Mozu the Movie (劇場版MOZU, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

mozu-posterThe criticism levelled most often against Japanese cinema is its readiness to send established franchises to the big screen. Manga adaptations make up a significant proportion of mainstream films, but most adaptations are constructed from scratch for maximum accessibility to a general audience – sometimes to the irritation of the franchise’s fans. When it comes to the cinematic instalments of popular TV shows the question is more difficult but most attempt to make some concession to those who are not familiar with the already established universe. Mozu (劇場版MOZU) does not do this. It makes no attempt to recap or explain itself, it simply continues from the end of the second series of the TV drama in which the “Mozu” or shrike of the title was resolved leaving the shady spectre of “Daruma” hanging for the inevitable conclusion.

Six months on from the climatic events at the end of season two, Kuraki (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has become a drunk, Ohsugi (Teruyuki Kagawa) has left the force for the private sector, while Akeboshi (Yoko Maki) is still preoccupied with the strange phone calls she sometimes receives and the fate of her long lost father last seen on the deck of a sinking submarine. The dreams of the citizens of Tokyo are being haunted by the mysterious face of “Daruma”, but this is quickly superseded by an explosion in an office building which turns out to be a diversionary exercise as the autistic daughter of a refugee with diplomatic immunity is kidnapped by terrorists.

At this point, Kuraki appears at the scene, beats the bad guys into submission and rescues the girl, Elena, and her mother who are then taken into protective custody. However, things go south when Ohsugi’s daughter and Akeboshi are taken by the bad guys in the hope of an exchange forcing the gang to take Elena to a neighbouring Asian nation.

Mozu the movie suffers from many of the same problems which plagued the generally impressive TV series in its wildly inconsistent tone and increasingly convoluted, often bizarre plot twists. Assuming the audience will be familiar with the TV series, the film provides no recap, leaving the casual viewer completely lost amongst the numerous numbers of subplots held together by Kuraki’s need to find the answers behind the death of his wife at the site of a suicide bombing and the drowning of his daughter a year or so before. Likewise, Akeboshi’s familial concerns – her absentee father whose dark past was hinted at in the previous series and her close relationship with her two neices, is glossed over, as is Ohsugi’s ongoing battle to win back the respect of his teenage daughter. When a key character suddenly and quite unexpectedly appears to save the day (and then disappears again), the casual viewer has a right to be utterly baffled.

Where the central tone is one of cool noir supported by occasionally poetic camera work, Nishijima’s laid back minimalism gives way to broad, over the top villainy from Hasegawa’s Higashi as well as the punkish Mozu copycat who kickstarts the action. Kuraki remains an unbeatable super agent, taking out bad guys with well placed kicks to the chest and enduring numerous acts of torture whilst remaining doggedly fixed on his quest to find out the truth about his wife and a possible conspiracy plaguing Japanese society. Ohsugi is still the bumbling cop but equally committed to protecting his daughter while Akeboshi is underused, her slow burn romance with Kuraki simmering away in the background.

What remains is a collection of impressive action scenes and mysterious conversations offered with portentous seriousness. The purpose of Elena’s kidnapping is predictably grim yet reduced to a single sentence shortly before Kuraki apparently saves the day once again through undisclosed means. The central conspiracy in this conspiracy thriller, that Japan has been manipulated by a shadowy figure literally cannibalising his own children, fades into the background as Kuraki is left to affirm that all that remains now is chaos. Mozu the movie is season three with all the important bit stripped out – strange, confusing, and ultimately hollow. Yet for those well versed in the Mozu universe, it may provide a degree of closure to its ongoing mysteries, even if ultimately unsatisfying.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Fallen Angel (人間失格, Genjiro Arato, 2010)

fallen-angelThe Fallen Angel (人間失格, Ningen Shikkaku), based on one of the best known works of Japanese literary giant Osamu Dazai – No Longer Human, was the last in a series of commemorative film projects marking the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 2009. Like much of Dazai’s work, No Longer Human is semi-autobiographical, fixated on the idea of suicide, and charts the course of its protagonist as he becomes hopelessly lost in a life of dissipation, alcohol, drugs, and overwhelming depression.

Even when we meet him as a small child, Yozo Oba (Toma Ikuta), feels himself set apart from his peers. Unable to connect fully with the people around him, Yozo gets through life by playing the clown. As a teenager, he meets another boy, Takeichi, who can see straight through his mask and encourages him in his artistic pursuits. Eventually, Yozo moves to Tokyo where he meets another artist, Horiki (Yusuke Iseya), who introduces him to the seedier pleasures of the city including drinking and hostess bars.

Yozo still feels adrift and is unable to cement his new found friendship with true connection. After asking Horiki to die with him (which he laughingly refuses to do), Yozo begins an ill-starred romance with a melancholy bar hostess with whom he does actually attempt double suicide. She dies, he doesn’t but his life is changed when he loses access to his familial wealth and is kicked out of university because of the scandal. Yozo has another shot at conventional happiness by briefly forming a family with a single mother and her little girl before leaving them because of problems resulting from his alcoholism. Eventually marrying a kind hearted woman, Yozo kicks the booze for a while and builds a career in manga but sure enough Horiki finds him and ruins his marital bliss by setting him back on the road to dissipation.

Arato makes a few changes to Dazai’s novel, mostly streamlining the book’s tripartite structure by eliding two events into one, but perhaps because of the well known nature of the story, he feels comfortable in making abrupt cuts and wide ranging shifts in terms of time. Dazai’s novel is much more focussed on the mental condition of its protagonist, whereas Arato has opted for a more overt display of the increasingly tense political environment with soldiers lurking in the background, later occupying a train shortly before the scene turns into a surreal segment in which Yozo reacquaints himself with all those he’s wronged throughout the course of the film.

Yozo’s tragedy is his inability to connect with other people even though he leads an ostensibly successful social life. Making himself an amiable presence, Yozo keeps people around him by making himself a figure of fun – a mask which gradually becomes far too heavy to wear. This buffoonish aspect of his personality is not very much in evidence in Arato’s film which focusses much more on his underlying depression than the joviality he uses to try and prevent anyone noticing just how broken he is inside. For this reason it becomes harder to see why everybody lets Yozo get away with his extremely bad behaviour for so long. Toma Ikuta captures Yozo’s listlessness and despair but without the necessary intensity to back them up and, ironically, without his sad clown routine Yozo does not always seem like someone anyone would want to hang out with for any great length of time.

Arato has recreated the novel’s pervading sense of numbness and despair to the letter with the consequence that his film remains resolutely cold. As appropriate as that may be, it makes it harder to achieve the kind of connection forged through Yozo’s first person narrative in the book. This approach brings out Yozo’s unpleasant qualities – his selfishness, weakness, cowardice, and propensity to addiction, but fails to display his better ones which lead to him being characterised as the ruined “angel” of the title. In distancing us from Yozo, Arato encourages us to see him either as a metaphor for the political turmoil taking place in his country during his lifetime, or simply as a someone whose intense self loathing eventually destroys his sense of self. What it does not encourage us to do is see that Yozo’s struggle is our own struggle, his despair is our despair felt to a greater or lesser degree. Too obtuse to be affecting, The Fallen Angel fails to capture the overwhelming nihilism of Dazai’s novel and ironically remains far too distant to achieve true connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fish on Land (セイジ -陸の魚-, Yusuke Iseya, 2012)

fish on landYusuke Iseya is a rather unusual presence in the Japanese movie scene. After studying filmmaking in New York and finishing a Master’s in Fine Arts in Tokyo, he first worked as model before breaking into the acting world with several high profile roles for internationally renowned auteur Hirokazu Koreeda. Since then he’s gone on to work with many of Japan’s most prominent directors before making his own directorial debut with 2002’s Kakuto. Fish on Land (セイジ -陸の魚-, Seiji – Riku no Sakana), his second feature, is a more wistful effort which belongs to the cinema of memory as an older man looks back on a youthful summer which he claimed to have forgotten yet obviously left quite a deep mark on his still adolescent soul.

The unnamed narrator begins his tale as a disheartened salary man who tells us that his days simply pass monotonously. He no longer feels contentment but neither does he feel discomfort. Making an awkward phone call to a woman we assume is his wife, he reveals that a project has come up that he simply cannot ignore – one which takes him back to a particular summer he passed as a young man in which he encountered a lost soul and perhaps lost some of his own, too.

In the summer of 1990, the narrator was just about to graduate university and had already secured a job. Taking the final opportunity to indulge some wanderlust, he takes off riding his pedal bike across the country. However, after he gets knocked over and is taken to a local bar for some first aid treatment by its classically sad mama-san, he decides to stay and is given the nickname of “traveller” by the regulars at House 475. It’s here that he meets the titular Seiji – a cynical man with unusual presence which seems to inspire both admiration and exasperation in the small group of people who’ve come to regard the bar as a home from home.

Despite its genial, summery quality, the bar is home to several kinds of sorrow. Shoko, it turns out has her own reasons for her sadness and her relationship with Seiji is often a complicated one. It’s she who describes Seiji as a fish on land – completely at odds with his environment and entirely unable to live in the world or get along with his fellow humans. Carrying deep seated scars from his past, Seiji, she claims, is unable to feel joy so long he knows someone (anyone, anywhere) is suffering. Or, more to the point, he feels so intensely guilty that he will not allow himself to be happy and has, in some senses, given up living in this world in favour of his own filled with melancholy loneliness.

Indeed, the friendly grandfather from next-door remarks that Seiji sees things far too clearly and that’s why he’s given in to despair. According to him, our human defence against the powerlessness and fear inherent in being alive is simply becoming inured. Our insensitivity saves us, but men like Seiji feel too much and are unable to bear it. On the rare occasion Seiji smiles, it’s often to do with the little girl who lives next-door, Ritsuko, but tragedy is about to come crashing in, changing lives forever and shattering grandpa’s faith in the god he previously said granted us our lack of clarity to help us cope with life’s harshness. Seiji’s reaction is an extreme one, filled with a poetic weight that is difficult for those around him to understand but at the same time perfectly in keeping with his world view.

Framing sequence aside, Iseya opts for an interesting, slightly non-linear structure in which scenes jostle like memories, slightly disordered, sometimes repeated from a different angle and with greater insight. The framing sequence itself proves the least successful aspect of the film as it fails to marry itself to the implications of the central narrative and anchor its final scene to provide the necessary weight.

Mirai Moriayama imbues the unnamed narrator with an appropriate level of passivity whilst Hideyoshi Nishijima mirrors him with an equal and opposing force of presence which is by turns mysterious, intriguing, and occasionally threatening yet filled with vulnerability. Supporting roles are also well drawn notably by Hirofumi Arai’s local boy left behind and Kiyohiko Shibukawa’s up and coming businessman about to blow out of the small town for bubble era Tokyo, as well as the damaged bar owner Shoko played by Nae Yuki whose disintegration is slowed by Seiji’s presence but still very much in evidence.

If Fish on Land has a weakness, it’s that the invading dark forces it presents feel like a cruel, absurd, visitation on this otherwise idyllic place yet perhaps that’s entirely the point. Life is full of unpredictable cruelties which have to be accommodated no matter how difficult they may be to bear. Men like Seiji are carrying a heavy burden, one which was given to them when their arms were too weak to hold it, but still, you keep on living. Beautifully photographed, intricately plotted and rich with both character and philosophical detail Seiji: Fish on Land proves another interesting effort from Iseya who doubtless has even more to offer in the future.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン, Sion Sono, 2015)

Shinjuku SwanEnfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Sion Sono has always been prolific but recent times have seen him pushing the limits of the possible and giving even Takashi Miike a run for his money in the release stakes. Indeed, Takashi Miike is a handy reference point for Sono’s take on Shinjuku Swan (新宿スワン) – an adaptation of a manga which has previously been brought to the small screen and is also scripted by an independent screenwriter rather than self penned in keeping with the majority of Sono’s directing credits. Oddly, the film shares several cast members with Miike’s Crows Zero movies and even lifts a key aesthetic directly from them. In fact, there are times when Shinjuku Swan feels like an unofficial spin-off to the Crows Zero world with its macho high school era tussling relocated to the seedy underbelly of Kabukicho. Unfortunately, this is somewhat  symptomatic of Sono’s failure, or lack of will, to add anything particularly original to this, it has to be said, unpleasant tale.

Our “hero” is down on his luck loser Tatsuhiko (Go Ayano) who’s come to Shinjuku to make it big. He’s here because it’s the sort of place you can make it happen with no plan and no resources. “Luckily” for him, he runs into low-level gangster Mako (Yusuke Iseya) who spots some kind of potential in him and recruits him as a “scout” for his organisation, Burst. Now dressed in a fancy suit, Tatsuhiko’s new job is stopping pretty girls in the street and trying to talk them into working in the sex industry….

Tatsuhiko is not the brightest and doesn’t quite understand what the implications of his work are. When he finally gets it, he feels conflicted but Mako convinces him that’s it’s OK really with a set of flimsy moral justifications. Before long, Tatsuhiko comes into conflict with a lieutenant, Hideyoshi (Takayuki Yamada), from the rival gang in town, Harlem, and a yakuza style territorial dispute begins to unfold destabilising the entire area.

Sono has often been criticised for latent misogyny and an exploitative approach to his material and Shinjuku Swan is yet more evidence for those who find his output “problematic”. Though based on a manga and scripted by a third party, Shinjuku Swan has an extremely ill-defined take on the sex industry and the people involved with it. After figuring out what happens to the girls he takes to Mako, Tatsuhiko has second thoughts but Mako tells him that the girls are happy and are in this line of work because they enjoy it (leaving out all the stuff about debts, drugs, and violence). So Tatsuhiko vows to make even more girls live happy lives inside the “massage parlours” of Kabukicho.

Noble heart or not, Tatsuhiko is a pimp. Not even that, he’s a middle man pimp. He’s earning his money from the suffering of the women that’s he conned, coerced, and finally exploited. Leaving aside the idea that, yes, some of these women may be perfectly happy with the arrangement, at least one of Tatsuhiko’s recruits displays evidence of previous self harm and is unable to cope with the demands of her new way of life. Another woman, Ageha (Erika Sawajiri), who becomes Tatsuhiko’s primary damsel in distress, escapes into a children’s fairytale picture book in which a prince with crazy hair just like Tatsuhiko’s comes to rescue the heroine from her life of slavery and takes her to a place of love and safety. Tatsuhiko “rescues” her by taking her to a “nicer” brothel…

Tatsuhiko may have convinced himself that he’s somehow a force for good, “helping” these women into employment and providing “protection” for them unlike the other guys from rival gangs who use drugs and violence to keep their girls in line, but his continued belief in his own goodness becomes increasingly hard to swallow as he learns more about how this industry really works. It’s difficult to believe in a “hero” who is so deluded about his own place in the grand scheme of things – he’s not stupid enough to be this oblivious, but not clever enough to be continually unseeing all of the darkness that surrounds the way he makes his living.

All of this is merely background to the central yakuza gang war which later ensues. Tatsuhiko ends up as a pawn in the tussle for territory between Burst and Harlem as double crosses become triple crosses and no one is to be trusted. Predictably, Tatsuhiko and Hideyoshi turn out to have a long standing connection though this revelation never achieves the dramatic weight it’s looking for and the gang war itself is, at best, underwhelming. Notable scenes including a classic battle in the rain could have been spliced in from Crows Zero and no one would have noticed. The main dramatic thread remains Tatsuhiko’s journey as he travels from clueless loser to, admittedly still clueless, assured petty gangster and smooth talking lady killer.

If there’s an overall feeling which imbues Shinjuku Swan, it’s lack of commitment. Though often beautifully photographed and featuring some interestingly composed sequences (including a few Carax-esque musical set pieces) the final effect is one of workman-like competence. Not bad by any means, but this feels like the work of a director for hire and lacks the sense of the personal that a would-be-auteur would usually seek to provide. Moral ambiguity can often be a film’s strong point, inviting comment and debate rather than pushing a pre-defined agenda but Shinjuku Swan takes too many incompatible approaches to the already unpalatable series of questions that it stops short of asking. Distinctly uneven, Shinjuku Swan ends on a note of anti-climax and though a perfectly serviceable, mainstream, commercial effort proves something of a disappointment from a director who has often managed to bring out a sense of mischievous irony in similarly themed work to date.


Unsubtitled trailer:

The Suicide Song (伝染歌, Masato Harada, 2007)

Suicide Song US Tokyo Shock DVD Cover
US Tokyo Shock DVD cover

There comes a time in every director’s life when fate leads them down the strangely tempting path of the idol movie. In recent years, sweet and innocent is no longer quite enough to cut it and when your film stars a bunch of kids from AKB48, you’re going to need 48x the kawaii factor so even though the DVD cover is suitably macabre and The Suicide Song (伝染歌, Densen Uta) is marketed as a J-Horror movie, there’s quite a lot more singing and dancing than might be reasonably expected.

In true idol star horror movie fashion, the film begins with some cutesy high school scenes before one student, Kana (Atsuko Maeda), starts in on her teacher who basically wants to skip a whole bit of the text book because it’s not on the exam. The potentially irrelevant teaching matter concerns famous Japanese playwright Chikamatsu whose big thing was, you guessed it, double suicides. Shortly after this, Kana is heard singing a weird song and then cuts her own throat with a kitchen knife right in front of her friend and classmate, Anzu (Yuko Oshima). It seems there has been a spate of these spontaneous suicides of teenage girls which occur after singing this particular song so skeevy newspaper guys Macasa, led by occult obsessed Riku (Ryuhei Matsuda ) and his ex-military buddy Taichi (Yusuke Iseya), decide to do some “investigative journalism”. Anzu and some of the other kids wind up helping out too, eventually coming under threat of that very same curse….

The idea of a “suicide song” isn’t a new one. Gloomy Sunday – a 1930s Hungarian folk song which achieved widespread acclaim thanks to an English language cover version recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 became an urban legend after numerous suicides were linked to the doleful track and its extremely bleak lyrics. This time around, it’s AKB48’s inoffensive Boku no Hana which apparently drives anyone who tries to sing it to their deaths. Like Gloomy Sunday, the song features extremely nihilistic lyrics which echo the existential confusion and romantic disillusionment that many of its young listeners are undoubtedly experiencing. A perfectly rational explanation for why so many young women might be taking their lives with this particular song on their lips, yet Suicide Song is not particularly interested in exploring the various real world pressures which might push high school students towards death when their lives ought to be just beginning.

It’s not long before the curse makes the leap to supposedly solid adult males. Later, one character tries to weaken the importance of the song by suggesting that it just opened a door for the suppressed feelings that were already there. That each of the victims already wanted to die and and simply allowed themselves to make use of this real world meme to give themselves permission to end it all. This is an interesting idea in some ways, though comes close to victim blaming and conveniently lets the central characters off the hook for failing to save their friends who have already fallen for what is either a curse or mass hysteria. In any case, like most Japanese horror movies and mysteries, the real villain is a circle of buried secrets. The traumatic past must be faced, brought out into the light and then given a proper burial to end the ongoing chaos.

Harada is playing a very strange game. He adds in generic J-horrorisms such as odd jump cuts, stuttering, power outages and possessed video footage as well as a good deal of shadiness in the form of the low rent newspaper guys and the investigation turning up something as dark as a teenage gang competing to see how many kids they can get to kill themselves using the song as a marker. Yet, he generally keeps things cute and light just like your average teen idol romance movie. We’re even treated to a very special AKB48 performance at their club in Akihabara (“Japan’s Most Sophisticated Show” !) where they sing Aitakatta for a room full of devoted middle aged guys who are their biggest fans. There are also frequent cinematic quotations from such Hollywood classics as Vertigo and The Lady From Shanghai (not to mention a completely shoehorned in paintball sequence using Ride of the Valkyries a la Apocalypse Now) which seem to hint at some kind of greater plan, but whatever it is never quite materialises.

Whatever Harada’s intentions may have been, Suicide Song is a strange beast which veers widely in tone from wacky comedy to supposed horror film. In actuality there are very few real scares despite the J-horror aesthetic and the comedy never amps itself up to the level of parody. If the intention was to create some kind of weird, subversive genre hybrid, the punches have been well and truly pulled. Watched as a horror movie Suicide Song is prone to disappoint, though its moments of absurd comedy and cute schoolgirl drama prove enjoyable enough for those able to adjust their expectations on the turn of a dime.


The Suicide Song is available with English subtitles on R1 US DVD from Tokyo Shock.

English subtitled trailer (aspect ratio is slightly stretched):

Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, SABU, 2015)

jon_chirashiNo fate but what we make – to steal the lines from another film just as one of the heavenly scriptwriters might in the latest film from the prolific Japanese director SABU (otherwise known as the actor Hiroyuki Tanaka), Chasuke’s Journey (天の茶助, Ten no Chasuke). Adapting his own novel for the screen (though the book was actually published after the film was completed), Sabu creates a romantic fantasy in which a lowly tea boy from heaven descends to Earth on a quest to save the woman he loves from certain death.

Chasuke (Kenichi Matsuyama) is the tea boy in “heaven” (his name, “Chasuke” literally means “tea assistant”). Here, there is a room full of scriptwriters who draft life stories for the people down below in service to The Man. Their task is a difficult one as each change in one person’s screenplay necessitates a change in all the others. It’s the butterfly effect gone mad. So, when The Man sends in a request for everything to suddenly go “more avant-garde” everyone is a little bit overworked. One writer asks Chasuke’s advice on what this might mean but all he comes up with is moving the action to a karaoke booth which has the unfortunate effect on the scene of getting the man’s proposal of marriage rejected causing him to leave in a mood and callously run Yuri (Ito Ono), whom Chasuke has developed a fondness for, over. Yuri’s screenwriter begs Chasuke to go down to Earth and use his unique powers to save her before it’s too late.

Luckily two of the other scriptwriters have pledged to support Chasuke’s mission from up above so he gets help from a former aspiring actor who now runs a small antique shop (Ren Osugi) and a broken hearted former boxer who now runs a ramen bar (Yusuke Iseya). Co-incidentally, both know and like Yuri who is a regular customer at both of their establishments. Coming from up above, Chasuke is already quite familiar with each of the character’s backstories and is able to fill us in with a touch of storytelling of his own. SABU has a dig here at unimaginative screenwriters who’ve ripped off most of their best ideas from other movies, which is sort of ignoring the fact that someone must have crafted the movies from up above anyway though the thought of screenwriters scripting screenwriters writing scripts about scriptwriters sort of makes your head spin.

Anyway, without venturing too far into spoiler territory, Chasuke’s quest is finished within the first half of the film with the remainder given over to a confused series of episodes featuring him as a celebrity healer committed to correcting all the awful scripts full of misery that his hack friends have come up with. That’s in addition to the constant threats of correction to Chasuke’s edits threatened by the jilted lover and a policeman who’ve both been given white painted faces (to be more “avant-garde”, as requested). Oh, and Chasuke’s memories of a former mortal life also start to return with a fairly surprising backstory of his own.

In truth, it’s all a little messy – almost as if someone were still working on the second draft even as we’re watching it. However, that’s sort of the point – we are watching someone re-writing on the hoof, trying to accommodate for someone else’s notes right as the keys are hitting the paper (or in this case, the ink splashing the parchment). When you come right down to it, life is a messy business and rarely makes any kind of sense during the “live broadcast”. Chasuke’s final message proves something of a riddle as he at once advises you to stick to The Man by living your own life and forging your own destiny whilst also putting his salvation down to the power of prayer which is about as close as you can get to an existential paradox.

Often beautifully photographed with Chasuke’s escape from up above an early highlight, Chasuke’s Journey is certainly a handsome looking film whatever faults it may have. Though the performances are committed, it never quite makes the jump from gentle satire to anything more emotionally engaging undermining the impact of its final sequence. However, for the vast majority of its running time Chasuke’s Journey does prove an interesting, if slightly flippant, take on freewill versus predestination with a hearty dose of social criticism thrown in to boot.


The Japanese blu-ray/DVD release of Chasuke’s Journey includes English subtitles.

(Unsubtitled trailer again though, sorry).