The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Saiji Yakumo, 2017)

dark maidens posterThe world of teenage girls is often arcane and impenetrable to those outside of its extremely exclusive bubble, but The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Ankoku Joshi), Saiji Yakumo’s adaptation of the Rikako Akiyoshi novel, takes duplicity to new heights. When the school darling dies by falling (oh so beautifully) off a roof, speculation is rife and a rumour quickly spreads through the otherwise repressive educational environment that her very best friends are somehow to blame. Each implicates the others in turn, indulging their petty grudges and jealousies seemingly falling over themselves to express their closeness to the departed “sun”, but all is not quite as it seems and these collective acts of fantasy perhaps expose a little more than they were first intended to.

Itsumi Shiraishi (Marie Iitoyo) is dead. The daughter of the chairman at the elite all girls Catholic high school, Virgin Mary Academy, Itsumi was loved by all as the radiant sun whose innate goodness was the very embodiment of the school’s Christian aims. Immediately before the school holidays, the literature club – the most prestigious and exclusive of school associations of which Itsumi had been founder and president, are to meet one last time presided over by Itsumi’s best friend Sayuri (Fumika Shimizu). The girls will each read a story they have written “inspired” by Itsumi’s death, each of which attempts to tell her story from their perspective but ultimately paints themselves in a favourable light whilst casting doubt on the others. 

The sole clue to the mystery is the lily of the valley Itsumi clutched to her breast, Snow White-like, as she lay pale and wan amid the flowers, elegantly arranged as always despite an apparently violent death. Quickly the girls run through a series of possible motives each with a degree of internal consistency but veering off in their own particular directions. Three of the girls awkwardly hint at their (unrequited?) love for their dead friend, insisting on a kind of ownership of her memory and of their rightful place at her side while the fourth descends into a xenophobic horror story casting the half-Bulgarian girl as a “vampire” come to suck the life out of the previously warm and vivacious Itsumi.

Yakumo delights in sending up the ever present girls school trope of repressed lesbianism and passionate friendships, but it remains true enough that the love card was apparently not one which Itsumi was afraid to play. The stories are all, in part at least, fabrications intended to cover up the various skeletons each of the girls has in their closets, but what they reveal is the series of manipulative machinations which underpins this seemingly sweet and elegant collection of conservative young ladies indulging a love for literature and the Christian virtues. Affairs, blackmail, inappropriate sexual relationships, forced abortions (at a Catholic school!), arson, all of these precede the presumed murder of Itsumi in a vast web of deception and illicit activity.

Teenage girls are often desperate to fit in, to be accepted by the “elite”, at the best of times but especially in an environment as otherwise repressive and exacting as an all girls Catholic high school. Adolescence is a time for trying on different personalities, but there can be something inherently plastic about the identity of a high school girl wanting in to the popular club. Hiding their true feelings, their fears and jealousies, the girls play the parts of they’ve been assigned – supporting cast in the tragic history of Itsumi, a girl betrayed who remained beautiful even in death. Then again, there might be some push back from those growing to resent their peripheral status and beginning to wonder if the spotlight was not theirs for the taking all along. A sun, however, will always need its lesser stars to demonstrate how much brighter it can shine.

Adapted from the novel by Rikako Akiyoshi, The Dark Maidens is a perfect mix of European drawing room mystery and gothic melodrama. Yakumo ups the camp fantastically with the girls sitting round a mysterious pot of stew in a room lit only by candlelight while a storm rages outside and each revelation is accompanied by crashing thunder and flashes of light. The setting is oppressive and sinister, but the only horror in the room is entirely human as each of these young women eagerly submits themselves to someone else’s control in fear of being, in some way, exposed, while those who seek to play the lead have to stoop to underhanded methods just to make “friends” who are really just minions rather than true believers. A sad and sorry state of affairs – who knew teenage cliques could be so, well, dark?


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 February 2018
  • Macrobert Arts Centre – 19 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 1 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mumon: The Land of Stealth (忍びの国, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2017)

MumonJapan prides itself on its harmonious society, but just like the Spartans of Ancient Greece, there have always been those who choose to do things differently. In the late 16th century, Japan was divided into a number of warring states but one visionary general, Oda Nobunaga, had begun a campaign of conquest which he intended to extend across the nation creating peace through unification under a single ruler. One tiny province held out – Iga, home to the ninja and renowned for the petty heartlessness of its mercenary men.

In the September of 1579, two rival ninja clans are engaging in a little practice fighting to the death during which Mumon (Satoshi Ohno), “the greatest ninja in Iga”, takes a commission to assassinate the younger son (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) of the opposing general, which he does with characteristic style and efficiency. The dead man’s older brother, Heibei (Ryohei Suzuki), is heartbroken not only by his brother’s death but by the relative lack of reaction it provokes in his father (Denden) who remarks that the loss of a younger son is no different to that of a foot soldier, and foot soldiers die all the time.

Ironically enough for a man nicknamed “no doors” because no doors can bar him, Mumon is currently locked out of his own house because his wife is upset about his meagre salary. When he stole her away from her noble home, Mumon exaggerated slightly in his tales of his great wealth and social standing and now Okuni (Satomi Ishihara) has decided he can’t come home ’til she gets what she was promised.

The death of Heibei’s brother sets in motion a chain of politically significant events which are set to change not only the course of history but the outlook of at least two men in the “land of stealth”. In Iga, the men are known are known for their beastliness and lack of common human decency. Skilled in stealth warfare, they have no allegiance to any but those with the biggest wallets and live by the doctrine of strength. The weak die alone, and that’s a good thing because it means the tribe is strong.

Later a retainer (Makita Sports) to the son of Oda Nobunaga, Nobukatsu (Yuri Chinen), says something similar – that only might can unite, the weak must either follow or be destroyed. He regards Iga as weak because it is small and alone, but Iga thinks it is strong for exactly the same reasons. The Nobunaga contingent have no idea just how beastly and petty minded the Igans can be when comes to defending their independence, little suspecting that they are embroiled in a well planned conspiracy.

Heibei, disillusioned with the inhumanity of his fellow ninja defects, offering his services to the new regime with the advice that they invade and wipe out the heartless warriors like the beasts they are. Mumon, sold to the Iga as a child, has known nothing but the Iga way of life and is as greedy and self-centred as any other ninja save being able to command a higher price thanks to his fame and abilities. He now has a problem on his hands in the form of Okuni who manages to dominate him fully with her insistence on replicating the way of life she was originally promised. Mumon cares deeply for his stolen bride and does not want to lose her, but she objects to his natural indifference to the cruelty of his people, opening his eyes to the harshness he had always regarded as normality.

When greed is the only accepted virtue, there can be no honour and without honour no unity. This Mumon eventually comes to understand. Far from the famed independence of the Iga, he, Heibei, and a host of others have been well and truly played by a corrupt and secretive tyranny. Daizen (Yusuke Iseya), an honourable samurai forced to betray his own code in killing his former lord, has a point when he says that the ninja spirit has not been destroyed but merely scattered and will endure through the ages – a chilling thought which results in an echo of the modern world and the horrors wrought by intensive individualism. Rather than embrace the traditional genre tropes of the jidaigeki, Nakamura opts for a post-modern style filled with punk and jazz while the ninjas perform their death defying stunts and Mumon pauses to wink at the camera. The result is an anarchic foray in a historical folly in which triumph is followed quickly by defeat and always by the futility of life without compassion.


Mumon: The Land of Stealth (忍びの国, Shinobi no Kuni) was screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Also screening at:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester- 11 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 13 March 2018
  • Eden Court – 15 March 2018
  • Broadway – 17 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 25 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)