Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru

Young Girls in Love (恋する女たち, Kazuki Omori, 1986)

young women in loveThe friends you make in high school are the friends you’ll have the rest of your life, says Takako – the heroine of Kazuki Omori’s Young Girls in Love (恋する女たち, Koisuru Onnatachi). Only she doesn’t quite want hers – they’re weird and cause her nothing but trouble. Also one of them is too pretty so she soaks up all of the attention – where’s the fun in that? Takako is not altogether happy in her adolescence but at least she has her friends there beside her, right?

Takako’s two best friends have both recently fallen in love leaving her feeling a little left out. Midoriko (Mamiko Takai), the most “unusual” girl in her group (but also thought to be the prettiest), had fallen in love with a teacher and even struck up something of a friendship with him as evidenced by her collection of cute photos of them together. However, he’s recently got married leaving her heartbroken so Midoriko is having another one of her trademark “funerals” in which she buries painful memories from her past. Previously she’s had funerals for an unfortunate PE related incident in which she ripped her shorts during gymnastics, and another for when her grades got so bad that the teachers told her she probably wouldn’t graduate from high school.

Teiko has a difficult homelife as her literature professor father has left the family for unspecified reasons and her mother is still mourning the end of the marriage. However, she has found herself and older poet who formerly wrote lyrics for cheesy teen idol pop songs (though he’s a serious poet now so that’s all beneath and behind him). Teiko knows that this relationship is doomed to failure but is pursuing it in any case.

Takako is so wound up by her friend’s series of love stories that she finds herself visiting “raunchy” movies like 9 1/2 weeks. This is where she encounters possible crush and high school baseball star Kutsukake (Toshiro Yanagiba), but does she really like him or is she just lovesick and jealous of her friends? A new complication also arises in the form of fellow student Kanzake (Yusuke Kawazu) who previously had a crush on older sister Hiroko (Kiwako Harada) but seems to have shifted his attentions on to Takako.

Young Girls in Love is a little broader than the average idol drama though it maintains an overall quirky tone with a few swings towards melodrama. Takako continues with her romantic dilemma although in contrast to what she says towards the opening of the film she mostly does so alone. Rather than her similarly romantically troubled friends, Takako confides in a painter friend, Kinuko (Satomi Kobayashi) who has some rather more grown up advice for her than other friends (or sister) are willing or able to offer.

During her troubles Takako also goes to visit another girl who is kind of involved with low level bosozoku motorcycle gangs, and finds out that her morbid friend Midoriko has gone seriously off the rails. Leading some kind of double life, Midoriko is a disco queen in another town, dancing her troubles away and enchanting all the boys in the club (including the other girl’s biker boyfriend). Distressed, yet a little envious of Midoriko’s ability to soak up all the attention for herself, Takako is the only one to try and intervene during a drag race duel though little heed is given to her desperate plea for sanity and she is only one that gets hurt during the proceedings.

It’s all fairly innocent stuff even though biker gangs, older boyfriends, and boyfriend stealing, all fall into the mix. Omori keeps things simple and brings his idols to the fore to do what they do best though he does overly rely on TV style reaction shots for some of his gags. According to the anecdote Takako offers at the end, none of the various love stories have worked out they way the girls hoped (at least for now) but everything carries on more or less as normal. The three girls have another of their traditional extreme tea ceremonies dressed in kimono and sitting on the edge of a cliff, but they’re all still together despite their recent romantic adventures. The real love story is between three childhood friends who may have temporarily drifted apart over teenage drama, but their bonds are strong enough to withstand the storm and, as Takako stated in the beginning of the film, they’ll be together for the rest of their lives.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Ryoichi Kimizuka, 2009)

Nobody to Watch Over MeWhen a crime has been committed, it’s important to remember that there may be secondary victims whose lives will be destroyed even if they themselves had no direct involvement in the case itself. This is even more true in the tragic case that person who is responsible is themselves a child with parents and siblings still intent on looking forward to a life that their son or daughter will now never lead. This isn’t to place them on the same level as bereaved relatives, but simply to point out the killer’s family have also lost a child who they have every right to grieve for, though their grief will also be tinged with guilt and shame.

Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Dare mo Mamotte Kurenai) takes the example of one particular case in which an 18 year old boy has brutally stabbed two little girls in a park and then returned home as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. After the boy is arrested, his family is caught up in a firestorm of police and press interest, barely able pause and come to terms with the surreal events that are taking place. No sooner has their son been dragged off in handcuffs than a troupe from the family court arrives with pre-printed documents which will arrange for a divorce and remarriage between the parents so that they can revert to the wife’s maiden name in an attempt to avoid the stigma of being related to a child killer. After being bamboozled into signing a number of papers with barely any explanation the family is then split up for questioning and taken to separate locations to try and throw off the press.

Grizzled detective Katsuura (Koichi Sato) is charged with looking after the murderer’s younger sister, Saori (Mirai Shida) – a 15 year old high school student. Katsuura is enduring some familial conflict of his own and was due to be taking a family holiday to try and work things out, so he’s a little distracted and put out about needing to shield this quite uncooperative teenager from the baying masses. He’s also suffering a degree of PTSD from a traumatic incident some years previously in which a case he was involved in went horribly wrong resulting in the death of a small boy. Understandably, Saori is in a state of shock, left alone with strangers to try and cope with this extremely stressful situation and unwilling to betray her brother by submitting to the police’s constant demands for information.

The police themselves aren’t always the benign and and comforting presence one might hope for on such an occasion as Katsuura’s superior has one eye on a possible promotion if he can exploit this high profile case for all its worth and is intent on pressing this innocent teenage girl as if she were some kind of war criminal. The family are treated with a degree of suspicion and contempt, as if they were directly or indirectly complicit in the violence created by their son or brother.

In actuality, there may be a grain of truth in this as the film also begins to offer some social critique of the modern family and the pressures placed on young people in the contemporary world. When questioned about their son, the mother remains more or less silent but the father angrily replies that he raised his son “strictly”. The family had high expectations and didn’t take academic failure lightly. From middle school onwards, they kept their son at home to study allowing him little outlet for anything else and, it seems, he was sometimes physically disciplined for a lack of progress.

Katsuura’s family is under threat too, perhaps placed under pressure following Katsuura’s personal disintegration over having been prevented in his attempts to save the life of the small boy some years previously or just from the constant insecurities involved being the family of a policeman whose working schedule is necessarily unpredictable. Though originally becoming fed up with Saori’s lack of cooperation, Katsuura eventually develops a protective relationship with her perhaps because she reminds him of his own teenage daughter. Given that the police are to some degree her enemy as they are the ones that have taken away her brother and separated her from her parents, it’s not surprising that she doesn’t immediately warm to Katsuura but after being betrayed by someone she believed was a true ally, she finally understands that he is firmly on her side and trying to protect her from a very real series of threats.

The modern world is shown up for all of its voyeuristic obsession with the horrifying and the taboo. The family are swarmed by press but it’s the internet that becomes the major aggressor as it publishes not only the boy’s real name, but even his parents’ address and the addresses of other people involved with the case. Self proclaimed social justice crusaders react like parasites glued to bulletin boards trading information on notorious crimes for a kind of internet fame, not caring about the facts of the case or that there are real people involved here who are already grieving. Taking the “I blame the parents” mentality to its extreme, even more distant members of the killer’s family are expected to trot out an apology for the cameras even though it’s really nothing to do with them and isn’t going to do anyone any good anyway.

Kimizuka shoots the first part of the action with a breathless intensity, mimicking hand held, on the ground news reporting to convey just how frightening and disorientating this must be for anyone unlucky enough to be caught up in a media storm. The use of choral music and occasional melodramatic touches near the end perhaps undermine the film’s emotional power which never quite coalesces in the way it seems to want to. However, Nobody to Watch Over Me is a fascinating and rich exploration of the public’s obsession with true crime stories coupled with an extreme tendency towards victim blaming and the need to hold to account those close to the perpetrator of a crime even if they had little to do with it themselves. Frightening yet hopeful in equal measure, Nobody to Watch Over Me offers scant comfort but does at least begin to ask the question.


The region 3 Hong Kong DVD release of Nobody to Watch Over Me includes English subtitles.

English subtitled teaser trailer: