The Lowlife (最低, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

The Lowlife 2017In terms of the mainstream cinema industry, the AV (“adult video”) world is viewed with suspicion and distain. AV is where unlucky women end up after having the misfortune to encounter unscrupulous yakuza or be born to feckless parents whose debts they are forced to pay with their bodies. However, mainstream cinema perhaps has a reason to demonise its rival on top of reflecting persistent social stigmas relating to the expression of sexuality. Takahisa Zeze began his career in “pink film”, which is to say softcore pornography, and casts a non-judgemental eye over the modern hardcore porn scene in The Lowlife (最低, Saitei), adapting a novel by AV actress and gravure model Mana Sakura which explores the lives of three women who each have been impacted by the industry.

The first two of our heroines – college dropout Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), and melancholy housewife Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), have made a free choice to enter the AV industry mostly out of loneliness and insecurity. Ayano, who claims to be the only “ugly” one among her many sisters, is convinced to take part in a porn shoot by an unscrupulous boyfriend but finds herself reassured in being adored by the camera and appreciated on set, if only briefly. Miho, meanwhile, is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a man who has begun sleeping in his study and continually puts off the discussion of starting a family despite Miho’s intense desire to become a mother. Checking on her husband one morning she is dismayed to find a porn DVD in the open tray of his laptop which feels like a double betrayal in that he has obviously not been “working” all night and has avoided intimacy with her while finding release somewhere else. Irritated, Miho takes the extreme decision of becoming a porn star herself as a strange kind of revenge and motion towards personal fulfilment.

Our third heroine, Ayako (Aina Yamada), however, is looking at the same problem from a different angle in that she is daughter of a single-mother who had previously worked in the porn industry before returning home to her own single-mother to start again and raise her daughter. Takako (Saki Takaoka) is a difficult, flighty woman who still likes to live the high life drinking with random guys and rolling in late or sometimes not at all to the constant worry of her anxious daughter. A gifted artist, Ayako is a shy, gloomy girl who finds it hard to connect with her peers and resents her mother for her unconventional lifestyle. Her problems intensify when she wins a prominent art prize and irritates a classmate who seems to be stalking her causing him to spread the rumour of Takako’s past all over the school.

Social stigma is indeed one of the main problems each of the women face. Ayano, who seems to be otherwise happy enough with her life AV, gets an unexpected visit from her concerned mother and scornful sister when someone presumably spots her in a video and decides to have a word. As Ayano points out to her annoyingly judgemental sister, that means whoever told them just outed themselves as an AV-watcher so perhaps she should ask her boyfriend about that before making sarky comments. Nevertheless, nobody really says anything about the men who consume pornography, only about the “immoral” women who star in them. Ayano’s mother Izumi (Makiko Watanabe) blames herself, complaining that Ayano was the only one of her daughters she never quite bonded with, by turns angry with her for “shaming” the family and concerned that she has “thrown her life away” by becoming forever tainted with the stigma of having been involved in the sex industry.

Corrupted maternity becomes a somewhat uncomfortable theme as each of the women assesses their relationships with other women in the context of the traditional family. Having given up work and become a housewife as society expects, Miho has done everything right but is intensely unhappy because her husband will not move to the next step by starting a family. At 35, she feels her life stagnating, that everything is already settled and nothing will change from now until the time she dies. Neglected by a husband who seems to have lost interest in her as a woman as well as in their shared endeavour of building a home, she finds herself drawn to AV as a path to sexual fulfilment which isn’t really infidelity while also subverting her image of superficial perfection and embracing another identity outside of the home. She remains, however, conflicted as she gazes jealously at a happy family out on holiday at the pleasant mountain lodge where they’ll shoot the movie away from prying eyes. Her involvement in AV is, in a way, also an act of self harm as she punishes herself for her inability to become a mother, while also getting back at her disinterested husband.

Even so, Zeze is careful to frame the AV industry in a positive light. On arrival at the agency, Miho is greeted by an extremely sensitive and sympathetic manager who does his best to ease her concerns while making her feel safe at her most vulnerable. Having felt so neglected and lonely at home, the AV world provides her with a place that she is appreciated, desired as a woman and treated like a star. Similarly, Ayano who had believed herself “ugly” and unlovable begins to gain confidence in herself thanks to being appreciated by the camera, eventually striking up a relationship with a nice guy journalist in a bar which seems like it might develop into something more. While some might argue that the industry is merely exploiting feminine insecurities, it cannot be denied that both women find in it a path towards self acceptance and actualisation.

Despite the fiercely non-judgemental tone, a late plot twist further casts Miho’s transgression as a fall rather than a rise while an eventual connection with Ayako further deepens the maternal subtext as she completes the circle by mothering the lost young woman trying to come to terms with her atypical family situation. Ayako’s grandmother too seems to prescribe motherhood as the answer to all life’s mysteries even if the answer is often that they can’t be solved and all that remains is the urgency of living. Zeze’s depiction of the porn industry might be a rosy one glossing over the seamier side in favour of presenting a world built on empowerment rather than exploitation, but its infinitely sympathetic eye makes plain that porn is just a job like any other and the women who work in it do not deserve the scorn that society often chooses to heap on them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Tetsuo Shinohara, 2003)

karaoke terror poster.jpgEver since its invention karaoke has provided the means for many a weary soul to ease their burdens, but there may be a case for wondering if escapism is a valid goal in a society which seems to be content in stagnation. The awkwardly titled Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Showa Kayo Daizenshu), adapted from the book Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Audition’s Ryu Murakami, pits two very different groups of karaoke enthusiasts against each other – aimless adolescent males, and jaded middle-aged women. Despite the differences in their ages and experiences, both enjoy singing the wistful bubblegum pop of an earlier generation as if drunk on national nostalgia and longing for the lost innocence of Japan’s hopeful post-war endeavour to rebuild itself better than it had been before.

We open with the slackers and a voice over from the presumed “hero” of the film, Ishihara (Ryuhei Matsuda), who informs us that he can’t really remember how he met most of the guys he hangs out with but that he always knew the one of them, Sugioka (Masanobu Ando), was a bit cracked in the head. In a motif that will be repeated, Sugioka catches sight of a middle-aged woman just on the way back from a shopping trip and decides he must have her but his attempts to pick her up fail spectacularly at which point he whips out his knife and slashes her throat.

Meanwhile, across town, a middle-aged woman, Hemmi (Kayoko Kishimoto), offers to let a co-worker share her umbrella but the co-worker misinterprets this small gesture of courtesy as romantic interest and crudely asks her “how about a fuck?” to which Hemmi is quite rightly outraged. Rather than apologise, the co-worker shrugs and says his “direct” approach works six times out of eight and some women even appreciate it. Once she manages to get away from her odious aggressor, Hemmi ends up stumbling over the body of the woman murdered by Sugioka and realises she knows her. The murdered woman was one of six all named Midori who were brought together for a newspaper article about the lives of middle-aged divorced women and have stayed “friends”. Outraged about this assault not just on their friend and their sex but directly against “women of a certain age” who continue to be the butt of a societal joke, the Midoris decide they want revenge and hatch a plan off Sugioka, but once they have, the slackers hit back by offing a Midori and so it continues with ever-increasing levels of violence.

Which ever way you slice it, you can’t deny the Midoris have a point and Hemmi’s continuing outrage is fully justified. When the boys rock up at a mysterious general goods store out in the country looking for a gun, the proprietor (Yoshio Harada) is only too happy to give it to them when they explain they need it for revenge and that their targets are middle-aged women. The proprietor has a lot to say about ladies of a certain age. In fact he hates them and thinks that bossy, embittered, unproductive women “too old” to fulfil their only reason for existence will be the only ones to survive a nuclear apocalypse that even the cockroaches cannot overcome. The boys appear timid and inexperienced but ironically enough can’t take their eyes off the middle-aged woman from across the way and her sexy dance routines. They feel entitled to female deference and cannot accept a woman’s right to decline. The Midoris are sick of being “humiliated”. They’ve fallen from Japan’s conformist path for female success in getting divorced or attempting to pursue careers. They’ve lost their children and endured constant ridicule as “sad” or “desperate”, made to feel as if their presence in the workplace past a certain age was “inappropriate” and the prices they have paid for their meagre successes were not worth the reward. They strike back not just at these psychotic boys but at a society which has persistently enacted other kinds of violence upon them.

Meanwhile, the boys remain boys, refusing adulthood and responsibility by wasting their time on idle pursuits. Truth be told, karaoke performances involving dance routines and elaborate costumes is not a particularly “cool” hobby by the standards of the time but it appears that none of these men have much else in their lives to invest themselves in. With the economy stagnating and the salaryman dream all but dead, you can’t blame them for their apathy or for the rejection of the values of their parents’ generation, but you can blame them for their persistent refusal to grow up and tendency to allow their insecurities to bubble over into violence.

As it turns out, adolescent males and middle-aged women have more in common than might be thought in their peripheral existences, exiled from the mainstream success which belongs exclusively to middle-aged and older men who’ve been careful to (superficially at least) adhere to all the rules of a conformist society. Neither group of friends is especially friendly, only latterly realising that “real” connections are forged through direct communication. Their mutual apathy is pierced only by violence which, ironically, allows their souls to sing and finally shows them just what all those cheerful songs were really about. Darkly comic and often surreal, Karaoke Terror is a sideways look at two diametrically opposed groups finding unexpected common ground in the catharsis of vengeance only for their internecine warfare to graduate into world ending pettiness.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The greatest hits of the Showa era:

Koi no Kisetsu – Pinky & Killers

Hoshi no Nagare ni – Akiko Kikuchi

Chanchiki Okesa – Haruo Minami

Shiroi Cho no Samba – Kayoko Moriyama

Linda Linda – The Blue Hearts

Sweet Memories – Seiko Matsuda

Kaze Tachinu – Seiko Matsuda

Minato ga Mieru Oka – Aiko Hirano

Sabita Knife – Yujiro Ishihara

Hone Made Aishite – Jo Takuya

Kimi to Itsumademo – Yuzo Kayama

Mata Au Hi Made – Kiyohiko Ozaki

Parks (PARKS パークス, Natsuki Seta, 2017)

parks posterParks are a common feature of modern city life – a stretch of green among the grey, but it’s important to remember that there has not always been such beautiful shared space set aside for public use. Natsuki Seta’s light and breezy youth comedy, Parks (PARKS パークス), was commissioned in celebration of the centenary of the Tokyo park where the majority of the action takes place, Inokashira. Mixing early Godardian whimsy with new wave voice over and the kind of innocent adventure not seen since the Kadokawa idol days, Parks is a sometimes melancholy, wistful tribute to a place where chance meetings can define lifetimes as well as to brief yet memorable summers spent with gone but not forgotten friends doing something which seems important but which in retrospect may be trivial.

Student Jun (Ai Hashimoto) begins the story with a meta voiceover declaring her intention to begin among the cherry blossoms – letting us know right away that this will be an ephemeral sort of tale. She’s young, in love, and carefree – too carefree, actually, she’s already got a job lined up for after uni but has forgotten to do any of the work needed to graduate. Then, disaster strikes. Dumped by her boyfriend, Jun finds a letter from the university reminding her that she’s way behind and in a lot of trouble (the letter is dated six months previously).

On top of all of this, she bumps into the strange and dreamlike Haru (Mei Nagano) who barges into her apartment which apparently was once home to the lost love of her late father in the 1960s (he was evidently quite an aged dad). Chasing the leads they find in a collection of love letters and photographs the girls track down some of the pair’s old friends and eventually the grandson of the woman in question, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who discovers a reel-to-reel tape among his late grandmother’s effects which contains the remnants of the love song Haru’s father and Tokio’s grandmother were creating together. Seeing as the tape is damaged the trio decide to finish the song which will also form a part of the thesis Jun is supposed to be writing to graduate university.

Light, bright, and breezy like a spring day in a beautiful park, Parks is necessarily slight but filled with all the whimsical nostalgia of the no longer young. Celebrating the park’s 100th birthday, Seta apparently wanted create something which tied the various ages together – hence the 1960s focus, though her 1960s is much more French New Wave and postmodern silliness than it is student protests or economic anxiety. Romance is in the air as lovers meet in the park vowing never to part, only they do for reasons which Haru is desperate to know even if no one else particularly cares about the background to their ongoing project.

The interplay between the three accidental friends is the heart of the drama as they find themselves pulled in various different directions. Shota Sometani’s oddly spirited Tokio with his city boy accent and nerdy attempt at cool wants more Twitter followers and has his eyes set on musical fame where as poor Jun just wants to be left alone to finish Uni while Haru is swept up in the romantic love story of her much missed father.

Or is she? Seta throws in a few meta gags leaving us unsure of who or what Haru really is or if any of this is real. Taking a decidedly Lynchian detour with strange and surreal scenes focussing on a mysterious door, she lends this world an odd sort of charm through, like her New Wave inspiration, often refuses to follow the trail to its conclusion. Flitting between past and future, allowing the two to mingle and overlap and Haru to become a friend of her father as a young man, Parks is a sweet summer daydream filled with gentle music and warm air fit to blow away on the breeze.

The song itself, a characteristically whimsical composition by Tokumaru Shugo (who also has a brief cameo in the film), is a beautifully innocent ‘60s folktune which is then corrupted by the conflicting modern dreams of the easily swayed realists Tokio and Jun while the idealistically romantic Haru listens in horror before Jun finally remembers what all of this was about and tries to fix things before they get any more broken. Some songs are intended to float away on the breeze, like summer adventures and casual friendships and Parks is such a one, though a pleasant way to dream away a warm afternoon.


Parks was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles available by clicking subtitle button)

A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer, Shinji Aoyama, 1996)

a-weapon-in-my-heartShinji Aoyama would produce one of the most important Japanese films of the early 21st century in Eureka, but like many directors of his generation he came of age during the V-cinema boom. This relatively short lived medium was the new no holds barred arena for fledgling filmmakers who could adhere to a strict budget and shooting schedule but were also aching to spread their wings. After a short period as an AD with fellow V-cinema director now turned international auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Aoyama directed his first straight to video effort – the sex comedy It’s Not in the Textbook!. Released just after his theatrical debut, Helpless, A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, Waga Mune ni Kyoki Ari, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer) is a more typically genre orientated effort with its cops, robbers, and femme fatale setup but like the best examples of the V-cinema trend it bears the signature of its ambitious director making the most of its humble origins.

Call girl Alice has ripped off her gangster bosses for a large amount of heroine only her accomplice has got cold feet and called a relative in the police force. The kid gets shot as officers Goro and his partner Yoshioka wade in all guns blazing but Alice calmly allows herself to be taken into custody. Yoshioka is a strangely cheerful chap who informs Alice that he has a game running where he gives suspects odds to bet on their likelihood of escape. Hers are brilliant because there is no way she is getting away. However, the trio are ambushed by crazy gangster Matsumura and his gang forcing Goro and Alice onto the run. In addition to avoiding Matsumura and his dastardly schemes, Goro and Alice are also being stalked by a mysterious hitman, Hoshi, who claims to be “watching from up above” and has his own motives for his bizarrely heroic hunting style.

This being a V-cinema effort, the production values are low, shot in widescreen but on the kind of cheap video cameras common to the V-cinema movement. Nevertheless, Aoyama makes the most of what he has to create a stylish genre throwback which recalls the Nikkatsu action films of years gone by only a little less madcap even if leaning towards the surreal. Told in a non-linear fashion, exposition is delivered largely through flashbacks but each of these is innovatively offered such as in a touching scene in which Goro remembers a conversation with Yoshioka in which only the lighting darkens to let us know that the happy memory has ended and the melancholy present has resumed. Similar techniques mark Alice’s frequent flashbacks to her traumatic crime, though in line with their much more pressing nature Alice’s memories are given harsher, more abrupt entrances and exits, lacerating the screen as they do her mind.

The genre elements may be familiar enough but Aoyama ensures each of the major players is fully drawn despite the necessarily tight running time. Good cop Goro is arguably the least explored but it’s antagonist Hoshi who leaves the biggest mark. A joke that’s somewhat lost in translation runs on the fact that “Hoshi” means star which lends an oddly comic dimension to his frequently uttered catch phrase in which he promises to be watching “from up above”. Having once abandoned the killing game, Hoshi has found himself forced back into the life in order to earn the money to pay for an operation to restore the sight of his blinded son – something he feels karmically responsible for. Frequently letting our heroes go out of a debt of honour, Hoshi nevertheless has his mission to complete, no matter how much it might offend him to do so.

Our policemen also seem to operate from a mysterious antique shop where they keep the records for their escape based betting games. Add in weird dirt bike riders, mysterious statues, and strange phone calls not to mention a horror movie inspired sequence where our two heroes are trapped in a shed while the enemy looms large in a thunderstorm outside and there are plenty of interesting quirks to be going on with. Deaths are dramatic, slow motion falls and set pieces become remarkably elaborate but there’s also a sort of childish innocence as a fearsome killer tries and fails to unwrap one of his beloved boiled sweets even as he dies. Very much part of the fast and loose V-cinema universe, A Weapon in My Heart is also pure Aoyama, filled with strange details and surrealist touches but ultimately imbued with his own strange brand of humanity.