The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

Lowlife Love (下衆の愛, Eiji Uchida, 2016)

Lowlife Love“What would John do?” is a question Cassavetes loving indie filmmaker Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) often asks himself, lovingly taking the framed late career photo of the godfather of independent filmmaking in America down from the wall. Unfortunately, if Cassavetes has any advice to offer Tetsuo, Tetsuo is not really paying attention. An example of the lowlife scum who appear to have taken over the Japanese indie movie scene, Tetsuo hasn’t made anything approaching art since an early short success some years ago and mainly earns his living through teaching “acting classes” for young, desperate, and this is the key – gullible,  people hoping to break into the industry.

Despite ripping off the next generation, Tetsuo’s financial situation is not exactly rock solid as he still lives at home with his parents and younger sister and even resorts to stealing his elderly mother’s pension money all in the name of art. A low level sociopath, he bangs on about movies and artistic integrity whilst using his directorial authority to pull young and naive would be actresses onto the casting couch with promises to make them a star through the massively successful movie he’s supposedly about to make (but probably never will).

His world is about to change when he encounters two still hopeful entrants into the movie industry in the form of aspiring actress Minami (Maya Okano) and shy screenwriter Ken (Shugo Oshinari ). Ken’s script is good, and Minami shows promise as an actress but also a backbone as she’s unwilling to give in to Tetsuo’s clumsy pass at her through what actually amounts to an attempted rape in the (unisex) toilet of a seedy bar. And they say romance is dead!

Soon enough a rival appears on the scene in the form of a more successful director who abandoned the indie world long ago in favour of the golden cage of the studio system. Tetsuo calls him a sell out, but as his own world crumbles Tetsuo finally gets a much needed reality check that leaves him wondering how much “integrity” there is in his current life which is based entirely on exploitation yet produces nothing but cheap, instant gratification.

This is a film about a sociopathic, pretentious, and above all lazy “film director” who is being cast as a representation of a certain type of guy found the lowest edges of the indie film scene. Lowlife Love seeks to illuminate the inherent misogyny in the cinema industry and more particularly at the bottom of the ladder where the desperate masses congregate, each waiting for someone to extend a hand down to those below that will help them onto the higher rungs, but this is less about the subjugation of women and the way their lack of status is consistently used against them than it is about Tetsuo’s own fecklessness. Tetsuo probably could make a movie, but he doesn’t. He just talks about making movies. The system isn’t the problem here, Tetsuo is just a useless person with almost no redeeming features.

The successful director, Kano, and the ones that follow him are barely any better. Minami says at one point that directors are all crafty, filthy, bitter, and annoying – on the basis of these examples she is not wrong. Kano replies that filmmaking is like a drug, once you’re in there’s no out and you’ll do anything just to be allowed to stay. These guys are all hollow, desperate creatures, craving validation through “artistic success” but finding it through easy, loveless sex with “obliging” actresses equally eager to play this unpleasant game solely to avoid being thrown out of it or worse onto a lower stratum altogether.

Minami’s path is either one of growth or corruption depending on your point of view but the extremely shy, naive and innocent girl dreaming of becoming, not a star, but a successful actress, is gradually replaced by a manipulative dominatrix well versed in the rules of the game and unafraid to play it to the max. Whether her success is a fall or a victory is likewise a matter for debate but it contrasts strongly with the similar struggles of the veteran actress Kyoko (Chika Uchida) who even has a friend doing research on her targets so she can assess their usefulness before going all the way.

Unfortunately for her, even when she hits on a useful contact promises are easily broken, especially when you’ve already played your only bargaining chip and another, prettier player steps onto the field. A deleted scene features an embittered actress attempting to take her own life and uttering the final words that she never cared about stardom, she just wanted to keep on acting. This is an all too real response to an age old problem but one that Tetsuo and his like are much more willing to perpetuate than ease, even whilst mourning the loss of a friend to the unreasonable demands of their own industry.

Famously funded by a Kickstarter campaign and personal sacrifices of its producer, Lowlife Love features unusually high production values for an indie film and a fairly high profile cast including its leading actor, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, who has become something close to modern Japanese indie cinema’s most recognisable star. Performances are excellent across the board though the picture the film paints of the no budget indie world is extremely bleak and mean spirited. Porn, gangsters, exploitation, prostitution, and a lot of rubbish about creating art makes one wonder why anyone bothers in the first place but then we’re back to Kano’s conundrum and taking down our pictures of Cassavetes to ask what John would do. Sleazy, unpleasant and cynical, Lowlife Love’s cast of dreadful people in difficult situations yet, apparently, dreaming of the stars, is all too plausible if a little hard to watch.


Lowlife Love (下衆の愛, Gesu no Ai) was financed through a Kickstarter campaign run by Third Window Films and is currently shipping to backers with a regular retail release scheduled for a later date.

Lowlife Love will also be shown as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 22nd and 23rd June 2016.