The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

(C) Toho 1979

man who stole the sun posterIn the post-Asama-Sanso world, Japanese society had shifted into period of intense calm in which improving economic prosperity was in the process of delivering comfort rather than the creeping acquisitive anxiousness that began to overshadow the bubble era. Nevertheless, in cinematic terms at least anxiety was everywhere and not least among the young who, swept along by this irresistible economic current, were quietly doubtful about their place in a changing society. Co-scripted by an American screenwriter, Leonard Schrader (brother of Taxi Driver’s Paul), The Man Who Stole the Sun (太陽を盗んだ男, Taiyo wo Nusunda Otoko) provides a satirical snapshot of this confusing moment as an oppressed, belittled high school science teacher builds an atomic bomb in his apartment just to show he can but then realises he has absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Technically speaking, the science teacher’s name is Makoto Kido (Kenji Sawada) but no one really calls him that. The kids at school refer to him as “Bubble-gum” because he always seems to be chewing on the rather childish confectionary. Not the most conscientious of teachers, he tailors the curriculum to his own interests, teaching the kids all about atomic energy and the bomb, but the kids aren’t interested. They only want to know what’s going to be on the test. To them Kido’s information is irrelevant and so they ignore him, talking amongst themselves while he carries on, preaching to a seemingly empty room.

Meanwhile, Kido is building the bomb at home, for real. As he tells the kids, anyone can build an atomic bomb – you only need the plutonium which is, admittedly, tightly controlled for just this reason. He acquires his through a daring heist on a nuclear plant. Kido never elaborates on what prompted him to begin his bizarre masterplan, but there is certainly a degree of pent up rage inside him born of resentment with his reduced circumstances. “Just” a high school science teacher, who would really think he’d have the capability to build an atomic bomb, alone, using only household equipment (plus the plutonium and a custom furnace purchased after nearly exploding his oven)?

Kido’s problems are the same as many middle-aged men in ‘70s Japan in that he feels intensely oppressed from above and below. What he’s trying to tell the kids is that they have access to this power already – anyone can build a bomb, if you bother to learn how. The only thing that’s being kept from him is the plutonium (and for good reason), which he manages to acquire anyway. A chance encounter with the madness of the age seems to kickstart his plan into gear when he meets his opposing number in police inspector Yamashita (Bunta Sugawara).

Kido, having halfheartedly escorted a group of students on a school trip, finds himself rendered powerless once again when the bus is hijacked by a distressed older gentleman (Yunosuke Ito) armed with a rifle and grenade and wearing a World War II soldier’s uniform. He demands to be driven to see the emperor from whom he intends to demand the return of his son, presumably killed in the war 30 years earlier. Yamashita, clean cut and authoritative, is the gung-ho cop who masterfully brings the hostage crisis to a close by lying to the man that the emperor has consented to see him. During the evacuation the old man is killed by police snipers (despite Yamashita’s too late cries of “don’t shoot” after having dispatched the grenade and disarmed the suspect).

Like Kido, the old man likely didn’t really know what he intended to do, only that he was lonely and desperate. The emperor couldn’t give him back his son (whose uniform he seems to be wearing) and his gesture is one of futile defiance coupled with a suicide bid that has no real goal save making an elaborate protest against the world in which he lives. Kido makes the bomb, lets the authorities know he has it, but then realises he has no demands. He asks them to fix something minor that annoys him, to stop the TV networks pulling the plug on late running baseball games to make way for the news, and finds himself rewarded. He has taken back the power, they believe he has the bomb and they fear him, but he has no further goals or notion of how his society should change. There is no idealised future he is fighting for, all there is is futility and indifference.

Meanwhile, ironically enough, Kido’s desperation provokes a mini revolution in others. A talkshow radio host (Kimiko Ikegami) named “Zero” (in contrast to Kido’s adoption of the codename “No. 9” as the 9th owner of a nuclear device and the only individual), broadcasts his on-air request for ideas, believing it to be a kind of thought experiment. The ideas she gets from the public are of the usual kind – lonely men who want to bathe with naked women, nationalists who want to start a war with America, dreamers who think it might be better not to want anything and just embrace the dream, while she muses that she wants the Rolling Stones concert that was cancelled a few years ago after a band member’s narcotics conviction to be reinstated. That being as good as anything is what Kido goes for in an overture that passes as an odd kind of romance and a suitably ironic kick back against strait-laced authority.

Kido’s war is, in a sense, a war with the fathers of the world as symbolised by men like Yamashita with their suits and neatly trimmed haircuts. Their button-down existence has never offered anything to men like Kido who feel trapped and angry within it. Yet Yamashita is also reacting against his own generation of fathers as symbolised by the old man on the bus, the last remnant of wartime resistance offering a defeated cry against a world which got away from them. Yamashita let the old man die when he prioritised his own sense of heroism, and that annoyed Kido. He can’t help sympathising with his plight which is in a way also his own in being relentlessly silenced and ignored by austere authority figures.

Turning down Yamashita’s clumsy attempt at a pickup, Zero affirms that Kido has given her a dream, which no small thing and she feels bound to him because of it. It’s an ironic statement because Kido has no dreams and not only that, he has no future either – he is slowly dying of radiation poisoning despite his precautions during the building of the bomb. In their final confrontation, Yamashita, adopting a paternal authority, neatly summarises Kido’s dilemma. The only life he has the right to take is his own, and his own death is the only thing he really wants, but he’s embarked on this elaborate plan to make his presence felt all the while aware that he will remain totally anonymous. No one will ever see him. He will die, like thousands of others, faceless. A lowly high school science teacher, no terrorist mastermind or bomb building genius. His revenge is as absurd as it is futile. Male inferiority complexes threaten to drown us all in a sea of violent resentment, and as the Earth dies screaming all we will have to reflect on is that we ourselves brought this world into being through our own incurable apathy.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store posterKeigo Higashino is probably best known for his murder mysteries, most particularly the international best seller The Devotion of Suspect X. His literary output is however a little broader than one might assume and fantastical hypotheticals are very much a part of his work as in the bizarre The Secret in which a mother wakes up in her daughter’s body after a fatal accident. Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki) is indeed one of his warmer stories even if it occasionally veers towards the author’s usual taste for moral conservatism in its yearning for a more innocent, pre-bubble Japan that is rapidly being forgotten.

Back in 1980, Mr. Namiya (Toshiyuki Nishida) runs the local store and is a much loved member of the community. As an older man with plenty of life experience, he also offers an agony uncle service. People with problems can simply write him a letter and drop it through his box. He’ll have a bit of a think about it and then either paste up a response on the village noticeboard outside or, if the question is a little more delicate, place his reply in an envelope in the milk box.

32 years later, a trio of delinquent boys end up taking refuge in the disused store after committing some kind of crime. While they’re poking around, what should pop through the letter box but a letter, direct from 1980. Freaked out the boys try to leave but find themselves trapped in some kind of timeslip town. Eventually they decide to answer the letter just to pass the time and then quickly find themselves conversing with an earlier generation by means of some strange magic.

At the end of his life, what Mr. Namiya is keen to know is if his advice really mattered, and if it did, did it help or hinder? His introspection is caused in part by a news report that someone he advised on a particularly tricky issue may have committed suicide. Mr. Namiya isn’t now so sure he gave them the right advice and worries what he told them may have contributed to the way they died. This itself is a difficult question and if it sounds like a moral justification to point out that no one was forced to follow Mr. Namiya’s “advice” and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own decisions, that’s because it is but then it doesn’t make it any less true. Then again, Mr. Namiya’s advice, by his own admission, was not really about telling people what to do – most have already made a decision, they just want someone to help them feel better about it. What he tries to do is read between the lines and then tell them what they want to hear – the decision was always theirs he just helped them find a way to accommodate it.

The boys have quite different attitudes. Kohei (Kanichiro), who takes the initial decision to write back, is compassionate but pragmatic. As we later find out, the three boys are all orphans and Kohei counsels a melancholy musician who wants to know if he should give up on his Tokyo music career and come home to run the family fish shop that he should count himself lucky to have a place to come back to and that if he was going to get anywhere in music he’d have got there already. Mr. Namiya’s philosophy proves apt – the musician writes back and argues his case, he wants to carry on with music but feels guilty and hopes Mr. Namiya will tell him it’s OK to follow his dreams. For the boys however, “dreams” are an unaffordable luxury and like a trio of cynical old men they tell the musician to grow up and get a real job. That is, until he decides to play them a tune and they realise it’s all too familiar.

Similarly, a conflicted young woman drops them a letter wanting advice on whether to become the mistress of a wealthy man who claims he will help her set up in business. The boys say no, do not debase yourself, work hard and be honest – that’s the best way to repay a debt to the people that raised you. Again she writes back, she wants her shot but it is a high price. That’s where hindsight comes in, as does advance knowledge about Japan’s impending economic boom and subsequent bust.

As expected, everything is connected. Higashino maybe romanticising an earlier time in which community still mattered and the wisest man you knew ran the corner store, but then there’s a mild inconsistency between the idealised picture of small town life and the orphanage which links it all together – these kids are after all removed, even perhaps exiled, from that same idea of “community” even if they are able to create their own familial bonds thanks to the place that has raised them. The most cynical of the boys once wanted to be a doctor, but as another boy points out it takes more than just brains to get there. While it’s a nice message to say that there are no limits and nothing is impossible, it is rather optimistic and perhaps glosses over many of the issues the kids face after “graduating” from the group home and having nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, seeing everything come together in the end through the power of human goodness and the resurgence of personal agency is an inspirational sight indeed. The world could use a few more miracles, but as long as there are kind hearted people with a desire for understanding, there will perhaps be hope.


Original trailer (English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

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.

 

Love & Peace (ラブ&ピース, Sion Sono, 2015)

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Another day another Sion Sono – review of Love & Peace from the London Film Festival up at UK Anime Network. Quite liked this one, shame it’s not out in time for Christmas.


Last time we met Sion Sono it was for a street style rap musical about gang warfare. Before that we’ve mostly been admiring him for his epic and irreverent tale of panty shot perverts and bizarre religion Love Exposure, bloody serial killer true crime thriller Cold Fish or poetic exploration of a woman looking for love in all the wrong places in Guilty of Romance, not to mention a tale of teenage rage and post Earthquake anxiety in Himizu or state of the nation address in Land of Hope. Recently prolific and varied enough to give even Takashi Miike a run for his money, it should come as no surprise that Sono’s latest effort is, essentially, a family film about a man’s love for his pet turtle.

Ryoichi Suzuki is a mild mannered office worker with dreams of becoming a rock star. Belittled by his colleagues, Ryoichi has no friends – that is until he falls hard for a tiny turtle sold by a strange man on a rooftop. Hatching plans together for Ryoichi’s rise to superstardom the pair become inseparable. However, after another round of humiliation at work Ryoichi flushes “Pikadon” down the toilet! Full of remorse, Ryoichi pines for his lost friend meanwhile, Pikadon arrives at the lair of a mysterious sewer dweller who rescues broken and discarded creatures. When Pikadon is given a “wish” pill by mistake, Ryoichi’s life soon begins to change!

In case it needs saying, Love & Peace is in no way a “serious” film – much as that may sound like a pejorative comment, all that means is that it’s delightfully absurd and heaps of fun and where it harks back to some of Sono’s key concerns it does so in a light hearted, even mocking manner. The plot maybe conventional in a lot of ways – down trodden loser suddenly makes something of himself with magical help but ends up becoming arrogant and forgetting his true self before being redeemed by a massive fall from grace but as usual Sono has managed to bring something new to even this comparatively tired tale.

Largely, that’s thanks to his bizarre side story of the land of misfit toys being cared for by a mysterious yet kindly old man who lives in a tiny alcove in one of Tokyo’s sewer complexes. Cheerfully harking back to some of those classic ‘80s kids movies, the strange collection of broken robots, damaged cat toys and lovelorn dolls do their best to tug at the heart strings with their stories of loss and abandonment while the mysterious old man keeps them going with tales of hope and magic pills which grant the power of speech or wishes.

However, as Ryoichi’s dreams grow bigger so does Pikadon himself and its not long before the cute little turtle’s devotion to his master becomes a dangerous threat to the entire city. Ryoichi chose the name “Pikadon” seemingly at random and without realising that it’s become a byword for the atomic bomb. Thus Ryoichi’s eventual ballad of love and regret for his lost turtle buddy is misunderstood as a lament for modern Japan and a pledge to “never forget” the wartime nuclear attacks. Of course, this “subversive political rock song” becomes a giant hit catapulting Ryoichi on the road to superstardom. However, there is more heartbreak for Pikadon to come as he’s continually betrayed by the ever more ambitious Ryoichi who’s only too quick to sell out his beloved friend to get ahead with cruel and potentially tragic consequences.

Of course, the one thing that needs mentioning is the amazing music in the film including the title song which is tailor made for waving a lighter in the air and is sure to become your latest ear worm. Ryoichi only writes a few songs but Sono also manages to throw in a musical self reference to a previous film that makes for a fun Easter Egg for his avid fans to find and the rest of the soundtrack is equally catchy too.

In short, Love & Peace is the Christmas themed punk rock kid’s movie you never knew you needed. Yes, it goes to some very dark places – the least of which is the accidental destruction of the city of Tokyo by the now colossal kaiju incarnation of Pikadon whose only wish is to make his best friend’s rockstar dreams come true, but it does so with heart. In true family film fashion, it addresses the themes of true friendship, the importance of being true to yourself and that the love of man and turtle can be a beautiful, if terrifying, thing. Strange, surreal and totally mad, Love & Peace is the ideal Christmas gift for all the family and Sono’s most enjoyably bizarre effort yet.


I wrote this review before I’d seen Tag which is also “enjoyably bizarre”, it has to be said. Love & Peace will be released in the UK in 2016 courtesy of Third Window Films.

Some other Reviews of Sion Sono movies written by me:

A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story (武士の献立, Yuzo Asahara, 2013)

A-Tale-of-Samurai-Cooking-teaser

I kind of love this photo because he already looks so annoyed 🙂

Review of period romantic comedy/drama with a side serving of culinary delight A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story up at UK Anime Network.


It’s a little known fact but though all samurai carry swords, some of them hang them up when they get to work and serve their lords with meat cleavers and skewers in the relative safety of the kitchen rather than the noisy chaos of a battlefield. Of course, a retainer’s job is to serve the lord in whatever capacity is expected of him, though some maybe happier with their dictated fates than others. In A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story (武士の献立, Bushi no Kondate), it’s not only a conventional romantic tale between two initially mismatched people that the title alludes to, but also how one may fall in love with a path in life that was once deeply resented.

Back in feudal Japan, Haru (Aya Ueto) is an orphaned maid servant to a prominent samurai house. She was briefly married, but embarrassingly enough was “sent back” because her new husband and his family found her far too headstrong for their household. The daughter of a pair of restaurateurs, Haru has a keen sense of cooking of her own which sees her catch the attention of a visiting famous cook, Dennai Funaki (Toshiyuki Nishida), when she is the only person able to guess the real ingredients in his “mock crane” dish. Instantly smitten, Dennai makes her a proposal – albeit one for his son who is set to take over the family business but has no real aptitude for cooking. Yasunobu (Kengo Kora) is his second child whose fate was sealed on the death of his elder brother and though he would rather be a more conventional kind of samurai, he is the only heir to this kitchen empire. Can Haru’s cooking skills raise a fire in Yasunobu’s heart for his unwanted destiny or will they both be subjected to a lifetime of cold dinners?

A Tale of Samurai Cooking is definitely much more “period drama” than “samurai movie” though it does share a little of the historical intrigue of your typical “jidaigeki”. Set in the Edo period of feudal Japan, there are plenty of sudden reversals of fate where one house jumps ahead of another which then falls out of favour, sometimes with tragic consequences. However, though those these events inform the drama they are really just the backdrop to the true story of the very grown up (though extremely chaste and innocent – this is a U rated movie!) slow burning love story between Haru and Yasunobu. Though it’s a very charming and old fashioned sort of romance, it’s also true that Kengo Kora and Aya Ueto don’t have a tremendous amount of chemistry and their love story is pretty subtle and one sided until very late into the film. Of course, the audience knows how this sort of film has to end, but the film does rather rely on this fact.

Yasunobu is at heart a kind man undergoing very difficult circumstances. Having had to let go of the life he wanted that was so nearly his following the death of his older brother, it isn’t a surprise that he’s generally sullen and extremely resentful that his father has arranged this marriage for him with a slightly older woman who’s already been married once before, not to mention the fact that it’s all because she’s better than he is at this thing he’s now supposed to do for the rest of his life. Yasunobu doesn’t even like cooking, he thinks it’s “woman’s work” and had devoted his life to the art of the sword. Luckily, Haru’s perspicacity extends beyond her palate and she’s quickly figured out what’s going on with Yasunobu so she can turn him into the ace cook his father needs him to be. Haru’s influence opens up his wilfully closed eyes to the rewards of both good women and good cookery which is part way to saying that food cooked with love can heal a broken heart, but it’s equal parts changing times and a young man growing up.

As films about food go, A Tale of Samurai Cooking certainly has a fair few mouth watering dishes on display but perhaps lacks the hearty fare of something like the comparatively more sensual, though equally comic, Tampopo. In truth, its overwhelming quality is a kind of inoffensive niceness and perhaps for some tastes could have done with a little more spice though like the best Japanese cuisine offers its own rewards precisely because of its subtlety. It’s a perfectly nice light meal, but you’ll probably wishing you’d gone for something more substantial come bed time.


 

I went a bit overboard with the food metaphors, which is maybe what you get when you spend your food budget on movie tickets. I regret nothing.

Anyway this is showing at the Curzon in Mayfair until tomorrow, though they did say it may extend if there’s enough interest. It’s also going to be screened at the Genesis Cinema in Mile End and the Everyman and apparently will open in Ireland from 9th January. Yume Pictures will then release it on DVD in 2015 if you aren’t near a cinema that’s showing it, or you can even watch it on Curzon Home Cinema right now.