The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1988)

discarnatesNobuhiko Obayashi is no stranger to a ghost story whether literal or figural but never has his pre-occupation with being pre-occupied about the past been more delicately expressed than in his 1988 horror-tinged supernatural adventure, The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Ijintachi to no Natsu). Nostalgia is a central pillar of Obayashi’s world, as drenched in melancholy as it often is, but it can also be pernicious – an anchor which pins a person in a certain spot and forever impedes their progress.

Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama) is a successful TV scriptwriter whose career is on the slide. He’s just gotten a divorce and seems to be conflicted about the nature of his new found bachelordom. As if he didn’t have enough despair in his life, the closest thing he has to a friend – his boss at the TV station, tells him he thinks it’s better if they end their professional relationship because he plans to start dating Harada’s ex-wife and it would all get very awkward.

Feeling unloved, Harada takes a trip to his hometown on a location scout for another project and takes in a few familiar sights along the way. It’s here that he runs into a youngish man who looks just like Harada’s father did when he was a boy. Not only that, accompanying his new found friend home, the man’s wife looks just like his mother, but Harada’s parents died when he was just twelve years old. The mysterious couple are glad to have him in their house and treat him with the warmth and kindness that seemed to have been missing in his life, leaving him the happiest and most cheerful he’s been in years.

Now in a much better mood, Harada feels guilty about rudely dismissing the woman from upstairs who’d come to visit him the day before. Apologising, Harada strikes up a friendship and then a romance with the equally damaged Kei (Yuko Natori) but even if his mental health is improving, his physical strength begins to deteriorate. Looking pale and old, Harada’s teeth rot and fall out while his hair loses its color. Even so, Harada cannot bear to pull himself away from the warmth and security that was so cruelly taken away from him when he was just a child.

Harada doesn’t start off believing that the mysterious couple really are his late parents, but if even if they weren’t these two people who are actually younger than him take him in as a son, feeding and entertaining him. When Harada returns a little while later confused by what exactly has happened, his mother immediately treats him as a mother would – physically taking off his polo shirt and urging him to remove his trousers lest they get wrinkled from sitting on the floor. Having lost his parents at such a young age, Harada has been a adrift all his life, unable to form true, lasting emotional bonds with other people. Lamenting his failure as a husband and a father, this very ordinary kindness provides the kind of warmth that he’s been craving.

However, there is always a price to be paid. Harada’s visits become increasing tiring, taking a physical toll on his ageing body. Each hour spent in the past is an hour lost to the dead. His parents are both dead and alive, existing in a strange, golden hued bubble filled with the comforting innocence of childhood free from the concerns of the adult world. Yet each time Harada succumbs to his weakness and goes to visit them, he is doing so as a way of avoiding all of his real world problems. According to one of Harada’s scripts, the past becomes a part of you and is never lost, but memory can be an overly seductive drug and an overdose can prove fatal.

Contrasted with the warm glow of the post-war world of Harada’s childhood home, his life in bubble era Tokyo is one filled with blues and a constant sense of the sinister. Harada believes himself to mostly be alone in the apartment block save for a mysterious third floor light that hints at another resident who also favours late nights over early mornings. The light turns out to belong to a lonely middle-aged woman, Kei, who is also a fan of Harada’s work. Kei has her own set of problems including a wound on her chest that she is too ashamed to let anyone see. Ultimately, Harada’s self-centred inability to lay the past to rest and fully take other people’s feelings into account will deal Kei a cruel blow.

Harada sees everything with a writer’s eye. His childhood world is a dream, but his life is a film noir filled with shadows and misery. His environments appear too perfectly composed, like a TV stage set and, as if to underline the fact, at the end of each “scene” the colour drains from the screen to leave a blue tinted black and white image shrinking into a rectangle and disappearing like the dot going out in the days when television really did close down overnight. Whether any of this happened outside of Harada’s mind or reflects a constructed reality he wrote for himself in the midst of a mental breakdown, his dilemma is an existential one – return to childhood and the side of his parents by accepting the death of his present self, or say goodbye to remnants of the abandoned child inside him and start living an adult, fully “fleshed” life by killing off this unattainable dream of a long forgotten past which never took place.

Filled with melancholy, longing and regret, The Discarnates is the story of a hollow man made whole by coming to terms with his traumatic past and all of the ways it’s influenced the way in which he’s lived his life. Harada’s parents treat him as their twelve year old son, barely acknowledging that he’s a middle aged man with a teenage son of his own. They feel regret for all of the thousand things they were never able to teach him though they are unable to see the full depths of his inability to escape his interior bubble for the wider world. Unsettling, though not as obviously surreal as some of Obayashi’s other efforts, The Discarnates is one of his most melancholic works speaking of the danger of nostalgia and all of its false promises whilst also acknowledging its seductive appeal.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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:

No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない!, Yojiro Takita, 1986)

No More ComicsThe word “paparazzo” might have been born with La Dolce Vita but the gossip hungry newshound has been with us since long before the invention of the camera. Yojiro Takita’s 1986 film No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない, Komikku zasshi nanka iranai AKA Comic Magazine) proves that the media’s obsession with celebrity and “first on the scene” coverage is not a new phenomenon nor one which is likely to change any time soon.

Kinameri (Yuya Uchida) is a hack reporter on a gossipy news magazine programme which reports on all the sordid personal details of the private lives of celebrities. In a bit of neat meta commentary, we first meet him when he’s doggedly following real life top actress of the time Kaori Momoi (making a brief self cameo) as she tries to board a plane at the airport. Kinameri keeps on asking his inappropriate questions about her alleged relationship with a screenwriter whilst Momoi successfully ignores him before finally reaching the relative sanctuary of the security cordon preventing Kinameri from actually boarding the plane with her. Of course, his interview attempt has failed but he plays the footage on the programme anyway justifying her silence as a lack of denial and that he has therefore “proved” that the rumours are true.

Kinameri is both respected and ridiculed by his colleagues who praise his probing journalistic techniques which see him doggedly refusing to give up on a story but also find his intensity amusing seeing as he’s mostly chasing cheating spouses rather than uncovering the next great political scandal like his heroes who exposed Watergate. Having graduated from a top Japanese university in political sciences, this is far from the line of work Kinameri would want to be doing and its vacuity coupled with his own failed ambitions push him further and further into a spiral of self loathing and depression.

It’s not only celebrities either. Even if you could make a case that those in the entertainment industry have entered into a pact with the media and are, therefore, fair game, civilians and particularly victims of crime should be off limits. Kinameri will literally stop at nothing to scratch a up a story including attending the funeral of a murdered 14 year old girl and quizzing her mother over the rumours that the girl had been engaging in prostitution to try and elicit some kind of social commentary about the youth of today. After his programming starts to decline in popularity he’s relegated to the late night slot which involves visiting various shady places such as strip clubs, snack bars that are actually yakuza hang outs, and even the set of a porn film where he gets a cameo feeling up the lead actress in the front of a convertible.

While all of this is going on, Kinameri is also receiving some bothersome cold calls offering to sell him gold as an investment proposal. His elderly neighbour is visited by a woman from the company and does actually buy some but Kinameri smells a rat and his journalistic instincts kick back in. His bosses at the network aren’t convinced though – dodgy gold dealers doesn’t sound like a ratings winner after all and even when Kinameri agrees to even shadier assignments so he can pursue his leads, they still aren’t really behind him. Eventually they catch up but it’s almost too late.

Kinameri keeps doing what he’s paid to do, even if he clearly despises everything about it. Asking trivial and ridiculous questions and being ignored anyway, conducting a vacuous meet and greet with a gang of up and coming idol stars, even posing as a gigolo – there are no lengths to which he will not sink in pursuit of his story. By the film’s finale he’s still the frontline reporter, looking on while a vicious yakuza (played by a young Takeshi Kitano) commits a brutal murder right in front of the cameras. No one is moving, no one is trying to stop this, everyone is manoeuvring to get the best coverage. Kinameri has had enough and, with a look of rage and contempt on his face, he launches himself through the widow in a last minute attempt to make a difference but once again, lands up flat on his face and, finally, excluded from the action.

Years ahead of its time, No More Comics! takes an ironic look at invasive media coverage of celebrity gossip which clogs the airwaves while the real story is wilfully ignored. Ironically, Kinameri even becomes something of a celebrity himself, well known for his dogged interviewing style. He receives countless answerphone messages from “fans” (somehow ringing his personal phone number) either praising his efforts or berating him for not pushing his targets harder. When a young aspiring journalist stops him in the street and asks for advice, Kinameri doesn’t even answer but just walks away with a look of contempt and sadness on his face. Finally, after his mad dash into a crime scene in the final reel, he becomes the news himself. All of his fellow reporters suddenly want to know “what happened”, “what was it like”, “did you go in to save him or for the story?” etc. Still stunned and probably in need of medical attention, Kinameri looks directly into the camera, puts his hand across the lens and states “I can’t speak fucking Japanese”.

Filled with rage and shame, No More Comics! is a Network-esque satire on the world of live broadcast reporting exposing the seedier sides of journalistic desperation. Ahead of its time and sadly still timely in the age of 24hr coverage which mainly consists of the same trivial stories repeated ad nauseum, its messages are needed more than ever.


Unsubtitled trailer: