Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録, Kei Ishikawa, 2017)

gukoroku posterGenerally speaking, murder mysteries progress along a clearly defined path at the end of which stands the killer. The path to reach him is his motive, a rational explanation for an irrational act. Yet, looking deeper there’s usually something else going on. It’s easy to blame society, or politics, or the economy but all of these things can be mitigating factors when it comes to considering the motives for a crime. Gukoroku – Traces of Sin (愚行録), the debut feature from Kei Ishikawa and an adaptation of a novel by Tokuro Nukui, shows us a world defined by unfairness and injustice, in which there are no good people, only the embittered, the jealous, and the hopelessly broken. Less about the murder of a family than the murder of the family, Gukoroku’s social prognosis is a bleak one which leaves little room for hope in an increasingly unfair society.

When we first meet Tanaka (Satoshi Tsumabuki) he’s riding a bus. Ominous music plays as a happy family gets off but the real drama starts when another passenger irritatedly instructs Tanaka to give up his seat so an elderly lady can sit down. He snorts a little but gets up only to fall down next to the steps to the doors and subsequently walk off with a heavy limp. The man who told him to move looks sheepish and embarrassed, but as soon as the bus passes from view Tanaka starts walking normally, an odd kind of smirk on his face in thought of his petty revenge.

In one sense the fact that Tanaka faked a disability is irrelevant, the man did not consider that Tanaka may himself have needed a seat despite looking like a healthy man approaching early middle age. Perhaps, he’ll think twice about making such assumptions next time – then again appearances and assumptions are the lifeblood of this mysteriously complicated case.

Tanaka has a lot on his plate – his younger sister, Mitsuko (Hikari Mitsushima), has been arrested for neglecting her daughter who remains in intensive care dangerously underweight from starvation. In between meeting with her lawyer and checking on his niece, he’s also working on an in-depth piece of investigative reporting centring on a year old still unsolved case of a brutal family murder. Tanaka begins by interviewing friends of the husband before moving onto the wife who proves much more interesting. Made for each other in many ways, this husband and wife duo had made their share of enemies any of whom might have had good reason for taking bloody vengeance.

The killer’s identity, however, is less important than the light the crime shines on pervasive social inequality. As one character points out, Japan is a hierarchical society, not necessarily a class based one, meaning it is possible to climb the ladder. This proves true in some senses as each of our protagonists manipulates the others, trying to get the best possible outcome for themselves. These are cold and calculating people, always keeping one eye on the way they present themselves and the other on their next move – genuine emotion is a weakness or worse still, a tool to be exploited.

The key lies all the way back in university where rich kids rule the roost and poor ones work themselves to the bone just trying to keep up. There are “insiders” and “outsiders” and whatever anyone might say about it, they all secretly want in to the elite group. Here is where class comes in, no matter how hard you try for acceptance, the snobby rich kids will always look down on those they feel justified in regarding as inferior. They may let you come to their parties, take you out for fancy meals, or invite you to stay over but you’ll never be friends. The irony is that the system only endures because everyone permits it, the elites keep themselves on top by dangling the empty promise that someday you could be an elite too safe in the knowledge that they only hire in-house candidates.

Gradually Tanaka’s twin concerns begin to overlap. The traces of sin extend to his own door as he’s forced to examine the legacy of his own traumatic childhood and fractured family background. The reason the killer targeted the “happy” family is partly vengeance for a series of life ruining wrongs, but also a symbolic gesture stabbing right at the heart of society itself which repeatedly failed to protect them from harm. Betrayed at every turn, there’s only so much someone can take before their rage, pain, and disillusionment send them over the edge.

Despite the predictability of the film’s final twist, Ishikawa maintains tension and intrigue, drip feeding information as Tanaka obtains it though that early bus incident reminds us that even he is not a particularly reliable narrator. Ishikawa breaks with his grim naturalism for a series of expressionistic dream sequences in which hands paw over a woman’s body until they entirely eclipse her, a manifestation of her lifelong misuse which has all but erased her sense of self-worth. There are no good people here, only users and manipulators – even the abused eventually pass their torment on to the next victim whether they mean to or not. Later, Tanaka gets on another bus and gives up his seat willingly in what seems to be the film’s first and only instance of altruism but even this small gesture of resistance can’t shake the all-pervading sense of hopeless loneliness.


Gukoroku – Traces of Sin was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days (ペコロスの母に会いに行く, Azuma Morisaki, 2013)

pecorossTopping the “best of 2013” lists in both Kinema Junpo and Eiga Geijitsu (something of a feat in itself), Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days (ペコロスの母に会いに行く, Pecoross no Haha ni Ai ni Iku) is a much more populist offering than might be supposed but nevertheless effectively pulls at the heartstrings. Addressing the themes of elder care and senile dementia in Japan’s rapidly ageing society, the film is both a tribute to a son’s love for his mother and to the personal suffering that coloured the majority of the mid-twentieth century in Japan.

Based on a autobiographical manga by Yuichi Okano who uses Pecoross as his artistic name (it’s the name of a small onion and Yuichi thinks his head resembles one) Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days follows Yuichi in his daily life as he tries to adapt to his mother’s sharp decline. Yuichi is a multitalented artist who draws manga and also plays music at small bars around town, but neither of those pay very much so he also has a regular salaryman job that he’s always slacking off from. He’s also a widowed father with a grown-up son who is currently staying with Yuichi and his mother in the family home.

Ever since the death of Yuichi’s father a decade ago, his mother, Mitsue, has been gradually fading. First she was just forgetful but now she’s easily confused and distracted, often forgetting to put the telephone receiver back (though this does accidentally save her from an “ore ore” scam on the other end) or flush the toilet etc. When grandson Masaki finds her wandering the streets to buy alcohol for the long dead grandfather, the pair start to worry if she might be becoming a danger to herself and perhaps they really do need to consider more specialist care for her.

Of course, the decision to place an elderly parent in a home is a difficult one, especially in a culture where the elderly have traditionally been looked after by family. Generally, the daughter-in-law would end up being responsible for the often onerous task of caring for her in-laws as well as her husband, children and the household in general. Yuichi is a widower who can’t be home all day to watch to his mother and there’s always the fear that she might accidentally do harm to herself in her increasingly confused state.

Mitsue quite often becomes unstuck in time, remembering places and events from decades before as if there were happening right now. Born near Nagasaki, she remembers seeing the giant mushroom cloud rising from the atomic bomb and being worried for a young friend who’d been sent to the city only a short time before. The eldest of ten children she looks back on her childhood which had its fair share of hardships and loss. She became physically strong working in the fields and later married a weak willed man who took to drink and was often violent. Through her ruminations and fixations, Yuichi comes to discover a little more about his mother’s history deepening his respect for her and all that she endured in raising him.

The scene where Yuichi first leaves his mother at the home is heartbreaking as he slowly watches her receding in his rear view mirror, confused and hurt at having been abandoned. However, the staff at the care home are shown to be a group of dedicated and caring people who have the proper knowledge to fully cater to Mitsue’s needs. The other elderly residents each have very different symptoms from one woman who’s regressed to her childhood when she was class president at school and now thinks all the nurses are teachers, to a wheelchair bound man who keeps trying to inappropriately touch the female members of staff (though this is apparently just the way he is rather than any kind of condition). The home isn’t a sad place or a sterile one like a hospital, the guests are well stimulated, loved and cared for and Yuichi is welcome to visit and take his mother out on trips whenever he likes.

Though often sad, the events are depicted in the most humorous way possible often using the cute manga drawings Yuichi is making about his mother and there are also long stretches of animation reflecting on Mitsue’s life. The film is, however, unabashedly sentimental and proves a little too saccharine even if obviously sincere. Curiously pedestrian for such a highly praised film though anchored by superlative performances, Pecoross’ Mother and her Days perhaps plays better to a specific audience who are better placed to appreciate its historical meanderings and sweetly sentimental tone but may leave others feeling a little underwhelmed.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

 

Kuro (はなればなれに, Daisuke Shimote, 2012)

poster2All these years later, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary the wheezy, breezy youthfulness of the French New Wave was. Kuro proves that there’s life in this whimsical, summer seaside feeling yet as three misfits find themselves holing up at a disused small hotel to think about what they’ve done until they learn to grow up a little.

Kuro starts our story as she mournfully chows down on some of the pastries at the bakery she works at whilst treating a customer in a very disdainful way. She wanted to be a baker but her boss never really lets her do anything and when they argue about her guzzling half the stock she quits in a fit of pique. Roaming around the city doing absurd things like partying with a jazz band before running off with their change can or messing around with a sharp suited guy in a hotel room she meets womanising stage actor Gou who’s had a tiff with his actress wife after paying to much attention to the new girl. He flirts with and eventually semi-kidnaps Kuro for a road trip where they meet photographer Eito who has also had a tiff with his woman over having neglected to file the marriage papers at city hall. He’s heading up to an old hotel his uncle used to own where he was meant to spend his honeymoon and invites Gou and Kuro to join him.

Kuro’s original Japanese title, はなればなれに “Hanarebanare ni” literally means “scattered pieces” and was, coincidentally, the same title used for Godard’s 1964 masterpiece Bande à part. First time director Daisuke Shimote wears his influences on his sleeve with an atmosphere that recalls early period Godard which is all whimsy minus Godard’s slightly arch, confrontational irony. Leading lady Kuro, played by Airi Kido, has a definite touch of Anna Karina running through her from the way her retro haircut neatly frames her child-like face to her striped top and colourful red skirt. Taking her cue from Karina’s innocent insouciance, her absurd, pixyish pranks take on a cute and quirky quality which is backed up by a youthfully punkish disregard for the normal order of things.

Kido dances with the jazz band like Karina dancing in the bar in Vivre sa Vie and the gang even fake die in a water gun and finger shoot out a la Franz and Arthur in Bande à part. There’s also something of Tati in the intricate way Shimote sets up what are actually quite small and simple jokes like the Wii tennis match that suddenly turns into an entirely different kind of “virtual” game. At this point, the photographer who’s been perpetually on the sidelines, observing, finds himself joining in and experiencing his very own Natasha at the dance moment which, perhaps, finally allows him to break through something that’s been causing a rift in his personal life.

Through their season at the sea, each of these disparate characters comes to a kind of personal realisation that leaves them, well, more or less the same but much more settled. Kuro learns that sometimes you just have to buckle down and do as you’re told, Gou perhaps learns to be nicer to his wife and Eito maybe realises that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s leaving you. Each of the characters is quite depressed, in the best new wave tradition, or just filled with ennui but perhaps you can’t have these kinds of absurd adventures in any other mood. That said, the heavier side of new wave surrealism with its nihilistic overtones is almost entirely absent leaving the atmosphere light and bright with the feeling that everything will (probably) be alright in the end.

Light on conventional narrative and high on sight gags and surrealist humour, Daisuke Shimote has crafted a charming and amusing new wave inspired ensemble comedy that, yes, wears its influences on its sleeves but isn’t afraid to bring its own moves to the dance floor. It might seem a little bit like a curveball from someone who’s spent so much of his previous life studying the work of Ozu with his formalist compositions and inclusory tatami mat viewpoint, but then Ozu was also a master of subtlety who could make peeling an apple into one of the most profoundly moving scenes in cinema history and Shimote is able to harness a similar fastidiousness here only in more of a comedic bent. Charming, whimsical, absurd but absolutely internally consistent, cinematically literate and beautifully made Kuro is one of the most impressive feature length debuts of recent times and hints at a promising career for its still inexperienced director.


Bonus videos of people (mostly Anna Karina) dancing in Godard films:

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Masato Harada, 2015)

166028_02The world of the classical “jidaigeki” or period film often paints an idealised portrait of Japan’s historical Edo era with its brave samurai who live for nothing outside of their lord and their code. Even when examining something as traumatic as forbidden love and double suicide, the jidaigeki generally presents them in terms of theatrical tragedy rather than naturalistic drama. Whatever the cinematic case may be, life in Edo era Japan could be harsh – especially if you’re a woman. Enjoying relatively few individual rights, a woman was legally the property of her husband or his clan and could not petition for divorce on her own behalf (though a man could simply divorce his wife with little more than words). The Tokeiji Temple exists for just this reason, as a refuge for women who need to escape a dangerous situation and have nowhere else to go.

Kakekomi (駆込み女と駆出し男, Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko) places this important institution at its centre as it focuses on the stories of a number of women who’ve each ended up at the temple after a series of difficult circumstances. Jogo (Erika Toda) is married to a womanising drunkard who forces her to run his iron smelting business from the front lines (hence the painful looking blisters on her face) while he enjoys his life of debauchery. When the staff complains about his attitude and their subsequent fears for their jobs and Jogo raises their concerns with him he simply beats her before returning to his mistress. She then faces a decision – Tokeiji, death, or endurance. During her flight, she runs into O-Gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a mysterious wealthy woman who’s sprained her ankle after fighting off bandits in the woods. The pair bond on their quest to reach Tokeiji where they hope to find refuge from their turbulent home lives.

Before you can enter Tokeiji you’re held at one of the receiving inns where they hear your story, assess the possibility of being able to reconcile with a husband and, if deemed necessary, allowed to travel to the temple where you’ll live as a Buddhist nun for two years at which time your husband must legally sign the divorce papers. The inn adheres to strict Buddhist principles – no men are allowed near the temple (even the outside helpers wear bells so the ladies can hear them coming), you eat only temple cuisine (no meat or stimulants like garlic and onions), and have to abide by the word of the head nun. There are also three different classes of resident starting with the most expensive court lady lifestyle, then one of sewing and making repairs, and finally the lowest class which does all the day to day cooking, cleaning and other menial tasks.

The other pivot around which the film turns is the one time medical student Shinjiro (Yo Oizumi) who has literary dreams but has had to beat a quick retreat from Edo after defiantly breaking its ridiculous “no singing in the streets” law (amongst other things). At this period Edo and the surrounding area is undergoing its own mini cultural revolution as the current authorities advocate a period of austerity which sees things like literature, music and even sushi outlawed. Perceiving threats everywhere, the powers at be are also looking for a way to close down Tokeiji by any underhanded means necessary.

Shinjiro is a fast talking wise guy who can generally talk his way out of anything though he is also a keen student and a promising young doctor. As a relative of the Tokeiji inn owners, he’s seeking refuge too but also hoping to make use of their extensive archives for his writing career. As a doctor he’s immediately fascinated by the burns on Jogo’s face which he believes he can treat though in her frightened state she’s alarmed by his direct manner and refuses. After hearing his more reasoned arguments she finally submits and in turn becomes interested in his medical knowledge assisting him to gather herbs in the forest before starting her own herb garden in the temple.

Of course, the two develop a growing romantic attachment though frustrated by Jogo’s position as a married woman and the temple’s prohibition against male contact. Their romance is never played for melodrama, more as a simple and natural course of events though it’s well played by both Toda and Oizumi. At heart, Kakekomi is an ensemble drama which encompasses the often sad stories of its female cast who are each at the mercy of the cruel and rigid Edo era social system. O-Gin’s reasons for fleeing to Tokeiji turn out to be a little different from everyone else’s though she too is still suffering for love.

A humorous look at this untold story, Kakekomi proves an engaging ensemble drama anchored by the committed performances of its cast. Toda takes Jogo from a frightened and abused woman to a confident and learned scholar who is perfectly capable of taking charge of things on her own and her transformation is the true heart of the film. Apparently, director Masato Harada shot nearly four hours of footage before cutting the film down to the more manageable two and a half which may explain why it sometimes feels a little abrupt but nevertheless Kakekomi proves one of the most enjoyable mainstream Japanese movies of recent times.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD of Kakekomi includes English subtitles.