Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース, Eiichi Kudo, 1981)

Yokohama bj bluesYusaku Matsuda may have been the coolest action star of the ‘70s but by the end of the decade he was getting bored with his tough guy persona and looked to diversify his range a little further than his recent vehicles had allowed him. Matsuda had already embarked on a singing career some years before but in Eiichi Kudo’s Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース), he was finally allowed to display some of his musical talents on screen as a blues singer and ex-cop who makes ends meet through his work as a detective for hire.

After his set at a rundown jazz bar, BJ’s first job is tracking down a missing son. When he finds the guy, Akira, he seems to have become the employee (and possible sex slave?) of a gay gangster. Akira says he’s fine with his new life and wants his mother to leave him alone so BJ gets the hell out of there to give her the message but the unpleasantness of the situation lingers with him a little.

Shortly after, BJ receives a telephone call from an old police buddy, Ryo, who needs his help. Ryo got in too deep with the same gang BJ just came up against and is thinking of quitting the force in a bid to make the “Family” lose interest in him. However, Ryo is gunned down in broad daylight leaving his partner, Beniya, convinced that BJ is somehow responsible. BJ now doubly has it in for Family and starts working on his own behalf to try and find some answers and possibly a little vengeance too.

You see, back when Ryo and BJ were partners, they both liked the same girl, Tamiko, who eventually married Ryo. Beniya thinks BJ killed his friend to steal his wife and is much more interested in giving BJ a good kicking rather than investigating this very strange gang set up which seems to have some kind of drug smuggling gig going with the triads in Hong Kong.

BJ forms an odd sort of friendship with Akira in the hopes of tracking down the four gay, leather clad punk henchmen of Ali who probably gunned down his friend. However, the conspiracy only deepens and BJ finds himself suspecting even his closest of friends.

With its jazz soundtrack and melancholy tone, Yokohama BJ Blues is channelling hard boiled in a big way though does so in a distinctly modern fashion. BJ sings the blues whilst walking around this strange noir world which seems to endlessly disappoint him. Unfortunately for him, BJ is quite a good detective and quickly gets himself in way over his head only to end up finding out a few things it might be better not to know.

One of the film’s most notable components is its use of homoerotic themes with its gangs of gay gangsters, rent boys and punks. Indeed, though the wife of his former partner is floated as a possible motive, the love interest angle is never fully explored and all of BJ’s significant interactions in the film are with other men. Firstly his relationship with his former police partner Ryo which kick starts the entire adventure and then his strange almost date-like experience with Akira about half way through. BJ remains otherwise alone, a solo voice seeking justice for his fallen friends.

Of course, the film’s selling point is Matsuda’s singing so he’s allowed to play his own chorus in a sense by narrating the events from the stage in the form of the blues. Not quite “The Singing Detective”, but almost – BJ tries to bring some kind of order to his world by turning it into a song. In addition to adding to the noir tone, the bluesy soundtrack even allows for a New Orleans-esque musical funeral which oddly fits right in with the film’s weird, macabre atmosphere.

A surreal, noir inspired crime drama with musical elements, Yokohama BJ Blues is quite a hard film to categorise. Unusual for its homosexual milieu and overt homoerotic plotting the film occupies something of a unique place given its obvious marketing potential and star’s profile coupled with its decidedly murky noir tone. Difficult, yet interesting, Yokohama BJ Blues ultimately succeeds both as an intriguing crime drama and as a star vehicle for its versatile leading man.


This is a really, deeply, strange film.

Unsubtitled trailer:

I actually quite like Matsuda’s foray into the world of jazz, the title song from Yokohama BJ Blues which is heard in the trailer is called Brother’s Song and is included on Matsuda’s 1981 album Hardest Day. Here he is on a talk show singing Yokohama Honky Tonk Blues:

No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない!, Yojiro Takita, 1986)

No More ComicsThe word “paparazzo” might have been born with La Dolce Vita but the gossip hungry newshound has been with us since long before the invention of the camera. Yojiro Takita’s 1986 film No More Comics! (コミック雑誌なんかいらない, Komikku zasshi nanka iranai AKA Comic Magazine) proves that the media’s obsession with celebrity and “first on the scene” coverage is not a new phenomenon nor one which is likely to change any time soon.

Kinameri (Yuya Uchida) is a hack reporter on a gossipy news magazine programme which reports on all the sordid personal details of the private lives of celebrities. In a bit of neat meta commentary, we first meet him when he’s doggedly following real life top actress of the time Kaori Momoi (making a brief self cameo) as she tries to board a plane at the airport. Kinameri keeps on asking his inappropriate questions about her alleged relationship with a screenwriter whilst Momoi successfully ignores him before finally reaching the relative sanctuary of the security cordon preventing Kinameri from actually boarding the plane with her. Of course, his interview attempt has failed but he plays the footage on the programme anyway justifying her silence as a lack of denial and that he has therefore “proved” that the rumours are true.

Kinameri is both respected and ridiculed by his colleagues who praise his probing journalistic techniques which see him doggedly refusing to give up on a story but also find his intensity amusing seeing as he’s mostly chasing cheating spouses rather than uncovering the next great political scandal like his heroes who exposed Watergate. Having graduated from a top Japanese university in political sciences, this is far from the line of work Kinameri would want to be doing and its vacuity coupled with his own failed ambitions push him further and further into a spiral of self loathing and depression.

It’s not only celebrities either. Even if you could make a case that those in the entertainment industry have entered into a pact with the media and are, therefore, fair game, civilians and particularly victims of crime should be off limits. Kinameri will literally stop at nothing to scratch a up a story including attending the funeral of a murdered 14 year old girl and quizzing her mother over the rumours that the girl had been engaging in prostitution to try and elicit some kind of social commentary about the youth of today. After his programming starts to decline in popularity he’s relegated to the late night slot which involves visiting various shady places such as strip clubs, snack bars that are actually yakuza hang outs, and even the set of a porn film where he gets a cameo feeling up the lead actress in the front of a convertible.

While all of this is going on, Kinameri is also receiving some bothersome cold calls offering to sell him gold as an investment proposal. His elderly neighbour is visited by a woman from the company and does actually buy some but Kinameri smells a rat and his journalistic instincts kick back in. His bosses at the network aren’t convinced though – dodgy gold dealers doesn’t sound like a ratings winner after all and even when Kinameri agrees to even shadier assignments so he can pursue his leads, they still aren’t really behind him. Eventually they catch up but it’s almost too late.

Kinameri keeps doing what he’s paid to do, even if he clearly despises everything about it. Asking trivial and ridiculous questions and being ignored anyway, conducting a vacuous meet and greet with a gang of up and coming idol stars, even posing as a gigolo – there are no lengths to which he will not sink in pursuit of his story. By the film’s finale he’s still the frontline reporter, looking on while a vicious yakuza (played by a young Takeshi Kitano) commits a brutal murder right in front of the cameras. No one is moving, no one is trying to stop this, everyone is manoeuvring to get the best coverage. Kinameri has had enough and, with a look of rage and contempt on his face, he launches himself through the widow in a last minute attempt to make a difference but once again, lands up flat on his face and, finally, excluded from the action.

Years ahead of its time, No More Comics! takes an ironic look at invasive media coverage of celebrity gossip which clogs the airwaves while the real story is wilfully ignored. Ironically, Kinameri even becomes something of a celebrity himself, well known for his dogged interviewing style. He receives countless answerphone messages from “fans” (somehow ringing his personal phone number) either praising his efforts or berating him for not pushing his targets harder. When a young aspiring journalist stops him in the street and asks for advice, Kinameri doesn’t even answer but just walks away with a look of contempt and sadness on his face. Finally, after his mad dash into a crime scene in the final reel, he becomes the news himself. All of his fellow reporters suddenly want to know “what happened”, “what was it like”, “did you go in to save him or for the story?” etc. Still stunned and probably in need of medical attention, Kinameri looks directly into the camera, puts his hand across the lens and states “I can’t speak fucking Japanese”.

Filled with rage and shame, No More Comics! is a Network-esque satire on the world of live broadcast reporting exposing the seedier sides of journalistic desperation. Ahead of its time and sadly still timely in the age of 24hr coverage which mainly consists of the same trivial stories repeated ad nauseum, its messages are needed more than ever.


Unsubtitled trailer:

 

Megane (めがね, Naoko Ogigami, 2007)

119236783696916311605When considering their next holiday destination, many people like to peruse some brochures, have a read of trip advisor or head to a well known tourist spot that is likely to impress the guests at their next soirée but then there are always others who just simply show up somewhere and hope for the best. The central character of Megane, Taeko (Satomi Kobayashi), perhaps wishes she’d done a little research before heading out to a very strange inn on a very strange island but the longer she stays, the more the ways of the laid-back islanders seem to make sense to her.

The films begins as inn owner Yuji (Ken Mitsuishi) plays with his dog on the beach before suddenly realising “She’s here!” – referring to a favourite, annual guest who operates a shaved ice stand on that very same beach but for the spring only. Sakura (Masako Motai) has, indeed, arrived but unexpectedly there is also a second visitor, Taeko, all the way from the big city. Yuki seems impressed Taeko managed to find the out of the way hotel and points out their tiny sign (if they had a bigger one there would be too many customers).

Taeko might have been looking for an escape but this is a little more than she bargained for. First off, she gets a wake up call every morning in the form of Sakura kneeling next to her bed and commenting on the weather and she’s sort of expected to attend meals at the same time as everyone else, convenient or not. Sakura also leads a strange callisthenics session on the beach each morning which Taeko is encouraged to join as well as constantly being offered Sakura’s shaved ice which she always declines.

There isn’t much to do in this strange place, Yuji, Sakura and another woman who isn’t a guest but hangs round all the time anyway are convinced Taeko has come for the purpose of “twilighting” which Taeko doesn’t quite understand and they refuse to elaborate on but apparently this weird island is very good for it. Getting sick of these strange people and their odd habits Taeko decides to just check out and try another hotel. BIG MISTAKE. The other hotel on the island turns out to be an even more bizarre cult commune which makes Yuji and co seem much more appealing all of a sudden. Returning humbly to the extremely relaxed hotel and sacrificing her suitcase in the process, Taeko finally begins to embrace the odd ways of the island and open herself up to its benign indifference.

However, part way through she’s rudely interrupted by one of her students who’s managed to track her down despite her having chosen this place specifically for its remoteness and lack of cellphone signal. Yomogi (Ryo Kase) takes to the weird ways of the island like a fish to water, in fact his hipsterish adaptability is a little odd in itself, but against expectations his arrival only slightly irritates Taeko and creates no major drama of its own. The mystery of the overly jealous hanger on, Haruna (Mikako Ichikawa), is partially solved towards the end though her gentle possessiveness of the inn bound family and passive aggression to Taeko’s gradual acclimatisation is also more of the comic variety and eventually works itself out in a gentle way.

“Gentle” may well be the best way to describe Megane. Someone should probably market a “calm” mix which consists entirely of the relaxing island sounds of this film. These people take things slow and are all the happier for it. They know the pleasure of a sunset, shaved ice on the beach on a sunny day, drinking beer outside or enjoying a barbecue with friends. Mellow to the core, Megane is the ideal way to find your own spot of serenity at the end of a busy day and is sure to ease even the heaviest of hearts with its subtle, absurd humour.


The Japanese region A blu-ray release of Megane includes English subtitles!