Dynamite Wolf (おっさんのケーフェイ, Kohei Taniguchi, 2017)

dynamite wolf posterBack in the day, lucha libre-style wrestling was hugely popular in Japan. Tiger Mask, a manga set in the world of Japanese pro-wrestling remains a firm favourite and its eponymous hero has also become a byword for altruistic philanthropy as well-meaning anonymous donors donate expensive gifts such as Japanese school backpacks to orphanages in Tiger Mask’s name. Sadly, pro-wrestling is no longer as high-profile as it once was and has left mainstream television screens far behind even if it still maintains a small but dedicated fanbase. Kohei Taniguchi’s Dynamite Wolf (おっさんのケーフェイ, Ossan no Kefei) is out to change all that by shining a spotlight on this almost forgotten phenomenon of crazy outfits, killer moves, and camp showmanship.

Middle schooler Hiroto is the most ordinary of little boys. He has two good friends, but no particular, hopes, dreams, talents, or aspirations. When his teacher assigns the class a special project in which they are supposed to come up with some kind of act they can do before the class to showcase a special skill, Hiroto is at a loss. His friend Takuto is going to whilstle whilst recent transfer student from Tokyo, Naoya, is going to show off his English but neither of them have any suggestions to help Hiroto figure out what his special talent is. Things only get worse when his mother catches sight of another boy, Teruo, on television being showcased on the news because of his dedication to dance, and insists Hiroto go to dance classes too which he is not really interested in. On the way back however his life changes when he spots a man in a strange shiny suit standing outside smoking. Invited inside, Hiroto witnesses the last ever fight of the legendary wrestler Dynamite Wolf and becomes instantly hooked on Japanese pro-wrestling.

Times being what they are, pro-wrestling is not the coolest of hobbies but Hiroto is undeterred. Running into an old man he thinks might by the real Dynamite Wolf, Hiroto starts training to become a wrestler and roping Takuto and Naoya in to practice too. As Naoya points out, anyone seeing three young kids wrestling around with a 50-year-old man would probably call the police but Mr. Sakata really is just interested in spreading the love of wrestling to the younger generation.

Despite the anti-wrestling sentiment, there’s something quite refreshing about the boys who like boyband-style dancing being the bullies and not the bullied. Teruo is a nasty piece of work and a spoilt brat thanks to the fact his dad is the head of the PTA but his love of dance is never questioned or mocked and is even favoured over the comparatively more “manly” hobby of wrestling.

Like any good kids movie, Dynamite Wolf is equally about the power of friendship as it is about reviving pro-wrestling. Teruo starts out as a little thug, behaving with impunity and making Hiroto’s life a nightmare simply because he’s not quite like them. However, once he learns some unpleasant stuff about his dad his world crumbles and he reforms to become a wrestling ally and all round better person.

Hiroto proves far more mature than his mentor who has repeatedly failed to achieve his dreams and now exists in a strange kind of perpetual childhood, trapped inside his own delusions. Unfairly branded a liar, Sakata does like a few tall tales and remains embittered about his lack of his success. His life has been about wrestling, but the ring has never accepted him and now he spends all his time beating up a blow-up doll on the beach and visiting sex workers for lucha libre workouts. His desire to mentor the boys is a noble one in the service of wrestling, but then again are wrestling skills really worth anything when outsiders simply ignore the rules and go for a one punch knock out?

Taking on a Rocky vibe, the question stops being about winning or losing but about finding your passion and then giving it your all even if it doesn’t end in the predictable fashion. Pro-wrestling might be over the top and campy, more about showmanship and ritual than signature moves technical skill but the friendships, loyalties, and sense of fair play are values which deserve to be fought for – mask on or off.


Dynamite Wolf was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Saudade (サウダーヂ, Katsuya Tomita, 2011)

saudadeReworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in September 2012.


Saudade is one of those words that’s so unique to a particular language that it’s extremely difficult to translate into another. The recent Portuguese film, Tabu, is almost a literal expression of “saudade” itself but offers this brief explanation of it – a feeling of deep yearning or nostalgia for something that is past and can never be regained. Each of the residents in the small town of Kofu (which is, in many ways, a character itself) are all yearning for something, whether for a new life, opportunity or just a simple return to the promise of one’s youth. As the town’s prospects continue to decline its residents continue to long for something different – some kind of progress to lift them out of the tedious downward spiral in which they feel themselves to be trapped.

Seiji works in construction, employed on short term projects – when there is work going that is, something that’s becoming increasingly scarce. Married to a beautician whom he’s come to dislike due to her social climbing ambitions and desire to start a family, Seiji fantasises about running away with his Thai mistress and starting a new life with her in her home country. He’s joined by a new friend, Hosaka, who, coincidentally, has just returned from a long period of time living abroad in Thailand but seems to have his own problems and perhaps serious reasons for his flight and subsequent return. The newest member of the construction crew is the reluctant Amano, a leader of right leaning hip hop group, who has come to blame Japan’s immigrant population for his own inability to find work and progress in life.

There are also, of course, the non-Japanese populations including the Brazilians who came to Japan on the promise of wages ten times those they could earn in their home country but have found only poverty and discrimination. Many have decided to return home, others contemplate moving on – perhaps to the Philippines in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Some have been in Japan so long that although they are proud of their Brazilian heritage they barely remember their home country and feel they have nowhere to go besides Japan. Desperately trying to walk the line between integration and embracing their own culture, the non-native residents must also devote time to trying to gain acceptance from the local population. That’s not to mention the Thais working as hostesses or dancers or elsewhere in the entertainment industries – accepted but perhaps only in that specific context.

In painting a portrait of his own hometown, director Katsuya Tomita shows a side of Japan that is often absent from Western perceptions – blue collar workers trying to keep pace with the economic downturn while old prejudices rear their ugly heads in defence. The fact that most of the actors are non-professionals and residents of Kofu themselves gives the film a new weight, indeed the two main stars are friends of the director from childhood. Tomita spent a year researching his subject matter and many of these actors are simply repeating their former conversations in a new context for the camera. As the city crumbles and people pull away from each other in their search for something better, the tensions of everyday life grow stronger and threaten to tip over into violent intensity.

The film, however, seeks to remind us that we are all the same. We all have saudades for one thing or another – something we strive to reattain even though we know it’s impossible. The non-native residents yearn for home or for the acceptance they once felt, the Japanese for the prosperous Japan they grew up in and all the possibilities it afforded them in their youth. Seiji must know on one level that his dream of running away to Thailand with his girlfriend is an impossible fantasy, yet he continues to long for it with varying degrees of intensity. Amano’s problems are perhaps more to do with his own circumstances than the political stance he gives them – longing to be ‘someone’, admired, respected and perhaps loved even if the reason for that acclaim is something abhorrent.

At 164 minutes Saudade takes its time and, being an ensemble drama, perhaps lacks enough narrative focus to engage the majority of viewers. However, for those with long attention spans the film excels in character detail and in building a truly authentic atmosphere in the depiction of the decaying Kofu. Not always an easy watch, Saudade is an interesting and unflinching look at an all too often unacknowledged aspect of its home country.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Woman and a War (戦争と一人の女, Junichi Inoue, 2013)

a-woman-and-warJunichi Inoue is better known as a screenwriter and frequent collaborator of avant-garde/pink film provocateur Koji Wakamatsu. A Woman and a War (戦争と一人の女, Senso to Hitori no Onna) marks his first time in the director’s chair and finds him working with someone else’s script but staying firmly within the pink genre. Adapted from a contemporary novel by Ango Sakaguchi published in 1946, A Woman and a War is an intense look at domestic female suffering during a time generalised chaos.

The unnamed “Woman” (Noriko Eguchi) is a former prostitute, sold to a brothel by her father as a child, now working as a bar hostess. Times being what they are, she decides there’s no future in bar work and wants to get married. Accordingly, she finds herself moving in with a moody novelist who frequents the bar, Nomura (Masatoshi Nagase). The woman becomes Nomura’s “wife”, but the relationship is strained as she finds it difficult to derive pleasure from sex and he is of a nihilistic mindset, convinced that Japan is about to lose the war. Nomura promises to live with her until the war’s end, at which time he assumes the country will cease to exist taking him with it.

Running parallel to this is the story of recently demobbed soldier and drinker at Woman’s bar, Ohira (Jun Murakami). Having lost an arm in the war, Ohira has been “lucky”, in a sense, and been sent home early. However, he has a wife and young son he’s been away from so long that they’re virtual strangers from each other. Ohira is not the man who went away to fight, he’s embittered and angry. Unable to enjoy normal relations with his wife, he finds himself aroused after failing to rescue a woman being gang raped by thugs which he then watches after being tied up while the men finish their business. After this, he despatches his family to the comparative safety of his wife’s parents and embarks on a career of violence, rape and murder.

Despite nominally being the story of the Woman, A Woman and a War has an unbalanced tripartite structure split between the three central characters. Of the three, Nomura’s story is the least explored but then is also the most clichéd in its familiar over sensitive novelist takes hack jobs and abuses all available substances to block out his crushing depression trope. Though the story ought to belong to Woman, she is often eclipsed by Ohira’s extreme descent into violent misogyny though in actuality these two strands dovetail into each other as Woman’s story is also one of continued exploitation.

This stems back well before the war as she was, in a sense, betrayed by her father when he sold her supposedly in desperation but apparently drank the money he got for her rather than using it to feed the rest of the family. Having spent so long in the brothel her body has become nothing more than a tool to her – something to be well maintained and then traded as a commodity. After her relationship with Nomura ends, Woman finds herself once again working as a prostitute – first at a facility set up for the American military, and then as a streetwalker targeting foreign servicemen. Eventually her path crosses with that of Ohira which results in the uncomfortable realisation that she too can only reach climax through violence.

Ohira is so deeply scarred by his wartime experiences that he has a compulsion to reenact them through random acts of sexual violence on unsuspecting women. The events he recounts from Manchuria are truly horrifying but he has an uncomfortable point when he repeats that the difference between what he did in the war and what he’s doing now is that between a medal and a death sentence. The people he killed in China weren’t soldiers or those who threatened his life, they were innocent civilians no different from the women he lured into the forests of Japan, so how was it right then and wrong now? The other uncomfortable fact is that Ohira is both perpetrator and victim of the wider war, a symbol of its cannibalistic whirlwind of destruction, the effects of which continue in perpetuity.

Coming as he does from the pink film world, Inoue adopts a detached frankness when it comes to sex. However, in keeping with the film’s themes there is an abundance of sexualised violence against women which, though every bit as unpleasant as it’s intended to be, does at times feel gratuitous. It’s also an unfortunate fact that there is a lot of gratuitous female nudity in the film but absolutely no male – at one point Woman bares her genitals to the open air and urges Nomura to do the same but the camera cuts to a rear shot as though embarrassed. In an interview with Diva Review Inoue admits he regrets the way this was handled and states it’s largely down to having bigger name actors in the two central roles, but in addition to deviating from the otherwise naturalistic intentions of the film, it also presents him with a set of thematic problems which undercut his central intentions.

However, A Woman and a War is one of the few (recent) films to seriously look at the traumatic afterlife of the war both on those who served and those who stayed at home using sexuality as a curiously reflective prism. A Woman and a War is a super low budget film and, in truth, looks it, though does make an attempt to do the best it can with what it has. The performances of the three leads are also each strong though something of the film’s tone never quite coalesces beyond the persistent unpleasantness into something more deeply probing. Troubling, concerning, and disturbing, A Woman and a War is a much needed look at this murky and often avoided area but one that finds it impossible to escape its own exploitative nature.


Original trailer (English subtitles):

Rolling

384f90_4054bb8ba5554cc186f2bce4c6beb853Review of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling (ローリング) – first published by UK Anime Network.


“Weird teacher” is almost becoming a genre now. Even so, the teacher at the center of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling may give them all a run for their money (well, for about five yards before having somekind of bizarre accident, anyway). Gondo is a feckless middle aged man who was fired from his teaching position ten years previously after having been caught secretly filming the girls’ changing rooms. Now he’s back in his old stalking ground after having pulled off an improbable white knight routine by rescuing the young and pretty Mihara from a bad boyfriend in Tokyo. However, his former students have not forgotten him or his pervy ways! It’s not long before the entire town of twenty somethings are on Gondo’s case hoping for a little vengeance for their teenage betrayal.

However, Gondo’s fortunes improve slightly when it’s discovered that some of his secret recordings feature some rather salacious goings on starring a former classmate whose TV career is just about to kick off. Smelling money in the air, Gondo is suddenly everyone’s best friend again. Gondo is…still Gondo though so as you may expect this state of affairs will not last. He’s even lost Mihara to a former student of his, one he even quite likes too…

Despite his failings and protestations to the contrary, what Gondo ultimately remains is a teacher. Yes he’s made some mistakes (understatement of the century), and he’s actually quite unpleasant in a lot of ways but somehow he still wants to protect this ragtag bag of not quite young people that he previously harmed. Coming to the realisation that his actions not only resulted in revulsion and violation of trust but also had a disruptive effect on the educational progress of his students simply resulting from his abrupt dismissal, Gondo does at least want to make amends (in his own way).

However, Gondo’s just the kind of guy things never work out for. “All my students are idiots” he proclaims at one point and he’s not altogether wrong. Attempting to hatch a blackmail plot with a very strange group of a idol managers-cum-gangsters and an ex-policeman, the gang get themselves into a whole world of trouble which is only exacerbated when the almost famous subject of the video comes forward and makes a very surprising request of her old flame and Gondo’s kindly love rival Kanichi.

Darkly comic, Rolling has the air of a film noir B movie with its ever present voice over and thriller trappings including secret video taping, a blackmail plot and trio of business-like gangsters. It is though, also firmly grounded in the now despite its often surreal humour. Also branded an “erotic comedy” Rolling is fairly high on sexual content adding to its generally sleazy feeling. It may well go down as a cult hit simply for the phrase “I’m going to make a milkshake out of your filthy boob juice” which gives you some indication as to the tone.

Far from perfect but oddly touching if sometimes baffling too, Rolling is another strange and surreal adventure from Tominaga. Its slightly vulgar tone may put off some but by and large it gets away with it through sheer cheekiness and absurd humour. Gondo is a dreadful person almost all of the time, selfish and needy yet he also seems to have this yearning for redemption which makes him seem not so bad really, as does the fact that most of his former students have not turned out all that well – even the “hero” Kanichi has his problems. For those that can accept its oddly surreal tone and decidedly old fashioned gender politics, Rolling is a rewarding and delightfully absurd film that does also manage to pack in a decent (if subtle) amount of social commentary.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015.