Love/Juice (Kaze Shindo, 2000)

vlcsnap-2017-07-08-23h24m47s422Some situations are destined to end in tears. Kaze Shindo’s Love Juice adopts the popular theme of unrequited love but complicates it with the peculiar circumstances of Tokyo at the turn of the century which requires two young women to be not just housemates but bedmates and workmates too. One is straight, one is gay and in love with her friend who seems to get off on manipulating her emotions and is overly dependent on her more responsible approach to life, but both are trapped in a low rent world of grungy nightclubs and sleazy hostess bars.

Chinatsu (Mika Okuno) and Kyoko (Chika Fujimura) are roommates sharing not just a house but a bed and almost everything else too. Best friends, their relationship is necessarily close and broadly supportive save for a persistent level of tension when it comes to romance. Chinatsu, openly gay, is in love with Kyoko who isn’t interested but somehow keeps stringing her along and makes a point of flirting with every guy she meets. The back and fore continues until the girls are forced to take degrading work as bunny suited hostesses and Kyoko becomes obsessed with the boy working in the local tropical fish shop (Hidetoshi Nishijima).

Though living openly as a gay woman, Chinatsu is far from happy with her life as her constant complaints of “why was I born a girl” bear out. Attending clubs with her live-in non-lover, Chinatsu picks up dates but it never gets anywhere. Her heart belongs to Kyoko and so she tortures herself by continuing to pine after her emotionally manipulative roommate before adopting an unpleasant forcefulness as she tries to persuade her friend to acquiesce. Snapping away at her with her camera (which she refuses to be turned on herself), Chinatsu becomes jealous and possessive, irritated by Kyoko’s various suitors and wishing she and Kyoko could remain cooped up alone together like the two goldfish sitting in their makeshift bowl.

Where Chinatsu is down to earth and restrained, Kyoko is a lively free spirit adrift for reasons of aimlessness rather than the anxious wandering her friend. Living on the fringes of mainstream society, the women are forced into their inconvenient living arrangements thanks to ongoing poverty. This same poverty eventually forces them both into taking a humiliating job as waitresses at a bunny girl themed hostess bar. Much to Chinatsu’s consternation, Kyoko revels in the constant male attention, flirting awkwardly with the owner who seems to prefer her friend. Uncomfortable with the job and more particularly with the uniform, Chinatsu experiences yet more degrading treatment when she’s brutally assaulted by a colleague after work and can’t even turn to her friend and roommate for help and comfort.

Eventually matters come to a head, the situation can’t endure, suicide is considered, choices are made, sadness and regret litter the scene. Shindo creates a claustrophobic world for two into which the outside occasionally pokes its unwelcome nose. The whimsical score lends a quirky, romantic air to the less destructive side of the two women’s relationship even as it progresses further and further towards its inevitable conclusion. Painting an authentic picture of Tokyo as seen by the disillusioned and desperate turn of the century youth, Shindo’s tale of ordinary heartbreak in unusually difficult circumstances is a nuanced look at a toxic (non)relationship in all of its destructive glory.


 

Sharaku (写楽, Masahiro Shinoda, 1995)

SharakuEvery once in a while an artist emerges whose work is so far ahead of its time that the audience of the day is unwilling to accept but generations to come will finally recognise for the achievement it represents. So it is for Sharaku – a young man whose abilities and ambitions are ruthlessly manipulated by those around him for their own gain. Brought to the screen by veteran new wave director Masahiro Shinoda, Sharaku (写楽) is an attempt to throw some light on the life of this mysterious historical figure who comes to symbolise, in many ways, the turbulence of his era.

The Edo of 1791 is a world of extreme austerity. All art is suspect and all “pornography” outlawed. Any sign of extravagance is frowned on, including the “frivolous” arts leading to a decline in the world of classic entertainment as kabuki artists struggle to survive. Tombo (Hiroyuki Sanada) was one such kabuki performer but after an onstage accident leaves him with a damaged foot he joins a rag tag group of street performers. Whilst there he begins drawing bringing him to the attention of an art seller, Tsutaya (Frankie Sakai), who has an idea to create prints of famous actors as a way of promoting local theatre shows.

Rechristened with the artist’s name of Sharaku, Tombo’s artwork creates a sensation with its never seen before style which places a new emphasis on realism rather than flattery. Popularity brings its own problems as Sharaku finds himself a virtual prisoner of Tsutaya whose demands are ever expanding, as well as facing the intense opposition of Tsutaya’s former cash cow – renowned artist Utamaro, who is prepared to go to great lengths to ensure his traditional painting style is the one that wins out.

This is a time of extreme conservatism and Sharaku’s work is a risky proposition as it rejects accepted stylisation in favour of undoctored reality. Dynamically posed, his portraits of kabuki actors display no pandering but reflect all of the subject’s less flattering qualities. Striking and unusual, Sharaku’s insistence on capturing internal truth is entirely at odds with the need for compliance with the “truths” handed down by the government. The public aren’t ready for such radically honest art and even champions of a more naturalistic style such as the universally lauded Utamaro also reject it (though largely out of fear and self interest).

Sharaku is, of course, an artist’s name and not a man’s and therefore is easily manipulated. Held a virtual prisoner by Tsutaya, Tombo begins to resent his new life of exploitation by his master who wants him to work in a more commercial fashion yet took him on precisely because of the novel, aggressive nature of his untrained drawing. Sharaku’s commitment to artistry over conformity is at odds with the era which is entirely founded on everyone obeying the accepted order of things. The times are changing, but not fast enough for Sharaku.

Shinoda paints an exciting vision of Edo era Tokyo filled with colour and energy despite the supposed austerity of the times. He brings kabuki out into the streets with beautifully balletic street brawls and strange acrobatic feats that appear extremely incongruous in the off stage world. However, Sharaku attempts to juggle a number of themes and subplots which never manage to coalesce into something whole. The side story of a depressed geisha and her star crossed love for Tombo even whilst she finds herself the favourite misteress of Utamaro is the most interesting but is never satisfactorily resolved.

After beginning with some oddly old fashioned on screen graphics, Shinoda opts for a stately directing style though makes frequent use of freeze frames and dissolves. The film takes on an appropriately etherial quality with sudden interruptions of theatre and the rhythms of classical drama yet even the free floating dream-like atmosphere can’t quite makeup for its central lack of coherence. Tombo himself, as played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is too much of a cypher to lead the picture yet the attempt to branch out into an ensemble drama doesn’t take hold either. A late, flawed effort from an old master, Sharaku has a lot to say about the nature of art, about artists, about reception and legacy, and also about its era but much of the message is lost in the faded paper on which it is painted.


Unsubbed trailer: