Future Memories: Last Christmas (未来の想い出 Last Christmas, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1992)

b27a8478bde0a2deBased on the contemporary manga by the legendary Fujiko F. Fujio (Doraemon), Future Memories: Last Christmas (未来の想い出 Last Christmas, Mirai no Omoide: Last Christmas) is neither quiet as science fiction or romantically focussed as the title suggests yet perhaps reflects the mood of its 1992 release in which a generation of young people most probably would also have liked to travel back in time ten years just like the film’s heroines. Another up to the minute effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Future Memories: Last Christmas is among his most inconsequential works, displaying much less of his experimental tinkering or stylistic variations, but is, perhaps a guide its traumatic, post-bubble era.

After a short segment set in 1971 in which one of our two heroines, Yuko Nando (Misa Shimizu), tells her classmates of her dream to become a best selling children’s author, we flash forward to 1981 where Yuko is a struggling artist unable to find success with her publishing company. A decade later, Christmas 1991, Yuko seems to have made little progress and despondently finds herself bonding with a mysterious woman offering a fortune telling service at the side of the road.

Ginko Kanae’s (Shizuka Kudo) life also seems to have spiralled downwards since 1981. A career as an office lady led to a fateful party after which another girl ended up going home with the guy she liked, and then she ended up being rebound married to the second choice salaryman she wound up with. Hence she’s reading fortunes on a less than busy side street at Christmas. The two women bond and swap phone numbers, but tragedy is about to befall them both as Yuko has a heart attack and dies at an office golf outing and Ginko has an accident on the way back from attending Yuko’s funeral. Never fear, the two women are soon cast back to 1981 with the next ten years of memories intact to help them make “better” choices and hopefully save their futures from ruin.

1992 was the start of a difficult era for Japan, the collapse of the bubble economy left behind it not just financial instability and social uncertainty, but a lingering feeling of foolishness and betrayal among those who’d been promised so much during the bubble years only to have the rug cruelly pulled from under them. It’s not surprising that many people of around Yuko and Ginko’s ages may have liked to travel back to 1981 and either relive the boom years or try and prevent the resultant tragedies from occurring. Unsurprisingly, the pair’s first pass at a do over sees them striving for conventional success, using their future knowledge to their advantage – Yuko by appropriating the idea of a popular 1991 manga to become an award winning artist, and Ginko becoming a financial guru. Both women come to feel conflicted about their “dishonest” choices which see them prosper unfairly, ironically robbing them of the chance to succeed as individuals in their own right and fulfil their own potential in the way they had always wanted to.

After each die at the same point and in the same way once again despite their financial successes, they get a second go, now with twenty years of hindsight to help them work out what’s really important. This time each chooses a path filled with more individual expression and the expectation of happiness. Romance is the name of the game as both women vow to spend more time with the men they love. However, having been through this once before Yuko and Ginko also have an expectation that their time will end once again in December 1991, meaning they feel conflicted about making a life with lovers they’ll be leaving behind. Gradually each starts to wonder if their fates are really as sealed as they fear them to be, or if they’ve been given this chance to start again precisely so that they can change their futures for the better.

In 1992, the idea that everything doesn’t have to be as gloomy as it seems might have been an important one, even more so than it is now. In the original timeline, Yuko and Ginko were, like many in the post-bubble world, victims of circumstance rather than people who’d actively made poor choices and the lessons which they learn are also those of their generation. Financial success is not everything, particularly if it’s gained in a “dishonest” way. More than changing their fates, Yuko and Ginko must first learn how to be happy which lies in self realisation, fulfilled potential, and, ironically, that their fate doesn’t matter so long as they live happily in the now.

Morita’s approach is again a timely one, filled with the music of the era (including a cover version of the title song from previous Morita hit, Main Theme), stock footage, and a curiously retro, nostalgia filled approach for a period that was only a decade earlier. Dissolves, slow motion and double exposures are his concessions to the sci-fi themes, but what he’s really interested in is capturing the essence of the era more so than crafting an emotionally affecting piece. Necessarily of its time, Future Memories: Last Christmas is among Morita’s weaker efforts but does serve to shine a light on early ‘90s pop culture as it found itself in a moment of profound self reflection.


Original trailer (no subtitles but lots of Christmas Cheer…and…Wham)

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Koki Mitani, 1997)

Welcome Back Mr. McDonaldKoki Mitani is one of the most bankable mainstream directors in Japan though his work has rarely travelled outside of his native land. Beginning his career in the theatre, Mitani is the master of modern comedic farce and has the rare talent of being able to ground often absurd scenarios in the  humour that is very much a part of everyday life. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Radio no Jikan) is Mitani’s debut feature in the director’s chair though he previously adapted his own stage plays as screenplays for other directors. This time he sets his scene in the high pressure environment of the production booth of a live radio drama broadcast as the debut script of a shy competition winner is about to get torn to bits by egotistical actors and marred by technical hitches.

Mild-mannered housewife Miyako Suzuki (Kyoka Suzuki ) has won a competition to get her radio play, titled “Woman of Destiny”, on air. A romantic tale of a bored housewife unexpectedly finding love at the pachinko parlour, her story may have a thin layer of autobiography or at least wish fulfilment but at any rate she is very close to her material. Unfortunately, “difficult” actress Nokko (Keiko Toda) has been foisted on the production crew due to entertainment world politics and objects to her character’s name because she once dated a married guy whose wife shared it. Eventually Nokko demands to be called something more interesting like “Mary Jane” (the irony!). At this point, all the other actors start wanting changes too and before you know it Miyako’s gentle tale of forbidden romance has become a gangster crime thriller set in Chicago filled with mobsters and tommy guns!

The writer is god, in one sense. Only, god has been locked out of the room leading to total chaos. Each small change necessitates a series of other changes and seeing as this is all being done live and on the hoof, no one is quite thinking through the implications of each decision. When the actor playing “Mary Jane’s” love interest suddenly goes off book and declares his name is “Donald McDonald” (inspired by left over fast food cartons) and he’s a pilot not a fisherman as agreed (though why would a fisherman be in the mountains of Chicago anyway?), everything goes completely haywire eventually ending up in an outer space based love crisis!

If all this wasn’t enough, someone has also wandered off with the key to the sound effects machine which would be fine if they hadn’t added all the gangster shenanigans in the first place. The show’s producer, Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura), explains to Miyako at one point that radio has a very important advantage over visual media as you really can do anything even on no budget because your biggest resource is your audience’s imaginations. He has a very real point, though the completely bizarre saga of “sexy female lawyer” Mary Jane, her “Nasa Pilot” (a quick save after “Donald’s” plane is reported missing and someone remembers this slot is sponsored by an airline) true love, and her husband who for some reason is a random German named Heinrich is going to require a significant suspension of disbelief from the confused listeners at home.

As a theatre practitioner Mitani is an expert at creating ensemble comedy and even though he is playing with a large cast and a fast moving environment each of his characters is extremely well drawn. We see the shy writer beginning to lose heart after her story is shredded by the unforgiving production environment whilst also trying to persuade her husband who has turned up unexpectedly to go home before he figures out her script is suspiciously close to their real lives. We also see the production team frantically trying to fulfil their obligations so they can avoid getting into trouble with the higher ups and finally go home for the day. Ushijima is caught in the middle, surrounded by nonchalant yes men and lazy bosses, he’s desperately trying to compromise to keep everything on schedule whereas the jaded director just wants to do his job as written. However, it’s the director who is ultimately most moved by Miyako’s script and eventually decides it does deserve the happy ending that Miyako has been longing for.

By the end of the recording, something of the old magic has returned to the otherwise work-a-day world of the radio studio. They’ve even brought back old fashioned foley effects and retrieved the old school sound guy who’d been relegated to playing his gameboy in the security booth because no one needed his expertise anymore. Nothing went as planned, but everything worked out in the end and it’s happy endings all round both in the real world and in the completely surreal radio play. They might even do a sequel!

Mitani breaks the action every now and then to take us outside of the studio environment and into the cab of a petrol tanker being driven by a strangely dressed trucker (in a brief cameo from Ken Watanabe, no less!) who keeps trying to change the channel for more country influenced Enka but finds himself enthralled by the strange tale of the true love between Mary Jane and Donald mcDonald. We might not be quite as moved as he is, having been party to all the backstage goings on, but we have perhaps laughed more than cried through the almost screwball comedy and farcical set up of Mitani’s spot on depiction of the less than glamorous workings of the fast paced live production environment.


English subtitled trailer:

The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.

 

Snakes and Earrings (蛇にピアス, Yukio Ninagawa, 2008)

91+iM1s07LL._SL1500_When 21 year old Hitomi Kanehara’s Snakes and Earrings (蛇にピアス, Hebi ni Piasu) was published back in 2003 it took the coveted Akutagawa prize for literature and the country by storm. Its scandalous depictions of the dark and nihilistic sex life of its outsider youngsters outraged and fascinated enough people to get it onto the best seller lists and earn a cinematic adaptation from Japan’s top theatre director Yukio Ninagawa in only his second foray into the world of moving pictures. However, Snakes and Earrings is perhaps that rare instance of an adaptation which clings to closely to its source material as its detached, emotionless and straightforward approach end in something of a miss fire.

Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) is a typical “gyaru” – for those of you reading from the future, this is an “ultra feminine” fashion trend which encourages young women to barbie doll it up to the max. It’s a little strange then when she catches sight of young punk Ama (Kengo Kora) in a nightclub and becomes fascinated with his forked tongue. In actuality, it’s the tongue she falls for, not the guy, but the two become a couple and she moves into his apartment. Before long she too gets a tongue ring and becomes determined on splitting her own tongue as well as getting herself a large tattoo. That’s how she meets Ama’s tattooist friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who becomes equally fascinated with Lui. Lui trades sex with Shiba in return for designing her body art and the two begin an illicit, sado-masochistic affair behind Ama’s back but even after Lui’s tattoo is completed it only sends her further into a spiral of nihilistic self annihilation.

Snakes and Earrings opens with a beautifully shot near silent sequence which pans across the skyline of modern Tokyo picking out the neon lights and advertising boards that proclaim it as a city which belongs to the young. Even when we’re with Lui inside the nightclub, the sound remains muted as young men and women dance to music that we cannot hear – even when Lui spots Ama it’s only the visuals that hang until he comes over and talks to her and we realise she’s had her headphones in the entire time. This sequence is neatly echoed at the film’s conclusion but is, however, something of an anomaly when it comes to the prevailing style of the film which is relentlessly detached and straightforward in approach.

Lui – short for “Louis Vuitton” remains something of a cypher. She’s torn between her two lovers – the punkish dope Ama who would kill for her and the cold, sadistic Shiba who would kill her given half the chance. She doesn’t seem to know what she wants or who she is and quickly loses herself in alcoholism and self disgust. It feels as if there should be more to this – a critique of the emptiness of modern life or the dehumanising effects of the city but all there is is a great nothingness. Perhaps that’s the point, there is nothing to Lui – not even a real name. She possesses no clearly defined identity and therefore does not exist. This is a fine idea, on paper, but does leave a great gaping hole where the protagonist ought to be.

Lui’s two love interests, the oddly vibrant Ama and the restrained Shiba represent two sides of the same thing as Lui is torn between pleasure in pain and pain in love. Kengo Kora does what he can with a thinly defined role which often feels more like a plot device than anything else. Arata Iura fares a little better with the meatier role of Shiba who is accorded more screen time but the film remains resolutely cold and distant. In a minor instance of distraction, Shun Oguri and more prominently Tatsuya Fujiwara turn up as bit players in the roles of two street punks who get into a fight with Ama which is, frankly, baffling.

Though opting for simplistic, straightforward compositions much of Snakes and Earrings is beautifully captured even if deliberately alienating. As in the book, even the frequent, semi-explicit sex scenes are shot in such a matter of fact way as to render them totally neutered, devoid of any kind of sensation. Ultimately, Snakes and Earrings finishes as a noble failure, neatly echoing its heroine’s nihilistic mindset whilst simultaneously failing to engage.


The Hong Kong DVD/blu-ray release (as well as the Japanese blu-ray) of Snakes and Earrings includes English Subtitles.