Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Juzo Itami, 1988)

Taxing Woman 2 posterA Taxing Woman introduced us to Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) – an oddball detective working as an insurance inspector who met her Irene Adler in a tax dodging corporate gangster with a limp. A year later she’s back, still the only woman working with the tax inspectorate and apparently still a dogged pursuer of those who would seek to defraud the Japanese government of its rightful earnings. Ryoko may have been a stickler for the rules who applied the same dog with a bone approach to a mom and pop store chowing down on its own supplies as to a dodgy yakuza led conspiracy, but she also believed in justice – something which stands her in good stead when she rubs up against a dodgy cult which, again, is a yakuza front but adds insult to injury by deliberately manipulating the vulnerable.

The action opens with some kids poking at the dead body of a “landshark” floating in a pond before flashing to a meeting of officials sucking crab meat from the shell and wondering what they’re going to do about this land they need cleared now their heavy is out of the picture. The corrupt politician from the first film, Urushibara (Takeya Nakamura), is apparently still involved in semi-legal land deals but palms the assignment off on a colleague. The big wigs need to empty a dated housing complex on some valuable land so they can build a vanity skyscraper – office space apparently being scarce in mid bubble Tokyo.

To do this they enlist the services of dodgy cult leader Onizawa (Rentaro Mikuni) and his troop of yakuza goons. Most of the tenants have already signed but they have three key holdouts – a diner owner clinging on to the family legacy, a stubborn paparazzo, and an intellectual professor who heads up the housing association. Unlike the yakuza of Taxing Woman, these guys have not reformed – they are the new/old style of lawless thugs who are perfectly prepared to threaten women and children to get their own way. Making it impossible for the tenants to stay through intimidation and noise torture, they stoop to blackmail to seal the deal.

Despite arriving only a year after A Taxing Woman, Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Marusa no Onna 2) takes place in a much darker, though more obviously comedic, world. Whereas the earlier film adopted a noticeably ambivalent attitude to the tax inspectors and the enterprising gangsters, the villains of A Taxing Woman’s Return are so heinous and morally bankrupt as to be entirely indefensible even if the inspectorate takes a turn for the bumbling to compensate. The “cult” is, of course, merely a convenient money laundering front and tax dodge for the yakuza – religious organisations are exempt from taxation in the vast majority of cases which may be why the local tax office records hundreds of registered “religious bodies” in its jurisdiction alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its loyal followers, often vulnerable people looking for spiritual fulfilment but being bled dry by the money hungry cultists while the leader’s wife swans around in sables costing more than the average annual salary. A desperate devotee in need of a loan puts his own teenage daughter up as collateral only to see her raped by Onizawa, eventually becoming pregnant by him at only 16 years of age and thereafter becoming his devoted concubine in a bizarre instance of Stockholm Syndrome.

Yet for all the background darkness of weird cultists and nasty yakuza backed up by corrupt and venial politicians, Itami ups the cartoonish sense of the absurd with our hero Ryoko clambering over rooftops to listen in to the bad guys while her boss throws himself down flights of stairs and has to battle piercing sirens to get into the villains’ secret vault. It is however a dark humour as the opening makes plain with its troupe of little children staring at the strange shape floating in the water – a motif later repeated when a yakuza is gunned down in the street only for another group of children to pour over him as he expires, a single tear rolling down his cheek. The original spongy white body gives way to the businessmen sucking spongy white crab out its shell while insensitively discussing the late land shark, and the yakuza are unafraid to deploy a maggot infested severed hand (thankfully a fake picked up from a friend who makes horror movies) to convince the tenants they mean business.

At the end of A Taxing Woman, the gangster and the inspector reached something of a truce but one which came down, broadly, on the side of right. This time things aren’t quite so simple. The conspiracy is bigger and deeper, stretching all the way into the Diet and about more than just office space in still developing Tokyo. Onizawa, regarding himself as public servant, tries to say he did it all for his country, that if someone didn’t get their hands dirty Tokyo would be eclipsed by Hong Kong or Seoul. A post-war justification for a bubble era problem, but one that takes us straight back to the first film in Onizawa’s second proposition that only through money does he truly feel “immortal”. He may be a liar and a cheat, but he’s only a symptom of rapidly spreading infection, one which Ryoko and her team are powerless to cure, trapped on the wrong side of the fence while the bad guys build monuments to economic hubris, indulging in vanity in an era of bad faith which is about to be brought to a rather abrupt close.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Juzo Itami, 1987)

A Taxing Woman posterIn bubble era Japan where the champagne flows and the neon lights sparkle all night long, even the yakuza are incorporating. Having skewered complicated social mores in The Funeral and then poked fun at his nation’s obsession with food in Tampopo, Juzo Itami turns his attention to the twin concerns of money and collective responsibility in the taxation themed procedural A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Marusa no Onna). Once again starring the director’s wife Nobuko Miyamoto, A Taxing Woman is an accidental chronicle of its age as Japanese society nears the end of a period of intense social change in which acquisition has divorced mergers, and individualism has replaced the post-war spirit of mutual cooperation.

Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto), a single mother and assistant in the tax office, has a keen eye for scammers. She demonstrates this on a stakeout with a younger female colleague in which she keeps a shrewd eye on the till at her local cafe and comes to the conclusion that they’ve been running a system where they don’t declare all of their cheques. Running her eyes over the accounts of a mom and pop grocery store, she notices some irregularities in the figures and figures out the elderly couple feed themselves from the supplies for the shop but don’t “pay” themselves for their own upkeep. That might seem “perfectly reasonable” to most people, but it’s technically a small form of “embezzlement” and Ryoko doesn’t like figures which don’t add up. Seeing as the couple probably didn’t realise what they were doing was “wrong” she lets them off, this time, as long as they go by the book in the future. A more complicated investigation of a pachinko parlour finds a more concrete form of misappropriation, but Ryoko is fooled by the owner’s sudden collapse into inconsolable grief after being caught out and leaves him in the capable hands of his confused accountant.

Nevertheless, Ryoko may have met her match in sleezy corporate yakuza Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Dressing in a series of sharp suits, Gondo walks with a pronounced limp that hints at a more violent past but as his rival from the Nakagawa gang points out, violence is a relic of a bygone era – these days gangsters go to jail for “tax evasion” as means of furthering their “business opportunities” and facilitating ongoing political corruption. Gondo’s business empire is wide ranging but mainly centres on hotels, which is how he arouses Ryoko’s interest. She looks at the numbers, does a few quick calculations, and realises either the business isn’t viable or the correct figures aren’t being reported. Ryoko doesn’t like it when the books don’t balance and so she sets her sights on the seedy Gondo, but quickly discovers she has quite a lot in common with her quarry.

Itami was apparently inspired to make A Taxing Woman after the success of Tampopo shoved him into a higher tax bracket. Given Japanese taxes (at the time) were extremely high, getting around them had become something of a national obsession even if, in contrast to the preceding 30 years or so, there was plenty of money around to begin with. More than the unexpected tendency towards civil disobedience the times seemed to cultivate, Itami homes in on the increasingly absurd desire for senseless acquisition the bubble era was engendering. Thus Gondo who owns a large family home well stocked with symbols of his rising social status, also occupies a bachelor pad where he keeps a mistress which reflects the gaudy excess of the age right down to its random stuffed hyena. Nevertheless when one of the tax clerks asks for some advice as to how to have it all, Gondo replies that that’s easy – to save money, you simply avoid spending it. Gondo lets his glass run over and delights in licking the edges. It’s all about delayed gratification, apparently, and having a secret room full of gold bars to gaze at in order to relieve some of that anxiety for the future.

Gondo, like many of his ilk, has “diversified” – yakuza are no longer thuggish gangsters but incorporated organisations operating “legitimate” businesses through “illegitimate” means. Thus we first find him using a nurse who allows herself to be molested by an elderly, terminally ill client whose identity they will steal to found a company they can quickly dissolve when he dies to shift their assets around and avoid the tax man. Later he pulls another real estate scam by pressing a desperate family but his real focus is the love hotels, whose slightly embarrassing existence ensures that not many come poking around. Ryoko, however, is unlikely to let such a large scam slide and delights as much in closing loopholes as Gondo does in finding them. Noticing a kindred spirit, Gondo quite openly asks his new tax inspector “friend” what she’d think if he married his mistress, gave her all his money, and divorced her – divorce proceeds are after all tax free. Sounds great, she tells him, as long as you trust your wife not to skip town with all the doe.

Ryoko, a modern woman of the bubble era, single and career driven, is a slightly odd figure with her officious approach to her job and unforgiving rigour. Unlike her colleague who dresses in the glamorous and gaudy fashions of the times, Ryoko wears dowdy suits and her mentor boss is always reminding her about her “bed hair”, meanwhile she stays late at the office and offers instructions to her five year old son over the phone as to how to microwave his dinner. Though there is another woman working with her at the tax office, when she’s finally promoted to full tax inspector status she finds herself in a room full of guys who apparently hardly ever go home. On her first job she’s only really brought along because she’s a woman and they want to threaten a mob boss’ mistress with a strip search to find a missing key for a safety deposit box. The mistress, however, tries to throw them off the sent by publicly stripping off and encouraging them to check her “cavity” if they’re so keen to find this key, only for Ryoko to find it under the sink while all the guys are busy being shocked. Ryoko’s methods are occasionally as underhanded as Gondo’s and, like his schemes, built on gaming the system but she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with for those considering defrauding the Japanese government.

Gondo’s schemes excel because they aren’t entirely illegal, only clever ways of manipulating the system, but they’re also a symptom of a large conspiracy which encompasses improprieties right up the chain as banks, corporations, and politicians are all part of the same dark economy managed by a corporatising yakuza. Gondo takes frequent calls from a local representative who often “helps him out”. Later the same representative tries to put pressure on the tax office to back off, but Ryoko’s boss points out that he doesn’t need to because the press are already on the story so he should probably get started on his damage control rather than bothering public servants. Gondo and Ryoko, perhaps as bad as each other, lock horns in a battle wills but discover a strange degree of respect arising between them in having discovered a worthy adversary. There’s something undeniably absurd in Ryoko’s firm determination to catch out struggling businesses and the confused elderly with the same tenacity as taking on a yakuza fronted conspiracy, and there’s something undeniably amusing in Gondo’s attempts to beat the man by playing him at his own game, but the overall winner is Itami who once again succeeds in skewering his nation’s often contradictory social codes with gentle humour and a dispassionate, forgiving eye.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)

The Family Game (家族ゲーム, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1983)

TFG_DVD_jk_ol“Why do we have to make such sacrifices for our children?”. It sounds a little cold, doesn’t it, but none the less true. Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1983 social satire The Family Game (家族ゲーム, Kazoku Game) takes that most Japanese of genres, the family drama, and turns it inside out whilst vigorously shaking it to see what else falls from the pockets.

The “ordinary” middle class Numata family consists of the salaryman father Kosuke, the regular housewife mother Chikako and their two sons – older brother Shinichi and younger brother Shigeyuki. Right now the focus of attention is very much on Shigeyuki as he approaches the difficult period of sitting entrance exams for high school. To be frank, Shigeyuki’s prospects are dismal. He ranks near the bottom of the class and though certainly bright has little interest in studying. Therefore, the family have decided to bring in a home tutor to help boost his grades. They’ve already tried several to no avail but have high hopes for Mr. Yoshimoto, a local university student, but little do they know that he’s going to end up teaching each of them a little more than they cared to learn.

Morita breaks down the modern family into its component parts and finds only archetypes representing the kinds of roles which are rigidly enforced by Japan’s conformist society. Let’s start with the “father” who is supposedly the head of the household yet barely has anything at all to do with it. He believes his role is simply to go to work and shout commands which his “family” are supposed to follow unquestioningly. His realm is everything outside the house, everything inside is the responsibility of his wife and he won’t in any way get involved with that. When he has a problem with the kids (and this problem will only be that they aren’t performing to expectation), he will tell his wife and she is expected to take care of it on her own. Of course, his authority is hollow and dependent on his family falling in with his preconceived ideas of their “individual” roles.

The wife, then, is more or less a glorified housekeeper in charge of domestic arrangements and expected to remain within the home. Barked at by her husband and treated like a servant by her own children, her existence is often a fairly miserable one. She remarks that she wishes she’d had her children later – there were so many things so wanted to do that now are denied her because she’s forced to “play the role” that’s expected of her as a wife and mother.

Of the two kids, the older brother, Shinichi, starts the film as the one who plays his pre-ordained role to the level that’s expected of him. He’s a bright boy who studies hard and got into the top high school no problem. As the film goes on and everyone’s obsessed with Shigeyuki, Shinichi’s mask begins to drop as he encounters various typically teenage phenomenons which interfere with his role as over achieving big brother.

Shigeyuki, however, refuses to play the game at all. He just does not care. He loves to get under people’s skin and takes pleasure in annoying or outsmarting them such as when he cons his mother into letting him skip school (his pancreas hurts!) which she lets him do probably knowingly because she’s still playing her role as the worried mother. Finally he only begins to study when he realises it annoys a fellow pupil when his grades improve.

When tutor Yoshimoto enters the picture he tears a great big hole through the centre of this perfect family photo. He starts by behaving very strangely with Mr. Numata by grabbing his hand and calling him “father” whilst leaning in far too close for a casual acquaintance. Similarly when he first meets Shigeyuki he leans right in and then remarks that he has “a cute face”. He proceeds to invade Shigeyuki’s physical space by regularly touching him to a degree which is odd for a teacher/pupil relationship and is almost a prelude to molestation. When Shigeyuki tries to troll him by filling pages of his notebook with the same word over and over again, Yoshimoto reacts coolly before punching him in the face. From now on, when Shigeyuki isn’t pulling his weight, he’ll get a bloody nose.

Gradually Yoshimoto begins to take over the parental roles of the household firstly by instigating the masculine discipline through violence that Mr Numata is never there to deal out as well as offering the original role of teacher/mentor which might ordinarily be found in a grandfather or uncle. Later he usurps the big brother’s place by trying to talk frankly about sex and teaching Shigeyuki how to defend himself against playground bullies which also helps the boy cement a friendship with a sometime rival. Finally, he takes on the maternal mantle too when Mrs Numata asks him to go down to the school and talk to Shigeyuki’s teachers on her behalf. By the time that his original mission is completed he’s well and truly infiltrated the household allowing him to, literally, overturn its sense of stability.

Morita’s screenplay is witty affair full of one liners and humour born of unusual frankness. Family is a fake concept which forces each of its members into predefined roles and is largely divorced from genuine feeling. What matters is the appearance of normality and the acquisition of status – i.e getting into the better university, not so much as a path to success but as a way of avoiding the embarrassment of not getting there. An absurdist social satire, The Family Game is a biting critique of the social mores of the early 1980s which punches a gaping hole through the foundation of traditional Japanese society.


 

Main Theme (メイン・テーマ, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1984)

main themeDespite being one of the most prolific directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the work of Yoshimitsu Morita has not often travelled extensively overseas. Though frequently appearing at high profile international film festivals, few of Morita’s films have been released outside of Japan and largely he’s still best remembered for his hugely influential (and oft re-visited) 1983 black comedy, The Family Game. In part, this has to be down to Morita’s own zigzagging career which saw him mixing arthouse aesthetics with more populist projects. Main Theme is definitely in the latter category and is one of the many commercial teen idol vehicles he tackled in the 1980s.

A tale of two intersecting love stories, Main Theme begins with nursery nurse Shibuki getting close to the father of one of her pupils, Omaezaki, who will shortly be transferred to Osaka. Omaezaki also has a long running thing with a cabaret jazz singer, Kayoko, which seems to be a messy situation to begin with. Shibuki then ends up running into magician with a pick-up truck Ken who drives her to Osaka where she’s set to meet up with Omaezaki to become some kind of nanny living with him and his wife. En route, the pair pick up Kayako little knowing of her relationship with Omaezaki. Eventually, everyone ends up in Okinawa where Ken lives and Shibuki has an older sister each hoping to sort out their romantic difficulties under the blue island skies.

Main Theme stars popular idol of the time Hiroko Yakushimaru (star of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and is, unsurprisingly, centred around her chart topping song of the same name. A neat, new Japanese arrangement of the classic jazz standard Sway, the song fits neatly into the movie’s soundtrack which also features a number of other jazz hits such as The Man I Love and most notably Bei Mir Bistu Shein (or Shoen, or Shön depending on which version you’re looking at) courtesy of our cabaret singer (and her rivals) but being an ‘80s movie there’s still a bit of pop synth in there too though our central couple do seem to have oddly sophisticated tastes.

Though it is, as it’s intended to be, a teen romantic comedy, Morita tries (not entirely successfully) to put a little more substance into the background by also showing us the unhappy romance of middle-aged jazz singer Kayoko and the non-committal Omaezaki. It seems the pair have had an entailment probably stemming back years, perhaps even before Omaezaki’s marriage. Mrs. Omaezaki is a fairly ditzy and neurotic woman who loves shopping and seems to be more interested in the appearance of things than the reality. The status of the marriage itself is difficult to discern and it’s not quite clear if Omaezaki’s problem is a lack of will to leave his wife or that he’s already “left” and is trying to find a way to support her. In any case, introducing Shibuki, a 19yr old with an obvious crush on him, to the household is not one of his better ideas.

Needless to say, Ken also ends up forming an attraction to the older, melancholy musician who doesn’t seem to know what it is she wants (or knows but chooses to run away from it) leaving us in an odd kind of love square with the couples really each wanting their age appropriate partners but getting distracted by foolish dalliances with age and youth respectively. It does feel as if Morita could have made more of this dramatically interesting idea as Kayoko in particular is drawn in by Ken’s youthful innocence, but this isn’t what the film is for so it remains an intriguing yet perverse addition to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative.

The “perversity” or strangeness of the film doesn’t end there as Morita has also added a number of quirky, absurd touches to offset the flatness of the teenage love drama. Perhaps because he’s a magician we get these odd flashes of Ken where he’s suddenly got crazy eyebrows (just for one 15 second shot) or crazy hair and there’s another charming scene where he’s pulling artificial flowers out of his suit only to have the magic bouquet suddenly droop as his heart starts to break. In another intriguing trope there’s also a strange illustrated map which lead’s Shibuki to her sister’s house by outlining common scenes from the area and when she gets there the gates are covered in light up ornamental tropical fruits. Add to this that the backing behind Kayoko’s final cabaret reads “Bates Motel Live” and there’s definitely a very strange mind behind the production design on this run of the mill, idol pop pushing rom-com.

Undoubtedly of its time, there is probably a reason Main Theme has not proved a big overseas hit though it seems to have been massively popular at the time and is fondly remembered for nostalgic reasons even if not particularly well regarded today. This is perhaps how the film is best approached – as a monument of its times and as a prime example of the 80s idol dramas studios such as Kadokawa put out to push their inoffensive pop music. However, Morita does add his own quirky touches to the film which does provide its fair share of youthful fun even if it isn’t always successful.


Unsubtitled trailer:

And a more recent version of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song:

Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Shun Nakahara, 1991)

161_img_1_oAs you might be able to tell from its title, Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin) is a loose Japanese parody of the stage play 12 Angry Men notably filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1957. The Japanese title literally translates as “12 Kindly Japanese Guys” and the film takes the same premise of twelve jurors debating the verdict in a murder case which was previously thought fairly straightforward. This time our jury is a little more balanced as it’s not just guys in the room and even the men are of a more diverse background.

In contrast to the American version, each of our twelve jurors is immediately inclined to acquit and some of them are even walking out the door before one juror, Juror no. 2, raises an objection. He thinks the defendant may be guilty and they should at least talk about it a little more. Irritated, the jurors walk back into the room and enquire why he’s had this sudden change of heart. They will, of course, be entitled to some refreshments now, so what’s the harm in hanging round to talk things through. Eventually people start to switch sides, some in confusion or just wanting to get it over with, but gradually each is exposed as having a personal reason for feeling the way they do that has relatively little to do with the facts of the case.

In contrast to the original stage play, the first instinct of the Japanese jurors is to acquit. No one wants to believe the defendant, who is the mother of a young child accused of pushing her violent ex-husband into the path of an oncoming truck, could have wilfully planned such an outrageous crime in advance. Whatever the facts are, she has clearly suffered enough and her child certainly doesn’t deserve to be orphaned through having its mother taken away by over zealous seekers of “justice”. Nevertheless Juror no.2 doesn’t believe her story and thinks there’s at least the possibility that she pushed him deliberately if not having engineered the entire situation in someway.

As in the American version, they proceed to debate the facts of the case in detail but while some change sides after thinking over the arguments, others are rigidly committed to their positions. Of those in the not guilty camp, some of them can’t quite articulate their reasoning beyond “it’s just a feeling” which proves particularly infuriating to Juror No. 2. The US version placed more emphasis on societal prejudices with personal ones largely backing them up – i.e. they took against the defendant in that case because he was a poor boy from the slums so in their middle class, majority culture minds it was natural that he was guilty. Here, there’s a great deal of sympathy for the defendant who seems to have experienced a lot of misfortune but continues to try and do the best for her young son.

Even so, some take against her because she reminds them of past misfortune of their own, or take against the victim because even as a thoroughly unpleasant man he’d managed to attract himself a pretty wife and son only to misuse and abandon them. Some believe themselves to be excellent judges of character or to be good at spotting a liar only to have their opinions about themselves undermined when scrutinised. The revelations here are personal rather than societal, but the central fact remains that you can’t really ever know or prove what happened and even having witnessed something with your own eyes doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve totally understood the situation fully. Much of the juror’s deliberations consist of creating a narrative out of scattered facts and exercises in supposition. In the end, it more or less comes down to gut feeling anyway.

Originating as a stage play and scripted by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani, Gentle 12 has its moments of humour and never really takes itself too seriously. What else could you say about a case which seems to hinge on the smallest size of pizza available from a delivery company and how someone might say the words “ginger ale” when really, really angry. The “kindly” jurors also have a wonderful tendency towards tolerance or towards restrained anger that sees them getting quite annoyed whilst trying not to lose their tempers in exasperation or just calmly restating their arguments (or lack thereof) and infuriating everyone else in the process. Neatly filmed by Shun Nakahara, Gentle 12 might not have the same level of cultural bite as its original work suggests but it does prove an enjoyably absurd confined space drama which offers a few cultural revelations of its own.