Something Like, Something Like It (の・ようなもの のようなもの, Taiichi Sugiyama, 2016)

something like, something like it posterSadly passing away at the young age of 61 in 2011, Yoshimitsu Morita had been relatively prolific in his 25-year career, leaving behind him a hugely varied back catalogue that ran from zany idol movies to prestigious literary adaptations. His recurrent concerns, however, were relentlessly populist – he wanted to make films that ordinary people could enjoy which intensely reflected the time in which they were made. Five years after his death, one of his early ADs chose to pay tribute to his mentor by drawing inspiration from Morita’s 1981 feature debut, Something Like It. Something Like, Something Like It (の・ようなもの のようなもの, No Yona Mono no Yona Mono) brings the original cast back together with a few new faces from the late director’s more recent works to recreate yesterday’s pleasures for today’s audiences.

Our hero this time round is young Shinden (Kenichi Matsuyama). Well, he’s not really all that young despite being the lowest ranking rakugoka on the roster. Now 30 and beginning to lose hope, Shinden is a former salaryman well known for taking his time. Meanwhile, the 13th memorial service for the late master is fast approaching and the troupe’s patron has decreed she wants to see the return of an old friend – Shintoto (Katsunobu Ito) who abruptly disappeared right after the funeral. Seeing as Shinden is not so hot at rakugo, the other guys task him with tracking down Shintoto in the hope of convincing him to make a return to the stage so the patroness doesn’t decide to remove her patronage.

Rakugo – the traditional art of comic storytelling, is a rarefied affair. It requires extreme rigour from the performer in order to make often extremely familiar tales funny in all the right places. Shinden isn’t very good at it because he’s too stiff all over. Poor at reading social cues, he has an urge to point out tiny and embarrassing mistakes like a slightly frayed curtain or a wonky sign. He might not be best placed for finding and then convincing a sad old man to take back up the career he’d sworn to lay down. Nevertheless, once Shinden manages to find Shintoto and realises he’s made an extremely circular journey, he makes himself his disciple and commits himself to doing all Shintoho’s odd jobs in the hope he’ll finally finish the “Pop-Eyed Goldfish” routine that the patroness so wants to hear.

Taiichi Sugiyama* was an AD on Something Like It but is only making his own feature debut 25 years later. Reassembling the old cast, Sugiyama remains true to an old formula and his genial retro comedy certainly has an old fashioned quality right down to the cutesy jazz score which feels right out of the ‘80s. More modern additions come in the form of Kenichi Matsuyama (who starred in Morita’s final film, Train Brain Express) back on comedy form with a typically left of centre performance as the archetypal “cannot read the air” aspiring rakugoka whose tendency towards literalism as well as that to be distracted by minor imperfections threatens to ruin his career before it’s even really begun. That’s not to mention his nascent crush on his mentor’s daughter Yumi (Played by Keiko Kitagawa who made her feature debut in Morita’s Mamiya Brothers) and mild jealousy over the other various young and good looking men she seems to take an interest in.

Through getting closer to the now somewhat schlubby but basically good hearted Shintoto, Shinden learns to loosen up a bit and his Rakugo perhaps improves even if he also figures out when it’s best to make a sacrifice on someone else’s behalf. Shintoto too rediscovers his talent for comedy, if not the love. Morita never had much of a “signature” style – his films were in a sense tailor made to suit a particular purpose, but Sugiyama remains firmly within the world of early ‘80s comedy, allowing the everyday to brim with silliness as Shinden pursues his roundabout quest before coming quite literally full circle and then finding his feet again. A man pays tribute to his late mentor, mentors someone else, and then absents himself from the frame to let his pupil grow. One generation retreats and another rises – an age old story, but one that like a rakugo tale shines in the telling.


*IMDB and some other sites list his name as Yasukazu but according to the JFDB and Shochiku the official reading of his name is Taiichi.

Chinese release trailer (English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Future Memories: Last Christmas (未来の想い出 Last Christmas, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1992)

b27a8478bde0a2deBased on the contemporary manga by the legendary Fujiko F. Fujio (Doraemon), Future Memories: Last Christmas (未来の想い出 Last Christmas, Mirai no Omoide: Last Christmas) is neither quiet as science fiction or romantically focussed as the title suggests yet perhaps reflects the mood of its 1992 release in which a generation of young people most probably would also have liked to travel back in time ten years just like the film’s heroines. Another up to the minute effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Future Memories: Last Christmas is among his most inconsequential works, displaying much less of his experimental tinkering or stylistic variations, but is, perhaps a guide its traumatic, post-bubble era.

After a short segment set in 1971 in which one of our two heroines, Yuko Nando (Misa Shimizu), tells her classmates of her dream to become a best selling children’s author, we flash forward to 1981 where Yuko is a struggling artist unable to find success with her publishing company. A decade later, Christmas 1991, Yuko seems to have made little progress and despondently finds herself bonding with a mysterious woman offering a fortune telling service at the side of the road.

Ginko Kanae’s (Shizuka Kudo) life also seems to have spiralled downwards since 1981. A career as an office lady led to a fateful party after which another girl ended up going home with the guy she liked, and then she ended up being rebound married to the second choice salaryman she wound up with. Hence she’s reading fortunes on a less than busy side street at Christmas. The two women bond and swap phone numbers, but tragedy is about to befall them both as Yuko has a heart attack and dies at an office golf outing and Ginko has an accident on the way back from attending Yuko’s funeral. Never fear, the two women are soon cast back to 1981 with the next ten years of memories intact to help them make “better” choices and hopefully save their futures from ruin.

1992 was the start of a difficult era for Japan, the collapse of the bubble economy left behind it not just financial instability and social uncertainty, but a lingering feeling of foolishness and betrayal among those who’d been promised so much during the bubble years only to have the rug cruelly pulled from under them. It’s not surprising that many people of around Yuko and Ginko’s ages may have liked to travel back to 1981 and either relive the boom years or try and prevent the resultant tragedies from occurring. Unsurprisingly, the pair’s first pass at a do over sees them striving for conventional success, using their future knowledge to their advantage – Yuko by appropriating the idea of a popular 1991 manga to become an award winning artist, and Ginko becoming a financial guru. Both women come to feel conflicted about their “dishonest” choices which see them prosper unfairly, ironically robbing them of the chance to succeed as individuals in their own right and fulfil their own potential in the way they had always wanted to.

After each die at the same point and in the same way once again despite their financial successes, they get a second go, now with twenty years of hindsight to help them work out what’s really important. This time each chooses a path filled with more individual expression and the expectation of happiness. Romance is the name of the game as both women vow to spend more time with the men they love. However, having been through this once before Yuko and Ginko also have an expectation that their time will end once again in December 1991, meaning they feel conflicted about making a life with lovers they’ll be leaving behind. Gradually each starts to wonder if their fates are really as sealed as they fear them to be, or if they’ve been given this chance to start again precisely so that they can change their futures for the better.

In 1992, the idea that everything doesn’t have to be as gloomy as it seems might have been an important one, even more so than it is now. In the original timeline, Yuko and Ginko were, like many in the post-bubble world, victims of circumstance rather than people who’d actively made poor choices and the lessons which they learn are also those of their generation. Financial success is not everything, particularly if it’s gained in a “dishonest” way. More than changing their fates, Yuko and Ginko must first learn how to be happy which lies in self realisation, fulfilled potential, and, ironically, that their fate doesn’t matter so long as they live happily in the now.

Morita’s approach is again a timely one, filled with the music of the era (including a cover version of the title song from previous Morita hit, Main Theme), stock footage, and a curiously retro, nostalgia filled approach for a period that was only a decade earlier. Dissolves, slow motion and double exposures are his concessions to the sci-fi themes, but what he’s really interested in is capturing the essence of the era more so than crafting an emotionally affecting piece. Necessarily of its time, Future Memories: Last Christmas is among Morita’s weaker efforts but does serve to shine a light on early ‘90s pop culture as it found itself in a moment of profound self reflection.


Original trailer (no subtitles but lots of Christmas Cheer…and…Wham)

24 Hour Playboy (愛と平成の色男, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1989)

24-hour-playboyYoshimitsu Morita is an enigma. While directing some of the most acclaimed Japanese films of the 80s including The Family Game or the Soseki adaptation Sorekara, his primary dedication was to the “popular” which meant he did his share of more commercial projects such as the Kadokawa idol movie Main Theme or Banana Yoshimoto adaption Kitchen. As might be discerned from the title, 24 Hour Playboy (愛と平成の色男, Ai to Heisei no Irootoko) is among his more populist efforts and is most concerned with capturing the unique quality of its time as mid-bubble Japan said goodbye to the traumatic Showa era for the (hopefully) more prosperous Heisei.

After opening with a series of scenes of the luxury to be found in the modern era from expensive rolexes to elegant yachts, the film zooms in on its hero, Nagashima (Junichi Ishida), as he receives a call from his girlfriend to the effect that she will be visiting him shortly. However, Nagashima’s first action is to leap over his balcony and run down the hill below to hide out in his car and play his saxophone before taking refuge at his younger sister’s place. Nagashima has a serious problem in that he finds himself unable to sleep and is longing for a woman who can really tire him out. Consequently he’s become the “24 hour playboy” of the title, flirting with women here there and everywhere all day long hoping to find the one who can send him straight to bed.

Unusually for a film set in the age of consumerism, Nagashima is not a high powered executive or something more glamorous like an actor or a singer, he is, in fact, a dentist. When not inappropriately flirting with the young women who end up in his dentist’s chair, Nagashima also has a sideline as a jazz saxophonist which seems to be what he’d really like to do with his life but presumably is not as lucrative as the unexpectedly elite world of dentistry.

The consumerist society runs as background throughout the film as Nagashima enjoys a fairly upscale lifestyle perfect for a playboy with visits to trendy nightclubs and late night driving ranges, but the film also gets a lot of milage out of the literal change in era occurring just at the time the film was made. The traditional Japanese dating system takes its name from the emperor – the Showa era began in 1926 and was witness to both Japan’s tragic affair with militarism and expansionist warfare and the beginnings of its return to prosperity in the now nostalgic ‘70s and ‘80s. With the death of Hirohito in January 1989, his son Akihito assumed the throne and began the “Heisei” era. The film was released in 1989 but “Heisei” is referenced several times throughout both as a joke on the fact that “Heisei” means “peace everywhere” and in Nagashima’s comments that some things have already improved in the extremely young new regime.

In keeping with Morita’s determination to stay up to the minute, the film is very much of its time but paints its transitional moment as one of excitement and possibility but also of confusion and inertia. When Nagashima tells a late night barman that he doesn’t know what he wants, he’s talking about more than drinks though he seems happy enough with the gimlet the bar tender picks out for him. Nagashima’s insomnia is apparently caused by not having a good woman to share his bed, but he spends the film playing four women off against each other without ever being really serious about any of them.

After his sometime girlfriend whom he ran out on in the beginning starts talking marriage, Nagashima hatches a plan to get his sister to pretend to be a religious nutcase to put her off. Later he gets another girlfriend to pretend to be his wife and mother of his three children to rid himself of one of the others, gets rid of another by telling her he’s off to “dentists without borders”, and even ends up treating two of his simultaneous girlfriends at the same time in adjacent dental surgeries. Nagashima’s behaviour is caddish in the extreme, thinking only of himself and never really seeing the women in front of him as entities separate from their relationship with him.

A throwback to feckless ‘60s male heroes whose casual womanising represented aspirational male fantasy, Nagashima’s exploits are depicted in a light hearted and humorous way eased by the fact that the women don’t seem to mind very much even after they discover that they aren’t Nagashima’s one and only. Eventually outed as a love rat in the papers, Nagashima’s accidental fame, far from causing outcry and condemnation, attracts a vast crowd of ladies wanting in on the action for themselves.

Oddly the one woman Nagashima does seem to be able to connect with is his sister whom he ironically describes as the one woman he doesn’t understand. Frequently staying over at her apartment, Nagashima often remarks that he wishes all women like her or that all women were his sister, which is an extremely odd thing to say in the circumstances but she is the one woman he seems to have a fully realised conception of and is able to relate to on a human level.

Necessarily very much of its time – the Heisei era is even referenced in the slightly ironic title, 24hr Playboy is one of Morita’s most disposable efforts but is also a perfect reflection of contemporary society in its increasingly consumerist fervour where dentists can live like playboy millionaires and the sheer abundance of choice leaves young men paralysed with indecision. Nagashima’s playboy lifestyle is mined for comic value as he plays the melancholic hero who doesn’t know what he wants and and so has a massive fear of (and yet intense desire for) commitment, but Morita is always careful to point out his essential ridiculousness as Nagashima’s “Heisei” lifestyle becomes less “peaceful” with each additional girlfriend and the increasingly elaborate excuses needed to jilt them.


 

The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2006)

mamiya-brothersEver the populist, Yoshitmitsu Morita returns to the world of quirky comedy during the genre’s heyday in the first decade of the 21st century. Adapting a novel by Kaori Ekuni, The Mamiya Brothers (間宮兄弟, Mamiya Kyodai) centres on the unchanging world of its arrested central duo who, whilst leading perfectly successful, independent adult lives outside the home, seem incapable of leaving their boyhood bond behind in order to create new families of their own.

Older bother Akinobu (Kuranosuke Sasaki) and younger brother Tetsunobu (Muga Tsukaji) live together in a small apartment in Tokyo where they enjoy hanging out keeping track of baseball games and watching movies rented from the local store where Akinobu has a crush on the cashier, Naomi (Erika Sawajiri). They are perfectly happy but sometimes frustrated that they don’t have girlfriends so they decide to host a curry party and invite Naomi over in the hopes that she might develop an affection for Akinobu. So that she won’t feel weird about going to the house of two middle-aged guys she doesn’t really know, Tetsunobu invites a reserved teacher, Yoriko (Takako Tokiwa), from the primary school he works at as a caretaker though he “never dates coworkers” and is only really asking her as a backup for Akinobu.

Against expectation the both ladies agree to attend the curry party which actually goes pretty well though neither man is fully capable of following up on the opportunities presented to him. Outside events provide a distraction as Akinobu is swept into his adulterous boss’ divorce crisis and Tetsunobu becomes fixated on a damsel in distress who has no desire to be rescued by him. As much as the boys might want to form independent relationships for female companionship, their brotherly bond is more akin to a marriage in itself leaving both of them unwilling to abandon the status quo for a new kind of happiness.

These kinds of closely interdependent sibling relationships are more often seen between sisters, often as one or both of them has rejected offers of marriage for fear of leaving the other on the shelf. Elderly spinsters and their histories of unhappy romance are almost a genre in themselves though they often present the peaceful co-existence of the two women as a double failure and ongoing tragedy rather than a perfectly legitimate choice each may have made to reject the normal social path and rely solely on each other. The Mamiya Brothers neatly subverts this stereotype, presenting the relationship of the two men as a broadly happy one though perhaps tinged with sadness as it becomes clear that the intense bond they share is holding each of them back in a kind of never ending childhood.

Indeed, though they live alone together and have steady jobs, whilst in each other’s company the brothers regress back to childhood by spending their spare time riding bikes around the neighbourhood and playing on the beach. They are each keenly aware of how they must appear to members of the opposite sex and are always mindful not to appear “creepy”. Accordingly, they’re careful about which DVDs they check out so that Naomi doesn’t get a bad impression of them, and they’re sure to make it clear that both girls can bring other people to their parties so they won’t think there’s anything untoward going on. Throwing quick fire questions back for and constantly making references to private jokes the boys are effectively a manzai duo performing for an audience of two, perpetually suffocating inside their self made bubble.

Though they might not find love, the boys do at least make some new friends. Naomi’s sister, Yumi (Keiko Kitagawa), is exactly the kind of girl they’d usually steer clear of lest she begins to make fun of their old fashioned ways yet she actually becomes an ally and even a friend after spending time hanging out in the brothers’ odd little world. Yumi and Naomi are, in many ways, almost as closely connected as Akinobu and Tetsunobu though they both currently have boyfriends even if they find them equally disappointing.

The teacher, Yoriko, also finds herself unlucky in love as she pursues a relationship with a colleague who doesn’t seem particularly invested in her and is lackadaisical about even the smallest forms of commitment. Tetsunobu seems to have discounted her as a romantic partner under his “no coworkers” rule and is either unaware or deliberately ignoring her growing feelings for him. It may be that he invited Yoriko as a love interest for his brother precisely because he was interested himself and wanted to eliminate the problem, but he may come to regret outwardly rejecting this chance of mutual affection turning into something more solid.

When push comes to shove it might just be that the Mamiya Brothers are happiest in their own company and have no desire to move on and leave their arrested development behind. Though tinged with a degree of lingering sadness as it appears the boys do have a desire to form bonds outside of their mutually dependent bubble, they are after all quite happy and mostly fulfilled in their life together. Cute and quirky, if at times melancholic, The Mamiya Brothers is a strange tale of modern romance in a world where no one really grows up anymore. The brothers are clearly not afraid of broadening their horizons, but might prefer to continue doing so together rather than finding their own, independent, paths.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lost Paradise (失楽園, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1997)

lost paradiseYoshitmitsu Morita tackled many different genres during his extremely varied career taking in everything from absurd social satire to teen idol vehicles and high art films. 1997’s Lost Paradise (失楽園, Shitsurakuen) again finds him in the art house realm as he prepares a tastefully erotic exploration of middle aged amour fou. Based on the bestselling novel by Junichi Watanabe, Lost Paradise also became a breakout box office hit as audiences were drawn by the tragic tale of doomed late love frustrated by societal expectations.

We meet Kuki (Koji Yakusho) and Rinko (Hitomi Kuroki) about to bid each other goodbye for the day, playfully in love though perhaps self conscious. It’s not until later that we realise they are both already married – just not to each other. Kuki, 50 years old, has reached an impasse in his life. Effectively demoted and sidelined at work, his homelife is not exactly unhappy but has long since lost his interest. His daughter is grown up and married herself, his wife has a career of her own, his mortgage is already paid off. There is really nothing left for him to do. That is until he meets calligraphy teacher Rinko and falls passionately in love for the first time in his life.

Rinko, 38, entered into an arranged marriage at 25 though the kindest way of describing it would be “unfulfilling”. Haruhiko (Toshio Shiba), her husband, is a doctor by profession and cuts a cold and distant figure. Prone to violent outbursts and pettiness, he treats Rinko more as a house keeper than a wife ordering her to buy his favourite kind of cheese (even urging her to travel to a different shop if the first one doesn’t have it) but then not even looking up when she brings it into his study for him. Lasciviously poking a spoon into the soupy mess, he pauses only briefly after savouring his first taste to give Rinko her next set of orders with no word of thanks or even acknowledgement of her success in obtaining this oddly specific cheese related request.

Finally in each other Rinko and Kuki find completeness long after they’d stopped seeking it. Rinko is unhappy in an arranged marriage which offers scant comfort, though Kuki’s problems are more akin to a mid life crisis as he finds himself an unnecessary presence at home whilst also realising that he’s already passed the high point of his career. Though there are no real barriers to Rinko and Kuki simply leaving their spouses and starting again together, it’s never quite that simple as the social stigma of an extra-marital affair continues to undermine their new found romance.

As in many of Morita’s films, the overall tone is one of pessimism as Rinko and Kuki face opposition from all sides whilst falling ever deeper into a whirlwind of self destructive passion. Rinko confides in a recently divorced friend who has guessed her secret and urges her to try and be happy, but Kuki keeps matters to himself whilst listening to the romantic problems of his workmates many of whom state that they too would like to fall madly in love, just once. When one of Kuki’s most valued colleagues falls ill, he laments having lived his life in the straightforward way expected by society. He’s done everything right – spent all his time working hard, built a career which was about to go south anyway. If all that happens is that you get old and die what was it all for – perhaps you’re better off just doing as you please, social expectations be damned.

Eventually the pair get an apartment and indulge in some part-time domesticity though an ill thought out blackmail plot soon changes things for both of them. Haruhiko refuses to divorce Rinko but Kuki’s wife is more sympathetic and open to the idea of sorting things out as quickly as possible. Though he suffers in other ways, Kuki finds it easier to accept the idea of moving on than Rinko who also faces opposition from her own mother who brands her as immoral and someone to be pitied for having given in to weakness and allowed her baser instincts to take over. Soon the couple find themselves thinking about a way to be together for eternity even if it lies in another world than this one.

Likened to the famous case of Sada Abe (also the inspiration for Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses), Rinko and Kuki are consumed by their own passion and ultimately unable to continue living outside it. Morita opts for an artful aesthetic and keeps his eroticism on the classy side rather than descending into exploitation or salaciousness. Making use of frequent handheld camera and odd angles to bring out the giddy, unbalanced mindset of the central couple Morita also experiments with colour often cutting to black and white or sepia mid-scene. The tragedy of this love story is that it occurs at a societally inconvenient time – there is nothing wrong in Rinko and Kuki’s romance save that it started after they were already married to other people. This may not seem such a great problem but in a society which demands conformity and adherence to its rules, those who break them must be prepared to pay a heavy price. Perhaps the last words ought to belong to Kuki’s poetic friend who points out that life if short and rarely rewards those who play by the rules, it may be better to burn out brightly rather than flicker away for an eternity.


Original trailer (no subs)

Copycat Killer (模倣犯, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2002)

copycatYoshimitsu Morita had a long standing commitment to creating “populist” mainstream cinema but, perversely, he liked to spice it with a layer of arthouse inspired style. 2002’s Copycat Killer(模倣犯, Mohouhan) finds him back in the realm of literary adaptations with a crime thriller inspired by Miyuki Miyabe’s book in which the media becomes an accessory in the crazed culprit’s elaborate bid for eternal fame through fear driven notoriety.

Following a non-linear structure, the film first introduces us to an old man who runs a tofu shop where he lives with his middle aged daughter who is in the middle of a breakdown following the end of her marriage, and his grown up granddaughter who has become the woman of the house during her mother’s illness. Though not without its difficulties his life was happy enough but after granddaughter Mariko goes out one evening and never comes home, nothing will ever be the same again.

A severed arm and a handbag are discovered in a flower bed by a teenage boy whilst walking a dog, though a mysterious distorted voice later contacts the media to inform them that the arm and the handbag do not belong to the same woman. The boy, oddly enough, is the sole survivor of his family who were all murdered some years previously. He was interviewed at the time by press reporter Yumiko whose soba shop owning brother may have a connection to the crimes. The cold blooded killer knows all of this and is engineering coincidences into a grand plan in which he will harness the power of mass media to earn himself a kind of national respect as an “expert” on the crimes which he has himself been committing.

Hitting a style somewhere between The Black House and Keiho, Morita opts for a dreamlike atmosphere filled with dissolves, soft split screens and hacker inspired graphical touches. Not only is the killer interested in appearing on TV either in voice or in person but can also manipulate mass media by hacking commercials and billboards to proclaim his own messages. As well as the early computer inspired effects, photo zooms, and contemporary methods of evidence presentation, Morita wrong foots the audience by zigzagging through the chronology of crime beginning with the central murder then switching back to the killers as they are now, then their childhoods, and cutting back to each of the other protagonists – the grandfather, teenage boy, and reporter.

Possibly inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case, the killers are a duo of psychotic young men who think they can achieve everlasting fame and personal satisfaction by committing the kind of murders which have never been committed before. The true motivator of the crimes even tells one of his victims that she ought to be grateful. That she was leading a “pointless” life and now she’s being given the opportunity to “serve” in something greater as a component in his master plan. Before, he explains, she’d just have gone on living until she died and been forgotten but now she’ll be a star – everyone will remember her name as a victim in the crime of the century and the world will mourn her death.

At another juncture, the killer also remarks that absolute faith in the family unit is the reason a relative of a suspect or victim of crime is routinely targeted by the press and a source of recrimination even though they themselves had nothing to do with it. Family issues are also a factor as rejection and abandonment by parental figures is offered as a reason for why a person may eventually become deranged. Thus, the killer’s intention to harness mass media for worldwide fame through committing heinous, terrible crimes is painted as a quest for the attention and recognition he never received from his parents. The family is both nothing and everything, but as we reach the conclusion it’s family that engenders hope as we’re presented with a potential new family committing to proving that nurture can trump nature with happy childhoods building mentally balanced adults.

The grief stricken grandfather tells the killer that his selfish actions are cowardly and pointless. That if he really wanted to cause a sensation in this cruel world, he should have become a hero and taught people how to love instead of hate – that would be the true radical action. Morita’s essential world view is once again resolutely bleak but offered with a wry and cynical sense of humour. The final messages are of acceptance and moving on no matter how hard it may be, and of trying to create something good out of even the very worst occurrences. The film’s extremely strange, oddly explosive expressionist finale takes things a step too far and the youthful, contemporary electronic score with its link to the stereotypical hacking iconography occasionally calls attention to itself but Copycat Killer still proves an entertaining, multilayered crime thriller filmed with Morita’s characteristically experimental approach and necessary dose of oddness.


Unsubtitled trailer:

The Black House (黒い家, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1999)

black house posterYoshimitsu Morita, though committed to commercial filmmaking, also enjoyed trying on different kinds of directorial hats from from purveyor of smart social satires to teen idol movies, high art literary adaptations and just about everything else in-between. It’s no surprise then that at the height of the J-horror boom, he too got in on the action with an adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel of the same name, The Black House (黒い家, Kuroi Ie). Though tagged as “J-horror” you’ll find no long haired ghosts here and, in fact, barely anything supernatural as the true horror on show is the slow descent into madness taking place inside the protagonist’s mind.

Wakatsuki (Masaaki Uchino) is a nice young man with a good job investigating claims at an insurance office. Unfortunately, this gives him a slightly dim view of humanity as he comes into contact with scamsters and even people willing to maim themselves just so that they can claim on their policies. One day, he receives a strange phone call from a woman who wants to know if her insurance policy will pay out in case of suicide. Wakatsuki, slightly panicked, tells her that it really depends on the circumstances and, jumping to the conclusion she plans to kill herself, urges her to get help and talk things over with someone before doing anything rash.

The next thing he knows, Wakatsuki is despatched to her house to sort things out whereupon he makes an extremely gruesome discovery – the woman’s son, though only a child, has hanged himself in the back room. Obviously extremely shocked and distressed, Wakatsuki heads home with the nagging suspicion that Sachiko (Shinobu Ootake) and her husband Komoda (Masahiko Nishimura) have done something truly dreadful. The couple take turns coming into the office to find out what’s taking so long with their claim and gradually the situation begins to spiral desperately out of control.

Always one for irony,  Morita’s tone varies widely here. There’s an oddly Twin Peaks-like vibe with the jolly jazz score giving way to synths at moments of high tension, not to mention the run down industrial town setting. If that weren’t enough Lynchery, there’s even a moment where a severed hand is found in a patch of grass, crawling with ants just like the ear found by Jeffrey at the beginning of Blue Velvet. Morita seems to be telling us not to take any of this too seriously yet his subjects include parents harming or even murdering their children to claim on an insurance policy as well as bloody violence and dismemberment of corpses.

In fact, the insurance guys don’t spend too long trying to figure out if the boy actually killed himself but Wakatsuki becomes preoccupied by the idea the husband, Komoda, is behind the whole thing (the boy was only his step-son after all) and will now try and kill his wife to claim her insurance too. The couple are certainly both very strange people and the insurance company also have a problem as the policy was signed off on during a campaign drive in which a now dismissed employ made use of a personal connection to try and meet her unrealistic quota. Wakatsuki eventually engages an equally eccentric psychology professor who takes him out on a weird nighttime odyssey to a seedy strip club where he expounds on a epidemic of psychopathy among the younger generation. Even Wakatsuki’s girlfriend, Megumi, has some off the wall ideas based on an essay Sachiko wrote in elementary school (though actually Megumi’s view has some merit).

Things hit a more conventional note from this point on landing us with a familiar slasher villain who begins stalking Wakatsuki, even trashing his apartment before kidnapping his girlfriend and keeping her prisoner in the “Black House”. Wakatsuki heads to the den of evil by himself in the dark (in true horror movie fashion) where he finds a whole bunch of other dismembered corpses (and a few other surprises). He might think he can put his troubles behind him after this extremely traumatic incident, but this is still a horror movie so the killer gets away to strike again by throwing a bright yellow bowling ball at his head through the office toilet window.

Morita is not being serious at all, even for a second, but somehow he still manages to create an oddly threatening atmosphere of suspense despite the extremely weird things which are going on. He creates a complex set of visual cues from the recurring sunflower motif repeated on Sachiko’s shirt to the glistening yellow bowling ball, goldfish (in a toilet bowl if not a percolator), repeated sounds of cockroaches and old fashioned reel printers, and even the green glow from both old fashioned computer systems and the company’s insurance documents. Undoubtedly bizarre, The Black House is mind bending psychological-horror-movie-cum-Freudian-slasher that is primed for both head scratching puzzlement and confused chuckling as Morita has a lot of fun messing with our senses.


Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2007)

Tsubaki Sanjiro horizontalGenerally speaking, where a film has been inspired by already existing source material, it’s unfair to refer to it as a “remake” even if there has been an iconic previous adaptation. That said, in the case of Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎), “remake” is very much at the heart of the idea as the film uses the exact same script as the massively influential 1962 version directed by Akira Kurosawa which also starred his muse Toshiro Mifune. Director Yoshimitsu Morita is less interested in returning to the story’s novelistic roots than he is in engaging with Kurosawa’s cinematic legacy.

Sanjuro is a more populist offering from Kurosawa in any case and adheres to a fairly simple plot which picks up with the hero of the previous year’s Yojimbo, still a wandering ronin living on his wits and his sword. In actuality the script was altered a little to connect the two films even though the original novel has nothing to do with Yojimbo. Anyway, the story is set in a small town in which the hotheaded young men have got a bee in their bonnets about corruption at the higher levels and have taken it upon themselves to do something about it. Unfortunately they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into and are about to make things even worse. Sanjuro duly arrives, overhears their idiocy and gives them some advice before heroically saving all their lives through cleverness. Later, when one of the young men’s relatives is kidnapped, Sanjuro decides to stay and help them sort this giant mess out before they do themselves a mischief.

Obviously, Morita uses the same script so Tsubaki Sanjuro has exactly the same plot as the 1962 film. This does lend it a slightly uncanny quality as its use of language and the structure of the script itself are much more of their own time – a fact brought out by the very theatrical performances of the only two female faces in the film who speak in very pointed and deliberate manners. That said, what Morita attempts to do is bring out even more of the ironic, dark comedy that underpins Kurosawa’s film but is very much played as background. Morita isn’t playing it as farce or as parody, but brings the same wry, almost mocking eye to the proceedings as he brings to to his contemporary satirical comedies.

Bayside Shakedown star Yuji Oda is cast in the role of Sanjuro but really of course he’s expected to play Mifune. He doesn’t have Mifune’s sheer presence and force of personality – who does? but he does a good job of adopting his wiseguy, casual grifter with a sentimental heart persona. We don’t know who Sanjuro is – he gives what is fairly obvious to be a fake name and seems to be a masterless swordsman content to travel in rags and live on the “kindess” of strangers, but you get the feeling he’s already got it all figured out and always knows the best way to handle any situation no matter how desperate it might seem.

If what Morita is trying to do is make a modern Kurosawa movie, he somewhat succeeds. Though he throws in the odd homage to the Kurosawa corpus, mostly he opts for a contemporary approach though one with an old fashioned kind of stateliness – no handheld camera here, wide and tracking shots rule the day. The score too remains in the classical jidaigeki realm with obvious call outs to Sanjuro’s own western leaning themes.

Morita himself can be something of a chameleon in the director’s chair, his style isn’t so personally defined but tailored to the project itself which can make him seem a little dull where he isn’t trying to add a layer of experimentation which is the thing which really interests him. Tsubaki Sanjuro’s experimentation is closer to mirroring – he’s not doing a Gus Van Sant Psycho style experiment, but he’s refracting Kurosawa for a modern audience raised on TV drama and idol stars. It works, to be sure, but perhaps it worked better for Kurosawa (unfair as that is to say).

Ultimately, Tsubaki Sanjuro is something of a curate’s egg. As it is intended to, the film has its generic sides in its fairly ordinary modern samurai movie aesthetic, though it never overplays these and cleverly adds in a more modern approach with a perfectly matched subtlety. Its cast of young men skew younger than in the original film making their naivety even more believable and lending weight to Oda’s performance which captures both his character’s gruff aloofness and his instant born leader abilities. Enjoyable enough in its own right, Tsubaki Sanjuro can’t reach the heights of the film which inspired it, but then perhaps it is not intended to, but simply to entertain with a familiar tale retold as broad comedy rather than mild satire.


Available with English subtitles on region free DVD in the US from Bonzai Media Corp. RSP

Unsubtitled trailer:

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2010)

•Žm‚̉ƌv•ë•The stories of samurai whose soul is placed not in the sword but in another tool are quickly becoming a genre all of their own. Coming from the same screen writer as A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, Abacus and Sword is a similarly structured tale of penny pinching samurai accountants and a pean to the undersung heroes of the admin department without whom everything would fall apart.

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Bushi no Kakeibo) could almost be titled “a story of my father” as it begins with a voice over by the youngest adult generation seen in the film, Nariyuki Inoyama, who is at the time of speaking a naval accountant in the new post restoration world. As good an account as he is (and he must be, given his position), he feels he pales in comparison to his father, Naoyuki, whose skills with the abacus were somewhat legendary even if his people skills were often not on the same level.

Dubbed an abacus fanatic by his colleagues, Naoyuki’s top maths abilities get him into trouble right away when he notices an extreme discrepancy in the accounts details for the imperial rice dole. Around this time there are riots from farmers who are being squeezed to deliver more grain to the authorities during a time of famine but not seeing enough returned to them as well as starving people petitioning for food in the streets, so when Naoyuki asks why around a third of the rice is disappearing from the accounts or listed as “reserved” his superiors start getting nervous. As a mini underling, Naoyuki is not in a position to stop his bosses from exploiting their authority in the most devious of ways – creating a food panic and then profiting on the side through black market trading, and is simply instructed to “ensure the final accounts balance”. Unwilling to falsify his precious calculations, Naoyuki finds himself facing the possibility of exile from the imperial centre but eventually finds his persistence rewarded when the scam is finally uncovered by a higher level.

Accountants are often not respected in this era of samurai warriors who place an almost religious faith in the power of the sword. Their pay is low, hours long and taxing, and they have little prospects of advancement. After hearing the story of Naoyuki’s career Nariyuki returns to the subject of himself a little more as the conflict between austere father and wayward son takes centre stage. Naoyuki is a pragmatic man, he sees their family debts are unsustainable and embarks of prolonged plan of austerity in which he forces the entire extended family to sell all their non essential possessions and live as cheaply as possible until the debts reach a more manageable level so they can at least keep the social position their larger family home affords them rather than being moved to something less prestigious. This is an unusual move in status driven samurai circles and proves embarrassing for the rest of the family such as in one episode where Naoyuki can’t afford to buy fish for his son’s coming of age ceremony so simply puts a painting of a fish at each place setting. Creative accounting at its finest!

Nariyuki, however, can’t quite give up on the idea of the sword and goes off to fight in the various civil wars which erupt during the Meiji Restoration causing great worry to his parents, wife and children. He too becomes an accountant and is at first disappointed that it’s his skills with an abacus that can best serve the country rather than those needed on the frontlines but later comes to understand the tactical importance of maintaining the smooth financial functioning of an army.

A late career effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Abacus and Sword is an uneven experience which is more or less devoid of the director’s usual attempts at experimentation pushing for a more general, sometimes even televisual approach to storytelling. At heart the film praises the virtues of living a thrifty, honest, and balanced life in which hard work is always fairly rewarded in the end and even when not provides its own set of rewards. However, virtuous as it is to live honestly and simply in tune with the clack of an abacus, it can prove fairly dull which is unfortunately also true of Abacus and Sword which despite brief episodes of light humour never quite engages with its twin dynamics of father son conflict which echoes that of the changing world as it emerges into the new Meiji era, and of shining a light on the forgotten admin workers who keep the world turning when everything else is falling apart. Morita’s anti-consumerist, transparency in government sympathies come to the fore and are once again timely, but like Naoyuki he fails to make his complaints sufficiently engaging to ensure his messages are received by those with the ability to take action.


English subtitled trailer:

Kitchen (キッチン, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1989)

KitchenBanana Yoshimoto’s debut novel Kitchen was first published in 1988 and instantly became a publishing phenomenon. The first film adaptation came not long after with the identically titled Kitchen (キッチン) directed by Yoshimitsu Morita in 1989. Like most of Yoshimoto’s work, Kitchen deals with people learning to live with grief and cope with the aftermath of tragedy. However, though Morita’s script sticks closely to the novel for the first half of its running time, he later deviates into a conventional romantic youth drama much like his more populist offerings of the time.

The film opens with a strange image of a young woman asleep in front of a fridge in an otherwise entirely darkened kitchen. The young woman is Mikage Sakurai – orphaned at a young age, Mikage (Ayako Kawahara) was raised by her grandmother who has recently also passed away leaving her entirely alone in the world. The one place Mikage has learned to feel at peace is in a kitchen and she has her sights set on a culinary career.

At the funeral, Mikage meets a young man who had apparently become good friends with her grandmother through his part-time job at a florist. After striking up a friendship with Mikage, Yuichi (Keiji Matsuda) invites her to the upscale apartment he shares with his mother, Eriko (Isao Hashizume). Mikage falls in love a little bit with their well appointed and spacious Western style kitchen which is filled to the brim with all the latest gadgets. Soon after, Mikage moves in with Yuichi and Eriko and begins to rebuild her life with a new family beside her.

It’s difficult to avoid spoilers in this respect but for anyone who is familiar with Yoshimoto’s novel, it’s important to note that one particular tragedy which informs the entirety of book has been completely eliminated in this adaptation. The biggest change Morita has made is in his depiction of Eriko who is a trans woman and the father of Yuichi having undergone gender reassignment after the death of Yuichi’s mother.

The film is actually very positive in dealing with Eriko’s character and doesn’t try to elide or make a joke out of her. However, whereas Eriko in the book is described as an extremely glamorous and beautiful woman to the extent that she may seem slightly intimidating at first despite her warm and loving nature, here she is played by a male actor with a man’s haircut and slightly frumpy fashion sense as well as being depicted more like a stereotypically gay male character. Likewise, though Eriko’s friend Chika-chan is still in the movie, we never see anything of Eriko’s life at the gay club she runs or much of her life away from Yuichi and Mikage. That said, the change in question does offer a little more hope and happiness for Eriko than her outcome in the novel.

Morita also gives the film more of the quirky, light hearted feel he adopted in many of his other populist films from the ‘80s. Yoshimoto’s work often successfully straggles a difficult tonal gap in which it’s filled with a kind of existential despair but simultaneously light and cheerful. Though Mikage is numbed with grief throughout the novel which prevents her from assessing what it is she really wants from life, the film is satisfied with depicting her as a fairly ordinary young woman whose problems stem more from trying to step out alone for the first time rather than trying to emerge from a life altering tragedy like the death of your last remaining family member.

However, Morita retains the magical realist qualities of the novel through his use of dream sequences and expressionist imagery. Juxtaposing bright colours of nature with the often extremely dark backgrounds, he creates an impressive sense of differing realities with Mikage’s cheerful on the surface yet depressed inner life recreated through iconography rather than through performance or dialogue. He also retains the use of the moon as symbol for life and happiness, presenting a source bright light in an otherwise dark world which can help to guide the way in times of trouble.

As a film in its own right, Morita’s Kitchen is certainly very much of its time though perhaps not unwatchable, but as an adaptation of Yoshimoto’s novel it ultimately fails on all counts. Veering way off tone in its second half, Kitchen takes on much more of a conventionally romantic narrative eschewing Yoshimoto’s major messages about the need to come to terms with a traumatic past in order to move on and the importance of understanding your true feelings while there’s still time to act on them. Yoshimoto is more concerned with showing that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin and you can’t have one without the other but Morita’s story creates a much smoother, more natural path for a romance between Mikage and Yuichi which ultimately robs it of much of its power. That said even if Kitchen disappoints as a literary adaptation it isn’t entirely without interest and does at least offer several examples of Morita’s idiosyncratic gift for composition.


Opening scenes of the film (dialogue free)

Kitchen was also adapted as film in Hong Kong directed by Ho Yim in 1997, starring Yasuko Tomita and Jordon Chan. Banana Yoshimoto’s source novel was first published in English in 1993 (translated by Megan Backus) and is still in print from Faber & Faber in the UK and Grove Press in the US.