Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2019)

Gambling, the ultimate act of faith or the height of anarchic genius? Based on the hit manga which has already been adapted as a popular TV anime, Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ) is the sequel to two seasons of a live action TV drama set in a school where hierarchy is decided not by grades or by fists, but by prowess at the gaming tables. Those who lose so badly they bankrupt themselves become a kind of subhuman underclass, tied up like dogs and routinely humiliated, while the Student Council becomes a stand in for an oppressive social order ruling over all and enforcing the law with an iron hand. 

Into this high stress environment walks Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), a transfer student to the elite Hyakkaou Private Academy determined to bend its rules to her own advantage. Meanwhile, Student Council President Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda) is forced to deal with a new and unexpected threat – The Village, a small cult made up of students who have rejected the system, dropped out to live a hippy lifestyle in the grounds, and refuse to participate in “meaningless” games of chance. Their priest-like leader, Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), once beat Kirari at cards becoming something like a god of gambling, but lost his zeal for the game after losing the only thing he ever cared about. 

Where he opposes the system passively yet pointedly, Yumeko rebels in her own, fiercely individualistic way by superficially conforming, becoming a top gambler, but only because she is exercising a free choice to do so. She plays for kicks alone, and generally wins because she isn’t stressed enough about losing to let it bother her. This individualist streak makes her a hidden threat against Kirari, but one that might in itself be an interesting gamble for the infinitely bored Student Council President. 

While Yumeko’s individualism threatens to unbalance the system, The Village presents a collectivist threat, agitating wholesale revolution and an end to the oppressive rule of the Student Council which renders losers inhuman. Yet there’s an essential irony in The Village’s creepy monotony that stands in stark contrast to Yumeko’s seeming conformity but insistence on her own freedom. Your life’s your own, she later explains, it’s annoying if people try to manipulate it. In this instance she’s talking not about the “life plans” handed out by the Student Council, but the egotistical desire to “save” the lives of others without considering if they want them saved or if you’re merely infringing on their personal freedom in attempting to make choices for them based entirely on your own value system. 

Murasame perhaps bet something he shouldn’t have and technically won, but ended up losing anyway which is what has made him turn against gambling. Yumeko, meanwhile, believes that the only way to be truly free to entrust yourself to luck and destiny. That is, however, somewhat disingenuous, because what Yumeko excels at is mind games, essentially manipulating those around her in order to win. Yumeko plays players, not cards, and is rarely played herself. Unlike Murasame’s righthand woman Arukibi (Haruka Fukuhara), she doesn’t care that much what people think. Arukibi, meanwhile, is desperate for approval and is playing her own game just to get someone’s attention which makes her a volatile, if easily manipulated, opponent.

Essentially, Murasame wants freedom outside of the system where Yumeko has found it within, but her philosophy is perhaps the more dangerous in that it proposes total freedom that has no regard for the systems of governance. Then again, maybe this is all a long con to get better cakes in the cafeteria, merely gaming the system rather than actively undermining it. Nevertheless, for Yumeko life is risk, rebelling against an oppressive social order through the anarchic individualism of living by “chance”. Living in a society as highly regimented as this is a high stakes game, but you can’t win if you don’t play, and you need to play smart. That’s the peculiar irony of life at Hyakkaou Private Academy where the Student Council literally owns your future but you can win it back by playing them at their own game. Bet your life, win your freedom Yumeko seems to say but she still makes sure to bring cake for everyone, not just the “winners” or the privileged few. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Little Nights, Little Love (アイネクライネナハトムジーク, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

What is love? Is it an accident, cosmic destiny, or something that finally you have to choose? The romantically inclined hero of Little Nights, Little Love (アイネクライネナハトムジーク, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) is convinced that romance is something that happens to you at an unexpected moment, but his friends worry that he’s letting life pass him by because of his bashful passivity. While the city is gripped by the upcoming world heavyweight boxing championship which might finally result in a Japanese underdog raising the belt, its citizens gain the courage to fight for love, but discover that love is less victory than mutual concession. 

Sato (Haruma Miura), a hopelessly romantic salaryman, is forced to stand outside the station in the centre of Sendai conducting public surveys to make up the data that was lost when he accidentally spilt coffee on his colleague’s computer. Naturally shy, he’s not an ideal fit for the job but serendipitously bonds with a young woman, Saki (Mikako Tabe), when they are both captivated by the soulful song of a street musician. She agrees to fill in his form, and he notices she has “shampoo” written on her hand. He thinks it might be a sign, but she’s gone before he can do much about it. 

Sato’s college buddies Yumi (Erika Mori) and Kazuma (Yuma Yamoto), married young in a shotgun wedding but seemingly blissfully happy and parents to two adorable children, are quick to tell him that his romantic desire for serendipitous love is just thinly veiled cowardice and his essential passivity, refusing to put himself out there, is the reason he’ll end up alone. Meanwhile, Yumi is also trying to support her longterm single sister, Minako (Shihori Kanjiya), who is in a strange “relationship” with the younger brother of a client at her hairdressing salon. Despite talking regularly on the phone, he seems reluctant to meet because his job keeps him very busy which leaves her feeling confused and suspicious. 

Yumi and Kazuma think they ended up together out of necessity, but that necessity was in its own way chance. Secretly, Kazuma might wonder what might have happened if he’d been careless with some other girl, but has come to the conclusion that he’s glad it was Yumi and not someone else. Sato’s colleague Fujima (Taizo Harada), meanwhile, thought he had a cheerily romantic origin story for his relationship – a classic dropped wallet meet cute of the kind Kazuma insisted only happens in the movies, but now nearing 40 his wife has left him and the failure of his marriage has provoked a nervous breakdown. Sato asks him if he’s still glad it was his wife who dropped her wallet and not someone else, and if she’s glad that it was him who picked it up. Not only can he not quite answer, he doesn’t quite want to know. 

Meanwhile, Minako discovers that her diffident lover has decided to stake his romantic future on the championship match, that if the Japanese challenger wins he’ll finally have the courage to speak his heart. Minako is angry and disappointed, infuriated that he has so little courage that he has to vicariously channel the power of someone else to confess his feelings, but is as glued to the match as everyone else. 10 years on, the same thing happens again. Yumi and Kazuma’s daughter, Mio (Yuri Tsunematsu), is now a rebellious teen fed up with her father’s perpetually easygoing attitude and infuriated by a school friend, Kurume (Riku Hagiwara), who also pins his romantic hopes on the boxing match while inwardly resenting his overly spineless father (Yurei Yanagi) for becoming a mere cog in the great machine of capitalism. His refreshingly honest mother (Mari Hamada), however, reminds him that everyone thinks that when they’re 17 but really there’s no life without compromise and cogs at least have their place in keeping the wheels turning. Kurume finds this out by chance when his dad is able to save him from a sticky situation using classically meek, salaryman-style strategy. 

Perhaps what Kurume resents is the sense of impending powerlessness that comes of being a teenager squaring off against the salaryman straightjacket even if he’s still too diffident to put up much resistance. Meanwhile, the reverse is also true. The youngsters bond while staking out a bicycle parking garage to look for a thief who stole Mio’s 60 yen parking sticker and put it on his own bike, leaving her with the fine. They discover it’s an old man who wastes no time in yelling at the young whippersnappers while kicking off against his sense of impotence by gaming the system over a measly 60 yen he could have easily paid. The same thing happens again at Mio’s part-time job where a horrible old man decides to take out his frustrations with his place in the world on an innocent teenage girl. 

10 years earlier, Sato had saved a boy with hearing problems from being beaten up by bullying classmates, giving him new strength by introducing him to Japan’s boxing champ. The inevitable, however, happens, and even champion boxers have feet of clay. Things don’t always go to plan, or perhaps they do but that only makes you wonder if you’re really on the right path or merely settling for that of least resistance. The street singer’s song asks if you’re happy where you’ve ended up or if you still want more than ordinary happiness. Sato, still diffident, has to admit that perhaps he isn’t sure, while Saki does something much the same in wondering if they’re only still together out of habit and a misplaced belief in the narrative destiny of their serendipitous meeting. Another championship match sees them all ready for the fight once again, encouraged by the embattled boxer’s refusal to give-up on his fighting dreams, but perhaps still waiting for a “sign”. What Sato learns, however, is that they don’t always arrive quite as serendipitously as one might might think. “It builds up” Fujima warns him, waking up to the fact that his wife likely left him after years of small microagressions that killed their love through taking it for granted. But love can build up too, if only you build up the courage to fight for it with a willingness to be honest with your feelings, and what’s life if not lots of little nights filled with lots of little love, no grand romance but maybe not so bad after all. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The song – Chiisana Yoru by Kazuyoshi Saito

Dawn Wind in My Poncho (ポンチョに夜明けの風はらませて, Satoru Hirohara, 2017)

Dawn Wind in My Poncho posterThe end of high school might signal impending doom for some, but it also provides a valuable opportunity for one last hurrah before surrendering to the demands of the adult world. That’s more or less how the heroes of Satoru Hirohara’s Dawn Wind in My Poncho (ポンチョに夜明けの風はらませて, Poncho ni Yoake no Kaze Haramasete) feel about it as they set off on an impromptu road trip to track down a Peruvian folksinger making his first visit to Japan in 18 years. Youthful irresponsibility and an openness to all things send our boys on a strange odyssey of self discovery in flight of a future that is almost certain to be disappointing.

Right before graduation, Janbo (Yuma Yamoto) and Matahachi (Taiga) are preparing to celebrate their friend Jin (Aoi Nakamura) getting into Uni. Only, Jin didn’t make the grade which has rather put a damper on the occasion. To make matters worse, new driver Matahatchi seems to have scratched the car belonging to Janbo’s dad which they weren’t supposed to be driving in the first place. Trying to fix the problem, they run into dejected idol Ai (Aimi Satsukawa) who dreams of chart success but is being pressured into a gravure career by her agency. Ai manages to upset some delinquents in a convenience store car park, leaving our guys wondering if they should step in but coming to the conclusion it’s not worth it unless the girl is pretty. Nevertheless, they end up driving off with Ai in the back of the car anyway with the delinquents in hot pursuit.

That’s only the beginning of the boys’ adventure, but they can’t go home yet anyway because by the end of the chase they’ve completely destroyed the car and will be extremely dead when Janbo’s dad finds out. Lovingly showing off a picture of his beloved new (secondhand) car, Janbo’s dad tells a young man coming into the bar owned by Matahachi’s single mother that if he works really hard for a very long time, he too could have a car like this. It’s a fairly depressing prospect, but it does seem like there might not be much more out there for these small town guys as they prepare to leave high school behind. Jin was the guys’ bright hope with his university dreams. Janbo is going to work for his dad and Matahachi is looking for a job. All there is to look forward to now is constraint. A boring low pay job with no prospects, followed by marriage, fatherhood, and death.

You can’t blame them for cutting loose, though in essence our guys are mild-mannered sorts well and truly outrun by Ai’s anarchic flight from her own disappointment with her faltering career. Of course, the boys are all interested in her nevertheless only Janbo is facing an embarrassing problem of his own which has him wondering if he’ll ever be able to have a “normal” sex life, marriage, or family. The problem eventually takes him to the “Banana Clinic” which is actually a front very specific sex services but does introduce him to a nice young lady (Junko Abe) who might be able to cure his sense of insecurity if in a roundabout way.

Meanwhile, the guys have blown off the fourth member of their “band” (Shhota Sometani) who is still hanging around waiting for them to turn up for practice ahead of their graduation show. A poignant radio message attached to a song request in which he reveals how lonely he was until some guys invited him to join their band goes unheard by the gang leaving him to gatecrash graduation all alone with an impromptu performance in which he sings about how school was pointless and no one cares about the future, starting a mini riot among the other kids in the process. The trio are still busy with a series of zany adventures as Matahachi tries to convince the guys to come with him on strange quest to hear the elusive folk singer, only latterly explaining to them why exactly this means so much to him. A typically teenage road trip ends up going nowhere in particular, leaving the guys in limbo as they run from their depressing futures towards the last traces freedom far in the distance. Silly, if endearing, Dawn Wind in My Poncho is a strangely sympathetic tale of youthful rebellion towards impending adulthood which ultimately places its faith in the strength of male friendship as the last refuge from a relentlessly conformist society.


Dawn Wind in My Poncho was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい, Sho Tsukikawa, 2017)

Let me eat your pancreas posterBack around the turn of the century, a new kind of melodrama was taking the Japanese box office by storm. “junai” or “pure love” was not exactly new in terms of genre but began to grow in popularity in the early 2000s thanks to growing interest in Korean television drama, finally hitting its zenith in 2004 with Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World. The junai boom lasted only a couple of years, but Japanese cinema has never been able to get enough of tragic stories of first love destroyed by cruel fate and, ironically enough, returns with the improbably titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい, Kimi no Suizo wo Tabetai) which sets its fictional past in 2003 – exactly the same time as the contemporary presents of the junai classics.

In 2012, Haruki Shiga (Shun Oguri) is a melancholy high school teacher who can’t decide if teaching is really his vocation and has a resignation letter sitting in his desk. Meanwhile, he is handed a slightly upsetting task by his boss – the school library has become too rundown to consider renovating and so it’s going to have to close. When Shiga was a high school student at this very school, he also ran the library club (he now has a qualification in librarianship) and so he seems to be the perfect person to ensure everything gets packed up and dealt with in the proper fashion. The library, however, holds some painful memories for him – of a girl he grew close to for only a few months while she battled a terminal illness and changed his life forever.

12 years previously, Sakura (Minami Hamabe), a popular young woman, drops her sickness diary on leaving the hospital, whereupon Shiga picks it up and unwittingly becomes the only person outside of Sakura’s family to know that she is suffering from a degenerative pancreatic illness and has only a couple of years at most to live. She knows her case her is hopeless and the treatment she receives will only prolong her life temporarily while easing her symptoms, but is determined to live out the rest of her days to the fullest.

Unlike Sakura, Shiga (Takumi Kitamura) describes himself as a loner who isn’t good with people. He spends his days with a book in his hand and is thought of by most of his classmates (if they think of him at all) as the creepy silent boy. Thus his unexpected friendship with Sakura raises more than a few eyebrows with the other kids, especially Sakura’s best friend Kyoko (Karen Otomo) who is both jealous and confused as to why her friend has suddenly started hanging out with the loser boy. Then again it’s precisely because of this aloofness that Sakura first believes she can entrust her final days to Shiga – as virtual strangers it’s much easier to process the idea of an ending, if Sakura had tried to confide in Kyoko about her illness it would only have marred the end of their friendship. Shiga is detached, he doesn’t get emotionally involved, but despite himself still cares which makes him the ideal point of support for a girl longing to escape a carefully ordered life to get a taste of everything she knows she will miss.

Let Me Eat Your Pancreas may situate itself in the junai era of the early 2000s, but owes an undeniable debt to Shunji Iwai’s seminal 1995 romantic melodrama Love Letter and even borrows its central library conceit with a hidden message which eventually reaches its destination much later than intended. Like Love Letter, in which one of the heroines is perpetually worried about the possible repercussions of minor illnesses, Pancreas is keen to remind us that the truth is we are all dying and illness or not today might be our last day – it’s best to make the most of it without sitting around worrying about what the future might hold.

Sakura, dying yet so full of life and energy, is keen to impart her life philosophy to the introverted Shiga. For Sakura life is about connection, sharing experiences with others be they joy or pain. Shiga, though loathed to admit it, is in his own way desperately lonely but has resolved himself to surviving alone, believing that he lacks the ability connect meaningfully with other people. His nascent connection with Sakura is destined to end in tragedy but does at least begin to release something in him which had long been suppressed. Even so, as an adult he’s just as withdrawn and isolated as he’d been as a teen and it’s not until he’s forced to revisit this traumatic incident in his early life that he learns the full value of its lessons. Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, though wilfully embracing some of the genre’s more problematic elements, is a beautifully affecting return to the world of junai which manages to turn a story of death and tragedy into a celebration of life and love as its isolationist hero begins to find the strength to embrace the art of being alive no matter how painful it may turn out to be.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2017)

hamon posterConventional wisdom states it’s better not to get involved with the yakuza. According to Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ Hamon: Futari no Yakubyogami), the same goes for sleazy film execs who can prove surprisingly slippery when the occasion calls. Based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s Naoki Prize winning novel and directed by Shotaro Kobayashi who also adapted the same author’s Gold Rush into a successful WOWWOW TV Series, Hamon: Yakuza Boogie is a classic buddy movie in which a down at heels slacker forms an unlikely, grudging yet mutually dependent relationship with a low-level gangster.

Ninomiya (Yu Yokoyama), a classic slacker, makes ends meet by acting as a kind of liaison officer between the normal world and the yakuza one. His contact, Kuwahara (Kuranosuke Sasaki), is a scary looking guy but as yakuza go not so bad to work with. Following the government’s organised crime crackdown, Ninomiya finds himself at more of a loose end and so when an elderly film director, Koshimizu (Isao Hashizume), comes to him and asks to meet a yakuza first hand, Ninomiya sets up a meeting. Yakuza and movies can be a dangerous mix but somehow or other Koshimizu manages to charm the pair and even gets Kuwahara’s boss, Shimada (Jun Kunimura), to invest some of his own money.

Unfortunately, this is when things start to go wrong. Koshimizu’s pretty “daughter” is really his mistress (as Kuwahara suspected) and the wily old bugger has taken off for the casino paradise of Macao with both the beautiful woman and suitcase full of yakuza dough. Kuwahara is now in a lot of trouble and ropes in Ninomiya to help him sort it out but in their pursuit of Koshimizu they eventually find themselves caught up in a series of turf wars.

Yakuza comedies have a tendency towards unexpected darkness but Hamon’s key feature is its almost childish innocence as Ninomiya and Kuwahara go about their business with relatively few genuinely life threatening incidents. Though the pair bicker and argue with Ninomiya always secretly afraid of his big gangster buddy and Kuwahara fed up with his nerdy friend’s lack of know how, the relationship they’ve developed is an intensely co-dependent one which fully supports the slightly ironic “no me without you” message. Eventually growing into each other, Ninomiya and Kuwahara move increasingly into the other’s territory before finally re-encountering each other on more equal footing.

These are less rabid killers than a bunch of guys caught up in a silly game. Shady film director Koshimizu turns out to be some sort of cartoon hero, perpetually making a sprightly and unexpected escape despite his advanced age while the toughened gangsters hired to keep him locked up find themselves one hostage short time after time. Ninomiya’s worried cousin Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) keeps trying to talk him into a more ordered way of life which doesn’t involve so much hanging round with scary looking guys in suits, but Ninomiya is reluctant to leave the fringes of the underworld even if he seems afraid for much of the time. Kuwahara is a yakuza through and through, or so he thinks. This latest saga has left him in an embarrassing position with his bosses, not to mention the diplomatic incident with a rival gang, all of which threatens his underworld status and thereby essential identity.

Still, all we’re talking about here is having a little more time for solo karaoke, not being bundled into the boot of a car and driven to a remote location. Filled with movie references and slapstick humour this is a yakuza tale inspired by classic cinematic gangsters rather than their real world counterparts but it still has a few things to say about human nature in general outside of the fictional. An odd couple, Ninomiya and Kuwahara couldn’t be more different but besides the fact they don’t quite get along, they make a good team. No me without you indeed, solo stakeouts are boring, even if you do bicker and fuss the whole time it’s good to know there’s someone who’ll always come back for you (especially if you tell them not to) ready to take the wheel.


Hamon: Yakuza Boogie was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)