Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Kon Ichikawa, 1991)

noh mask murders posterFor one reason or another, Japanese mystery novels have yet to achieve the impact recently afforded to their Scandinavian brethren. Japan does however have a long and distinguished history of detective fiction and a number of distinctive, eccentric sleuths echoing the European classics. Mitsuhiko Asami is just one among many of Japan’s not quite normal investigators, and though Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Tenkawa Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) is technically the 23rd in the Asami series, Kon Ichikawa’s adaptation sets itself up as the very first Asami case file and as something close to an origin story.

Ichikawa, though he may be best remembered for his ‘60s arthouse masterpieces, was able to go on filmmaking where others perhaps were not precisely because of his forays into the populist with a series of mystery thrillers including several featuring top Japanese detective Kindaichi (who receives brief name check in Noh Mask Murders). Published by Kadokawa, Noh Mask Murders is produced by Haruki Kadokawa towards the end of his populist heyday and features many of the hallmarks of a “Kadokawa” film but Ichikawa also takes the opportunity for a little formal experimentation to supplement what is perhaps a weaker locked room mystery.

Asami (Takaaki Enoki) begins with a voice over as four plot strands occur at the same temporal moment at different spaces across the city. In Shinjuku, a salaryman drops dead on the street, while a young couple enjoy a secret tryst in a secluded forest, a troupe of actors rehearse a noh play, and Asami himself is arrested by an officious policeman who notices him walking around with a dead bird in his hand and accuses him of poaching. As he will later prove, all of these moments are connected either by fate or coincidence but setting in motion a series of events which will eventually claim a few more lives before its sorry conclusion.

To begin with Asami, he is a slightly strange and ethereal man from an elite background who has been content to drift aimlessly through life to the consternation of his conservative family which includes a police chief brother. He harbours no particular desire to become a detective and is originally irritated by a family friend’s attempts to foist a job on him but gives in when he learns he will have the opportunity to visit Tenkawa which is where, he’s been told, the mysterious woman who helped him out with the policeman in the opening sequence keeps an inn. Hoping to learn more about her, he agrees to write a book about the history of Noh and then becomes embroiled in a second murder which links back to the Mizugami Noh Family which is currently facing a succession crisis as the grandfather finds himself torn over choosing his heir – he wants to choose his granddaughter Hidemi (Naomi Zaizen) who is the better performer but the troupe has never had a female leader and there are other reasons which push him towards picking his grandson, Kazutaka (Shota Yamaguchi).

As with almost all Japanese mysteries, the solution depends on a secret and the possibilities of blackmail and/or potential scandal. The mechanics of murders themselves (save perhaps the first one) are not particularly difficult to figure out and the identity of the killer almost certainly obvious to those who count themselves mystery fans though there are a few red herrings thrown in including a very “obvious” suspect presented early on who turns out to be entirely incidental.

Ichikawa attempts to reinforce the everything is connected moral of the story through an innovative and deliberately disorientating cross cutting technique which begins in the prologue as Ichikawa allows the conversations between the grandchildren to bleed into those of Asami and his friend as if they were in direct dialogue with each other. He foregrounds a sad story of persistent female subjugation and undue reliance on superstition and tradition which is indirectly to blame for the events which come to pass. Everyone regrets the past, and after a little murder begins to see things more clearly in acknowledging the wickedness of their own actions as well as their own sense of guilt and complicity. Noh is, apparently, like a marriage, a matter of mutual responsibility, fostering understanding between people and so, apparently is murder, and one way or another Asami seems to have found his calling.


Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Shinji Somai, 1981)

sailor-suit-and-machine-gunFor good or ill, Haruki Kadokawa’s entry into the film industry was to have a profound effect both culturally and commercially. Rising from the ashes of the studio system, Kadokawa’s stable of cute and perky idols presented him with the opportunity to build a multimedia empire formed of a union between cinema, books, and music in which each could be used to sell the other.

1981’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃, Sailor-fuku to kikanju) was one of his earliest successes and helped to solidify his approach. Featuring one of the biggest idol stars of the 1980s, Hiroko Yakushimaru, in her most iconic role, the film adapts a Kadokawa teen novel as its source material and includes an end credits song with the same title sung by the film’s star. It was a winning formula, but then Sailor Suit and Machine is not just another idol movie. Directed Shinji Somai whose work is much more well known in Japan than it is abroad, this strange story of a high school girl and her unlikely role as a yakuza boss is both a surreal coming of age tale and an arthouse influenced character piece which came to become the defining youth movie for a generation of female cinema goers.

Izumi Hoshi (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is now an orphan. Her mother died some time ago and today is her father’s funeral. Thinking herself all alone in the world, Izumi is surprised when an older woman, Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri), suddenly appears with a letter from her father claiming he asked her to look after his daughter if anything should happen to him. More surprises follow when her school is surrounded by black suited yakuza. Prophetically, the other students are terrified but Izumi marches straight up them to find out what’s going on. As it turns out, they’ve come for her – an uncle of Izumi’s father was the head of a yakuza clan and now that he’s dead they need a blood relative to succeed him. Izumi’s father out of thte picture, the position falls to his daughter, teenage high school girl or not. At first she refuses but realising that with no boss the guys will all have to die, Izumi relents and orders them to live. So begins her long, strange, not altogether successful career as the head of moribund clan of dejected yakuza.

In many ways, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is a parody of a standard yakuza flick in which rival groups vie for power in the crowded backstreets of a busy city. The idea of a tiny 17 year old girl heading up an organised crime syndicate and going toe-to-toe with grizzled fifty year old veterans is an inherently absurd one as exemplified by Izumi’s courtesy visit to the area’s most powerful gang boss in which he he more or less laughs her out of the office.

Despite the incongruity, Izumi is a tough kid and more than holds her own in the very male underground world. In her father’s letter to Mayumi, he describes his daughter as tough but naive – an analysis which proves true in her tenure as a yakuza boss. There is a degree of silliness in her actions, playing the role assigned for her as if acting a part in a movie but as her guys start getting knifed it suddenly doesn’t seem so funny after all. The film revolves around a mcguffin of some missing heroin which belongs to a gangster named Fatso but is also sought by rival gangs. Out of her depth, Izumi has no knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing drugs or even the reason why anyone would want them. This is a situation that can’t be blustered through and Izumi does not have the ability to navigate it.

The idea of an ordinary high school girl plunged into the criminal underworld is as ridiculous as it’s intended to be. However, Izumi is not quite the ordinary high school girl she first appears. Gangly and boyish, she is supported by three male friends who often flank her as entourage but always recede into the background, bowing to her leadership. Already dominant and possessing obvious leadership potential, Izumi’s bold decision to approach the yakuza at the school gates also hints at her curious and fearless personality, even if it also speaks to her youthful recklessness.

These more masculine qualities of forcefulness and dynamism as opposed the stereotypical image of the cute and submissive school girl are perfectly suited to her new life as a crime boss but for all of that her leadership takes on an oddly maternal quality. A wounded foot soldier remarks that Izumi smells like his mother as she’s awkwardly winding bandages around his torso, and the guys flock around her like they would the family matriarch. Tellingly Izumi later tells Mayumi that part of the reason she rejected her was because of her extreme femininity – something the adolescent Izumi did not quite know what to do with, especially given the maleness of her new environment.

Izumi’s short lived career in the yakuza cannot be termed a success in the normal manner of things, she acts honourably and may win a final victory but it comes at great cost. When Izumi finally picks up the machine gun of the film’s title for the intense finale, she finds herself enjoying it a little too much as the word “fantastic” escapes her lips seconds after letting rip intro a rival gang boss’ office. Rather than the romantic awakening which is the climax of many female centred teen movies, Izumi’s major consummatory event is with her machine gun. As she puts it at the end, Izumi’s first kiss goes to a (deceased) middle aged man and she looks set to become a “foolish” woman, her path into womanhood has been an unusually transgressive and as yet unresolved one.

Somai’s camera is is both slippery and precise as he casts us as voyeur in Izumi’s world, shooting through exterior windows and even at one point from behind the shrubbery. Preferring long takes and often at extreme distances, Somai mixes static camera with unusual fluidity for an effect that’s far more arthouse influenced than your usual teen idol picture. As with many of Kadokawa’s ‘80s movies, the film is steeped in the naivety of the teenage world view as Izumi goes about her new life with a kind of fearless determination despite the inherent violence and unexpected adult sexuality. A deserved classic, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is the archetypal Kadokawa movie, creating a vehicle for its idol star in the fascinating, iconic presence of its central heroine whilst simultaneously generating an enduring pop culture phenomenon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s star Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 35th anniversary celebration concert in 2013:

All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2008)

all around usRyosuke Hashiguchi returns after an eight year absence with All Around Us (ぐるりのこと。Gururi no Koto) and eschews most of his pressing themes up this by point by opting to depict a few “scenes from a marriage” in post-bubble era Japan. Set against the backdrop of an extremely turbulent decade which was plagued by natural disasters, terrorism, and shocking criminal activity Hashiguchi shows us the enduring love of one ordinary couple who, finding themselves pulled apart by tragedy, gradually grow closer through their shared grief and disappointment.

Tokyo, 1993. Kanao (Lily Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kimura) have had an “on and off” (but seemingly solid) relationship since their art school days. She works at a publishing house and he’s kind of a slacker with a job in a shoe repair booth. Shoko worries that Kanao plays around too much (but actually doesn’t seem that bothered about it) whilst continuing to attempt to micromanage their entire existence with her clearly marked calendar planning out the most intimate of actions. When Shoko discovers she’s expecting a child, the pair decide to finally get married and begin their lives as a family. Kanao also gets an opportunity on the work side when an old college friend helps him get a job as a courtroom artist for a news agency.

However, their joy is short-lived as an abrupt jump forward in time shows us a tiny shrine underneath the calendar (shorn of its red crosses) dedicated to the memory of their infant daughter. Kanao is the keep calm and carry on sort so he just tries to bluster through but Shoko is distraught and slowly descending into a mental breakdown. If that weren’t enough to contend with, Shoko’s estranged father has been tracked down and is apparently very ill dredging up even more pain an uncertainty from the long buried past.

We follow Shoko and Kanao over a period of nine years. As well as the ever present motif of the calendar, we feel the passage of time through Kanao’s work at the court house which sees him become the artistic recorder of some of the most traumatic moments of the age. Having entered into an era of economic turmoil following the end of the bubble economy, the 1990s saw not only the devastating Kobe Earthquake but also the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground perpetrated by a dangerous religious cult, members of which wind up in court in front of Kanao, tasked with the thankless task of bearing witness to their testimony.

Kanao evidently decided not to discuss his personal tragedy with his work colleagues or, one would assume, his boss would not have reacted so harshly when he made the reasonable request to turn down the opportunity to sit in on yet another child murder trial – either by accident or design, the trials which present themselves to Kanao (and are all real, sensationalised media events of the time) involve the horrific murders of small children with only one of the defendants voicing any kind of regret or remorse.

Meanwhile, Shoko has been trying to get on with life as best she can but finds herself sinking ever deeper into depression. Her uptight, controlling personality cannot cope with this perceived “failure” on her part or of the destruction of all her plans by a truly unforeseen tragedy. Having had her doubts before regarding Kanao’s commitment to her, she finds his lack of reaction puzzling. Mistaking Kanao’s lack of outward emotion for indifference, Shoko finds it hard to continue believing in their shared destiny and wonders if her husband ever really cared for her at all. Kanao is a laid-back soul, someone who’s learned to become used to disappointment by accepting it quickly and then trying to move on. His more grounded approach might be just the one Shoko needs in order to come to terms with what’s happened – never pushing or complaining Kanao is contented simply by her presence and is prepared to give her the space she needs whilst always being around to offer support.

Hashiguchi relies on visual cues to help navigate the shifting dynamics including the repeated use of the calendar as a symbol of Shoko and Kanao’s marital status, the now unneeded pregnancy books bundled to be thrown out, or rice discarded in the sink as a marker of a house proud woman’s slide into crippling depression. Small moments make all the difference from a mother’s bandaged wrists and a cutback to the only person who’s noticed them, to the repeated joke of all the veteran journalists suddenly falling over themselves in an attempt to escape the courtroom and be the first to file their copy. A necessarily sad story, but an oddly warm one as two people worried they may be mismatched grow into each other in the face of their shared tragedy. Anchored by the strong performances of its two leads (particularly Tae Kimura who manages some convincing on screen crying in a difficult role) All Around Us is another beautifully pitched human drama from Hashiguchi who proves himself an adept chronicler of the human condition even whilst stepping away from his trademark themes.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hush! (ハッシュ!, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2001)

hushThe family drama is a mainstay of Japanese cinema, true, but, it’s a far wider genre than might be assumed. The rays fracture out from Ozu through to The Family Game and Crazy Family which sought to ask a few questions about where the idea of “family” was headed in a society of rapidly increasing materialism. Ryosuke Hashiguchi comes at the idea from a different angle in 2001’s Hush! (ハッシュ!) as he once again takes the perspective of the gay community and asks if the “traditional family” is about to change – what could, or should, survive if the old, rigid ideas can be remade into something lasting created out of love and acceptance rather than obligation?

As the film begins, Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) wakes up to find his one night stand already fully dressed and heading out the door, awkwardly, without even stopping to say goodbye. Eventually he hooks up with the kindly Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) and the two quickly become fairly serious but then a damaged woman, Asako (Reiko Kataoka), enters their lives hoping to use Katsuhiro as a sperm donor, forcing the men to reassess a number of important desires and beliefs, putting strain on their still fledgling relationship. If that weren’t enough drama, a girl at Katsuhiro’s place of work has also developed a crush on him and is prepared to take her unreturned love to some extremely dark places.

The first level of mini stresses Naoya and Katsuhiro have to contend with is their conflicting (if complementary) personalities and attitudes to their sexuality. Naoya is an easy going type with a job at a pet grooming salon. He’s a fully out gay man and a frequenter of city’s gay scene. Katsuhiro, by contrast, is much more mild mannered and innately kind. He works at a scientific research station and is more or less closeted – that is, he doesn’t particularly go out of his way to hide his sexuality from his work mates and family but he doesn’t volunteer the information either. This attitude seems to bother Naoya at various points but being the easy going type he’s apt to let it go most of the time.

However, when Katsuhiro reveals Asako’s offer, Naoya is actively against it. His idea of gay life suggests that relationships are generally short, he prefers the relative freedom of his life as an essentially “single” man rather a husband shackled to a family. Katsuhiro on the other hand perhaps would have liked children, or to be a father figure to someone else’s. Though Naoya has previously expressed boredom and disillusionment with his life spent in clubs and gay bars, he’s still resistant to the idea of settling down, or at least to the belief that a single relationship really can stay the course.

All three of the central characters have, in a sense, been let down by the “traditional” family. Naoya’s father left when he was small, leaving him with a single mother which is something that wasn’t so common when he was a child resulting in a fair amount of social stigma from other people in the community. These days his brassy mother knows about his sexuality and seems OK with it (aside from getting the random idea that Naoya will be wanting a pair of breasts at some point). Katsuhiro’s father was an alcoholic who died when he was just a small boy, his relationship with his brother and his family seems good but he’s afraid to reveal his sexuality to them for fear of disapproval. His brother had an arranged marriage, which doesn’t seem to have worked out so well at least from the sister-in-law’s perspective. Asako has also had a troubled life looking for affection in all the wrong places, feeling that if she had not been neglected as a child perhaps she’d have been a steadier adult. Naoya was running away from the idea of family ties, but Katsuhiro and Asako are actively seeking to repair the ones which never grew into the kind of roots one needs to anchor onself in a society entirely built around familial bonds.

After receiving some surprising medical news, Asako perversely decides that her own salvation lies in becoming a mother. She’s had enough of casual relationships and decided to go a different route so when she spots the kind look Katshiro gives a small child at a restaurant, she decides he must be the one to father her baby. Asako knew that Naoya and Katsuhiro were a couple, but that works out pretty well for her plan so she approaches him and makes her left field offer right off the bat. It will take some figuring out but this literal third way is a neat solution to a series of problems and, being completely new, is safe from the pettiness and misery often found within the traditional family unit. Contrasted with the bitterness displayed by Katsuhiro’s sister-in-law, the unusual arrangement of these three would be parents and their unborn child(ren) is one filled with love, forgiveness and mutual support rather than cold obligation or a simple fulfilment of societal expectations.

Once again Hashiguchi proves himself adept at creating a series of complex, flawed human beings who are nevertheless relatable and often endearing. Hashiguchi’s films tend to run long but he also ensures that even his supporting characters are well enough drawn to maintain interest in the many subplots from Naoya’s abrasive gay bar buddy to Katsuhiro’s unhinged stalker. An interesting sideways look at the state of the modern family, Hush! seems to advocate that just shutting up and going with the flow is not the answer but there are quieter solutions to be found if everyone is willing to listen to the silence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Love Ghost (死びとの恋わずらい, Kazuyuki Shibuya, 2001)

love ghost posterWhat is it about ghosts and high school girls? Maybe it’s shrines and graveyards mothers ought to be warning their daughters about rather than moody guys with motorbikes. Anyway, the somewhat salaciously titled Love Ghost (死びとの恋わずらい, Shibito no Koiwazurai) is not quite the film it claims to be, though it is haunted by the violent spirit of strong emotion. Innocent high school romance is suddenly infected with the cruel complications of adult love, mental illness, and suicide as a strange curse descends over a previously peaceful town.

Taking on the classic “mysterious transfer student” role, protagonist Midori (Lisa Goto) is about to set off for her first day in a new school after moving back to her home town ten years after her father left the family for another woman. Midori is frequently plagued by a recurring nightmare in which she indulges in the local practice of Tsuji-ura whereby girls wait near the temple and ask a passerby what they think their chances are with their current crush. Only, Midori’s visions have started to bleed into the real world and often end in a storm of fire and blood. For this reason she finds herself unable to enter the school building but is rescued by new classmate, Suzue (Asumi Miwa), who shows her another way in. On the way the pair meet clueless popular boy Kotaro (Takahashi Shinji) who is instantly smitten with the new girl, much to Suzue’s consternation.

Kotoro is, to put it mildly, a little on the dim side and either hasn’t noticed that the entire population of the school, including his good friend Suzue, is love with him or is just refusing to acknowledge it. Romance is the major occupation of the school girls who spend their break times reading tarot cards and talking about Tsuji-ura and the handsome boy dressed in black who often appears there, be he a force for good or ill. Midori isn’t really interested in her classmates but is captivated by the near silent boy at the back of the room whom everyone else is ignoring. She eventually recognises him as a boy she knew before she left and used to play with all the time. Meeting up on the roof, Ryusuke (Ryuhei Matsuda) reveals he’s been waiting for her to come back all this time. However, there is definitely something strange about this quiet boy, not to mention the ever expanding mould stain in Midori’s bathroom…

There’s a lot of obviousness in Love Ghost, but this is later revealed to be a master stroke undercutting the extreme reversals of the big reveals. Madness quickly takes hold in the school, fortunately it does not claim many victims though those who do succumb find themselves cutting their own throats out of sense of heartbroken helplessness unable to accept the fact that their romantic destinies are not the ones they would have chosen.

On the one hand there are Midori’s recurrent memories of her idyllic childhood playing with Ryusuke in beautiful green, sunlit forests which later gives way to tentative teenage romance – a perfectly natural development. However, that’s set against the increasing strangeness of the environment with its oddly ethereal atmosphere. The other girls are experiencing a dangerous kind of romantic madness turning to obsessive, unrequited love yet Midori’s own experience is seemingly a gentle and innocent one. Of course, there’s more to it than that, and Midori’s world is also “unreal” in a hundred other ways. As usual, her link to the curse is tied up with her long buried past which must once again be exposed to the light in order to move forward and finally bid goodbye to the ghosts of forgotten cruelty.

Love Ghost’s central curse is a little confused and never satisfactorily explains itself. There might be more to say about the way the intense emotions of adolescence don’t always dissipate on reaching adulthood in the way they are supposedly intended to, or about the obsessive preoccupation the schoolgirls have with romance, but Love Ghost isn’t interested in any of that. In fact, it’s a little confused what it is interested in but at heart its a series of intertwined ghost stories as Midori haunts herself whilst still alive with memories of the childhood cruelly ripped away from her by the selfish actions of a stranger which have also left her with a deep seated sense of unresolved guilt. An imperfect exercise, Love Ghost has little to recommend it aside from providing an early outing for later star Ryuhei Matsuda yet does offer a poetic, if poorly put together, take on a teen ghost story that is like to offer more to fans of supernatural romance than of J-horror gore.


Love Ghost is available on R1 US DVD from Tokyo Shock.

US release trailer: