Twilight: Saya in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2014)

Japanese cinema has its fare share of ghosts. From Ugetsu to Ringu, scorned women have emerged from wells and creepy, fog hidden mansions bearing grudges since time immemorial but departed spirits have generally had very little positive to offer in their post-mortal lives. Twilight: Saga in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや,  Twilight Sasara Saya) is an oddity in more ways than one – firstly in its recently deceased narrator’s comic approach to his sad life story, and secondly in its partial rejection of the tearjerking melodrama usually common to its genre.

Unsuccessful Rakugo performer Yutaro (Yo Oizumi) met the love of his life during one of his sparsely attended recitations. Saya (Yui Aragaki) was the only one laughing but even she didn’t think he was very funny, she just liked him because he was trying so hard. Eventually, he married her and they had a lovely baby boy but before little Yusuke was even a year old, Yutaro got himself killed in a random traffic accident. Such is life. Still, knowing that Saya had no family of her own and having grown up without a father himself Yutaro feels even worse about leaving his wife and son all alone in such a stupid way. Therefore he decides to delay going to heaven so that he can stick around to help Saya in whatever way he can.

A crisis occurs when Yutaro’s estranged father (Ryo Ishibashi) suddenly turns up at the funeral laying claim to little Yusuke with no thought to the additional emotional ramifications of trying to snatch a baby from a grieving mother right over the coffin of her husband. Possessing the body of another guest, Yutaro manages to convince Saya to run leading her to retreat to her late aunt’s house in the peaceful rural village of Sasara.

Though the premise is a familiar one, Fukagawa neatly sidesteps the more maudlin aspects for a broadly comic approach in which Yutaro recounts the story of his death as if it were a rakugo tale. Possessing various people along the way, Yutaro does indeed help Saya adjust to her new life but eventually discovers that perhaps the reason he hasn’t passed over was one of the past rather than one of the future.

Saya’s arrival in Sasara gets off to a bad start – essentially forced out of the city to escape Yutaro’s father Saya causes unexpected trouble when it emerges that the corrupt local estate agent has been letting out her aunt’s house without telling her. If that weren’t enough, some of her valuables are almost stolen by a local delivery boy but, this being an ageing village, children are a rarity and so little Yusuke quickly captures the hearts of the neighbourhood grannies who eventually become Saya’s friends and staunch supporters. Familial problems are the name of the day from childlessness to children (hopefully) writing down possible signs of dementia or just leaving town and not coming back. Yutaro also helps Saya improve the life of another young woman with a son who doesn’t speak by allowing him to finally voice what he really feels, adding to the circle of female help and support which becomes the family Saya had always longed for.

Orphaned at a young age, raised by her grandmother until she died and having lost her only living relative in her aunt a few years previously, Saya had always wondered what it felt like to have a real family of her own. Yutaro had also lost his mother at a young age through illness and was estranged from his father who refused to visit her even on her deathbed. Yutaro’s untimely death adds to Saya’s ongoing sorrows but also ends the beginnings of the happy family they’d begun to build with each other. As it turns out, Yotaro’s limbo is less about his son and more about his father as he gets a last opportunity to bond with his outwardly harsh and cruel dad and come to a kind of understanding about fatherhood in hearing his side of the story. Life is too short for grudges, and even spirits sometimes need to give up the ghost so that the air can rest a little lighter.

Though there are the expected moments of sadness as Yotaro realises the number of people he can possess is dwindling and his time with Saya will be limited, Fukagawa keeps things light and whimsical with a kind of small town quirkiness aided by Oizumi’s spirited delivery. Adding in frequent rakugo references complete with painted backdrops and sound effects as well as a repeated motif which sees the little town remade as a diorama model, Twilight: Saya in Sarasa has a pleasantly old fashioned feeling which only adds to its wholesome emphasis on an extended family of community coupled with the continuing presence of Yutaro watching from somewhere on high. Warm and funny if a little lacking in impact, Twilight: Saya in Sasara is a rare instance of a ghost bringing people together in love and harmony through helping them get closer to their true emotions but one that is also keen to emphasise that we’re all only here for an unspecified time – better not to waste it with silly things like grudges.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

I Am a Hero (アイアムアヒーロー, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

i-am-a-heroJapan has never quite got the zombie movie. That’s not to say they haven’t tried, from the arty Miss Zombie to the splatter leaning exploitation fare of Helldriver, zombies have never been far from the scene even if they looked and behaved a littler differently than their American cousins. Shinsuke Sato’s adaptation of Kengo Hanazawa’s manga I Am a Hero (アイアムアヒーロー) is unapologetically married to the Romero universe even if filtered through 28 Days Later and, perhaps more importantly, Shaun of the Dead. These “ZQN” jerk and scuttle like the monsters you always feared were in the darkness, but as much as the undead threat lingers with outstretched hands of dread, Sato mines the situation for all the humour on offer creating that rarest of beasts – a horror comedy that’s both scary and funny but crucially also weighty enough to prove emotionally effective.

Strange things are happening in Tokyo. The news has just had to make a correction to their previous item – apparently, it was the woman who bit the dog and no, they don’t as yet know why. Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi), sitting in the corner apart from his sardonic colleagues, is a 35 year old manga assistant with dreams of creating his very own franchised series. Sadly, his ideas are always shot down by the publisher who barely remembers his name but does note that there’s always the same problem with his protagonists. They’re just too…”normal’? Returning home to his previously patient girlfriend with the news that he has, once again, failed, Hideo is unceremoniously thrown out as Tekko (Nana Katase) charges him with exactly the same complaint as his publisher had – only special people can achieve their dreams, she says. You’re not special, you’re just ordinary. Throwing out his ridiculous shotgun purchased for “research” alongside him, Tekko slams the door with an air of frustrated finality.

A short time later, some of Hideo’s co-workers are feeling unwell, as is Tekko who calls him to apologise but when he arrives at her flat what he finds there is obviously not Tekko anymore. Returning to work, Hideo also finds one of his colleagues wielding a bloody bat next to the body of another assistant. Heroically cutting his own throat on realising he’s been bitten, his friend passes the bat(on) to Hideo, now on the run from a falling city. Teaming up with high school girl, Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura), he heads for Mt. Fuji where it’s hoped the virus may not be able to survive but the pair eventually run into another group of survivors holed up in a outlet mall where the undead may be the last of their worries.

Sato gleefully ignores the genre norms, refusing to give in to cinematic rules by consistently moving in unexpected directions. Thus, Hideo remains a cowardly fantasist throughout much of the film. In an odd kind of way, this refusal to engage is his manner of heroism. Though he is afraid and avoids reality through frequently trying write his way out of a situation, cleverly manifested by nicely integrated fantasy sequences, Hideo does not run away and consistently refuses to abandon those around him even if might be to his own advantage. Eventually he does get his hero moment, finally finding the courage to fire the shotgun which has so far remained an empty symbol of his unattainable dreams, stopping to pick up his all important hat as every bona fide hero must, but his true moment of realisation comes when he’s forced to acknowledge his own ordinariness. Having been accustomed to introduce himself with the false bravado that his name is Hideo – written with the character for hero, his post-zombie warrior persona can finally consent to just being “the regular kind of Hideo”. Heroes are not a magic breed, they’re regular guys who are OK with who they are and are prepared to risk all for someone or something else.

The fact that Hideo has a gun at all is a strange one when guns are so rare in Japan though his devotion to the precise rules of his license even in this quite obviously lawless environment proves an ongoing source of comedy. It also makes him an unwitting target for the unscrupulous and puts him in danger with the unpredictable leader of the survivor community he accidentally wanders into. As with any good zombie tale, the undead are one thing but it’s the living you have to watch out for. Holing up in an outlet store of all places can’t help but recall Dawn of the Dead and Sato does, indeed, make a little of its anti-consumerist message as expensive trinkets firstly seem pointless trophies, unceremoniously heaped together in Tupperware, but ultimately prove a kind of armour against zombie attack.

The ZQN are classic zombies in many ways – you need to remove the head or destroy the brain, but they’re also super strong and have a poignant tendency to engage in repetitive actions from their former lives or repeatedly make reference to something which was obviously in their mind as they died. Thus Tekko has enough time to ring Hideo before the virus takes hold and a politician to vent about the incompetence of his colleagues but the ZQN turns salarymen into babbling choruses of “thanks for everything”, dooms shop assistants to exclaim “welcome” for eternity and leaves baristas stuck with “What can I get you today?”. Unlike your usual zombies, the ZQN retain some buried consciousness of their inner selves, able to recognise those close to them but condemned to devour them anyway.

Placing character development ahead of the expected genre trajectory, Sato weaves a nuanced essay on the nature of heroism and humanity as Hideo is forced to confront himself in order to survive. Though he tantalises with a possible deus ex machina, Sato never gives in to its use – if our heroes are going to survive, they have to save themselves rather than wait for someone with the hero genes to suddenly appear. Of course, they do so in an elaborate blood soaked finale which more than satisfies in the zombie action stakes. Witty yet heartfelt, if I am a Hero has a message it’s that if I am a Hero then you can be too – no one is coming to save us, except us, but if we’re going to do so then we have to conquer ourselves first so that we might help each other.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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.