Shippu Rondo (疾風ロンド, Teruyuki Yoshida , 2016)

Shippu Rondo posterIn this new age of anxiety, can we find the time to laugh about the possible release of a deadly bioweapon illegally developed and then stolen by a disgruntled employee who then finally gets hit by a truck before he can reveal what he did with it? On watching Shippu Rondo (疾風ロンド), your answer may be a predictable no. Adapted from a novel by Keigo Higashino, who is not particularly known for his sense of humour, Shippu Rondo fails to capitalise on the inherent absurdity of its premise, lurching between broad comedy and existential dread before making a late in the game shift towards sentimental family melodrama.

The trouble begins when a disgruntled employee (Shigeyuki Totsugi) fired for his zeal in creating a virulent bioweapon returns and steals its only sample, skiing out into the woods and burying it in a canister which will open automatically should the temperature rise above 10ºC. Hoping for a hefty ransom, he nails a teddybear containing a radio signal to the nearest tree and sends an email asking for cash in return for the location. Unfortunately, he gets hit by a truck before he can give more detailed information but does at least leave a radio transmitter and a photo as a clue.

Hapless widowed researcher Kuribayashi (Hiroshi Abe) is the one charged with bringing the extremely dangerous K-55 back under control, taking his 14-year-old son Shuto (Tatsuomi Hamada) along as a kind of guide/cover in the exciting world of Japanese ski resorts. The problem is, Shippu Rondo can’t decide if it wants to be an absurd black comedy about the potential death of thousands because of self-centred, selectively stupid scientists, a serious crime thriller, or a tearjerking melodrama of emotional repression and filial misconnection.

Thus, after arriving at the ski resort, we largely forget about the urgency surrounding the missing canister of deadly toxins while becoming involved in the various dramas of the otherwise peaceful town. The younger sister of one of the local teens apparently died of flu, leaving a nasty rumour behind that her depressed mother, who runs the local cafe, secretly plots revenge against the youngsters who “spread” the disease. Meanwhile, a man in a funny hat (Tsuyoshi Muro) keeps following Kuribayashi around while he looks for the canister, and the ski patrol guy (Tadayoshi Okura) tries to encourage his friend (Yuko Oshima) and probable love interest that she should fight for her sporting dreams while she wonders if to do so is irresponsible in the wake of mass tragedy like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The irony of the flu proving deadly while the threat of mass death from incurable anthrax looms over the heads of everyone is never lost, though its eventual resolution is underbaked in the extreme. Despite the fact we’re repeatedly told that the lid on the canister is designed to dissolve if the temperature exceeds 10ºC, someone carries it in their pocket for an undetermined amount of time while considering whether to use it to poison all their friends in the hope of cheering someone up and rising in their estimation. It’s a peculiarly Higashino-esque touch in its bizarre mean-spiritedness, but then gives way to broad sentimentality as the beneficiary of the action reminds the would-be mass killer that they shouldn’t wish misfortune on others but rather should double up on happiness for all. Meanwhile, Kuribayashi’s jaded middle-aged cynicism rubs up against his son’s adolescent idealism as he tries to process the fact that his dad works in illegal weapons, has lied to everyone around him by telling them they were looking for an experimental vaccine needed to save a terminally patient, and is planning to brush the whole thing under the carpet to save his own skin.

More gentle comedy than disaster thriller, the crisis eventually works itself out if in continually farcical episodes of swapped vials and villains falling off cliffs, while Kuribayashi’s self-interested boss Togo (Akira Emoto) dances maniacally around his office. Low budget in the extreme, Teruyuki Yoshida’s direction is of the TV special variety, veering between broad comedy and a cynical drama in which the day is saved largely because a teenage boy has entirely lost faith in his feckless father to do the right thing. Still, it all ends in a positive message as the champion snowboarder resolves that the best way to help people might lie in embracing your unique skillset while her bashful friend supports from the sidelines, the older generation remember their responsibility to lead by example, and evil corporate mad scientists are forced to own their casual disregard for public safety.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-, Shun Nakahara, 2008)

The Cherry Orchard- Blossoming poster In 1990, Shun Nakahara adapted Akimi Yoshida’s manga Sakura no Sono and created a perfectly observed capsule of late ‘80s teenage life at an elite girls school where the encroaching future is both terrifying and oddly exciting. Revisiting the same material 28 years later, one can’t help feeling that the times have rolled back rather than forwards. Starring a collection of appropriately aged teenage starlets The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその- Sakura no Sono), dispenses with the arty overtones for a far more straightforward tale of melancholy schoolgirls finding release in art but, crucially, only to a point.

Less an attempt to remake the original, Blossoming acts as an odd kind of sequel in which the leading lady, Momo (Saki Fukuda), becomes fed up with her rigid life at a music conservatoire and rebelliously storms out. Already in her last year of high school, Momo is lucky enough to get a transfer to Oka Academy solely because her mother and (much) older sister are old girls. However, transfer students are rare at Oka and the other girls aren’t exactly happy to see her – they worked hard to get here but she’s just waltzed straight in without any kind of effort at all.

Gradually the situation improves. Wandering around the old school building (a European style country house) which was the setting for the first film and has now been replaced with a modern, purpose built high school complex, Momo finds the script for The Cherry Orchard and becomes fixated on the idea of putting the play on with some of the other students. However, though The Cherry Orchard used to be an annual fixture it hasn’t been performed in 11 years after being abruptly cancelled when one of the stars disgraced the school by falling pregnant.

Whereas Nakahara’s 1990 Cherry Orchard was a tightly controlled affair, penning the girls inside the school and staying with them through several crises across the two hours before their big performance, Blossoming has no such conceits and adopts a formula much more like the classic sports movie as the underdog girls fight to put the play on and then undergo physical training (complete with montages) rather than rehearsals.

Momo’s rebellion is (in a sense) a positive one as she abandons something she was beginning to find no longer worked for her to look for something else and also gains a need to see things through rather than give up when times get hard. The drama of the 1990 version is kickstarted when a student is caught smoking in a cafe with delinquents from another school, aside from being told that students are expected to go straight home, Momo feels little danger in hanging out in an underground bar where her music school friend plays in a avant-garde pop band.

Though this reflects a change in eras it also points to a slight sanitisation of the source material. Gone are the illicit boyfriends (though there is one we don’t see) and barely repressed crushes, these teens are still in the land of shojo – dreaming of romance but innocently. Teenage pregnancy becomes a recurrent theme but lost opportunities hover in the background as the girls are seen from their own perspective rather than the wistful melancholy of those looking back on their youth.

Such commentary is left to the “old girls” represented by Momo’s soon to be married sister and the girls’ teacher, each of whom is still left hanging thanks to the cancellation of the play during their high school years. Despite her impending marriage, Momo’s sister does not seem to be able to put the past behind her and may be nursing a long term unrequited crush on a high school classmate. Blossoming echoes some of the concerns of Cherry Orchard, notably in its central pairing as lanky high jumper Aoi (Anne Watanabe) worries over a perceived lack of femininity while the more refined Mayuko (Saki Terashima) silently pines for her, unable to make her feelings plain. The 1990 version presented a painful triangle of possibly unrequited loves and general romantic confusion but it did at least allow a space for overt discussion rather than the half hearted subtly of a mainstream idol film in a supposedly more progressive era.

Nevertheless, Nakahara’s second pass at teenage drama does fulfil on the plucky high school girls promise as the gang get together to put the show on right here. Much less nuanced than the earlier version, Blossoming’s teens are just as real even if somehow more naive than their ‘80s counterparts. Team building, friendship, and perseverance are the name of the day as the passing of time takes a back seat, relegated to Momo’s sad smile as she alone witnesses the painful love drama of her melancholy friend.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Suicide Song (伝染歌, Masato Harada, 2007)

Suicide Song US Tokyo Shock DVD Cover
US Tokyo Shock DVD cover

There comes a time in every director’s life when fate leads them down the strangely tempting path of the idol movie. In recent years, sweet and innocent is no longer quite enough to cut it and when your film stars a bunch of kids from AKB48, you’re going to need 48x the kawaii factor so even though the DVD cover is suitably macabre and The Suicide Song (伝染歌, Densen Uta) is marketed as a J-Horror movie, there’s quite a lot more singing and dancing than might be reasonably expected.

In true idol star horror movie fashion, the film begins with some cutesy high school scenes before one student, Kana (Atsuko Maeda), starts in on her teacher who basically wants to skip a whole bit of the text book because it’s not on the exam. The potentially irrelevant teaching matter concerns famous Japanese playwright Chikamatsu whose big thing was, you guessed it, double suicides. Shortly after this, Kana is heard singing a weird song and then cuts her own throat with a kitchen knife right in front of her friend and classmate, Anzu (Yuko Oshima). It seems there has been a spate of these spontaneous suicides of teenage girls which occur after singing this particular song so skeevy newspaper guys Macasa, led by occult obsessed Riku (Ryuhei Matsuda ) and his ex-military buddy Taichi (Yusuke Iseya), decide to do some “investigative journalism”. Anzu and some of the other kids wind up helping out too, eventually coming under threat of that very same curse….

The idea of a “suicide song” isn’t a new one. Gloomy Sunday – a 1930s Hungarian folk song which achieved widespread acclaim thanks to an English language cover version recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 became an urban legend after numerous suicides were linked to the doleful track and its extremely bleak lyrics. This time around, it’s AKB48’s inoffensive Boku no Hana which apparently drives anyone who tries to sing it to their deaths. Like Gloomy Sunday, the song features extremely nihilistic lyrics which echo the existential confusion and romantic disillusionment that many of its young listeners are undoubtedly experiencing. A perfectly rational explanation for why so many young women might be taking their lives with this particular song on their lips, yet Suicide Song is not particularly interested in exploring the various real world pressures which might push high school students towards death when their lives ought to be just beginning.

It’s not long before the curse makes the leap to supposedly solid adult males. Later, one character tries to weaken the importance of the song by suggesting that it just opened a door for the suppressed feelings that were already there. That each of the victims already wanted to die and and simply allowed themselves to make use of this real world meme to give themselves permission to end it all. This is an interesting idea in some ways, though comes close to victim blaming and conveniently lets the central characters off the hook for failing to save their friends who have already fallen for what is either a curse or mass hysteria. In any case, like most Japanese horror movies and mysteries, the real villain is a circle of buried secrets. The traumatic past must be faced, brought out into the light and then given a proper burial to end the ongoing chaos.

Harada is playing a very strange game. He adds in generic J-horrorisms such as odd jump cuts, stuttering, power outages and possessed video footage as well as a good deal of shadiness in the form of the low rent newspaper guys and the investigation turning up something as dark as a teenage gang competing to see how many kids they can get to kill themselves using the song as a marker. Yet, he generally keeps things cute and light just like your average teen idol romance movie. We’re even treated to a very special AKB48 performance at their club in Akihabara (“Japan’s Most Sophisticated Show” !) where they sing Aitakatta for a room full of devoted middle aged guys who are their biggest fans. There are also frequent cinematic quotations from such Hollywood classics as Vertigo and The Lady From Shanghai (not to mention a completely shoehorned in paintball sequence using Ride of the Valkyries a la Apocalypse Now) which seem to hint at some kind of greater plan, but whatever it is never quite materialises.

Whatever Harada’s intentions may have been, Suicide Song is a strange beast which veers widely in tone from wacky comedy to supposed horror film. In actuality there are very few real scares despite the J-horror aesthetic and the comedy never amps itself up to the level of parody. If the intention was to create some kind of weird, subversive genre hybrid, the punches have been well and truly pulled. Watched as a horror movie Suicide Song is prone to disappoint, though its moments of absurd comedy and cute schoolgirl drama prove enjoyable enough for those able to adjust their expectations on the turn of a dime.


The Suicide Song is available with English subtitles on R1 US DVD from Tokyo Shock.

English subtitled trailer (aspect ratio is slightly stretched):