Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

The Crimes That Bind (祈りの幕が下りる時, Katsuo Fukuzawa, 2018)

Crimes that bind posterDetective Kyoichiro Kaga has become a familiar screen presence over the last decade or so in a series of films and TV dramas starring popular actor Hiroshi Abe which might make it something of a surprise that The Crimes That Bind (祈りの幕が下りる時, Inori no Maku ga Oriru toki) is, after a fashion, a kind of origin story and touted as the culmination of the long running franchise. Another of prolific author Keigo Higashino’s key detectives, Kaga’s stalking ground has always been Nihonbashi where he has managed to make himself a friendly neighbourhood cop but, as it turns out, dedication is not the only reason he’s refused promotions and transfers to stay in what is, professionally at least, something of a backwater.

In fact, the film begins way back in 1983 when a young woman, Yuriko (Ran Ito), ran away from her husband and son to become a bar hostess in Sendai offering only the explanation that she felt herself unworthy of being a wife and mother. Some years later in 1997, she met a nice man – Watabe, but died of natural causes in 2001 at which point we discover that she is none other than the long lost mother of our master detective whom she abandoned when he was only eight years old. Being a compassionate man, Kyoichiro Kaga is not angry with his mother only sorry he did not get to see her before she passed and eager to meet the man who made her last years a little happier. Only, it appears, Watabe has also disappeared without trace. The only thing the Mama-san at the bar where Yuriko worked can remember about him is that he once said he often went to Nihonbashi. Kaga searches for the next 16 years with no leads, which is when the main case kicks into gear with the discovery of a badly decomposed body of a woman in a rundown Tokyo flat.

Of course, the two cases will turn out to be connected, giving Kaga an opportunity to investigate himself and come to terms with his difficult family circumstances including his strained relationship with his late father whose coldness he blames for driving his mother away. Parents and children will indeed develop into a theme as Kaga digs into why his mother might have done the things she did while also trying to reverse engineer his clues to figure out why he seems to be at the centre of an otherwise completely unrelated case.

Meanwhile, pieces of the puzzle seem to drop into place at random such as the fortuitous discovery of an old woman claiming to have lost her memory so that she can stay in hospital who may or may not be linked to one of the prime suspects – a top theatre director also known to Kaga thanks to a chance encounter some years earlier. In a neat twist, the theatre production she is currently trying to put on is Love Suicides at Sonezaki – a sad tale of young lovers, an adopted son of a merchant and a courtesan, who realise that they have no freedom to pursue their desires and so decide that their only solution is double suicide. The truth that Kaga uncovers leads him in much the same direction only the love at stake is familial rather than romantic and built on the strange filial interplay of the connection between a parent and a child.

It is quite literally “crimes that bind”, but Kaga’s repeated mantra that lies are the shadow of truth, illuminating as much as they conceal, does not quite fit with the incident he has been investigating which largely hinges on coincidences which place him, improbably, at the centre and tip him off to the hidden connections which will crack the case. Which is to say, the solution lies in the killer overplaying their hand (though for reasons unrelated to crime) and thereby undermining their carefully won subterfuge. Torn between solving the murder and exploring Kaga’s melancholy backstory, The Crimes That Bind finds itself falling between two stools even as its twin plot strands begin to dovetail as neatly as one assumes they eventually will, laying bare the central themes of parental sacrifice and belated filial gratitude. Playing best to those already invested in the Kaga franchise, Katsuo Fukuzawa’s adaptation may serve as a fitting conclusion (to this arc at least) but cannot quite overcome its over-reliance on confessional flashback as method of investigation or the improbable qualities of its admittedly twist filled central mystery.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Killing for the Prosecution (検察側の罪人, Masato Harada, 2018)

Killing for the Prosecution posterThe vagaries of the Japanese legal system have become a persistent preoccupation for anxious filmmakers keen to interrogate the continuing rightward shift of the contemporary society. Stretching right back into the post-war world, filmmakers from Yoji Yamada and Yoshitaro Nomura to the more contemporary Masayuki Suo and Gen Takahashi all had their questions to ask about the courts system before Hirokazu Koreeda pushed the dialogue in a slightly different direction with the probing The Third Murder. Killing for the Prosecution (検察側の罪人, Kensatsugawa no Zainin) picks up Koreeda’s baton and brings with it all the baggage of the aforementioned films in asking similar questions about the nature of justice and most particularly within the context of Japan under the conservative government of Shinzo Abe.

In the contemporary era, rookie prosector Okino (Kazunari Ninomiya) gets a prime Tokyo job working for his mentor Mogami (Takuya Kimura) which begins with investigating a bloody double murder of an elderly couple who were apparently running an illicit side business in usurious loans. The suspect list includes a series of shady characters, but one catches Mogami’s eye – Matsukura (Yoshi Sako), a man arrested and subsequently released in relation to a brutal murder of a school girl Mogami had known and liked while he was a student. Unable to let the case rest, Mogami finds himself fixated on the idea of nailing Matsukura for the pensioner murder in order to get justice for the previous killing which has now passed the statute of limitations.

Meanwhile, Mogami himself is also embroiled in a conspiracy surrounding an old friend, Tanno (Takehiro Hira), now a senator accused of corruption. Harada opens with a brief prologue set during Okino’s final pre-graduation briefing in which Mogami offers a somewhat cynical lecture on the role of the prosecution and the nature of justice. Like the lawyers at the centre of The Third Murder, he is keen to emphasise that the truth is rarely relevant in the face of the law and that justice is a game won by constructing impenetrable narrative. He insists that “there is no such thing as rain which washes away guilt”. Yet his love of justice is so fierce that he collects and displays gavels – a complicated symbol seeing as Japan doesn’t use them but like many other countries has internalised an association with them thanks to American movies.

America, in itself, becomes a complicated facet of Mogami’s judicial confusion as he finds himself pulled between left and right. In his meetings with Tanno, we originally find him complicit with the regime, presumably acting to protect his friend and thereby enabling his corruption but we later come to realise that the opposite is true – that the pair of them are complicit in the system in order to undermine it. Tanno, apparently disillusioned with right wing politics and committed to pacifist ideals, attempted to blow the whistle on systemic political corruption and has been hung out to dry. Lamenting that there is no press freedom in Japan, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to frustrate a persistent shift towards remilitarisation (apparently hastened by his own wife who has embarrassingly enough been photographed at a neo-nazi rally) but coldly cuts off Mogami’s offer of further assistance by reminding him that he too is “part of the system”.

Mogami goes rogue, but he does so more for reasons of personal vengeance than pursuit of justice. Desperate to nail Matsukura he begins to bend his narrative while his earnest rookie underling, Okino, remains conflicted about his boss’ increasingly suspicious behaviour. Yet the possibility remains, if Matsukura didn’t do it someone else did. If Mogami has Matsukura pay for this crime rather than another one, perhaps a kind of justice is served but a dangerous man would still be out there. In the end, Mogami transgresses in pursuit of his own kind of justice becoming the kind of “criminal” prosecutor he cautioned Okino against becoming in his already cynical opening speech.

That aside, Mogami ties his crimes to a long history of injustice and oppression in allusion to his grandfather’s accidental survival of the battle of Imphal thanks to a kind of purgatorial space known as “Hotel Tanang” to which he returns in an oddly surreal dream sequence which places himself and Tanno as descendants of men who refused to die for oppressive imperialistic concerns. The “Skeleton Road” buys him an uneasy alliance with a genial yakuza (Yutaka Matsushige) who provides another source of temptation to turn to the dark side, but the question he seems to be left with is whether it’s acceptable to pursue one’s own kind of justice in the knowledge that the justice system is inherently corrupt.

Okino, who might ordinarily be our hero, seems to say no but lacks the courage to resist – unlike his steadfast assistant, Saho (Yuriko Yoshitaka), who is combating injustice in her own though perhaps no more ethical (and still less than altruistic) ways. “People die, things break, all the same”, Matsukura rambles as if to lay bare the film’s nihilistic leanings as it points out a litany of seemingly irreparable social ills. Mogami breaks cover for an instant when meeting with a police officer after overhearing a woman trying to press a rape charge and being rebuffed, stopping briefly on his way out to encourage her to keep pressing her case in solidarity with her solitary quest against a seemingly impenetrable wall of indifference, while the mild foreshadowing of a contemporary preoccupation about what to do with the problem of elderly drivers in an ageing society becomes an odd kind of punchline in a bleak existential joke. Dark and cynical, Killing for the Prosecution sees little cause for hope in the increasing murkiness of its constantly declining moral universe, finding release only in its final, frustrated scream.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Juzo Itami, 1987)

A Taxing Woman posterIn bubble era Japan where the champagne flows and the neon lights sparkle all night long, even the yakuza are incorporating. Having skewered complicated social mores in The Funeral and then poked fun at his nation’s obsession with food in Tampopo, Juzo Itami turns his attention to the twin concerns of money and collective responsibility in the taxation themed procedural A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Marusa no Onna). Once again starring the director’s wife Nobuko Miyamoto, A Taxing Woman is an accidental chronicle of its age as Japanese society nears the end of a period of intense social change in which acquisition has divorced mergers, and individualism has replaced the post-war spirit of mutual cooperation.

Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto), a single mother and assistant in the tax office, has a keen eye for scammers. She demonstrates this on a stakeout with a younger female colleague in which she keeps a shrewd eye on the till at her local cafe and comes to the conclusion that they’ve been running a system where they don’t declare all of their cheques. Running her eyes over the accounts of a mom and pop grocery store, she notices some irregularities in the figures and figures out the elderly couple feed themselves from the supplies for the shop but don’t “pay” themselves for their own upkeep. That might seem “perfectly reasonable” to most people, but it’s technically a small form of “embezzlement” and Ryoko doesn’t like figures which don’t add up. Seeing as the couple probably didn’t realise what they were doing was “wrong” she lets them off, this time, as long as they go by the book in the future. A more complicated investigation of a pachinko parlour finds a more concrete form of misappropriation, but Ryoko is fooled by the owner’s sudden collapse into inconsolable grief after being caught out and leaves him in the capable hands of his confused accountant.

Nevertheless, Ryoko may have met her match in sleezy corporate yakuza Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Dressing in a series of sharp suits, Gondo walks with a pronounced limp that hints at a more violent past but as his rival from the Nakagawa gang points out, violence is a relic of a bygone era – these days gangsters go to jail for “tax evasion” as means of furthering their “business opportunities” and facilitating ongoing political corruption. Gondo’s business empire is wide ranging but mainly centres on hotels, which is how he arouses Ryoko’s interest. She looks at the numbers, does a few quick calculations, and realises either the business isn’t viable or the correct figures aren’t being reported. Ryoko doesn’t like it when the books don’t balance and so she sets her sights on the seedy Gondo, but quickly discovers she has quite a lot in common with her quarry.

Itami was apparently inspired to make A Taxing Woman after the success of Tampopo shoved him into a higher tax bracket. Given Japanese taxes (at the time) were extremely high, getting around them had become something of a national obsession even if, in contrast to the preceding 30 years or so, there was plenty of money around to begin with. More than the unexpected tendency towards civil disobedience the times seemed to cultivate, Itami homes in on the increasingly absurd desire for senseless acquisition the bubble era was engendering. Thus Gondo who owns a large family home well stocked with symbols of his rising social status, also occupies a bachelor pad where he keeps a mistress which reflects the gaudy excess of the age right down to its random stuffed hyena. Nevertheless when one of the tax clerks asks for some advice as to how to have it all, Gondo replies that that’s easy – to save money, you simply avoid spending it. Gondo lets his glass run over and delights in licking the edges. It’s all about delayed gratification, apparently, and having a secret room full of gold bars to gaze at in order to relieve some of that anxiety for the future.

Gondo, like many of his ilk, has “diversified” – yakuza are no longer thuggish gangsters but incorporated organisations operating “legitimate” businesses through “illegitimate” means. Thus we first find him using a nurse who allows herself to be molested by an elderly, terminally ill client whose identity they will steal to found a company they can quickly dissolve when he dies to shift their assets around and avoid the tax man. Later he pulls another real estate scam by pressing a desperate family but his real focus is the love hotels, whose slightly embarrassing existence ensures that not many come poking around. Ryoko, however, is unlikely to let such a large scam slide and delights as much in closing loopholes as Gondo does in finding them. Noticing a kindred spirit, Gondo quite openly asks his new tax inspector “friend” what she’d think if he married his mistress, gave her all his money, and divorced her – divorce proceeds are after all tax free. Sounds great, she tells him, as long as you trust your wife not to skip town with all the doe.

Ryoko, a modern woman of the bubble era, single and career driven, is a slightly odd figure with her officious approach to her job and unforgiving rigour. Unlike her colleague who dresses in the glamorous and gaudy fashions of the times, Ryoko wears dowdy suits and her mentor boss is always reminding her about her “bed hair”, meanwhile she stays late at the office and offers instructions to her five year old son over the phone as to how to microwave his dinner. Though there is another woman working with her at the tax office, when she’s finally promoted to full tax inspector status she finds herself in a room full of guys who apparently hardly ever go home. On her first job she’s only really brought along because she’s a woman and they want to threaten a mob boss’ mistress with a strip search to find a missing key for a safety deposit box. The mistress, however, tries to throw them off the sent by publicly stripping off and encouraging them to check her “cavity” if they’re so keen to find this key, only for Ryoko to find it under the sink while all the guys are busy being shocked. Ryoko’s methods are occasionally as underhanded as Gondo’s and, like his schemes, built on gaming the system but she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with for those considering defrauding the Japanese government.

Gondo’s schemes excel because they aren’t entirely illegal, only clever ways of manipulating the system, but they’re also a symptom of a large conspiracy which encompasses improprieties right up the chain as banks, corporations, and politicians are all part of the same dark economy managed by a corporatising yakuza. Gondo takes frequent calls from a local representative who often “helps him out”. Later the same representative tries to put pressure on the tax office to back off, but Ryoko’s boss points out that he doesn’t need to because the press are already on the story so he should probably get started on his damage control rather than bothering public servants. Gondo and Ryoko, perhaps as bad as each other, lock horns in a battle wills but discover a strange degree of respect arising between them in having discovered a worthy adversary. There’s something undeniably absurd in Ryoko’s firm determination to catch out struggling businesses and the confused elderly with the same tenacity as taking on a yakuza fronted conspiracy, and there’s something undeniably amusing in Gondo’s attempts to beat the man by playing him at his own game, but the overall winner is Itami who once again succeeds in skewering his nation’s often contradictory social codes with gentle humour and a dispassionate, forgiving eye.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mori, The Artist’s Habitat (モリのいる場所, Shuichi Okita, 2018)

Mori an Artist's Habitat PosterThe world is vast and incomprehensible, but a lifetime’s study may begin to illuminate its hidden depths. At least it’s been that way for the hero of Shuichi Okita’s latest attempt at painting the joys and perils of a bubble existence. Mori, The Artist’s Habitat (モリのいる場所, Mori no Iru Basho) revolves around the real life figure of Morikazu Kumagai (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a well respected Japanese artist best known for his avant-garde depictions of the natural world, as well as for his eccentric personality. When we first meet him the early 1970s, Mori (a neat pun on his given name which uses the character for “protect” but also means “forest”), is 94 years old and has rarely left his beloved garden for the last 30 years. A man out of time, Mori’s world is however threatened by encroaching modernity – a gang of mobbed up property developers is after his land and is already in the process of constructing an apartment block that will rob Mori’s wonderful garden of its rightful sunlight.

Okita introduces us to Mori through an amusing scene which finds the Japanese emperor “admiring” one of his artworks only to turn around in confusion and ask how old the child was that made this painting. Spanning the Meiji and the Showa eras, Mori’s artwork is defined by its bold use of colour and minimalist aesthetic which outlines only the most essential elements of his subjects. As his wife of 52 years, Hideko (Kirin Kiki), explains to the various visitors who turn up at Mori’s studio/home hoping to commission him, Mori only paints what he feels like painting when he feels like painting it. Getting him to do anything else is a losing battle.

Painting mainly at night, Mori spends his days observing the natural world. Wandering around his garden he stops to sit in various places, gazing at the ants, and playing with the fish he put into a small pond dug way down into the earth over a period of 30 years. Despite his distaste for “visitors”, Mori has consented to be the subject of a documentary, followed around by a photojournalist (Ryo Kase) and his assistant (Kaito Yoshimura) keen to capture him in his “natural habitat”. The photographers, natural “shutterbugs”, gaze at Mori in the same way he gazes at his trees and insects. An irony which is not lost on the reticent artist.

Okita neatly symbolises Mori’s world as a place out of time by hovering over his desk on which lies a disassembled pocket watch. Eventually the watch will be repaired and time set back in motion but until now Mori’s garden has been a refuge of natural pleasures which itself contains the world entire. Receiving a surprise visitation from a supernatural being (Hiroshi Mikami), Mori is given an opportunity to explore the universe but turns it down. Firstly he doesn’t want to leave his wife on her own or see her “tired” by his absence, but secondly his garden has always been big enough for him and given thousands of years he fears he may never be able to explore it fully.

The garden, however, may not survive its owner. The 1970s, marked by early turmoil, later became a calm period of rising economic prosperity in which society began to move away from post-war privation towards economic prosperity. Hence our big bad is a property developer set on building apartment blocks – a symbol and symptom of the move away from large multi-generational homes to cramped nuclear family modernity. Unbeknownst to Mori, his garden has become a focal point for the environmental protest movement who have begun to set up signs and slogans around his home attacking the property developers for ruining a national landmark which has important cultural value in appreciating the work of one of Japan’s best known working artists.

Having lived through so much turmoil, Mori takes this in his stride. He knows his garden won’t last forever, and is resigned to the nature of the times. Mori may prefer to spend his days in quiet contemplation resenting the constant interruptions from all his “visitors” but makes time to talk seriously with those who seek his guidance such one of the developers (Munetaka Aoki) who’s brought along one of his son’s drawings, convinced that he must be a “genius”. Mori takes one look and tells him frankly that it’s awful, but adds that that’s a good thing – those with “talent” rarely do anything of note and even if it’s “bad” art is still art. Nevertheless there are those who try to profit from his work for less than altruistic purposes – the  hand-painted nameplate from outside the house is forever being stolen and he’s constantly petitioned to provide his services in service of someone else’s business.

Okita’s characterisation of the later life of a famous artist is another study of genial eccentricity as its hero commits himself fully to living in a way which pleases him, only bristling at those who describe his gnome-like garden presence as resembling a “Chinese Hermit Sage”. Mori himself is, of course, another living thing enjoying the natural world to its fullest and if it’s true that his time is ending there is something inescapably sad in looking up from the shadows of apartment blocks and finding nothing but lifeless concrete.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival. Mori, The Artist’s Habitat will also be screened as the opening gala of the 2018 Nippon Connection Japanese film festival, and will receive its North American premiere at Japan Cuts in July where Kirin Kiki will also receive the 2018 Cut Above Award.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Takashi Miike, 2017)

blade of the immortal posterGenerally speaking, revenge tends not to go very well in Japanese cinema. It has the tendency to backfire. When you’re immortal, however, perhaps revenge is risk worth taking – then again, it’s not your life your weighing. Takashi Miike is no stranger to the jidaigeki world, though in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga Blade of the Immortal (無限の住人, Mugen no Junin) he harks back to the angry, arty samurai films of the late 1960s from Gosha’s Sword of the Beast with which the manga features some minor narrative similarities, to Kobayashi’s melancholy consideration of corrupted honour, and the frantic intensity of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom.

The film opens in black and white as a disgraced samurai, Manji (Takuya Kimura), tries to protect his younger sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who has gone mad through grief only to see her murdered by a bounty hunter. Manji enters a state of furious, mindless killing which leaves the bounty hunter’s vast crowd of henchmen lying dead and Manji mortally wounded. Consumed by guilt and having lost the sister who was his sole reason for living, Manji longs for death but a mysterious old woman who calls herself Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) has other ideas and curses Manji to a life of eternal suffering by means of sacred bloodworms which give him the power of infinite, near instant healing.

Fifty years later, the land is at peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate but peaceful times are dull for warriors. The Itto-ryu school of swordsmanship has a mission – to take over all of the nation’s martial arts facilities and restore power to the sword. They have no honour or ideology save that of kill or be killed and are content to use any and all weapons which come to hand. A young girl, Rin (Yoko Yamamoto), is a daughter of one of these schools and has her eyes set on becoming a top swordswoman herself but when the Itto-ryu show up at her door, Rin’s father’s training proves worthless as he’s cut down with one blow while the gang kidnap Rin’s mother. The Itto-ryu’s sole concession to morality is in letting Rin alone, seeing as it’s “vulgar” to toy with children.

Rin vows revenge on the Itto-ryu’s leader, Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), at which point she runs into Yaobikuni who recommends she track down Manji and hire him as a bodyguard. Fifty years of immortality have turned Manji into an isolated, embittered wastrel with rusty swordskills but Rin’s uncanny resemblance to Machi eventually begins to move his heart. Despite generating a master/pupil, big brother/little sister relationship, Manji fails to teach Rin very much of consequence that might assist her in her plan to avenge her family, leaving her a vulnerable young woman beset by enemies and random thugs, and eventually caught up in a government conspiracy. The irony of Manji’s life is that he’s just not very good at the art of protection and all of his attempts to do something good usually provoke an even bigger crisis, in this case leaving his new little sister open to exactly the same fate as the one he failed to save for much the same reasons. Apparently, Manji has learned little during his extended lifetime except how to brood and glare resentfully at the world.

It turns out being immortal is kind of a drag. Manji wants to die because he can’t cope with the burden of his guilt, but another similarly cursed man he meets has lived much longer and lost far more, becoming tired of the business of of living. Manji’s existence has lost all meaning, but as he puts it to another world weary warrior who shares his brotherly grief, he’s not the only hero of a sad story. Rin’s need for vengeance gives him a purpose again – not just in the literal revenge, but in being the protector (though one could argue this is less positive than it sounds and might explain why he fails to teach Rin anything very useful, even if it doesn’t explain why she also forgets all her father’s teachings).

Rin remains conflicted over her mission of revenge, confessing to a similarly conflicted assassin that she agrees killing is wrong but that right and wrong no longer matter when it comes to people you love. A dangerous and dubious assertion, but it does bear out the more positive message that love, or at least learning to live for others, can be a transformative force for good as Manji allows himself to resume his role as the big brother despite his past failings. Violent and visceral, if also humorous, Blade of the Immortal is, oddly enough, a story of love but also of cyclical paths of violence and revenge, and of the general muddiness of assigning the moral high ground to those engaged in a quest for retribution.


Blade of the Immortal was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2017 and will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Entertainment on 8th December.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)