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)

Her Love Boils Bathwater (湯を沸かすほどの熱い愛, Ryota Nakano, 2016)

her love boils bathwater

The “hahamono” or mother movie has gone out fashion in recent years. Yoji Yamada’s World War II melodrama Kabei or Keisuke Yoshida’s more contemplative examination of modern motherhood My Little Sweet Pea might be the best recent examples of this classic genre which arguably reached its golden age in the immediate post-war period with its tales of self-sacrificing mothers willing to do whatever it took to ensure the survival or prosperity of their often cold or ungrateful children. After “Capturing Dad” Ryota Nakano turns his attention to mum, or more precisely the nature of motherhood itself in a drama about family if not quite a “family drama” as a recently single mother is busy contending with financial hardship and a sullen teenage daughter when she’s suddenly caught off guard by a stage four cancer diagnosis.

Futaba (Rie Miyazawa) is an outwardly cheerful woman, the sort who’s always putting a brave face on things and faces her challenges head on, proactively and without the fear of failure. Her husband, Kazuhiro (Joe Odagiri), ran off a year ago and no one’s heard from him since. Having closed the family bathhouse Futaba works part-time at a local bakery and cares for her daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki) alone but when she collapses at work one day Futaba is forced to confront all those tell signs that something’s wrong she’s been too busy to pay attention to. Inevitably it’s already too late. Futaba has stage four cancer and there’s nothing to be done but Futaba is Futaba and so she has things to do while there’s still time.

Some people colour the air around them, instantly knowing how to make the world a better place for others if not quite for themselves, except by extension. Futaba is one such person – the personification of idealised maternity whose instinctual, altruistic talent for love and kindness knows no bounds or boundaries. Yet at times her love can be a necessarily tough one as she negotiates the difficult process of trying to get her shy teenage daughter to stand up to the vicious group of bullies who’ve been making her school life a misery. Faced with an accelerated timeframe, Futaba needs to teach her little girl to be an independent woman a little ahead of schedule, knowing that she won’t be around to offer the kind of love and support she’ll be needing during those difficult years of adolescence.

Not wanting to leave her entirely alone, Futaba tracks down Kazuhiro only to find he’s now the sole carer for the nine-year old daughter of the woman he left her for who may or may not be his. Futaba decides to take the pair of them in but little Ayuko is just as sullen and distanced as her older half-sister as she struggles with ambivalent emotions towards the mother who abandoned her with a “father” she hardly knew. Futaba’s big idea is to reopen the family bathhouse to be run as a family where everyone has their place and personal responsibility, working together towards a common goal and supporting each other as they inevitably grow closer.

Unlike the majority of hahamono mothers, Futaba’s love is truly boundless as she tries not only to provide for her own children but for all the neglected, lonely, and abandoned people of the world. Bonding with the little girl of the private investigator she hires to find Kazuhiko, trying to comfort Ayuko as she deals with the fact that her mother is probably never coming back, even taking in a melancholy hitchhiker whose made up backstory she instantly sees through – Futaba is the kind of woman with the instant ability to figure out where it hurts and knows what to do to make it better even if it may be harder in the short-term.

Like the majority of hahamono, however, Her Love Boils Bathwater (湯を沸かすほどの熱い愛, Yu wo Wakasu Hodo no Atsui Ai) can’t escape its inevitable tragedy as someone who’s given so much of themselves is cruelly robbed of the chance to see her labours bear fruit. Nakano reins in the sentimentality as much as possible, but it’s impossible not to be moved by Miyazawa’s nuanced performance which never allows Futaba to slip into the trap of saintliness despite her inherent goodness. She is evenly matched by relative newcomer Sugisaki in the difficult role of the teenage daughter saddled with finding herself and losing her mother at the same time while Aoi Ito does much the same with an equally demanding role for a young actress moving from sullen silence to cheerful acceptance mixed with impending grief. Yet what lingers is the light someone like Futaba casts into the world, teaching others to be the best version of themselves and then helping them pass that on in an infinite cycle of interdependence. Hers is a love of all mankind as unconditional as any mother’s, sometimes tough but always forgiving.


Her Love Boils Bathwater was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (turn on captions for English subtitles)

April Fools (エイプリルフールズ, Junichi Ishikawa, 2015)

april-foolsIn this brand new, post truth world where spin rules all, it’s important to look on the bright side and recognise the enormous positive power of the lie. 2015’s April Fools (エイプリルフールズ) is suddenly seeming just as prophetic as the machinations of the weird old woman buried at its centre seeing as its central message is “who cares about the truth so long as everyone (pretends) to be happy in the end?”. A dangerous message to be sure though perhaps there is something to be said about forgiving those who’ve misled you after understanding their reasoning. Or, then again, maybe not.

Juggling seven stories April Fools is never as successful at weaving them into a coherent whole as other similarly structured efforts but begins with an intriguing Star Wars style scroll regarding alien sleeper agents who can apparently go home now because they’ve accomplished everything they came for. Changing track, pregnant snack addict Ayumi (Erika Toda) decides to ring the still unknowing father of her child after witnessing an improbable reunion on TV only he’s in bed with someone else and assumes her call is a weird practical joke. Overhearing that he’s just arrived at a restaurant for a lunch date, Ayumi takes matters into her own hands and marches over there, eventually taking the entire place hostage. Meanwhile an older couple are having a harmless holiday pretending to be royalty and a grizzled gangster has “kidnapped” a teenage girl only to give her a nice day out at the fun fair. Oh, and the hikkikomori from the beginning who’s fallen for the whole alien thing has made a total fool of himself at school by taking out his bully, kissing his crush goodbye and racing up to the roof to try and hitch a lift from the mothership.

Importing this weird European tradition to Japan, the creative team have only incorporated parts of it in that they don’t call time on jokes at noon and it’s less about practical shenanigans and elaborate set ups than it is about wholesale lying which is frustrated by this famous non-holiday apparently created in celebration of it. All of the protagonists are lying about something quite fundamental and usually to themselves more than anyone else but at least their April Fools adventures will help them to realise these basic inner truths.

Then again some of these revelations backfire, such as in the slightly misjudged minor segment concerning two college friends who are repeatedly kicked out of restaurants before they can get anything to eat. One decides to “prank” his friend with an April Fools confession of love, only to find that his friend really is gay and is in love with him. Awkward is not the word, but then an April Fools declaration of love is about the worst kind of cruel there is and is never funny anyway, nor is the casual homophobia involved in this entire skit but that’s another story.

In fact, most of the other people are aware they’re being lied to, but are going along with it for various reasons, some hoping that the liars will spontaneously reform and apologise or explain their actions. Ayumi, who is shy and isolated by nature, always knew her handsome doctor suitor was probably not all he seemed to be but is still disappointed to be proved right, only be perhaps be proved wrong again in the end. Convinced to take a chance on an unwise romance by an older colleague who explains to her that many miracles begin with lies, Ayumi is angry with herself as much as with her lying Casanova of a baby daddy, and also feels guilty about an incredibly sight deception of her own. As in many of the other stories, now that everyone has figured out the real, important, truths about themselves and about the situation, they can excuse all of the lying. Sensible or not? The choice is yours.

Despite coming from the team who created some very funny TV dramas including Legal High, the comedy of April Fools never quite hits its stride. Weak jokes backed up with slapstick humour giving way to sentimentality as the “good reasons” for the avoidance of truth are revealed don’t exactly whip up the farcical frenzy which the premiss implies. The point may very well be that we’re the April Fools going along with this, but even so its difficult to admire a film which pushes the “lying is good” mantra right to the end rather than neatly undercutting it. Still, there is enough zany humour to make April Fools not a complete waste of time, even if it doesn’t make as much of its original inspiration as might be hoped.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Library Wars: The Last Mission (図書館戦争-THE LAST MISSION-, Shinsuke Sato, 2015)

library-wars-last-missionWhen Library Wars, the original live action adaptation of Hiro Arikawa’s light novel series, hit cinema screens back in 2013 it did so with a degree of commercial, rather than critical, success. Though critics were quick to point out the great gaping plot holes in the franchise’s world building and a slight imbalance in its split romantic comedy/sci-fi political thriller genre mix, the film was in many ways a finely crafted mainstream blockbuster supported by committed performances from its cast and impressive cinematography from its creative team. Library Wars: The Last Mission (図書館戦争-THE LAST MISSION-, Toshokan Senso -The Last Mission-) is the sequel that those who enjoyed the first film have been waiting for given the very obvious plot developments left unresolved at the previous instalment’s conclusion.

18 months later, Kasahara (Nana Eikura) is a fully fledged member of the Library Defence Force, but still hasn’t found the courage to confess her love to her long term crush and embittered commanding officer, Dojo (Junichi Okada). As in the first film, The Media Betterment Force maintains a strict censorship system intended to prevent “harmful” literature reaching “vulnerable” people through burning all suspect books before they can cause any damage. Luckily, the libraries system is there to rescue books before they meet such an unfortunate fate and operates the LDF to defend the right to read, by force if necessary.

Kasahara is an idealist, fully committed to the defence of literature. It is, therefore, a surprise when she is accused of being an accomplice to a spate of book burning within the library in which books criticising the libraries system are destroyed. Needless to say, Kasahara has been framed as part of a villainous plan orchestrated by fellow LDF officer Tezuka’s (Sota Fukushi) rogue older brother, Satoshi (Tori Matsuzaka). There is a conspiracy at foot, but it’s not quite the one everyone had assumed it to be.

In comparison with the first film, The Last Mission is much more action orientated with military matters taking up the vast majority of the run time. A large scale battle in which the LDF is tasked with guarding an extremely important book containing their own charter (i.e. a symbol of everything they stand for) but quickly discovers the Media Betterment Force is not going to pass up this opportunity to humiliate their rival, forms the action packed centrepiece of the film.

The theme this time round leans less towards combating censorship in itself, but stops to ask whether it’s worth continuing to fight even if you feel little progress is being made. The traitorous officer who helps to frame Kasahara does so because he’s disillusioned with the LDF and its constant water treading. The LDF is doing what it can, but it’s fighting to protect books – not change the system. This is a weakness Satoshi Tezuka is often able to exploit as the constant warfare and tit for tat exchanges have begun to wear heavy on many LDF officers who are half way to giving up and switching sides. Even a zealot like Kasahara is thrown into a moment of existential despair when prodded by Satoshi’s convincing arguments about her own obsolescence.

Satoshi rails against a world filled with evil words, but as the head of the LDF points out in quoting Heinrich Heine, the society that burns books will one day burn men. The LDF may not be able to break the system, but in providing access to information it can spread enlightenment and create a thirst for knowledge among the young which will one day produce the kind of social change that will lead to a better, fairer world.

As in Library Wars all of these ideas are background rather than the focus of the film which is, in essence, the ongoing non-romance between Kasahara and Dojo. Remaining firmly within the innocent shojo realm, the romantic resolution may seem overly subtle to some given the extended build up over both films but is ultimately satisfying in its cuteness. Library Wars: The Last Mission masks its absurd premise with a degree of silliness, always entirely self aware, but gets away with it through sincerity and good humour. Shinsuke Sato once again proves himself among the best directors of mainstream blockbusters in Japan improving on some of the faults of the first film whilst bringing the franchise to a suitably just conclusion.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Masato Harada, 2015)

bbc56b4fff657dfc4fcc0499f8be9741How exactly do you lose a war? It’s not as if you can simply telephone your opponents and say “so sorry, I’m a little busy today so perhaps we could agree not to kill each other for bit? Talk later, tata.” The Emperor in August examines the last few days in the summer of 1945 as Japan attempts to convince itself to end the conflict. Previously recounted by Kihachi Okamoto in 1967 under the title Japan’s Longest Day, The Emperor in August (日本のいちばん長い日, Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi) proves that stately events are not always as gracefully carried off as they may appear on the surface.

By the summer of 1945, it’s clear that the situation as deteriorated significantly and Japan can no longer cling to any kind of hope of victory in the wider scale. Tokyo has been firebombed almost out of existence leaving only the Imperial Palace untouched – even the Emperor and his wife have been reduced to eating gruel. Everyone knows it’s time for a solution, but no one is quite ready to say it. In the wake of the atomic bomb, the situation becomes ever more desperate and even if the Emperor himself advocates a surrender, he needs the approval of his advisors. The Prime Minister, Navy and other officials are in favour but the Army, represented by General Anami, is committed to fighting on to the last man. Eventually, Anami comes around to the Emperor’s point of view but some of his men prove much harder to convince…

It might seem like a strange time to make a film about grace in the face of defeat given the recent political troubles stemming back to Japan’s wartime activities, but director Masato Harada is not lamenting the course of the war or trying to advocate for any rightwing agenda so much as trying to make plain the final absurdity of recognising when the battle is over. The civilians and even the Navy might be in favour of accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and ending the war as quickly as possible but a soldier is a soldier and the Army wants to go down fighting. They aren’t alone, of course, there are ordinary people who feel this way too but the writing is well and truly on the wall here.

The bulk of the film takes place within the palace, debating halls or army buildings all of which have escaped major damaged but every time we venture outside we’re shown a scene of utter desolation. A great, gaping hole where once there was a city. Anami’s wife undertakes a four hour walk to try and get in contact with a man who knew their son and can tell them how it was that he fell somewhere in Manchuria. She sees people fleeing, some thinking the enemy are about to descend any minute or that Tokyo will be the next target for an atomic bomb, and walks on through a barren, eerie landscape emerging soot covered and, finally, too late.

Closer to home, the situation among the soldiers is reaching boiling point. Originally committed to rejecting the terms of the treaty, Anami is now in favour of a surrender (with a few caveats) and is desperately working against the threat of an internal coup. Though the top brass have seen enough of warfare to know when it’s time to put down your weapons, the young hotheads have not yet learned the value of pragmatism. Seeing themselves as a second incarnation of the February 26th rebels, a cadre of young officers breaks ranks to try and stop the Emperor’s message of surrender from hitting the airwaves, hoping instead to spread the false message that the Russians have invaded and it’s all hands on deck. Needless to say, they don’t fare any better than the young officers of 1936 and if anything their bullheaded refusal to see sense becomes a microcosmic allegory for the years of militarism as a whole.

In the midst of all this chaos, the real heart of the film is Koji Yakusho’s conflicted general who feels his era passing right in front of him. Grieving for his fallen son yet also clinging to his military duty which dictates no surrender, no retreat he finally sees each of his ideals crumbling and comes to the realisation that the only way to save Japan is to abandon the military. Making a sacrifice of himself, he ensures the safe passage of his nation along a road on which he cannot travel.

The Emperor is a sympathetic figure here, gentle, soft, wanting the suffering to end for everyone but being more or less powerless to effect it despite his title. All he can do is advocate and try to convince his council that surrender is the right course of action as his country burns all around him.

Harada manages to keep the tension high even though a lot of the film comes down to a group of men discussing the proper wording for a treaty. A timely and beautifully photographed exploration of the last days of a war, The Emperor in August is another much needed reminder that decisions which will affect millions of lives are made by handfuls of men in tiny, closed up rooms that most people will never get to see.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of The Emperor in August includes English subtitles.

Unsubtitled trailer: