Twilight: Saya in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや, Yoshihiro Fukagawa, 2014)

Japanese cinema has its fare share of ghosts. From Ugetsu to Ringu, scorned women have emerged from wells and creepy, fog hidden mansions bearing grudges since time immemorial but departed spirits have generally had very little positive to offer in their post-mortal lives. Twilight: Saga in Sasara (トワイライト ささらさや,  Twilight Sasara Saya) is an oddity in more ways than one – firstly in its recently deceased narrator’s comic approach to his sad life story, and secondly in its partial rejection of the tearjerking melodrama usually common to its genre.

Unsuccessful Rakugo performer Yutaro (Yo Oizumi) met the love of his life during one of his sparsely attended recitations. Saya (Yui Aragaki) was the only one laughing but even she didn’t think he was very funny, she just liked him because he was trying so hard. Eventually, he married her and they had a lovely baby boy but before little Yusuke was even a year old, Yutaro got himself killed in a random traffic accident. Such is life. Still, knowing that Saya had no family of her own and having grown up without a father himself Yutaro feels even worse about leaving his wife and son all alone in such a stupid way. Therefore he decides to delay going to heaven so that he can stick around to help Saya in whatever way he can.

A crisis occurs when Yutaro’s estranged father (Ryo Ishibashi) suddenly turns up at the funeral laying claim to little Yusuke with no thought to the additional emotional ramifications of trying to snatch a baby from a grieving mother right over the coffin of her husband. Possessing the body of another guest, Yutaro manages to convince Saya to run leading her to retreat to her late aunt’s house in the peaceful rural village of Sasara.

Though the premise is a familiar one, Fukagawa neatly sidesteps the more maudlin aspects for a broadly comic approach in which Yutaro recounts the story of his death as if it were a rakugo tale. Possessing various people along the way, Yutaro does indeed help Saya adjust to her new life but eventually discovers that perhaps the reason he hasn’t passed over was one of the past rather than one of the future.

Saya’s arrival in Sasara gets off to a bad start – essentially forced out of the city to escape Yutaro’s father Saya causes unexpected trouble when it emerges that the corrupt local estate agent has been letting out her aunt’s house without telling her. If that weren’t enough, some of her valuables are almost stolen by a local delivery boy but, this being an ageing village, children are a rarity and so little Yusuke quickly captures the hearts of the neighbourhood grannies who eventually become Saya’s friends and staunch supporters. Familial problems are the name of the day from childlessness to children (hopefully) writing down possible signs of dementia or just leaving town and not coming back. Yutaro also helps Saya improve the life of another young woman with a son who doesn’t speak by allowing him to finally voice what he really feels, adding to the circle of female help and support which becomes the family Saya had always longed for.

Orphaned at a young age, raised by her grandmother until she died and having lost her only living relative in her aunt a few years previously, Saya had always wondered what it felt like to have a real family of her own. Yutaro had also lost his mother at a young age through illness and was estranged from his father who refused to visit her even on her deathbed. Yutaro’s untimely death adds to Saya’s ongoing sorrows but also ends the beginnings of the happy family they’d begun to build with each other. As it turns out, Yotaro’s limbo is less about his son and more about his father as he gets a last opportunity to bond with his outwardly harsh and cruel dad and come to a kind of understanding about fatherhood in hearing his side of the story. Life is too short for grudges, and even spirits sometimes need to give up the ghost so that the air can rest a little lighter.

Though there are the expected moments of sadness as Yotaro realises the number of people he can possess is dwindling and his time with Saya will be limited, Fukagawa keeps things light and whimsical with a kind of small town quirkiness aided by Oizumi’s spirited delivery. Adding in frequent rakugo references complete with painted backdrops and sound effects as well as a repeated motif which sees the little town remade as a diorama model, Twilight: Saya in Sarasa has a pleasantly old fashioned feeling which only adds to its wholesome emphasis on an extended family of community coupled with the continuing presence of Yutaro watching from somewhere on high. Warm and funny if a little lacking in impact, Twilight: Saya in Sasara is a rare instance of a ghost bringing people together in love and harmony through helping them get closer to their true emotions but one that is also keen to emphasise that we’re all only here for an unspecified time – better not to waste it with silly things like grudges.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Maison Ikkoku: Apartment Fantasy (めぞん一刻, Shinichiro Sawai, 1986)

Maison IkkouIf you’ve always fancied a stay at that inn the Katakuris run but aren’t really into zombies and murder etc, you could think about spending some time at Maison Ikkoku (めぞん一刻). Based on the classic 1980s manga by Rumiko Takahashi, the 1986 live action adaptation is every bit as zany as you’d hope. Eccentric tenants, women pulled from ponds, bank robbers, and an all star dog. It’s a pretty full house, but if anything’s for certain it’s the more the merrier over at Maison Ikkoku.

Godai (Ken Ishiguro), a would-be student retaking his university entrance exams, has finally had enough and vowed to move out of Maison Ikkoku for good but just as he’s made his decision, an elegant woman arrives with a big white dog. The beautiful lady, Kyoko (Mariko Ishihara), is their new building manager. Godai falls instantly in love with her and decides to stay, but Kyoko has her own reasons for coming to Maison Ikkoku and isn’t quite ready to engage in a romance with a feckless student.

Kyoko also makes the mistake of reminding the collection of eccentric tenants that they’re behind on their rent. There are currently four residents occupying the apartment building including Godai. He’s joined by the mysterious Yotsuya (Masato Ibu) who seems to have several different jobs and speaks in an overly formal manner, Ichinose (Yumiko Fujita) – a gossipy middle aged housewife, and Akemi (Yoshiko Miyazaki) who works at a nearby bar and is almost always in her underwear. They don’t want to pay so they start coming up with plans to stop Kyoko coming after them for the money – the first one being to drug and assault her so she’ll be too embarrassed to talk to them again! Went dark quickly, didn’t it?

Despite the quirky goings on, the presence of death is constant. Kyoko is an extremely young widow sill mourning the death of her husband and has even named her dog after him. Shinichiro keeps making his ghostly presence known to her by ringing the nearby shrine bells or stealing her umbrella, making it impossible for Kyoko to move on. A non-resident but frequent visitor (played by Kunie Tanaka) recounts that his wife left him and took part in a double suicide with another man, whilst the gang also picks up another member in the form of a woman that Yotsuya claims to have fished out of the lake after she “got caught on his pole” and is now a little obsessed with him thinking that he’s the boyfriend she tried to commit suicide over.

If that all sounds a little heavy, Sawai makes sure to pile on the absurdism to keep things light and even includes a few visual gags such as a floating geisha doll during Yotsuya’s “I regret preventing a woman’s suicide because it turns out she’s quite annoying” speech. About half way through the film the entire gang suddenly decides they’re going to perform an “Ikkoku speciality” in celebration of Godai’s success which turns out to be a full scale song and dance number with everyone dressed in outfits that reflect their personality from Yotsuya in his temple singer garb, Ichinose in her wedding dress, Akemi in a nurses outfit, and Godai and Kyoto both in a school uniform, to the mysterious man dressed as a hardboiled detective the failed suicide woman for some reason dressed as a nun. Just when a big “The End” sign pops up we get yet another song accompanied by glow sticks waving in the background.

The main “drama” revolves around Godai’s attempts to pass his university entrance exams and win the heart of Kyoko though there are also various subplots concerning the odd rivalry between Yotsuya and the mysterious man over a bank robbery as well as their attempts to evade the police. Maison Ikkoku becomes a kind of sanctuary where those with wounded hearts can find a place to heal themselves. Occasionally bleak, such as in the frequent references to death and suicide, Maison Ikkoku is an absurd place filled with larger than life characters acting out their surreal existence in this shared paradise of a rundown boarding house in a quiet backwater. The film ends on another ironic note as the party goes on but the Gilbert O’Sullivan track Alone Again, Naturally plays over the end credits which is, of course, about the singer’s intention to commit suicide after being jilted at the altar. A strange if well crafted film, Maison Ikkoku is in someways ahead of its time in the quirky humour stakes but also makes use of a typically ‘80s kind of absurdism which fuses black humour with innocent, youthful charm.


Original Trailer(s) (No subtitles)

Miss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985)

Miss LonelyMiss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Sabishinbou, AKA Lonelyheart) is the final film in Obayashi’s Onomichi Trilogy all of which are set in his own hometown of Onomichi. This time Obayashi casts up and coming idol of the time, Yasuko Tomita, in a dual role of a reserved high school student and a mysterious spirit known as Miss Lonely. In typical idol film fashion, Tomita also sings the theme tune though this is a much more male lead effort than many an idol themed teen movie.

Obayashi begins with an intertitle-like tribute to a “brusied, brilliant boyhood” before giving way to a wistful voiceover from the film’s protagonist Hiroki Inoue (played by frequent Obayashi collaborator, Toshinori Omi). His life is a fairly ordinary one of high school days spent with his two good friends, getting up to energetic mischief as teenage boys are want to do. The only thing that’s a little different about Hiroki is that his father is a Buddhist priest so he lives in the temple with his feisty mother who is always urging him to study more, and he’ll one day be expected to start training to take over the temple from his father (he has no particular aversion to this idea).

Hiroki’s big hobby is photography and he’s recently splashed out on a zoom lens but rarely has money for film to put in the camera so he’s mostly just playing around, accidentally spying on people. The main object of his interest is a sad looking high school girl who spends her days playing the piano. Hiroki, as an observer of human nature, has decided that she must be just as lonely as he is and has given her the name of “Miss Lonely”. It comes as a shock to him then that a very similar looking sprite appears, also called “Miss Lonely” and proceeds to cause havoc in his very ordinary life.

Although the film is filled with Obayashi’s trademark melancholy nostalgia, there is also ample room for quirky teen comedy as the central trio of boys amuse them selves with practical jokes. The best of these involves a lengthly sequence with the headmaster’s prized parrot which he has painstakingly taught to recite poetry. On being sent to clean up the headmaster’s office after misbehaving in class, the boys quickly set about teaching it a bawdy song instead causing the poor bird to hopelessly mangle both speeches into one very strange recitation. This comes to light when the headmaster attempts to show off his prowess with the parrot to an important visitor but when the mothers of the three boys are called in to account for their sons’ behaviour, they cannot control their laughter. That’s in addition to a repeated motif of the boys’ teacher’s loose skirt always falling off at impromptu moments, and a tendency to head off into surreal set pieces such as the anarchic musical number which erupts at the stall where one of the boys works part time.

Miss Lonely herself appears in a classic mime inspired clown outfit, dressed as if she’d just walked out of an audition for a Fellini film. To begin with, Hiroki can only see Miss Lonely through his camera lens, but she quickly incarnates and eventually even becomes visible to others as well as Hiroki himself. Past and present overlap as Miss Lonely takes on a ghostly quality, perhaps reliving a former romance of memory which may be easily destroyed by water and is sure to be short lived. Love makes you lonely, Hiroki tells us, revelling in the failure to launch of his first love story. Though, if the epilogue he offers us is to be believed, perhaps he is over romanticising his teenage heartbreak and is heading for a happy ending after all.

Chopin also becomes a repeated motif in the film, bringing our trio of lovesick teens together with his music and adding to their romantic malaise with his own history of a difficult yet intense relationship with French novelist George Sand. There’s a necessarily sad quality to Hiroki’s tale, an acceptance of lost love and lost opportunities leaving their scars across otherwise not unhappy lifetimes. Set in Obayashi’s own hometown Miss Lonely takes on a very heartfelt quality, marking a final farewell to youth whilst also acknowledging the traces of sadness left behind when it’s time to say goodbye.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s idol star Yasuko Tomita singing the title song on a variety show from way back in 1985

Four Sisters (姉妹坂, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985)

Four SistersNobuhiko Obayashi takes another trip into the idol movie world only this time for Toho with an adaptation of a popular shojo manga. That is to say, he employs a number of idols within the film led by Toho’s own Yasuko Sawaguchi, though the film does not fit the usual idol movie mould in that neither Sawaguchi or the other girls is linked with the title song. Following something of a sisterly trope which is not uncommon in Japanese film or literature, Four Sisters (姉妹坂, Shimaizaka) centres around four orphaned children who discover their pasts, and indeed futures, are not necessarily those they would have assumed them to be.

Yasuko Sawaguchi plays the third oldest sister and more or less protagonist of the story, Anzu, who is facing a very common teenage dilemma in that there are two boys (best friends) both interested in her and she can’t decide if she likes both, one, or either of them. Eventually, Yuzuki (Ichirota Miyakawa) wins out leaving his friend Oba (Toshinori Omi) depressed and on the sidelines. However, Yuzuki is from a wealthy family and it was intended he marry a cousin so his mother does some digging and discovers more about Anzu than Anzu knew about herself.

As it turns out, the four sisters are not actually related by blood as only one was the biological child of the goodhearted couple who raised them. Unfortunately, the children’s adoptive parents died in a car accident leaving their birth daughter, Aya (Misako Konno), as a kind of maternal figure to Akane (Atsuko Asano), Anzu, and Ai (Yasuko Tomita) though Akane was the only one old enough to remember their lives before coming to live with Aya and her family. The rediscovery of the truth knocks both younger girls for six, especially as Anzu’s birth mother has reappeared and presents an existential threat to their insular family of four.

Set once again set in a peaceful, countryside town, Four Sisters revisits many of Obayashi’s constant concerns in its evocation of memory, mislaid truth, and the need to come to terms with the past in order to go on living in the present. The four young women are each very different, but bound tightly together by their shared experience, including the recent loss of their parents. Anzu’s discovery threatens to destroy the family firstly through the exposure of a lie (or, what is really an omission of truth), and secondly to speed up the inevitable fracturing as she begins to seek a new life and eventually family of her own. Though Akane has been able to forge a career for herself (less pleasant part-time work aside), she rightly points out that in becoming their maternal figure, Aya has in a sense lost or rejected the opportunity to pursue her own happiness. The sisters’ bond is tight and near unbreakable, but it’s also, in a sense, constraining.

Obayashi begins the picture with in a polaroid-like frame in which the two boys declare their intentions to duel for Anzu’s affections. As the film moves on, Obayshi returns to these intertitle-like captions particularly in bookending the various seasons throughout which the film turns. Though not as radically as in some of his other work, Obayashi once again uses colour filtering as a highlighting tool which is most obvious towards the end as the edges of the screen start to blur, greying out everything other than our central heroines. However, other sequences take place in a noticeably expressionist environment with extreme colour contrasted backgrounds and unreal, star filled skies and Obayashi also allows the real world weather with its storms and raging rivers to dictate the mood.

Four Sisters is, at heart, a family drama though one seen through a slightly distorted mirror. The four girls are indeed a unit which would inevitably have to split or stagnate in the normal order of things but the bonds are strong enough to withstand the unusual amount of pressure placed on them, enabling the sisters to move on with their individual lives whilst remaining close. Obayashi keeps things relatively low key (by his own standards) but gently builds a melancholy, nostalgic tone filled with loss and regret yet also with hope for the future. Beautifully shot, with Obayashi’s characteristically unusual use of imagery and wistful, ethereal atmosphere Four Sisters may not be among the director’s most experimental efforts but does provide a warm tale of love lost and gained in the lives of four ordinary women.


 

If You Were Young: Rage (君が若者なら, Kinji Fukasaku, 1970)

51AM0Z0Z2cLFor 1970’s If You We’re Young: Rage (君が若者なら, Kimi ga Wakamono Nara), Fukasaku returns to his most prominent theme – disaffected youth and the lack of opportunities afforded to disadvantaged youngsters during the otherwise booming post-war era. Like the more realistic gangster epics that were to come, Fukasaku laments the generation who’ve been sold an unattainable dream – come to the city, work hard, make a decent life for yourself. Only what the young men find here is overwork, exploitation and a considerably decreased likelihood of being able to achieve all they’ve been promised.

Our story revolves around five young men who meet whilst working at a factory which later goes bust. The central pair, Kikuo and Asao have been friends since childhood. Both of their fathers were killed in mining accidents and the boys are part of the “golden egg” movement bringing in workers from the rural towns to increase prosperity in the capital. The other three are a fisherman’s son, Kiyoshi, a boxing enthusiast Ryuji and fifth wheel Ichiro. After a short spell in gaol, the guys hatch on the idea of clubbing together to buy a dumper truck and start a business of their own. However, by the time they’ve actually got the truck one of them’s in prison, one pulls out because of a shotgun marriage and the other is killed in a labour dispute. Asao and Kikuo get on with living the dream and are doing pretty well with the truck until their imprisoned friend decides to escape and ruins all of their lives in the process.

Almost proto-punk in tone, If You Were Young: Rage takes a long hard look at the put upon masses who rebuilt Japan but were left with little in return. These five guys left their small towns for the big city promised high wages, access to education and a path to a better life but largely what they found was cold rooms and overwork. There are frequent strike motions in the film as the construction and factory workers attempt to insist on better pay and conditions but are constantly defeated by the white collar bosses who can just bus in even more desperate young men who will agree to cross the picket line because they have no other choice. Our central five now have a dream and something to work towards, their truck isn’t just “a truck” – it’s a hundred trucks somewhere down the line and a symbol of the path to prosperity.

However, at the end of the film all of their dreams have been shattered. Some of this is not their fault, merely the vicissitudes of fate and changing times, some of it is down to poor choices but largely the odds were always stacked against them because the world is unfair. Kiyoshi lies all the time because he’s scared of pretty much everything, possibly because of an abusive (though perhaps not uncommon) upbringing. His selfishness and, ultimately, cowardice is about to mess things up for everyone else and there are somethings you just can’t come back from. Like many of Fukasaku’s heroes, what Asao dreams of is the friendship he found when the five guys were all together and working as a team. He wants to go back to that time of perpetual hope and friendship rather than live in this lonely prosperity.

Fukasaku veers between quirky new wave style optimism and the extreme pessimism of his general world view. The film is bright and colourful for the majority of its running time with memory and fantasy often relegated to black and white. He uses his usual freeze frames, often in times of violence, hand held cameras and dynamic framing to achieve his youthful, freewheeling atmosphere but as usual there’s a kind of desperation lurking in the background. As might be expected, the ending is all flames and ashes – youth lies ruined, dreams shattered, and the possibility of moving on seems woefully far off. Another characteristically caustic look at modern youth from Fukasaku, this more indie effort is one of his most searing and bears out his rather bleak prognosis for the future of his nation.


If You Were Young: Rage is available with English subtitles on R1 US DVD from Homevision and was previously released as part of the Fukasaku Trilogy (alongside Blackmail is My Life and Black Rose Mansion) by Tartan in the UK.