Distance (ディスタンス, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2001)

Distance DVDHirokazu Koreeda has become known predominantly for his nation’s representative genre – the family drama. He has, however, maintained a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the idea of family and more specifically what it means in the contemporary society. Koreeda’s later work might have found more faith in the healing power of familial bonds, but his third film, Distance (ディスタンス), is among his bleakest and finds little cause for hope when relations between people remain necessarily oblique. Another of the post-Aum films from the 2000s, Distance does not concern itself primarily with the immediacy of terrorist cult violence but its wider causes and implications.

As the opening news report informs us, three years previously the Ark of Truth cult released a genetically engineered virus into the Tokyo water system leading to the deaths of 128 people with thousands poisoned. In quick succession we meet four ordinary Tokyoites variously affected by the disaster but trying to go about their everyday lives. Schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), salaryman Kai (Susumu Terajima), punkish student Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), and sensitive florist, Atsushi (Arata). Eventually each of them, somewhat reluctantly, prepares for a trip. Ending up in a small rural town, they’ve gathered to commemorate the attack but, crucially, they are not relatives of those who were poisoned but of the cultists who committed the atrocity.

The relatives are, in a sense, secondary victims – they have all lost loved ones and are forced to bear the vicarious stigma the conformist society heaps on them simply for being related to someone who has committed a crime. When the group’s car is randomly stolen in the middle of nowhere, they are “rescued” by the mysterious Sakata (Tadanobu Asano) who is the only surviving member of the cult cell which carried out the terrorist attack and was subsequently wiped out by fellow cultists presumably horrified by what they had done to discredit the movement. Holing up in the remote mountain lodge where the cult had lived, the relatives are forced to confront their complicated emotions towards their late loved ones and the various ways their lives continue to be influenced by their loss.

The “distance” to which the title refers, is that between the relatives and the cultists to whose eventual slide into fanaticism they were largely blind. There are secrets, things left unsaid, a growing gap between a perception of a person and the “reality”. Most joined a cult because they were frustrated with the modern world and bought into its dubious messages from spiritual healing to saving the environment, but they were also each lonely and looking for a replacement for the traditional family which they had failed to find in their ordinary lives. Now remarried with a small daughter, Kai thinks back on the disastrous dinner during which his then wife told him she was leaving with another man to join a cult because Kai was never willing to fully face her. Only in the cult where there is full and total trust, did she finally find a reason for living – something which did not exist within her (presumably unhappy) marriage.

Yet even these flashbacks cannot be taken at face value. Our former cultist, Sakata, appears meek and apologetic among the relatives, once again describing the cult as “family” (perhaps insensitively) with fathers, sisters, and brothers who all loved him “unconditionally” though he eventually betrayed them. His description to a policeman immediately after the event is somewhat different, as is his attitude towards “quiet” sister Yuko (Ryo) who follows her brother’s lead in describing herself as an inhabitant of “Silent Blue” and subsequently views herself as part of a revolution – an engineer of the systemic crash which will reset the world.

With varying degrees of truth and self-deception, the relatives interrogate themselves and their place within the actions taken by the cultists while attempting to process the future with greater clarity. The divisions, however remain – in the strained relationship between in Kai and his wife, and that between Masaru and his suspicious girlfriend. Lonely souls look for forgiveness through reparation, but ultimately decide that perhaps the only solution really is to burn the whole thing down. A formal experiment for the increasingly formalist director, Distance is an unusually bleak negation of the concept of family which refuses the possibility of genuine connection in a world so often built on guile and subterfuge.


Distance screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

Afterlife posterAt the end of your life, if someone asks you what it all meant, what will you say? It’s a question that can’t be answered until after you’ve turned the final page, but there is an idea at least that death brings clarity, rendering all things simple from a strange perspective of subjective objectivity. This is the central idea behind Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta existential fantasy After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Wonderful Life) in which the recently deceased are given seven days grace in order to decide on their most precious memory so that a small collection of clerks working in an old-fashioned government building can “recreate” it through the medium of cinema, allowing a departing soul to take refuge in a single memory preserved in eternity.

Heaven’s waiting room, as it turns out, is apparently located inside the ghost of the Japanese studio system. The recently deceased give their names at the door and patiently wait for their turn with their allotted case manager whose job it is to offer after life counselling designed to bring them to the point of boiling their existence down to the single moment which defines it within the arbitrary three day time limit which gives the crew the time to put their memories into pre-production complete with old-fashioned stage sets and studio-era special effects.

The purpose of all of this is not is exactly clear, though a clue is perhaps offered when we discover that the clerks are able to order VHS tapes of the entirety of their subjects’ lives in the event that they are struggling to think of relevant moments in an existence which seems to have disappointed them. The point is not so much the literal truth of the memory, be it accurate or not, but its sensation and the transience of feeling which is then re-experienced through the medium of cinema, captured in celluloid as momentary permanence.

Consequently, the chosen moments are necessarily often ones of stillness which promise the kind of peace and serenity one is supposed to find in death. The moments are ones of silent togetherness, of natural beauty, of childish innocence, or unbridled joy but is each is perhaps the key to unlocking the enigma of a life and as such is a solution which points towards a question. One older gentleman, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), finds himself unable to choose. He views his life as the epitome of mediocrity and can find nothing in it that seems worthy of “eternity”. Watching the videotapes of his life, he sees himself as a young man vowing to make a mark and is desperate to find some evidence that he lived but like many does not find it. His life was happy by virtue of being not unhappy for all that it was perhaps unfulfilled but only through communing with himself after death is he able to reclaim the memory of his late wife (Kyoko Kagawa) with whom he never quite bonded in mild jealousy of her lingering attachment to her first love who fell in war.

This being a film from 1998 and mostly featuring those in their ‘70s and above, the war looms large from painful battlefield memories of fear and starvation to unexpected reunions and the joy of simple pleasures found even in the midst of hardship. The clerks who died young may look on in envy of Watanabe’s “ordinary” life in the knowledge of all they were denied, while others mourn for a future they will never see. Yet there are shorter sad stories here too from a high school girl (Sayaka Yoshino) whose original choice of a day out at Disneyland is deemed too prosaic, to a middle-aged bar hostess (Kazuko Shirakawa) reminiscing about an old lover who let her down, and a rebellious young punk (Yusuke Iseya) who flat out refuses to choose because he feels that is the best way to accept responsibility. Forced into a reconsideration of his own life, even a clerk is eventually moved by the realisation that even if he had previously believed his existence devoid of meaningful moments he has achieved something by featuring in those of others and is therefore also a meaningful part of a considered whole.

Making the most of his documentary background, interspersing “genuine” memories among the imagined, Koreeda’s heavenly fantasy is one firmly tied to the ground where seasons still pass, time still flows, and the relentlessly efficient march of bureaucracy continues on apace undaunted by the presence of death. Death may give life meaning, but it’s living that’s the prize in all of its glorious complexity filled with both beauty and sadness but always with light even in the darkest corners.


After Life screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.

Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Masahiro Takada, 2006)

honey and clover blu-rayAh youth! Chica Umino’s phenomenally popular manga Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Hachimitsu to Clover) is, essentially, a coming of age story in which love, requited and otherwise, plays a significant part. Masahiro Takada’s adaptation is no different in this respect as its central group of friends learn to come into themselves through various different kinds of heart break leading to soul searching and eventual self actualisation. The path to adulthood is rocky and strewn with anxieties, but has its own charms as our self branded Mr. Youth seems to have figured out, romanticising his own adolescence even while he lives it.

The action kicks off at an art college in Tokyo where a circle of friends is temporarily shaken by the arrival of a new student – a distant relative of a popular professor, Hanamoto (Masato Sakai). Our youth loving hero, Takemoto (Sho Sakurai), falls instantly in love with Hagu (Yu Aoi) – a genius self-taught painter with a dreamy, ethereal personality and negligible interpersonal skills. Hagu, however, seems to have developed a strange connection with conceited sculptor Morita (Yusuke Iseya) who continues to struggle with his conflicting interests in art and commerce. Meanwhile, geeky design student Mayama (Ryo Kase) has a problematic crush on his boss, Rika (Naomi Nishida), whose husband went missing some years ago, and has begun semi-stalking her. Unbeknownst to him, Mayama is also being semi-stalked by Yamada (Megumi Seki) – a spiky ceramicist who refuses to give up on her unrequited crush despite being fully aware of his one sided love for a brokenhearted middle-aged woman.

In actuality all of our protagonists are a little older than one might assume – all past the regular age for graduating college and either hanging around after being unable to complete their studies or pursuing additional training in the hope of furthering their art. They are all also hopelessly lost in terms of figuring out who they are – perhaps why they haven’t quite got a handle on their art, either. Hagu, younger than the others, seems to have an additional problem in existing outside of the mainstream, experiencing difficulties with communication and needing some additional help to get into the swing of college life. Perhaps for this reason, maverick professor Hanamoto palms her off on the “least arty” (read “most responsible”) of his students, Takemoto, who is tasked with accompanying her for meals – something for which he is quite grateful given his first brush with love on catching sight of her at her easel.

Hagu is also, however, the most sensitive and perceptive of the students even if she can only truly express herself through canvas. Her most instantaneous connection is with Morita, whose instinctive approach perhaps most closely mirrors her own though where Hagu is quiet and soulful, Morita is loud and impetuous. Watching him creating his centrepiece sculpture, Hagu is honest enough to tell Morita that he’s overdone it. Morita agrees but ends up exhibiting the piece anyway and not only that – he sells it for a serious amount of money despite knowing that it lacks artistic integrity. Hagu is unimpressed and her disapproval only adds to Morita’s sense of self loathing in his ambivalence towards to the fleeting rewards of superficial success versus the creation of artistic truth.

A similar sense of ambivalence imbues the romantic difficulties which neatly divide the group into a series of concentric love triangles. Takemoto, the selfless hero, realises the best thing he can do for Hagu is try to help Morita be less of a self-centred idiot while simultaneously dwelling on his fleeting youth and actively pursuing himself while debating whether or not to hit the road and leave his lovelorn friends to it. Mayama and Yamada, by contrast, are content to dance around each other, understanding the irony of their respective unreturned crushes while not quite bonding over them but both determined not to give up on their dreams (romantic and professional).

Despite the central positioning of our shy hero as he walks towards the end goal of being able to state his feelings plainly, the drama revolves around the enigmatic Hagu whose descent into an intense depression after an ill-advised moment on a beach is only eased by the careful attentions of her new friends finally realising that their artistic souls benefit from compassion for others rather than remaining solipsistically obsessed with their own romantic heartbreak. Despite its noble intentions, Honey and Clover misses the mark in charting the heady days of youth though our confused heroes do eventually manage to find themselves and each other along the road to adulthood as they chase down disappointments romantic and professional and discover what is they really want in the process.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Inuyashiki (いぬやしき, Shinsuke Sato, 2018)

inuyashiki_poster_B1_0206D_fin_ol_3Japanese cinema has long been preoccupied by the conflict between age and youth though it usually comes down on the side of the youngsters, even when rebuking them for their selfish immorality. Inuyashiki (いぬやしき), adapted from the manga by Hiroya Oku, is similarly understanding but makes a hero of its sad dad protagonist whose adult life has been a socially acceptable disaster, while finding sympathy for his villainous teenage counterpart who resents his lack of possibilities in an already unfair world.

Unsuccessful salaryman Inuyashiki (Noritake Kinashi) has just moved into a new house of which he is very proud but his wife (Mari Hamada) and children find small and old fashioned. He’s bought sushi to celebrate the occasion, but the other family members ignore him and head out for dinner on their own. Held in contempt at home, Inuyashiki’s working life is also something of a disaster in which he is publicly berated by his boss who threatens to fire him, leaving Inuyashiki kneeling in supplication just to be allowed to work until retirement so he can keep up the mortgage payments on that new house (which he bought for his family who all hate him).

To make matters worse, Inuyashiki has also just received the news that he is suffering from terminal cancer and has only a few months to live. His only ray of sunshine appears when he finds an abandoned dog, Hanako, and decides to adopt her but his wife orders him to throw the dog out in case it messes up the house (that she already hates). Sadly walking Hanako to the park with the intention of sending her on her way, Inuyashiki is struck by a mysterious blast and later wakes up to discover he has become an all powerful cyborg with booster rockets on his back and guns in his arms.

Inuyashiki’s first instinct is that he can use his new found powers to save people. Contemplating his mortality, Inuyashiki was made to feel that his life had been a failure; he’d never done anything of consequence and had never been able to protect anyone. Reviving a wounded bird in the street, he realises he has the power to heal along with super sensitive hearing which allows him to hear the cries of those in peril.

Meanwhile, the teenager caught in the same blast, Shishigami (Takeru Satoh), is heading in the opposite direction. Shishigami is also filled with resentment though mostly as regards his poverty and comparative lack of possibilities. He hates that his single-mother (Yuki Saito) has to work herself to the bone because his father (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) left the family for another woman with whom he has built another home and become extremely wealthy. He hates that his video game otaku friend (Kanata Hongo) is mercilessly bullied and has stopped coming to school altogether rather than fight back. Filled with a young man’s rage and a mild kind of psychopathy, Shishigami doesn’t see why it’s wrong to become a bully rather than fighting them. Frustrated beyond reason he declares war on an uncaring society and sentences everyone in Japan to death for their indifference to their fellow citizens.

The conflict between the angel and the devil concludes in predictably bombastic fashion as our two cyborgs go head to head in a climactic battle for the soul of Japan. Strangely enough both men are motivated by love even if one’s actions are darker than the other’s. Inuyashiki wants to protect, to be someone his family can respect and depend on – he flees the scenes of his miracles because he isn’t interested in being a “hero”, just in being of use. Shishigami, by contrast, is motivated by love for his mother whose continuing suffering proves too much for him to bear though his attempts to take revenge only end in more tragedy. Mustering all the technology of the age from smartphones to live broadcasts, Shishigami makes himself a familiar face on TV sets and LCD screens across the country to preach his message of hate as a declaration of war.

Shishigami proclaims that Inuyashiki’s sense of justice is no match for his hate, but there is a definite irony in the squaring off of two men from different generations trying to figure out their differences by pounding the living hell out of each other and destroying half of Tokyo in the process. Still, that is in many ways the point as these two “gods” actively choose the sides of light and darkness, vying for the right to rule the future as forces of destruction or salvation.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

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)

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: