let the spectre of Kurosaki and the happiness promised in their earliest days go. She continues to pine for him, looking for other Kurosakis in the form of other handsome faces selling false promises and empty words.

Mizushima (Mukku Akazawa), the watch salesman, is just Towako’s type – something which Jinji seems to know when he violently pushes a Mizushima look-alike off a busy commuter train just because he saw the way Towako looked at him. Daring to kiss her when she abruptly starts crying while looking at his replacement watches, Mizushima spins her a line about an unhappy marriage and his craving for solitude which he sates through solo travel – most recently to a remote spot in the desert and cave they call an underground womb. Mizushima describes himself as a lonely soul and claims to have found a kindred spirit in Towako whose loneliness it was that first sparked his interest. Like all the men in the picture, Mizushima is not all he seems and there is reason to disbelieve much of what he says but he may well be correct in his assessment of Towako’s need for impossible connections with emotionally unavailable men who only ever cause her pain.

It just so happens that Kurosaki’s apparent disappearance happened around the time Towako began dating Jinji. Seeing as his behaviour is often controlling, paranoid and, as seen in the train incident, occasionally violent, Towako begins to suspect he may be involved in the mysterious absence of her one true love. Then again, Towako may well need protecting from herself and perhaps, as Misuzu seems to think, Jinji is just looking out for her. The deeper Jinji’s devotion descends, the more Towako’s contempt for him grows but the suspicion that he may be capable of something far darker provokes a series of strange and unexpected reactions in the already unsteady Towako.

A dark romance more than noirish mystery,  Birds Without Names takes place in a gloomy Osaka soaked in disappointment and post-industrial grime where the region’s distinctive accent loses its sometimes soft, comedic edge for a relentless bite in which words reject the connection they ultimately seek. Rejection, humiliation, degradation, and a hopeless sense of incurable loneliness push already strained minds towards an abyss but there’s a strange kind of purity in the intensity of selfless love which, uncomfortably enough, offers salvation in a final act of destruction.


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

Also screening at:

  • Firstsite (Colchester) 9 February 2018
  • HOME (Manchester) 12 February 2018
  • Watershed (Bristol) – 13 February 2018
  • Exeter Phoenix – 27 February 2018
  • Depot (Lewes) – 6 March 2018
  • Filmhouse (Edinburgh) – 8 March 2018

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mozu the Movie (劇場版MOZU, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

mozu-posterThe criticism levelled most often against Japanese cinema is its readiness to send established franchises to the big screen. Manga adaptations make up a significant proportion of mainstream films, but most adaptations are constructed from scratch for maximum accessibility to a general audience – sometimes to the irritation of the franchise’s fans. When it comes to the cinematic instalments of popular TV shows the question is more difficult but most attempt to make some concession to those who are not familiar with the already established universe. Mozu (劇場版MOZU) does not do this. It makes no attempt to recap or explain itself, it simply continues from the end of the second series of the TV drama in which the “Mozu” or shrike of the title was resolved leaving the shady spectre of “Daruma” hanging for the inevitable conclusion.

Six months on from the climatic events at the end of season two, Kuraki (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has become a drunk, Ohsugi (Teruyuki Kagawa) has left the force for the private sector, while Akeboshi (Yoko Maki) is still preoccupied with the strange phone calls she sometimes receives and the fate of her long lost father last seen on the deck of a sinking submarine. The dreams of the citizens of Tokyo are being haunted by the mysterious face of “Daruma”, but this is quickly superseded by an explosion in an office building which turns out to be a diversionary exercise as the autistic daughter of a refugee with diplomatic immunity is kidnapped by terrorists.

At this point, Kuraki appears at the scene, beats the bad guys into submission and rescues the girl, Elena, and her mother who are then taken into protective custody. However, things go south when Ohsugi’s daughter and Akeboshi are taken by the bad guys in the hope of an exchange forcing the gang to take Elena to a neighbouring Asian nation.

Mozu the movie suffers from many of the same problems which plagued the generally impressive TV series in its wildly inconsistent tone and increasingly convoluted, often bizarre plot twists. Assuming the audience will be familiar with the TV series, the film provides no recap, leaving the casual viewer completely lost amongst the numerous numbers of subplots held together by Kuraki’s need to find the answers behind the death of his wife at the site of a suicide bombing and the drowning of his daughter a year or so before. Likewise, Akeboshi’s familial concerns – her absentee father whose dark past was hinted at in the previous series and her close relationship with her two neices, is glossed over, as is Ohsugi’s ongoing battle to win back the respect of his teenage daughter. When a key character suddenly and quite unexpectedly appears to save the day (and then disappears again), the casual viewer has a right to be utterly baffled.

Where the central tone is one of cool noir supported by occasionally poetic camera work, Nishijima’s laid back minimalism gives way to broad, over the top villainy from Hasegawa’s Higashi as well as the punkish Mozu copycat who kickstarts the action. Kuraki remains an unbeatable super agent, taking out bad guys with well placed kicks to the chest and enduring numerous acts of torture whilst remaining doggedly fixed on his quest to find out the truth about his wife and a possible conspiracy plaguing Japanese society. Ohsugi is still the bumbling cop but equally committed to protecting his daughter while Akeboshi is underused, her slow burn romance with Kuraki simmering away in the background.

What remains is a collection of impressive action scenes and mysterious conversations offered with portentous seriousness. The purpose of Elena’s kidnapping is predictably grim yet reduced to a single sentence shortly before Kuraki apparently saves the day once again through undisclosed means. The central conspiracy in this conspiracy thriller, that Japan has been manipulated by a shadowy figure literally cannibalising his own children, fades into the background as Kuraki is left to affirm that all that remains now is chaos. Mozu the movie is season three with all the important bit stripped out – strange, confusing, and ultimately hollow. Yet for those well versed in the Mozu universe, it may provide a degree of closure to its ongoing mysteries, even if ultimately unsatisfying.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Death Note: Light Up The NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

Death Note- Light up the NEW WorldTsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata’s Death Note manga has already spawned three live action films, an acclaimed TV anime, live action TV drama, musical, and various other forms of media becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. A return to cinema screens was therefore inevitable – Death Note: Light up the NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World) positions itself as the first in a possible new strand of the ongoing franchise, casting its net wider to embrace a new, global world. Directed by Shinsuke Sato – one of the foremost blockbuster directors in Japan responsible for Gantz, Library Wars, and the zombie comedy I am a Hero, Light up the NEW World is a new kind of Death Note movie which moves away from the adversarial nature of the series for a more traditional kind of existential procedural which takes its cues from noir rather the eccentric detectives the franchise is known for.

Ten years after Kira, the Shinigami are bored out of their minds and hoping to find themselves a new puppet to play with and so they drop six notebooks at different places across the world and wait to see who picks them up. The first is a Russian doctor who uses it out of curiosity and compassion when faced with the desperate pleas of a suffering, terminally ill man. Others are not so altruistic, as a young girl with reaper eyes goes on a mass random killing spree in the busy Shibuya streets while the police attempt to cover their faces so they can’t fall victim to her relentless writing. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) of the special Death Note task force hesitates, uncertain whether he should disobey orders and shoot the girl to end her killing spree, but his dilemma is solved when a strangely dressed masked man appears and shoots her for him. He is special detective Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) – L’s successor, and a crucial ally in discovering the Shinigami’s intentions as well as the counter plan to obtain the six books and lock them away to permanently disable the Death Note threat.

As in the original series, Kira has his devotees including the cybercriminal Shien (Masaki Suda) who is intent on frustrating the police’s plan by getting his hands on the books and using them to complete Kira’s grand design. This time around, there’s less questioning of the nature of justice or of the police but at least that means there’s little respect given to Kira’s cryptofascist ideas about crime and punishment. At one point a very wealthy woman begins to voice her support of Kira because something needs to be done about “the poor” and all their “crimes” but she is quickly cut down herself as her well dressed friends attempt to rally around her.

The focus is the police, or more specifically their internal political disputes and divisions. Mishima, described as a Kira geek, heads a special squad dedicated to Death Note related crimes, where he is asssited by the flamboyant private detective Ryuzaki who is apparently the last remaining inheritor of L’s DNA. Mishima remains distrustful of his colleague but the bond between the rest of the team is a tight one. In order to frustrate possible Death Note users, none of the squad is using their real names which places a barrier between comrades in arms when it comes to building trust and solidarity in addition to leaving a backdoor open for unexpected secrets.

Sato’s focus, as it has been in the majority of his career, is genre rather than character or exploring the wider themes of the Death Note franchise from the corrupting influence of absolute power to vigilante justice and the failings of the judicial system. The new Death Note world is a more conventional one loyal to the police procedural in which dogged detectives chase mad killers through whatever means necessary whether on foot or online.

The action, however, is generally exciting as the police engage in a cat and mouse game with Shien even if not as complex as that between Kira and L. The Death Notes are an unstoppable force, corrupting otherwise fair-minded people and turning them into vengeful killing machines acting like gods in deciding who should live and who die. Moving away from the series trademark, Light up the NEW World is, essentially, the generic thriller spin-off to the main franchise but is no less fun for it even if it necessarily loses a little of itself in the process.


Death Note: Light up the NEW World was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)