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)

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Takashi Miike, 2013)

mole song under cover agent reiji poserYakuza aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? According to one particular lover of Lepidoptera, that’s all they ever need to be. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo and adapted from the manga by Noboru Takahashi, Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji) is the classic bad spy comedy in which a hapless beat cop is dragged out of his police box and into the field as a yakuza mole in the (rather ambitious) hope of ridding Japan of drugs. As might be assumed, Reiji’s quest does not quite go to plan but then in another sense it goes better than anyone might have hoped.

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) is, to put it bluntly, not the finest recruit the Japanese police force has ever received. He does, however, have a strong sense of justice even if it doesn’t quite tally with that laid down in law though his methods of application are sometimes questionable. A self-confessed “pervert” (but not a “twisted” one) Reiji is currently in trouble for pulling his gun on a store owner who was extracting sexual favours from high school girls he caught shop lifting (the accused is a city counsellor who has pulled a few strings to ask for Reiji’s badge). Seizing this opportunity, Reiji’s boss (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) has decided that he’s a perfect fit for a spell undercover in a local gang they suspect of colluding with Russian mafia to smuggle large amounts of MDMA into Japan.

Reiji hates drugs, but not as much as his new best buddy “Crazy Papillon” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who is obsessed with butterflies and insists everything that happens around him be “funny”. Reiji, an idiot, is very funny indeed and so he instantly gets himself a leg up in the yakuza world whilst forming an unexpectedly genuine bond with his new buddy who also really hates drugs and only agreed to join this gang because they promised him they didn’t have anything to with them.

Sliding into his regular manga mode, Miike adopts his Crows Zero aesthetic but re-ups the camp as Reiji gets fired up on justice and takes down rooms full of punks powered only by righteousness and his giant yakuza hairdo. Like most yakuza movies, the emphasis is on the bonds between men and it is indeed the strange connection between Reiji and Papillon which takes centerstage as Miike milks the melodrama for all it’s worth.

Scripted by Kankuro Kudo (who previously worked with the director on the Zebra Man series), Reiji skews towards a slightly different breed of absurdity from Miike’s patented brand but retains the outrageous production design including the big hair, garish outfits, and carefully considered colour scheme. Mixing amusing semi-animated sequences with over the top action and the frequent reoccurrence of the “Mole Song”, Miike is in full-on sugar rush mode, barely pausing before moving on from one ridiculous set piece to the next.

Ridiculous set pieces are however the highlight of the film from Reiji’s early series of initiation tests to his attempts to win the affections of his lady love, Junna (Riisa Naka), and a lengthy sojourn at a mysterious yakuza ceremony which Reiji manages to completely derail through a series of misunderstandings. At 130 minutes however, it’s all wearing a bit thin even with the plot machinations suddenly kicking into gear two thirds of the way through. Nevertheless, there’s enough silly slapstick comedy and impressive design work at play to keep things interesting even if Reiji’s eventual triumph is all but guaranteed.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 21 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 24 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 March 2018
  • Broadway – 20 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 27 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 28 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Crazy Family (逆噴射家族, Sogo Ishii, 1984)

crazy family posterThe family drama went through something of a transformation at the beginning of the 1980s. Gone are the picturesque, sometimes melancholy evocations of the transience of family life, these families are fake, dysfunctional, or unreliable even if trying their best. Morita’s The Family Game, released in 1983, kick started this re-examination of the primary social unit through attacking it Teorema-style as the family’s tutor rips through their generic middle-class existence by adopting each of their pre-defined social roles in turn. One year later Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (逆噴射家族, Gyakufunsha Kazoku) turns the director’s punk aesthetic to a similar theme but this time the family destroys itself in its earnestness to live the Japanese dream in the increasing economic possibility of the pre-bubble era. The Kobayashis are the perfect example of the “typical” aspiring family, but what is the “sickness” that the family patriarch is so afraid of, who (or what) is it that is sick, and if it is possible to be “cured” what would such a cure look like?

Mr and Mrs Kobayashi have achieved their dream – getting out of the danchi and into a suburban house that they own (or will own, once the mortgage is paid off) outright. Mr. Kobayashi, Katsukuni (Katsuya Kobayashi), is a typical salaryman while his wife Saeko (Mitsuko Baisho) stays at home to look after their two children – middle schooler Erika (Yuki Kudo) and her older brother Masaki (Yoshiki Arizono), currently a “ronin” studying to retake his university entrance exams determined to get into the prestigious Tokyo University.

Blissfully happy, the family are adapting well enough to their new home but there’s always that lingering feeling of impending doom, as if all this is too good to be true. Sure enough, Masaki’s adoption of a stray dog alerts the family to a more serious problem – termites. Suddenly terrified that something is literally trying to eat his house out from under him, Katsukuni goes on a fumigating rampage but the termites are not the only source of tension. Turning up right on time, grandpa arrives for a visit after falling out with Katsukuni’s older brother with whom he’d been living. The Kobayashis moved so that the kids could finally have their own rooms (and mum and dad some privacy) but grandpa shows no signs of leaving meaning Katsukuni is sharing with his dad and Saeko has been relegated to Erika’s room.

The house is what the family has always dreamed of – owning one’s own home is no mean feat for those raised in the post-war era, but it’s still a small environment for five people even if much nicer than their tiny city flat. More than just a structure it represents everything the ordinary family dreams of – peace, prosperity, harmony and a life lived in tune with the social order. Katsukuni’s fears that a mysterious “sickness” is plaguing his loved ones is a sign of his discomfort with this ordered way of living. Despite their stereotypical qualities, there is something not exactly right about each of his “ordinary” family members – mum stripteases for grandad’s friends, precocious teenage daughter Erika is not sure if she wants to be a pro-wrestler or an idol and spends all of her time “idolising” her favourite stars, and son Masaki has become a proto-hikikomori so obsessed with studying that he’s taken to stabbing himself in the leg every time he starts to nod off so that he can keep hitting the books rather than the hay.

Yet for all that it’s Katsukuni himself who is the most “sick” in his inability to reconcile himself to social conformity. Despite being apparently successful, he has deep seated feelings of inadequacy which convince him that something is going to go wrong with the family he feels a duty to protect. Wanting to be a good husband and father, Katsukuni thinks he has to “cure” his family of their strange behaviours and make them the sort of people who live in nice houses in the suburbs, but only succeeds in driving himself out of his mind.

Grandpa’s antics have the other family members well and truly fed up but Katsukuni feels just as much filial piety as he does responsibility towards his own children and cannot bring himself to tell his father to go and so he hits on an extreme solution – he’s going to dig a basement, by hacking up the living room floor and pushing downwards, towards hell. Surprise, surprise, his dream home is atop a nest of termites, the bugs are literally working their way in but, ironically enough, Katsukuni is the biggest termite of them all as his very own “hill” begins to appear just in front of the sofa while he tries to find a space for the older generation in a modern home.

Grandpa is an unwelcome manifestation of the inescapable past. When everything goes to hell and the house becomes a battlefield, grandpa manages to dig out his wartime uniform complete with a sword and attempts to assume command by dividing the house into sectors before capturing and trussing his own granddaughter whom he then threatens to rape and torture, apparently eager to revisit his Manchurian military service and all of its implied cruelties. When Katsukuni believes that all is lost and his family can’t be saved he opts for the most culturally appropriate solution – group suicide, but his family won’t play along. Paranoid and delusional, they turn on each other, defending themselves with icons of their respective roles, venting their frustrations and long held grudges in one prolonged battle of violent madness.

When the air finally clears there is only one solution – the house has to go. The desire for a “conventional life” or the feeling of not achieving it is, in that sense, “the sickness” which has infected the Kobayashi family. The finale sees them finally living happily once again but literally “outside” of the mainstream, in a totally open world where there is space for everyone – all quirks embraced, all extremes born. Everyone has their place but the family remains whole, freed from the burden of chasing an unrealisable dream.


A short musical clip from the film