The Gun (銃, Masaharu Take, 2018)

The Gun poster 1Much as Haruhiko Oyabu had in the post-war era, Fuminori Nakamura is fast becoming the go to voice for nihilistic noir in Japanese cinema. Several of his famously dark novels have already been adapted for the screen, most recently the grisly mystery Last Winter We Parted, but it’s only now that his lowkey debut The Gun (銃, Ju) is getting a suitably detached adaptation from 100 Yen Love’s Masaharu Take.

Like many of Nakamura’s “heroes”, Toru Nishikawa (Nijiro Murakami) is a disaffected youngster who thinks “it’s completely worthless to live”. His life changes one day when he comes across the body of a middle-aged man with a pistol lying next to it. For reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Toru picks the gun up and takes it home with him. Gradually its presence begins to obsess him as if he were literally being seduced by it. Believing he can communicate with the gun through touch, he lovingly caresses it, buys it trinkets, and lingers over thoughts of all they could do together.

Even when he takes a casual hookup (Kyoko Hinami) to bed, all Toru can think about is the gun. In the morning he tries to make her hate him by coming on strong, but it backfires because it appears to be what she likes, at least she suggests they hook up again, possibly on a regular but casual basis because she already has a boyfriend. Meanwhile, another prospect walks onto the scene – Yuko (Alice Hirose), a young woman Toru may or may not have forgotten meeting in the past. With Yuko Toru decides to do everything “properly” in a quest to win her heart rather than just her bodily submission.

Detached and very possibly a sociopath, Toru does indeed begin to show something of a more sensitive side in dealing with the similarly depressed Yuko. His gentlemanly act may be just that (and as one might expect, it largely works) but does at least display an acute emotional intelligence even if it’s being wilfully misused. Similarly, his first reaction to hearing alarming sounds suggesting the woman next door is mistreating her child is to turn his stereo up and ignore them, but he later finds himself trying to talk to the little boy in the street and eventually even calling the police only to have his mistrust of authority confirmed when they admit they’re aware of the situation and will send someone but probably not until the next day.

The woman next door, a bar hostess who rolls in late and kicks her kid out of bed to sleep on the porch so she can entertain her gentlemen callers, drags up unwelcome memories of the woman who abandoned him to an orphanage. To be fair, Toru does not seem any more misogynistic than his sleazy friends but has a fairly utilitarian idea of “romance”, viewing it as a game of conquest either fast and loose like with the casual hookup or slow and deep as in his careful pursuit of Yuko. Gradually his separate pursuits of the two women become confused, leading Yuko to confront him over whatever it is that’s so obviously “wrong” with him. Upset as she is, Yuko sees the darkness in Toru but must also see the light, affirming that she has her darkness too but is willing to help him with his if only he gives her a little time and waits for her forgiveness.

Toru, meanwhile, is still fixated on his beloved gun which he has begun to carry about with him in a little bag for added frisson. Living largely without feeling, the thrill of carrying such an illicit object becomes a peculiar kind of drug, as does the intoxicating thought of the act of actually firing it and finally of taking a life. A wily police detective (Lily Franky) cuts straight through Toru’s smug facade to the gaping void beneath, trying to prevent him from jumping straight into the abyss but confident he will fail. As the detective predicted, Toru’s sense of reason continues to fragment leaving him unsure of what is real and what isn’t while he obsesses over the gun and what he might do with it but in a purely intellectual sense without considering the real world consequences of his actions. An exercise in style, The Gun is a noirish tale of existential ennui and dark obsession filled with nihilistic dread as its soulless hero commits to living his “worthless” life only to wilfully rob himself of the possibility of salvation.


The Gun screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Boy and His Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2010)

Boy and his samurai poster 1Edo/Tokyo – what difference can a name make? A lot, it seems, but then perhaps not so much as you’d think. “Edo” was the seat of power in Japan from 1603 until it was renamed “Tokyo” during the Meiji Restoration, heralding a brand new era of modernity following more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. Logically, there must have been people who went to sleep in Edo and woke up in Tokyo, but most of them didn’t nap for nearly 200 years. The hero of A Boy and his Samurai (ちょんまげぷりん, Chonmage Purin) didn’t exactly nap either, but he’s fetched up 200 years in the future, which, you have to admit, is very disorientating.

Divorced single mother Hiroko (Rie Tomosaka) is late getting her 6-year-old son Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki) out of the house and on his way to school so she’s less than interested when he suddenly stops in the street to stare at a severe man in samurai dress standing outside a supermarket. Assuming it’s some kind of advertising stunt, Hiroko drags her son away, but the man turns up again later wandering around their apartment block and seemingly very confused. Hiroko tries to help him, but he is extremely rude and intimidating, eventually demanding to be taken back to her apartment almost at sword point. Nevertheless, once everyone has figured out the man, who says his name is Kijima Yasube (Ryo Nishikido) and he’s a samurai retainer, is either quite mad or a time traveller, the trio being living together and trying to bridge their very different social values.

Those values have obviously changed a lot, but in many ways not enough. Hiroko has a regular job at an advertising agency but is disrespected by some of her colleagues because she can’t work overtime and has to leave early to make sure someone picks up Tomoya. We learn that the reason she divorced her husband two years ago is that while he pretended to be modern and progressive, he was unwilling to share his portion of the domestic burden and secretly wanted his wife to quit work and look after the house despite superficially encouraging her with her career. Hiroko figured it made no difference if he was around or not, so she left him and took Tomoya with her. Hiroko likes her job, but working also reinforces her individual identity (even if blending into the corporate) aside from that of wife and mother which has all too often been all that a woman is in a rigid and conformist society.

Indeed, when Yasube first arrives he adopts a superior tone and refers to Hiroko only as “woman”, viewing her as necessarily inferior by reason of sex while also reasserting himself as a samurai communicating with someone he assumes to be of the lower orders. Yasube is stunned to learn that Hiroko has a surname – a reminder that those of the lower orders did not (officially) have surnames until the Meiji Restoration. He now thinks she must be very noble, adopts a suitably humble tone, and resigns himself to accepting her hospitality in the absence of other options. He can’t get his head around her family situation or process the various motions towards sexual equality the modern world has produced. To him women manage the house and men protect it from outside. He finds Hiroko’s desire for independence strange and this new world uncivilised.

Nevertheless, he decides to give the Tokyo way a go by stepping briefly beyond himself – in return for room and board, he’ll effectively become Hiroko’s “wife”, managing all the domestic chores while she concentrates on her career. Yasube finds a strange affinity for domesticity, quickly getting to grips with white goods and taking recipe notes from cooking TV (to write them down with ink and a brush using classical Japanese script). Despite never tasting them before, he finds himself a natural baker providing sweet treats for all. However, Hiroko perhaps disappoints herself by accidentally slipping into the role of workaholic salaryman, suddenly embracing the art of overtime and leaving everything at home in the capable hands of Yasube without really considering his feelings even if he never seems to resent it.

Trouble brews when Yasube gets the opportunity to build a career of his own as a pastry chef. Hiroko, true to her word, is encouraging and obviously wants to give him the opportunity to fulfil himself, but the same situation recurs – Yasube becomes obsessed with his professional development leaving little Tomoya brokenhearted and missing his surrogate dad. The problem isn’t so much gender roles as a reluctance to fully commit by agreeing to share domestic responsibilities equally in recognition of equal commitment to a mutual endeavour. Then again, Yasube disappoints – his Edo ethics reassert themselves. he answers Hiroko’s pleas that he spend more time with Tomoya by suggesting she quit her job so he won’t be lonely while his wages can support them as a family. He thinks he’s saying something nice, confirming his loyalty to them as a father figure who will protect and provide, but it’s the wrong the thing to say and only goes to show that his “ancient” way of thinking is sadly not quite archaic enough.

Likewise, his old-fashioned parenting style of fatherly authority advanced with shouts and stares would likely not be approved by most today but it does uncomfortably seem to be accepted by the film, as if Tomoya needs male parental input rather than just benefiting from having a mum who’s less tired and stressed out for having someone to share her life with. He does, however, soften on exposure to Tokyo liberality, willingly embracing modern equalities in realising that there’s nothing wrong with a man supporting a woman and a child in ways other than the financial even if he eventually goes back on it when presented with the opportunity to reassert his male pride as a provider, declaring that domestic matters “no longer concern” him now that he has “other duties”. “Tokyo” still has a ways to go (where doesn’t?), but it’s moving in the right direction even if there are some who are content to be slow in catching up.


Original trailer compilation (no subtitles)

Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍, Naoki Segi, 2011)

Ramen Samurai posterSet in the ‘90s, Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍) is in many ways a post-Showa story or a tale of one man’s reaction to bubble era disillusionment. It’s also in the fine tradition of legacy movies in which a troubled child reflects on a complicated relationship with a late parent and struggles to accept their role as an inheritor of skills and knowledge they’d spent much of their youth attempting to reject. Yet the hero of Ramen Samurai, though he maybe reluctant, is more willing than most to pick up his father’s burden, walking back through family history with his long-suffering mother and rediscovering the heroism which lay behind his sometimes difficult father’s tough guy exterior. Hikaru (Dai Watanabe) does not see himself as a man like his father – he’s no “hero” and bears no natural inclination towards rebellion, but only through addressing his father’s life can he learn to define his own. This is all, of course, a roundabout way to discovering the soul of ramen lies in the confidence of the chef.

In 1990 Hikaru, a graphic designer, gets a call at work from his mum to let him know his father has had a stroke. Hikaru left town in a hurry some years earlier, rejecting the idea of taking over the ramen restaurant for a life in bubble era Tokyo. On his father’s death he assumes his natural responsibility and comes home but customers say his ramen’s not as good as his dad’s, and he has trouble keeping his staff in line because they simply don’t accept him. Try as he might, Hikaru just can’t seem to find a way to replicate his father’s recipe, in the store or in life.

Yet there’s a nostalgia in him that sees him want to try. Kurume, a small town in Kyushu, is defined by its ramen – a local delicacy that once brought tourists and general prosperity to the area, but during bubble era “modernisation”, the “backward” yatai ramen stands with their colourful tarpaulins were deemed too reminiscent of post-war privation to survive. The carts were shunted away from the new sophisticated city centre while the police started restricting licenses to run them, eventually prohibiting their sale and limiting their inheritance to direct family members. Hikaru is at least his father’s son and so has a natural right to take over the business even if he has hitherto rejected it.

Rather than a cooking tale, Ramen Samurai steps back to tell the story of its vicarious protagonist – the problematic figure of Hikaru’s dad who is, in many ways, the idealised figure of the Showa era “hero”. That’s not to say he was perfect – he drank to the point of financial ruin and frequently caused problems for his family, but his heart was always in the right place and so he was mostly forgiven. A salt of the Earth type and cool with it, Hikaru’s dad was the big man around town and the defacto leader of the yatai owner community. He brooked no injustice, stood up to the yakuza (who only had the profoundest respect for him), and sought to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. Seeing a sleazy yakuza molesting a young girl, Hikaru’s dad kicked him out and later offered the girl, who is mute, a job and a place to stay, almost adopting her into his family until another act of random kindness accidentally reunites her with her own long-lost father.

Faced with such an intense legacy, it’s no wonder Hikaru struggled. A sensitive, artistic soul he tried his luck in bubble era Tokyo working in an advertising agency where he found the coolness of his colleagues puzzling and difficult to bear. Hikaru’s boss loudly discusses pub lunches and evenings spent in hostess bars, often throwing away the lovingly made bento provided by his wife. Returning home with an empty lunchbox is, he says, his way of showing love though his refusal to eat it perhaps a reaction against a salaryman’s lack of freedom. Nevertheless, even if they clashed in terms of personal morality, Hikaru’s boss compliments him on his commitment to hard work and growth as an artist even whilst admitting that the work itself is often frivolous and ultimately thankless.

Hikaru eventually learns to channel his artistic inclinations into his ramen, seeing himself as a “ramen artist” incorporating his father’s legacy into a dish which is entirely his own. In a sense, Hikaru retreats into the safety of the Showa era past, or that is the cosy 1970s in which he lived a comfortable, if eventful, childhood under a yatai’s awning while dad made trouble but only for the best of reasons. A samurai’s duty is, after all, to protect and Hikaru has decided to do exactly that in “restoring” his hometown to its former glory, dragging retro yatai culture into the rapidly disintegrating post-bubble world and bringing warmth and community back with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)