Yasha (夜叉, Yasuo Furuhata, 1985)

In melancholy gangster movies, the hero often dreams of leaving the city for an idealised rural paradise to start again as a righteous man redeeming himself through hard work with a good woman by his side. Usually, they don’t make it, their goodness is nothing but a weakness in the harsh post-war environment, but even if they did could they really lay their violent souls to rest and live as the rest of us do? Once again played by a manfully stoic Ken Takakura, the hero of Yasuo Furuhata’s Yasha (夜叉, AKA Demon) tries to find out, but discovers that sooner or later the past will always catch up with you. 

15 years ago, fisherman Shuji (Ken Takakura) was the notorious Osaka yakuza known as “Yasha”. A war orphan given refuge by a gangster brotherhood, two things happened to change his way of life, the first being innocent country girl Fuyuko (Ayumi Ishida) whom he met by chance and rescued on the dangerous streets of the city. The second is the death of his younger sister who had become addicted to heroin. Fiercely resistant to the traffic of drugs, Shuji quit the clan, married Fuyuko, and retreated to her fishing village home to take over her late father’s fishing business. Well respected in the community as a steady hand, he now has three children and a settled happy life though one tinged with anxiety in the need to keep his back covered lest anyone find out about his violent past. 

The violent past is brought home to him when a young woman, Keiko (Yuko Tanaka), arrives in kimono with her young son in tow to take over the local bar. Keiko is a bar hostess from Osaka hoping to make a new start far away from the city, not so much for herself it seems as her no-good boyfriend Yajima (Takeshi Kitano) who is a drug-addled thug and openly hostile to her little boy. It’s Yajima who threatens to disrupt the gentle rhythms of the town, firstly getting the fishermen hooked on all night games of mahjong which damage their daytime productivity, and then selling them heroin to keep them propped up. Unused to such urban vices as hard drugs and serious gambling, the fishermen are lambs to the slaughter, handing over their hard earned savings to the thuggish Yajima to keep their heads above the water. 

Shuji wants to keep the town clean, but he can’t exactly admit just how familiar he is with things like drink and drugs which are, as his friend Keita (Kunie Tanaka) points out, not things “normal” people should know about. After realising an old friend is the middle-man, Shuji has a quiet word with Yajima as one thug to another but it only makes the situation worse. He tries talking to Keiko instead, but her decision to get rid of the drugs has disastrous consequences for all when Yajima goes on a crazed, knife-wielding rampage through the town which only Shuji can end. During the fight Yajima slashes Shuji’s fisherman’s jumper right through to the expose the demon beneath, leaving his colourful tattoos on show for all to see. 

You’d think that Yajima’s rampage would have taught the town a lesson, shown them that they were in over their heads and Yajima was not the sort of person it was good to be associated with, but their animosity overwhelmingly turns to the demon Shuji whom they unfairly begin to blame for their many misfortunes. The fishwives begin to avoid Fuyuko, telling their kids not to hang out with her kids and suggesting that it must have been Shuji who got the guys playing mahjong. Shuji meanwhile doubts himself, drawn to Keiko as to Osaka and the sleeping demon within. Yasha reawakens and he wonders if he has the right to live here after all. 

Fuyuko’s mother tells her that it’s a good wife’s job to quell the demon, but she struggles to maintain hold on Shuji while Yasha is pulled towards the city. He makes a manly choice, attempting to redeem Yajima in redeeming himself by returning to his point of origin. The widow of his old boss warns him off, reminds him that he’s a fisherman now, and that should he move against her she will have to act in accordance with the rules of the underworld, but privately mutters to herself that he hasn’t changed at all, “stupid man”. In the end, Yasha’s manly gesture ends in futility. He cannot escape himself but neither can he solve his problems through violence as he might have before, not least because the code is no longer secure motivating those he thought he could trust towards betrayal. He still has a choice, leave with Keiko to be Yasha once again accepting the futilities of a violent life (and its inevitable end), or stay to be a peaceful fisherman with the “good wife” Fuyuko. One man cannot possess two souls, but the given the chance the demon can be subdued if there is the will to subdue it and the belief that the man himself is good enough for the world in which he wants to live.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Wuthering Heights (嵐が丘, Kiju Yoshida, 1988)

Wuthering Heights poster“In this decadent age, who believes in the gods’ anger?” asks a cynical priest, willingly inviting evil into his home in the hope of brokering a change in his constraining circumstances. A key figure of the avant garde, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, like many of his contemporaries, struggled in the heavily commercialised cinema industry of the 1970s and beyond, finding the international arena more receptive to his arthouse concerns. 1988’s Wuthering Heights (嵐が丘, Arashi ga Oka), a distinctly Japanese take on Emily Brontë’s classic novel, found funding in France where it perhaps neatly sits alongside superficially similar efforts from his similarly constrained contemporaries, but as always Yoshida’s vision is darker, more disturbing than that of the big budget epics which aimed to recapture golden age glories.

Yoshida swaps the desolate Yorkshire moors for a smokey hellscape settled in ash on the side of an unpredictable volcano. The Yamabes are a priestly family in charge of conducting various rituals to keep the serpent god happy, preventing an eruption and ensuring good rains. The house is spilt in two with a feud underway between the East mansion and the West. The East mansion is where we lay our scene as old Yamabe returns from an extended sojourn in the city, bringing back with him a feral child he found starving under a bridge and later names “Onimaru” (Yûsaku Matsuda) in honour of his “demonic” appearance.

“Demonic” maybe an unkind word to use about any child and primed to become a self-fulling prophecy, but as someone later puts it Onimaru “does not belong to this world”. He is “an evil man” whose “cruelty knows no limits”, yet two women are drawn into his orbit and find themselves unable to break free of his passionate intensity. His step-sister, Kinu (Yuko Tanaka), our Cathy stand-in, bonds with him in childhood feeling a kind of elemental connection perhaps forbidden to her as a woman of feudal Japan subject to the whims of male society. Yet she alone sees through him to humanity buried below, “your curse is the proof you will never stop loving me” she offers darkly while seducing him the night before her marriage to another man (Tatsuo Nadaka). Later that man’s sister (Eri Ishida), positioning herself as potential bride, cites the fact that he is “consumed by jealousy” as further proof that he is more man than demon, but Onimaru himself seems uncertain so deep is he in rage and resentment.

That resentment is perhaps as much about class as about anything else. A feral child, living like an animal on the streets of an unforgiving city, he’s an ill fit for the rarefied mansion of a local lord with a spiritual mission, albeit one which imprisons him in his home and forbids him from associating with the world below. Yamabe took him in for his “boldness”, actively seeking his demonic dynamism while his own son, Hidemaru (Nagare Hagiwara), remains disappointingly conservative and wedded to his old-fashioned elite entitlement. Hidemaru’s resentment of Onimaru is not so much born of parental rejection in his father’s abrupt decision to go out and find a more satisfactory son than the one dutifully waiting at home, but irritation in Onimaru’s irregular status. He resents that a mere “peasant”, a man who should be among the servants, is permitted to share his space, and it seems, has usurped his position in his father’s eyes to be groomed as an heir to the illustrious Yamabe name.

Hidemaru eventually leaves in disgust, setting off to make a conventionally successful life for himself in the city, latterly returning with a wife and son to claim his birthright only after his father’s death. Yet Hidemaru suffers too. His wife is raped and murdered by bandits, agents of chaos and yet a product of the system he was so keen to uphold, leaving him a drunken, dissolute figure unable to fulfil his obligations to the god of fire while Onimaru prospers in a violent world and is eventually gifted that which he most wanted – stewardship of the Yamabe clan.

Even so, he cannot fully possess Kinu who remains lost to him, ruined by her own internal conflict between individualism and obedience. After coming of age, her father tells her women of the Yamabe clan must leave the mountain to serve as priestesses in the shrine, but Kinu wants to “live as a true woman”. She cannot have Onimaru, but does not want to leave him so she engineers a marriage with the rival West mansion and the kindly Mitsuhiko who brands his house as one of light as opposed to the gloomy shadows of the East. Kinu has attempted to seize her own future, at least in part, but finds herself conflicted, torn between her affection for Mitsuhiko who is gentleness personified and her need for Onimaru’s brooding intensity.

Yet Yoshida’s Wuthering Heights is less a story of forbidden, transgressive loves than it is of elemental destruction, the anger of the gods manifested as imploded repression and its fiery aftermath. Yamabe, the father figure, brings “evil” into his home, infecting it with dark desire and deep resentments seemingly in the knowledge it will burn it to the ground. The third generation, orphaned and finally independent, are left to make what restitution they can and so the tale begins to reset and repeat with cousins, Hidemaru’s grown and now subjugated son Yoshimaru (Masato Furuoya), and Kinu’s fiesty daughter (Tomoko Takabe), returning their ire to the force of their oppression – Onimaru, still fearsome and implacable though ageing and maddened by his unanswerable love for a dead woman whose corpse he has begun to covet.

Kinu, on her deathbed, promised to drag Onimaru to hell (assuming they weren’t already there) if only to protect her new family and finally does just that as he finds himself expelled by the next generation, dragging a coffin off into the fiery distance. “In every way, our world is accursed” insists an exasperated retainer. Everything here is corrupt, rotten, suppurating under the weight of oppressive traditions which restrict freedom and insist on order at the price of humanity. Yoshida’s noh-inspired aesthetics add to the atmosphere of fable as his embattled protagonists attempt to reconcile their natures with their civility but find there is no answer for repressed desire other than destruction and eventual rebirth.


The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Mitsuaki Iwago, 2019)

Island of Cats Poster“The best is yet to come” resolves 70-year-old Daikichi (Shinosuke Tatekawa) at the conclusion of The Island of Cats (ねことじいちゃん, Neko to Jiichan). Inspired by the manga by the appropriately named Nekomaki, the debut feature from wildlife photographer Mitsuaki Iwago is a decidedly laidback affair, neatly fusing two genres of Japanese comfort cinema – cats and cuisine. It’s also another in the recent run of films deliberately targeting the older generation in its quiet celebration of community and late life serenity, but it’s very existence is also perhaps a mild dig at cold and frenetic Tokyo which can’t help but pale next to the island’s inherent charms.

Daikichi has lived alone with his cat, Tama (who neatly introduces himself using the exalted “Wagahai” in a reference to Soseki’s famous novel), since his wife Yoshie (Yuko Tanaka) passed away two years previously. He has a grown-up son (Takashi Yamanaka) who is married with a teenage daughter of his own in Tokyo, but mostly spends his life hanging out with his old friends and playing with the island’s many cats. His peaceful days begin to change, however, when a pretty middle-aged (“young” to Daikichi and his friends) woman, Michiko (Kou Shibasaki), arrives from Tokyo and opens a cafe – the island’s first. In fact, the older generation find the cafe slightly intimidating, thinking such modern innovations are only for the youngsters, but are finally tempted in when directly invited by Michiko herself who serves up a selection of cream sodas and tasty ice creams in addition to slightly more rarefied treats like fish carpaccio.

In contrast to many an island drama, though the bulk of the population is older there are a fair few youngsters around and plenty of children too – at least enough to keep the local school open and the ferries running frequently. It is true however that most leave when they come of age either heading off to university on the mainland or seeking their fortunes in the cities. Nevertheless, the despite the absence of family the elderly are well cared for by the recently arrived young doctor (Tasuku Emoto) who takes his responsibility extremely seriously and is grateful for the opportunity to come to the island because it’s enabled him to become the kind of doctor he always wanted to be.

Michiko, meanwhile, has come to the island in search of relief from city life which she felt was gradually crushing her. An instant hit with the local cats as well as Daikichi and his friends, her presence adds a new energy to the island as the older generation start to enjoy both trying new things they thought perhaps were “inappropriate” when you’re old, and revisiting those they missed out on in their youth. Friends reconnect, bickering is exposed as an odd kind of affection, and cats just generally make everything better. The island may be dull compared to the bright lights of Tokyo, but it has its charms and those that live there are one big family taking care of each other and enjoying the laidback rhythms of coastal life.

Daikichi’s son, visiting when he can, is keen for him to come and live with the family in Tokyo but he and Tama are happy enough on the island just muddling through the way they always have surrounded by friends and happy memories. Reconnecting with his late wife through the recipe book she left behind, he resolves to learn a few dishes of his own – filling the rest of the pages with recipes learned from Michiko, his friends, newspapers and TV, determined to go on learning as long as he can. Sharing his life with others on the island, Daikichi too finds a new zest for living even as his days pass much as before, resolving that there is still plenty more to enjoy as he enters his twilight years. Gentle and mellow in the extreme, The Island of Cats is not promising much more than living up to its name but does its best to sell the charms of serene island life as Daikichi and his friends rejoice in the simple pleasures of shared cuisine and admiring “everybody’s” cats as they continue to do pretty much whatever they please while warming the hearts of the kindly islanders as they enjoy their days of fun and sunshine with nary a care in the world.


The Island of Cats screens in New York on July 20 as part of Japan Cuts 2019. It will also screen in Montreal as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on July 28.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Capone Cries a Lot (カポネおおいになく, Seijun Suzuki, 1985)

1040003_lNever one to be accused of clarity, Seijun Suzuki’s Capone Cries a Lot (カポネおおいになく, Capone Ooni Naku) is one of his most cheerfully bizarre movies coming fairly late in his career yet and neatly slotting itself in right after Suzuki’s first two Taisho era movies, Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. Though not part of the so called “Taisho trilogy” (this would be completed with Yumeji in 1991), Capone Cries a Lot begins its tale in the short lived period between the ages of Meiji and Showa when the world seemed open and foreign influence flooded into this once isolated nation. Could that influence also travel upstream? Naniwa-bushi, for example, could could a Naniwa-bushi singer on the run make something of himself in the New World?

Like most of Suzuki’s movies, plot is a secondary concern. However, loosely speaking, our protagonist is Jun – a man who wanted to learn the art of Naniwa-bushi from its accepted master but ultimately ran off with another man’s wife and ended up in 1920s America. Once there he hooks up the Japanese gangster Gun-tetsu who makes use of Jun’s sake making experience to assist in his bootlegging business during prohibition. This brings them in contact with the Capones, firstly with Frank and eventually with Al (who Jun amusingly mistakes for the president of the United States). Meanwhile, Jun’s girl, Kozome, has left him (to an extent) and become a prostitute. However well things seem to be going for Jun, he’s still a foreigner in a strange, and sometimes unkind, land. Is this the sort of place where dreams can survive?

Suzuki films the whole thing in Japan at an abandoned theme park which is 100% Americana – the Old West tricked out with cowboys, saloons and guns. Now it’s strange kind of new city populated by runaway Japanese criminals gambling and whoring their way through life. Jun wants to sing Naniwa-bushi in this odd place even if no one understands him. Originally he’s annoyed by the foreigners laying a hand on his shamisen or making attempts to join in with their jazz inflected modern music, but eventually he’s singing new Naniwa-bushi songs about the plight of the Native Americans and finally joining the jazz band for a full on musical fusion number. Suzuki does not shy away from the racial politics and problems inherent in his critique of American imperialism even up to an including the KKK and the Japanese internment camps.

In contrast to the previous two Taisho set films, Capone is much lighter in tone and obviously more playful even if it includes a similar level of oblique surrealism. Chaplin references and slapstick humour mix with absurdist dialogue and cosmic silliness to create a popcorn candy world that’s still somehow sad and strange. It’s a vision of America filtered through ‘20s gangster pics and B-movie westerns, equal parts bubblegum and tommy guns. It doesn’t make a great deal of literal sense but offers plenty of Suzuki’s psychedelic eye for colour, surprising editing choices and all round idiosyncratic approach to storytelling.

There may be ample reasons why Capone Cries a Lot has never found an overseas audience, it’s a little overlong for one and its comments on race are perhaps a little uncomfortable from several different angles. Nevertheless, it’s another characteristically zany effort from Suzuki and full of colourful pop aesthetics that are much more playful than the rather heavier Zigeunerweisen and Kageroza. Well worth the long strange ride, Capone Cries a Lot is a trip to 1920s candy land that few of the directors devotees will be able to resist.


(Unsubtitled) Scene from midway through the film

 

Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo, Joji Matsuoka, 2015)

mainvisualYaro Abe’s manga Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo) was first adapted as 10 episode TV drama back in 2009 with a second series in 2011 and a third in 2014. With a Korean adaptation in between, the series now finds itself back for second helpings in the form of a big screen adaptation.

Midnight Diner is set in a cosy little eatery which only opens between the hours of midnight and 7am. Presided over by the “Master”, a mysterious figure himself with a large unexplained scar running down one side of his face, the restaurant has only one regular dish on its menu but Master is willing to make whatever his customers want provided he has the ingredients. Regulars and newcomers mingle nightly each with their own, sometimes sad, stories while Master offers them a safe place to think things through coupled with his gentle, all knowing advice.

The big screen movie plays just like a series of connected episodes from the television drama yet manages unify its approach into something which feels consistently more cinematic. Keeping the warm, nostalgic tone the film also increases its production values whilst maintaining its trademark style. The movie opens with the same title sequence as its TV version and divides itself neatly into chapters which each carry the title of the key dish that Master will cook for this segment’s star. A little less wilfully melodramatic, Midnight Diner the movie nevertheless offers its gentle commentary on the melancholy elements of modern life and its ordinary moments of sadness.

Fans of the TV drama will be pleased to see their favourite restaurant regulars reappearing if only briefly, but the film also boosts its profile in the form of some big name stars including a manager of another restaurant in town played by Kimiko Yo who seems to have some kind of history with Master as well as a smaller role played by prolific indie star of the moment Kiyohiko Shibukawa and the return of Joe Odagiri whose character seems to have undergone quite a radical change since we last saw him.

The stories this time around feature a serial mistress and her dalliance with another, poorer, client of the diner; a young girl who pulls a dine and dash only to return, apologise and offer to work off her bill; a lovelorn widower who’s come to Tokyo to chase an aid worker who probably just isn’t interested in him; and then there’s strange mystery of a mislaid funerary urn neatly tieing everything together. Just as in the TV series, each character has a special dish that they’ve been longing for and through reconnecting with the past by means of Master’s magic cooking, they manage to unlock their futures too. As usual, Master knows what it is they need long before they do and though he’s a man of few words, always seems to know what to say. One of the charms of the series as a whole which is echoed in the film is that it’s content to let a few mysteries hang while the central tale unfolds naturally almost as if you’re just another customer sitting at the end of Master’s counter.

Shot in more or less the same style as the TV series favouring long, static takes the film still manages to feel cinematic and its slight colour filtering adds to the overall warm and nostalgic tone the series has become known for. Once again offering a series of gentle human stories, Midnight Diner might not be the most groundbreaking of films but it offers its own delicate insights into the human condition and slowly but surely captivates with its intriguing cast of unlikely dining companions.