Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Hiroshi Kurosaki, 2020)

“What can we do? It’s for the victory of our country” one woman stoically laments as her family home is demolished in an attempt to mitigate the damage from potential aerial bombing in Hiroshi Kurosaki’s wartime drama, Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Taiyo no Ko). A co-production between Japanese broadcaster NHK and American distributor Eleven Arts, Kurosaki’s ambivalent interrogation of the price of progress asks some difficult questions about scientific ethics while simultaneously suggesting we may have been stoking a fire we cannot fully control in a bid for a technological evolution which has become unavoidably politicised. 

The hero, Shu (Yuya Yagira), is an idealistic young man who excels at running experiments. He has been spared the draft because his work has been deemed essential for the war effort as he is part of the research team at Kyoto University working on the development of an atomic bomb. A theoretical thinker, Shu has not fully considered the implications of the project and largely views it as a problem they are trying to solve in the name of science rather than a concerted attempt to create a super weapon with the potential to bring death and destruction to the entire world. 

Others meanwhile are beginning to question the ethical dimensions of their work. The team is equipped with a shortwave radio receiving the American broadcasts and is fully aware that Japan is losing the war. There are frequent power outages which interfere with their research, while food shortages are also becoming a problem. The potter Shu has been visiting in order to acquire Uranium usually used for a yellow glaze tells him that he rarely needs to use colour anymore because the vast majority of his output is plain white funerary urns for boys who come back as bones. Some of the scientists feel guilty that they are living in relative safety while other young men their age are fighting and dying on the front line, while others wonder if working on the bomb, which will almost certainly not be finished in time, is the best way to help them. They also wonder if scientists should be involved in the creation of weapons at all, but their mentor Arakatsu (Jun Kunimura) justifies the project under the rationale that they aren’t just trying to make a bomb but to unlock the power of the atom and harness its intrinsic energy to take humanity into a brave new world. 

As it turns out, Arakatsu may not have expected the project to succeed but was in a sense using it in order to protect his students by ensuring they would be exempt from the draft. Another senior researcher meanwhile points out the Americans are also working on a bomb, and if they don’t finish it first the Russians will. Arakatsu claims this war, like most, is about energy but nuclear energy may be infinite and therefore its discovery has the potential to end human conflict forevermore. Still, it’s difficult for Shu reconcile himself to the reality of what he was working on seeing the devastation inflicted on Hiroshima. The scientists are plunged into a deep sense of guilt and despair that they failed to prevent this tragedy, but also perhaps relief in knowing they were not responsible for inflicting it on the city of San Francisco as had been the plan. 

Arakatsu claims he wants to change the world through science, a sense of purpose that appeals to Shu even while he remains firmly in the present moment. His childhood friend, Setsu (Kasumi Arimura), however is looking far ahead already thinking about what to do when the war is over. Seeing through the wartime propaganda disturbed by the answers the high school girls co-opted to fill-in at her factory give when asked about their dreams that all they want is to marry as soon as possible and raise children to serve the nation, she aims to educate. Shu’s brother Hiroyuki (Haruma Miura), meanwhile, is a conflicted soldier filled with guilt for having survived so long crying out that he can’t be the only one not to die. The theory that nothing is ever created or destroyed becomes an odd kind of justification, yet Shu is also forced to admit that destruction can be “beautiful” while claiming that scientific progress is a body already in motion which cannot be stopped. “The nature of science transcends humanity” Shu is told by an accented voice speaking in English, insisting that the bomb is merely another stop on the inevitable march of progress in the great chain reaction of history. Kurosaki’s melancholy drama preserves both the beauty and wonder of scientific discovery as well as its terrible ferocity but offers few answers as to the extent of its responsibilities. 


Gift of Fire screens in Chicago on Sept. 16 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema before opening at cinemas across the US on Nov. 12 courtesy of Eleven Arts.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Amagi Pass (天城越え, Haruhiko Mimura, 1983)

There’s no statute of limitations on guilt an ageing policeman laments in Haruhiko Mimura’s adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto mystery, Amagi Pass (天城越え, Amagi-Goe). Co-produced by Yoshitaro Nomura and co-scripted by Tai Kato, Amagi Pass arrives at the tail end of the box office dominance of the prestige whodunnit and like many of its kind hinges on events which took place during the war though in this case the effects are more psychological than literal, hinging on the implications of an age of violence and hyper masculinity coupled with sexual repression and a conservative culture. 

In a voiceover which doesn’t quite open the film, the hero, Kenzo (Mikijiro Hira / Yoichi Ito), as we will later realise him to be, likens himself to that of Kawabata’s Izu Dancer though as he explains he was not a student but the 14-year-old son of a blacksmith with worn out zori on his feet as he attempted to run away from home in the summer of 1940 only to turn back half-way through. In the present day, meanwhile, an elderly detective, Tajima (Tsunehiko Watase), now with a prominent limp, slowly makes his way through the modern world towards a print shop where he orders 300 copies of the case report on the murder of an itinerant labourer in Amagi Pass in June, 1940. A wandering geisha was later charged with the crime but as Tajima explains he does not believe that she was guilty and harbours regrets over his original investigation recognising his own inexperience in overseeing his first big case. 

As so often, the detective’s arrival is a call from the past, forcing Kenzo, now a middle-aged man, to reckon with the traumatic events of his youth. Earlier we had seen him in a doctor’s office where it is implied that something is poisoning him and needs to come out, his illness just as much of a reflection of his trauma as the policeman’s limp. Flashing back to 1940 we find him a young man confused, fatherless but perhaps looking for fatherly guidance from older men such as a strange pedlar he meets on the road who cheekily shows him illustrated pornography, or the wise uncle who eventually tricks him into buying dinner and then leaves. His problems are perhaps confounded by the fact that he lives in an age of hyper masculinity, the zenith of militarism in which other young men are feted with parades as they prepare to fight and die for their country in faraway lands. Yet Kenzo is only 14 in 1940 which means he will most likely be spared but also in a sense emasculated as a lonely boy remaining behind at home. 

He tells the wise man who later tricks him that he’s run away to find his brother who owns a print shop in the city because he hates his provincial life as a blacksmith, but later we realise that the cause is more his difficult relationship with his widowed mother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) whom, he has recently discovered, is carrying on an affair with his uncle (Ichiro Ogura). Returning home after his roadside betrayal he watches them together from behind a screen, a scene echoed in his voyeuristic observation of the geisha, Hana (Yuko Tanaka), with the labourer plying her trade in order to survive. Described as odd and seemingly mute, the labourer is a figure of conflicted masculinity resented by the other men on the road but also now a symbolic father and object of sexual jealously for the increasingly Oedipal Kenzo whose youthful attraction to the beautiful geisha continues to mirror his complicated relationship with his mother as she tenderly tears up her headscarf to bandage his foot, sore from his ill-fitting zori, while alternately flirting with him. 

Yet his guilt towards her isn’t only in his attraction but in its role in what happened to her next even as she, we can see, protects him, their final parting glance a mix of frustrated maternity and longing that has apparently informed the rest of Kenzo’s life in ways we can never quite grasp. Amagi Pass for him is a barrier between youth and age, one which he has long since crossed while also in a sense forever trapped in the tunnel looking back over his shoulder towards Hana and the labourer now on another side of an unbreachable divide. The policeman comes like messenger from another time, incongruously wandering through a very different Japan just as the bikers in the film’s post-credit sequence speed through the pass, looking to provide closure and perhaps a healing while assuaging his own guilt but finding only accommodation with rather than a cure for the traumatic past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Neither Seicho Matsumoto’s original novel or the film adaptation are directly related to the well-known Sayuri Ishikawa song of the same name released three years later though the lyrics are strangely apt.

One Night (ひとよ, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2019)

“You can live however you want, you’re totally free. You can be anything” a woman tells her children, believing she is freeing them from a cycle of violence and oppression but unwittingly consigning them to another kind of cage in Kazuya Shiraishi’s raw family drama One Night (ひとよ, Hitoyo). Adapting the stage play by Yuko Kuwabara, Shiraishi is the latest in a long line of directors asking questions about the true nature of family, taking the hahamono or “mother movie” in a new direction but ultimately finding faith at least in the concept as the family unit finally begins to repair itself in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. 

The “one night” of the title is that of 23rd May, 2004 on which wife and mother Koharu (Yuko Tanaka) backs over her relentlessly abusive husband in one of the taxis operated by their company. At some point, even if only perhaps in those few moments sitting at the steering wheel, Koharu appears to have given this a great deal of thought. Calmly walking back into her familial home where her three children are each sporting prominent facial wounds from a recent beating, she hands each of them a handmade onigiri and explains that she has just killed their father. Planning to hand herself in she reassures them that an uncle will look after them and the company so they’ve no need to worry. She has no idea how long she’ll be in prison for, but cautions that she may not return for 15 years hoping that by then the stigma will have passed. On her way out, she pauses to tell them that she is proud of what she’s done, saving them from their father’s authoritarian abuse and urging them to be free to live their lives in whichever way they choose. 

15 years later, however, the children find themselves burdened by her words. Yuji (Takeru Satoh) who dreamed of being a novelist has become a cynical journalist working for a pornographic magazine. Daiki (Ryohei Suzuki) who has a stammer and wanted to be a mechanic has never been able to hold down a steady job and is on the brink of divorce after showing signs of becoming abusive himself, while Sonoko (Mayu Matsuoka) who wanted to be a hairdresser is now working as a bar hostess drinking herself into oblivion. Living with the legacy of that one night, none of them has been able to live freely or to achieve their dreams but has remained arrested in some way waiting for Koharu’s return. 

While in her mind she freed them, the children find themselves dealing with the secondary sense of abandonment in her decision to exile herself from their lives, essentially leaving them to deal with the fallout of her “crime” all alone. Not only are they now orphaned, they also have to live with the stigma of being related to a notorious murderess with all of the peculiar burdens that entails in Japanese society from harassment and bullying to reduced employment opportunities and an internalised shame. Meanwhile, their mother’s words ring in their ears, urging them to be free, to be who they wanted to be and achieve their dreams, but they find themselves paralysed by the pressure to live up to the sacrifice Koharu has made on their behalf. While Sonoko is the most sympathetic, the boys are consumed by resentment. Koharu sees her 15 years of wandering as an exile undertaken as a kind of atonement and intended to keep the children safe from further social stigma, but her sons feel only the abandonment. 

Still, “mom’s still mom. It’s we who’ve got to change” Daiki tries to convince his brother, “we’re not kids anymore” he later adds as they recreate a thwarted teenage attempt to save their mother but in a very real sense they are. The problem in Daiki’s marriage turns out be rooted in insecurity, a failure of intimacy that saw him reluctant to let his wife and daughter into his traumatic past which finally expressed itself in violence. Meanwhile another driver at the taxi firm finds himself in a parallel struggle as he processes his own troubled relationship with an estranged teenage son and comes to realise his sins are indeed being visited on him despite his best efforts to prevent it. He sympathises with Koharu against the “ungrateful” children who, like the those of the classic hahamono, fail to understand the quality of their parent’s love as expressed in the sacrifices they have made on their behalf. Yet it’s Yuji who had branded his family a mere simulacrum who eventually fights hardest to save it, paving the way for a reconciliation as they finally bring closure to the events of 15 years previously and begin to move on with the rest of their lives. A raw and painful examination of familial trauma, Shiraishi’s bruising drama eventually allows the family to reclaim the night, repairing their fracturing bonds in sharing their emotional burdens freed at last from the oppressive legacies of abuse and resentment.


One Night streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app on Sept. 6 & 11 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.