Samurai Shifters (引っ越し大名!, Isshin Inudo, 2019)

Samurai Shifters poster 1Forced transfers have been in the news of late. Japanese companies, keen to attract and keep younger workers in the midst of a growing labour shortage, have been offering more modern working rights such as paid parental leave but also using them as increased leverage to force employees to take jobs in far flung places after returning to work – after all, you aren’t going to up and quit with a new baby to support.

As Isshin Inudo’s Samurai Shifters (引っ越し大名!, Hikkoshi Daimyo!) proves, contemporary corporate culture is not so different from the samurai ways of old. Back in the 17th century, the Shogun kept a tight grip on his power by shifting his lords round every so often in order to keep them on their toes. Seeing as they had to pay all the expenses and handle logistics themselves, relocating left a clan weakened and dangerously exposed which of course means they were unlikely to challenge the Shogun’s power and would be keen to keep his favour in order to avoid being asked to make regular moves to unprofitable places.

When the Echizen Matsudaira clan is ordered to move a considerable distance, crossing the sea to a new residence in Kyushu which isn’t even really a “castle”, they have a big problem because their previous relocation officer has passed away since their last move. Predictably, no one wants this totally thankless job which warrants seppuku if you mess it up so it falls to introverted librarian Harunosuke (Gen Hoshino) who is too shy refuse (even if he had much of a choice, which he doesn’t). Unfortunately for some, however, Harunosuke is both smart and kind which means he’s good at figuring out solutions to complicated problems and reluctant to exercise his samurai privilege to do so.

In fact Harunosuke is something of an odd samurai. As others later put it, he doesn’t care about status or seniority and has a natural tendency to treat everybody equally. When the head of accounts advises him to take loans from merchants with no intention to pay them back, he objects not only to the dishonesty but to the unfairness of stealing hard-earned money from ordinary people solely under the rationale that they are entitled to do so because they are samurai and therefore superior. Likewise, when he finds out that his predecessor was of a lower rank and that all his achievements were credited to his superiors he makes a point of going to his grave to apologise which earns him some brownie points with the man’s pretty daughter, Oran (Mitsuki Takahata), who was not previously minded to help him because of the way her father had been treated.

Harunosuke’s natural goodness begins to endear him to the jaded samurai now in his care. Though they might be suspicious of some of his methods including his “decluttering” program, they quickly come on board when they realise he is not intending to exclude himself from his ordinances and even consents to burn his own books in order to make it plain that everyone is in the same boat. He hesitates in his growing attraction to Oran (who in turn is also taken with him because of his atypical tendency to compassion) not only because of his natural diffidence but because he feels it might be selfish to pursue a romance while urging everyone else towards austerity.

Meanwhile, “romance” is why all this started in the first place. The lord, Naonori Matsudaira (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), is in a relationship with his steward (something which seems to be known to most and not particularly an issue). While he was in Edo, he rudely rebuffed the attentions of another lord, Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa (Osamu Mukai), who seems to have taken rejection badly and has it in for the clan as a whole. In an interesting role reversal, his advisor laments that perhaps it would have been better for everyone if he’d just submitted himself, but nevertheless a few thousand people are now affected by the petty romantic squabbles of elite samurai in far off Edo.

Bookish and reticent as he is, Harunosuke sees his chance to “go to war against the unjust Shogunate” by engineering a plan which allows them to reduce the burden of moving, reluctantly having to demote some samurai and leave them behind as ordinary farmers with the promise that they will be reinstated as soon as the clan resumes its former status. Asking the samurai to drop their superiority and carry their own bags for a change has profound implications for their society, but Harunosuke’s practical goodness eventually wins out as the clan comes together as one rather than obsessing over their petty internal divisions. A cheerful tale of homecoming, friendship, and warmhearted egalitarianism, Samurai Shifters is an oddly topical period comedy which satirises the vagaries of modern corporate culture through the prism of samurai-era mores but does so with a wry smile as Harunosuke finds a way to live within the system without compromising his principles and eventually wins all with little more than a compassionate heart and a finely tuned mind.


Samurai Shifters screens in New York on July 21 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Nobuo Mizuta, 2013)

The Apology King.jpgThere are few things in life which cannot at least be improved by a full and frank apology. Sometimes that apology will need to go beyond a simple, if heart felt, “I’m Sorry” to truly make amends but as long as there’s a genuine desire to make things right, it can be done. Some people do, however, need help in navigating this complex series of culturally defined rituals which is where the enterprising hero of Nobuo Mizuta’s The Apology King (謝罪の王様, Shazai no Ousama), Ryoro Kurojima (Sadao Abe), comes in. As head of the Tokyo Apology Centre, Kurojima is on hand to save the needy who find themselves requiring extrication from all kinds of sticky situations such as accidentally getting sold into prostitution by the yakuza or causing small diplomatic incidents with a tiny yet very angry foreign country.

Kurojima promises to know an even more powerful form of apology than the classic Japanese “dogeza” (falling to your knees and placing your head on the ground with hands either side, or OTL in internet lingo), but if you do everything he tells you to, you shouldn’t need it. His first case brings him into contact with Noriko (Mao Inoue) whose awful driving has brought her into contact with the yakuza. Not really paying attention, Noriko has signed an arcane contract in which she’s pledged herself to pay off the extreme debts they’ve placed on her by entering their “employment” at a facility in Osaka. Luckily, she’s turned to Kurojima to help her sort out this mess, which he does by an elaborate process of sucking up to the top brass guys until they forget all about Noriko and the money she owes them in damages. Impressed, Noriko ends up becoming Kurojima’s assistant in all of his subsequent cases, helping people like her settle their disputes amicably rather allowing the situation to spiral out of control.

Mizuta begins with a neat meta segment in which Kurojima appears in a cinema ad outlining various situations in which you might need to apologise including allowing your phone to go off during the movie, or attempting to illegally film inside the auditorium etc ending with a catchy jingle and dance routine pointing towards the contact details for his apology school. Kurojima’s instructions are also offered throughout the film in a series of video essays in which he outlines the basic procedures for de-escalating a conflict and eventually getting the outcome you’re looking for.

Of course, all of this might sound a little manipulative, which it is to a degree, but the important thing to Kurojima lies in mutual understanding more than “winning” or “losing” the argument. The second case which comes to him concerns a young man who has some very outdated ideas and has, therefore, been accused of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, Numata (Masaki Okada) is a classic sexist who only makes the situation worse for himself and completely fails to understand why he was at fault in the first place. Even following Kurojima’s expertly crafted instructions, Numata further insults his female boss whilst attempting to apologise meaning Kurojima has to come up with an even more elaborate plan to smooth the situation which involves pretending to be the ghost of a man who threw himself under a train after being accused of harassing a young woman at work who did not return his affections. This seems to do the trick and the relationship between Numata and his boss appears to have improved even if Numata still has a long way to go in the person stakes, though it does perhaps make light of a serious workplace problem.

Numata follows all of Kurojima’s instructions but still gets everything wrong because he refuses to understand all of the various social rules he’s broken and therefore why and how the apology process is intended to make amends for them. Understanding and sincerity are the keys to Kurojima’s ideology but Numata, after a quick fix, fails to appreciate either of these central tenets and so is unable to work things out for himself. Similarly, in another case the parents of an actor are required to make a public apology when their son is captured on CCTV getting into a street fight. Only, being actors, they find genuine sincerity hard to pull off on the public stage either resorting to chewing the scenery or overdoing the dignified act, not to mention plugging their latest appearances at the end of the speech. The public apology is an important part of the Japanese entertainment industry though it might seem odd that the famous parents of a “disgraced” celebrity would be expected to apologise to the nation as a whole, but as it turns out all that was needed to settle the matter was a quick chat between the people involved, fully explaining the situation and reaching a degree of mutual understanding.

The innovative structure of Apology King neatly weaves each of the cases together as they occur in slightly overlapping timeframes but each contribute to the final set piece in which Kurojima becomes an advisor during a diplomatic incident caused when a film director unwittingly offends the small nation of Mutan by accidentally turning their crown prince into an extra in his film. Mutan is a nation with many arcane rules including a prohibition on filming royalty as well as on drinking and eating skewered meat, all of which the crown prince is seen doing in the movie. Matters only get worse when the film crew travel to Mutan to apologise but make even more faux pas, especially when it turns out that Japanese dogeza is actually incredibly rude in Mutanese culture. Revisiting elements from each of the previous cases, Kurojima is only able to engineer a peaceful solution by convincing the Japanese authorities to utter a set phrase in Mutanese which means something quite different and very embarrassing in their own language. Apologies are, of course, always a little humiliating, but then that is a part of the process in itself – placing oneself on a lower level to those who’ve been wronged, as symbolised in the dogeza.

Full of zany, madcap humour and culminating in a gloriously unexpected pop video complete with dancing idols of both genders exhorting the benefits of a perfectly constructed (and sincere) apology, The Apology King is a warm and innocent tribute to the importance of mutual understanding and its power to ease even the deepest of wounds and most difficult of situations. Hilarious but also heartfelt, The Apology King is a timely reminder that unresolved conflicts only snowball when left to their own devices, the only path to forgiveness lies in recognising your own faults and learning to see things from another perspective. Kurojima’s powers could be misused by the unscrupulous, but the most important ingredient is sincerity – empty words win no respect.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flying Colors (ビリギャル, Nobuhiro Doi, 2015)

flying-colorsBelow average student buckles down and makes it into a top university? You’ve heard this story before and Nobuhiro Doi’s Flying Colors (ビリギャル, Biri Gyaru) doesn’t offer a new spin on the idea or additional angles on educational policy but it does have heart. Heart, it argues is what you need to get ahead (if you’ll forgive the multilevel punning) as the highest barriers to academic success are the ones which are self imposed. Arguing for a more inclusive, tailor made approach to education which doesn’t instil false hope but does help young people develop self confidence alongside standardised skills, Flying Colors is the story of one popular girl’s journey from anti-intellectual teenage snobbery to the very top of the academic tree whilst healing her divided family in the process.

Little Sayaka Kudo (Kasumi Arimura) got off to a bad start in her academic life, bullied and friendless at primary school. After the teachers refuse to help, Sayaka’s doting mother, Akari (Yo Yoshida), manages to get her into a more exclusive middle school which is affiliated with both a high school and a university which means that Sayaka’s academic destiny is fairly secure. However, though she does manage to make friends at her new school, she falls in with the “popular” crowd and begins dying her hair, rolling her skirt up, and wearing an inadvisable amount of makeup. Knowing that their entrance to high school and university is assured, the girls slack off completely and are at the very bottom of the class.

However, it all comes crashing down when Sayaka is caught smoking and threatened with expulsion. Bravely refusing to give up her friends and have them suffer the same fate, Sayaka is the only one who gets suspended but still risks missing graduation and losing her secured place at university. One of the few people to really believe in her, her mother Akari, arranges for Sayaka to attend an unconventional cram school where the well meaning teacher, Tsubota (Atsushi Ito), encourages her to have a goal, and it’s a lofty one – Keio University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Japan.

Despite her dismal academic prognosis, Sayaka is not lacking in ability, just the will and belief to see it through. After being so unhappy in primary school, Sayaka values her friendships and status as one of the popular girls and maintaining that side of her life is much more important than getting good grades. Written off by her teachers, no one is prepared to give her the permission to succeed and so she assumes she’s as dim as everyone says she is.

The situation isn’t helped by her home life in which her embittered father (Tetsushi Tanaka) ignores his two daughters in favour of devoting all his attention to his son, Ryuta (Yuhei Ouchida), whom he wants to become a professional baseball player. Vicariously thrusting his own dream on his unsuspecting son, Sayaka’s father is unprepared for the moment Ryuta realises he’s been denied the right to choose for himself and rebels against him as all young men are apt to do. In fact, many of the cram school students are there because of a grudge against an unfeeling father who has had quite an adverse affect on his child’s sense of self worth.

Tsubota is the first person other than her mother to show faith in Sayaka’s abilities and is able to convince her that she might be able to achieve something if she started to apply herself. Speaking to her in terms she can understand, Tsubota hunts down different kinds of study materials to help her along the way gradually raising her scores as she builds belief in her ability to reach her goal. Tsubota is the only teacher at the school and is able to take the time to get to know each of his pupils individually so he can tailor the course to bring out the potential in each of his charges. While the kids are studying to pass exams, Tsubota is studying pop culture so that he can talk to them on their own level and find out the best ways to keep them motivated.

As much as it’s the story of a persistent underdog finally discovering a well of self belief that will sustain them on a difficult path, Flying Colors is also an indictment on the modern educational system which only caters for the group rather than the individual and is so concentrated around rote learning and standardised tests that it fails to teach young people the critical thinking skills they need to succeed in life. Flying Colors probably is not going to influence public educational policy but it does offer an amiable and inspirational story that might give hope to those struggling under its often unreasonable demands.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kanikosen (蟹工船, SABU, 2009)

kanikosenBack in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.

As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.

SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.

Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.

Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.

In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.


 

A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Kenji Uchida, 2005)

stranger of mineSometimes life throws you a pretty crazy night but unbeknownst to you the whole world has gone crazy too. For the disparate group of people at the centre of Kenji Uchida’s A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Unmei Janai Hito) , this proves to be more than usually true. A cute romantic encounter may end up going in a less than cinematic direction while ex-girlfriends, detectives and even the yakuza all conspire to frustrate the lovelorn dreams of a nice guy businessman who never even realises the total chaos which is ensuing all around him.

The film begins with a sad scene of a woman, Maki, carrying large bags and forlornly dropping a key through a letter box. She pawns what looks like an engagement ring and thinks about what to do next. Whilst sitting alone in a restaurant, a man asks her to join him and she is overjoyed to find some company. The man is Kanda, a small time detective and childhood friend of businessman Miyata who is also broken hearted as his girlfriend has left him. The girlfriend, “Ayumi”, is not all she seems and is already mixed up with yakuza boss Asai. Mix in a MacGuffin of some missing money and one ordinary night among millions just got very complicated indeed!

Uchida starts out with a fairly standard indie rom-com approach as the two brokenhearted jilted lovers Maki and Miyata are brought together by Kanda’s machinations but just as we think we’re about to head into some kind of Before Sunset scenario our perspective shifts and we find out just why it is that Kanda seems to be acting so manically. In fact, he’s been looking out for his friend all along but it’s getting kind of complicated at his end and the one thing he 100% does not want is for the rather innocent Miyata to figure out that he’s at the centre of dangerous mob caper because his ex-girlfriend, whom he still think is an angel, is really not the innocent flower he thought she was.

Just another night in the city, the point of view shifts around these five characters whose lives intersect like cogs turning some giant, unseen machine. We’re shown one set of events only to have our understanding of them undercut by seeing them again from another angle. Everything is a coincidence, or maybe nothing is, but each of these five characters wade into each other’s story leaving a drama filled wake with only poor Miyata seemingly oblivious to what’s really going on.

A Stranger of Mine plays like an extremely complex farce in which fate conspires to have some fun with five ordinary people and Uchida mines the situation for all the (sometimes dark) humour it can offer. Loosely split into three sections divided by title cards bearing the names of the characters, the film takes inspiration from classic Hollywood screwball comedies and film noir whilst adding a more modern, non-linear approach as Uchida plays and replays his scenes to make us see that things are not always the way they look at first glance.

While obviously a low budget, independent effort, A Stranger of Mine offers surprisingly high production values and boasts excellent performances from its tightly composed cast. The script is fiendishly complicated and exacting yet Uchida pulls it off with a keenly observed eye. Though improbable, the events are never implausible and play out with a kind of off beat inevitability that further underlines the film’s mildly ironic, comic tone. Gleefully playful, A Stranger of Mine may appear a little slight on the surface, but just as its multi-layered narrative suggests, the perspective only deepens on a closer look.


Unsubtitled trailer: