Mozu the Movie (劇場版MOZU, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

mozu-posterThe criticism levelled most often against Japanese cinema is its readiness to send established franchises to the big screen. Manga adaptations make up a significant proportion of mainstream films, but most adaptations are constructed from scratch for maximum accessibility to a general audience – sometimes to the irritation of the franchise’s fans. When it comes to the cinematic instalments of popular TV shows the question is more difficult but most attempt to make some concession to those who are not familiar with the already established universe. Mozu (劇場版MOZU) does not do this. It makes no attempt to recap or explain itself, it simply continues from the end of the second series of the TV drama in which the “Mozu” or shrike of the title was resolved leaving the shady spectre of “Daruma” hanging for the inevitable conclusion.

Six months on from the climatic events at the end of season two, Kuraki (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has become a drunk, Ohsugi (Teruyuki Kagawa) has left the force for the private sector, while Akeboshi (Yoko Maki) is still preoccupied with the strange phone calls she sometimes receives and the fate of her long lost father last seen on the deck of a sinking submarine. The dreams of the citizens of Tokyo are being haunted by the mysterious face of “Daruma”, but this is quickly superseded by an explosion in an office building which turns out to be a diversionary exercise as the autistic daughter of a refugee with diplomatic immunity is kidnapped by terrorists.

At this point, Kuraki appears at the scene, beats the bad guys into submission and rescues the girl, Elena, and her mother who are then taken into protective custody. However, things go south when Ohsugi’s daughter and Akeboshi are taken by the bad guys in the hope of an exchange forcing the gang to take Elena to a neighbouring Asian nation.

Mozu the movie suffers from many of the same problems which plagued the generally impressive TV series in its wildly inconsistent tone and increasingly convoluted, often bizarre plot twists. Assuming the audience will be familiar with the TV series, the film provides no recap, leaving the casual viewer completely lost amongst the numerous numbers of subplots held together by Kuraki’s need to find the answers behind the death of his wife at the site of a suicide bombing and the drowning of his daughter a year or so before. Likewise, Akeboshi’s familial concerns – her absentee father whose dark past was hinted at in the previous series and her close relationship with her two neices, is glossed over, as is Ohsugi’s ongoing battle to win back the respect of his teenage daughter. When a key character suddenly and quite unexpectedly appears to save the day (and then disappears again), the casual viewer has a right to be utterly baffled.

Where the central tone is one of cool noir supported by occasionally poetic camera work, Nishijima’s laid back minimalism gives way to broad, over the top villainy from Hasegawa’s Higashi as well as the punkish Mozu copycat who kickstarts the action. Kuraki remains an unbeatable super agent, taking out bad guys with well placed kicks to the chest and enduring numerous acts of torture whilst remaining doggedly fixed on his quest to find out the truth about his wife and a possible conspiracy plaguing Japanese society. Ohsugi is still the bumbling cop but equally committed to protecting his daughter while Akeboshi is underused, her slow burn romance with Kuraki simmering away in the background.

What remains is a collection of impressive action scenes and mysterious conversations offered with portentous seriousness. The purpose of Elena’s kidnapping is predictably grim yet reduced to a single sentence shortly before Kuraki apparently saves the day once again through undisclosed means. The central conspiracy in this conspiracy thriller, that Japan has been manipulated by a shadowy figure literally cannibalising his own children, fades into the background as Kuraki is left to affirm that all that remains now is chaos. Mozu the movie is season three with all the important bit stripped out – strange, confusing, and ultimately hollow. Yet for those well versed in the Mozu universe, it may provide a degree of closure to its ongoing mysteries, even if ultimately unsatisfying.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Uncle (ぼくのおじさん, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2016)

My-Uncle-p1Crazy uncles – the gift that keeps on giving. Following the darker edged Over the Fence as the second of two films released in 2016, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s My Uncle (ぼくのおじさん, Boku no Ojisan) pushes his subtle humour in a much more overt direction with a comic tale of a self obsessed (not quite) professor as seen seen through the eyes of his exasperated nephew. “Travels with my uncle” of a kind, Yamashita’s latest is a pleasantly old fashioned comedy spiced with oddly poignant moments as a wiser than his years nephew attempts to help his continually befuddled uncle navigate the difficulties of unexpected romance.

Yukio (Riku Ohnishi) has been given one of the most dreaded homework assignments ever – he’s supposed to write an essay about an “interesting” family member. This is a problem because Yukio thinks his family is very boring – dad is a civil servant, mum is a housewife, and his little sister is very frank but fails to generate sufficient interest for a whole essay. At this point, Yukio’s eccentric Uncle (Ryuhei Matsuda) enters the scene to enquire if the next edition of a children’s manga magazine has been released yet. Yukio says it has but he doesn’t buy it anymore because he’s grown out of it. Uncle hasn’t and wants him to buy one as soon as possible, convincing Yukio to pay 30% of the sticker price in the process. Annoyed, Yukio starts chronicling his Uncle’s strange adventures in school essay which proves a hit with his teacher (Erika Toda) who has accidentally become Uncle’s biggest fan.

Uncle lives with the family because he’s “a philosopher” which involves a lot of rejecting capitalist ideals and lying on his futon “thinking” or reading manga to give his brain a rest. Though Uncle’s brother and the father of the family (Kankuro Kudo) is content not to rock the boat, his wife (Shinobu Terajima) is often fed up with Uncle’s behaviour and is trying to set him up with proposals for an arranged marriage to get rid of him. Uncle is having none of it but is instantly smitten after being introduced to Japanese-Hawaiian photographer Eri (Yoko Maki). Eventually chasing her all the way to Hawaii with Yukio in tow, Uncle tries his luck with romance but only seems to get himself mixed up in even more unpredictable mischief.

There’s something so pleasantly innocent about My Uncle with its almost nostalgic tone and embrace of the surreality of everyday life. As seen through the eyes of Yukio, Uncle is not an entirely sympathetic figure at the beginning of the film. A part-time professor, Uncle talks big but spends his life rooting through ashtrays looking for smokable cigarette butts and collecting coupons to use for cheap dinners. Attempts to entertain the children backfire when he gifts them a very realistic plastic toy of a giant millipede though he does sometimes take Yukio out on “thinking expeditions” – usually on weekends and holidays to not be in the house to be shouted at by Yukio’s parents who are rapidly loosing patience with Uncle’s inability to progress in life.

If this were a series (and one could only hope) you could easily call the first instalment “Uncle Falls in Love” as Uncle finds himself finally thinking about settling down with the beautiful and outgoing Eri. Eri does seem to be among the few people who finds Uncle’s unusual qualities charming though he might need to rethink his plan of action if he’s finally to win her heart. Unfortunately, Eri is about to move back to Hawaii but invites Yukio and Uncle to visit. Uncle is desperate to go but as he can’t even afford to buy cigarettes, international travel is out. Undeterred, Uncle comes up with a number of labour intensive schemes to get there rather than actually working for the money but eventually makes it with Yukio’s help. There is, however, a rival on hand in Eri’s former boyfriend Shinsuke (Shigeyuki Totsugi) who is equally determined to win her back.

Life with Uncle may be one of constant exasperation but as Eri points out it’s never boring. Whether he’s getting himself arrested for accidentally buying weed or making up wild stories about himself in a misguided attempt to impress people, Uncle lives on a different plane of existence. Yukio reflects on all of this with a world weariness worthy of a 70 year old man but eventually comes to a kind of grudging affection for his silly old Uncle who is quite clearly setting himself up for a fall even if he has his heart in the right place. Yamashita mixes in poignant moments such as a reflective look over Pearl Harbour which gives rise to a discussion of life as a Hawaiian citizen of Japanese descent during the war, but broadly the tone is a bright one of zany humour and ironic one liners. Hilariously funny in a gentle, old fashioned way, My Uncle is Yamashita in full on comedy mode but all the better for it even as he leaves us desperate to find out what other strange adventures befall Uncle in the continuing saga of his existence.


My Uncle was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

After the Storm (海よりもまだ深く, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2016)

after-the-stormIt’s never too late to be what you might have been – a statement attributed to George Eliot which may be as fake as one of the promises offered by the protagonist of Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest attempt to chart the course of his nation through its basic social unit, After the Storm (海よりもまだ深く, Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku). Reuniting Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe as mother and son following their star turns in Still Walking, After the Storm is, in many ways, a story of decline and lost potential though it leaves room for a new beginning if only the past can finally be left behind.

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a one time prize winning novelist now working at a sleazy detective agency. He’s also a divorced father and well meaning deadbeat dad who never pays his child support but turns up every Sunday to hang out with his 11 year old son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), much to the consternation of his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki). Ryota hasn’t quite accepted that the marriage is over and has been using his detective skills to spy on Kyoko, discovering that she has a new man in her life who’s the exact opposite of him – successful, wealthy, and part of the elegant set.

Like father, like son (to echo another of Koreeda’s films), Ryota has inherited some of his worst qualities from his recently deceased dad. When we first meet him, Ryota has surreptitiously returned to his childhood home and let himself in with the spare key only to start rifling through draws, pocketing old lottery tickets and appraising the value of every object in sight. His mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), is actually a little bit relieved at her husband’s passing as she’s finally free of his unpleasant behaviour. Remembered as a liar and a cheat, an untrustworthy man whom everyone avoided, Ryota’s father is not the best role model leaving both of his children determined not to follow in his footsteps. This is Ryota’s first failure, and the one he’s most reluctant to acknowledge.

Desperately wanting to reclaim his place within his own family, Ryota goes to great lengths to get the money for his child support payments, somehow still hoping to be forgiven. Ryota’s eyes are always on the prize, but always on the unattainable rather than the real possibilities right in front of him. After double dealing on his clients by effectively blackmailing them, not to mention pressuring his colleague to lend him money, Ryota fritters it away on gambling trying to win it all, rather than settling for making the best of what he has. His quick fix approach to life has already cost him his wife’s faith as she is far less obliged to put up with the kind of nonsense Yoshiko was expected to grin and bear.

Yet Ryota seems to have the desire to be better, only lacking the faith to accept the possibility. When Ryota tries to blackmail a high school boy over an affair with a teacher, the boy declares that he’ll never grow up to be the kind of man Ryota is. Ryota, wounded, replies that it isn’t easy to grow up and be the man you wanted to be. As a child, Ryota wanted to be a civil servant because it was the exact opposite of his father, but he’s ended up becoming his father anyway. Shingo also claims to want to be a civil servant rather than something flashier like a professional baseball player but perhaps his desires are born more out of a sense of self realisation than an active opposition. When someone later asks Ryota if he’s the man he always wanted to be, he truthfully replies that he isn’t, but he’s working on it.

Events come to a head when Kyoko, Shingo, and Ryota end up staying over at Yoshiko’s apartment because of the oncoming typhoon. Played out with a quiet kind of restraint, old grievances are aired, understandings are reached, and each arrives at the next morning with a new sense of clarity.  After the storm has broken, there’s nothing left to do but assess the damage and then begin trying to rebuild as best you can.

Ryota’s epiphany comes to him as he’s wearing his father’s shirt and about to sign his own name with his father’s prized brush and ink stone. There’s something to be said for owning yourself, even if you can’t exactly be proud of it. Yoshiko asks why men can’t learn to love the present – if all you ever do is obsess over what you’ve lost or what you could gain, life will pass you by. Ryota may not have changed very much after coming through the storm, but he’s working on it. Who knows, he might even mean it, this time.


Reviewed at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The original Japanese title for the film, Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku, is taken from the lyrics to the Teresa Teng song Wakare no Yokan.

Summer Time Machine Blues (サマータイムマシン・ブルース, Katsuyuki Motohiro, 2005)

summertimemachineblues-2There ain’t no cure for the summer time blues! Unless, of course, you have a time machine. For the boys of the sci-fi club the long, boring summer vacation is just getting started. They mess around playing baseball while the two girls from the photography club who’ve been unceremoniously ousted from their club room in favour of the boys take photos of them. Then some weird stuff starts happening and their air con remote gets broken and it’s just so hot! When the boys somehow end up with a mysterious time machine, the solution is obvious…

Full of nostalgic charm, Summer Time Machine Blues is a fitting tribute to all those endless, golden summers of adolescence. Hanging out in the university club room even though they’re on their summer break, the kids waste time in distinctly old fashioned ways – playing baseball, going to the baths, working on a photo project etc. Though the guys are nominally the “science-fiction club” they actually aren’t very interested in science fiction and kind of make fun of the sort of people who would belong to the very club that they do, actually, belong to. Perhaps they just wanted the bigger room with the air conditioner and were lucky enough to get it as their two female friends are the only two members of the photography club and mostly hang out in the dark room at the back anyway.

The film began as a stage play put together by Europa Kikaku and though it makes the cinematic jump extremely confidently also maintains its youthful absurdist tones and theatrical comedy beats. The humour itself is cheerfully bizarre, full of fast comebacks and naturalistic sounding banter between a group of young guys. Added to this there are numerous references to other popular science fiction and time travel themed franchises such as the obvious homage to the Back to the Future series which is even prominently showcased in poster form at the local rep cinema. The cinema itself (a mini plot point in the movie) is run by a total sci-fi buff and time travel story expert who dresses (from the waist up) in a Star Trek: The Next Generation Command uniform complete with Communicator Badge. He seems to have something of a beef with the only actual scientist in the film who never has much success with his discoveries and only succeeds in boring everyone around him with his needlessly complicated theories.

Directed by Katsuyuki Motohiro who may be best known for the Bayside Shakedown series, Summer Time Machine Blues, also mixes in plenty of fun stylistic devices like the anachronistic tape rewinds or the elaborate disappearing of the time machine itself. He also makes good use of split screens to compare and contrast what’s happening where and pays especial attention to make sure everything works out in the most completely satisfying way.

Indeed, one of the most satisfying things about Summer Time Machine Blues is that despite essentially becoming a parody of time travel movies, all of its complicated paradoxes are internally consistent and even though it doesn’t really have an obligation to, it all makes sense no matter how hard you poke at it trying to find the holes. Of course, there’s also the more melancholic side of time on show as the scientist points out he’s riding a time machine as well – just one that will never go backwards, only very slowly into the future. This aimless summer will end at some point, as will college and eventually the universe too, one supposes.

However, that’s no reason not to enjoy the time you have, as one character realises towards the end as he fears his romantic desires may come to nothing going on some hints from the future. An enjoyably absurd and youthful farce, Summer Time Machine Blues is lives up to its name as a transporting delight which carts the viewer back to their own days of long and boring summers filled with improbable adventures. Smart, funny and beautifully crafted, Summer Time Machine Blues is the perfect way to while away an aimless afternoon at any time of the year.