Category: Japanese Cinema

The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume Japan, 2007)

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Love in a cold climate

The Hidden Blade is the second of director Yamada Yōji’s Samurai trilogy, all of which were based on short stories by Fujisawa Shûhei, and was scripted by him and Asama Yoshitaka. I saw the first of the set, Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibe, 2002), on its release and thought is superb. I’ve recently caught up with the other two though the last, Love and Honour (Bushi no ichibun, 2006), didn’t grab me; The Hidden Blade did.

The films are set just before the Meiji restoration that ended Japan’s isolation by bringing in western ideas and, at the same time, changed the role of the samurai; the time was also featured in the superb The Last Samurai. During this transition period, unlike the violent heroism of Kurosawa’s warriors, the samurai were functionaries of court. In Love and Honour our hero is poisoned whilst tasting food for the local lord; he’s permanently blinded and has to deal with his emasculation. In The Hidden Blade the hero, Katagiri (Nagasa Masatoshi), rails against the hypocrisy of his rulers whilst being forced to write a manual for using western weapons; a marvellous symbol of our civilising influence! For the samurai there will be longer the honour of using the sword but the ignomy of mechanical weapons. There’s a humorous thread throughout of the inability of the samurai to march in unison or even run with any speed.

Underneath the political intrigue is a simple love story to which the couple in question don’t even notice themselves as it has no possibility of fulfilment due to their caste differences. The performances of Nagasa and Matsu Takako, who plays Katagiri’s servent Kie, are marvellous. We know that they are in love despite the fact there is no interaction between them that directly signifies this is the case. In addition, the beauty of both landscape, buildings and costumes are  pleasures in all three films of the trilogy; cinematography is by Naganuma Mutsuo (as it was with Twilight Samurai).

The Hidden Blade is not a film without action as there is a climactic battle where Katagiri is ordered to kill his friend who has rebelled against the feudal system. The rigid cruelty of the era is shown in the over-riding impulse of duty and in its treatment of women and lower castes.

Yamada is a formidable artist, and he’s still making films in his late ‘eighties; unfortunately, as far as I can tell, few of them are available in the UK.

Domains (Japan 2019)

Aki and Nodoka in the rehearsal room

I don’t like streaming. I prefer a physical video or a broadcast I can record. I don’t know how anyone can write about films seen once on a TV screen. Cinema screenings are slightly different as concentration is much easier in a cinema context – at least for me. It’s too easy to turn away from the screen and do something else when you are at home. It’s especially difficult to watch avant-garde or ‘experimental’ narratives on TV. Domains, which has just finished its run on MUBI is a case in point. This Japanese film by Kusano Natsuka is 150 minutes long and I found myself trying to watch it on its last evening of availability. I have to confess that there were moments when I switched to a faster speed and tried to shorten the running time without losing the sense of what I was watching. You might want to bear that in mind as you read my comments.

Domains is the second film by Ms Kusano. Her first, Antonym, was released in 2014. This new film was shown at Rotterdam in 2019 and has had a wider presentation internationally. It appears to me to be both an exploration of narrative form and possibly an analysis of a familiar triangular relationship, which in this case has resonance in a number of familiar Japanese narratives. The narrative opens with a simple set up. A woman in her late twenties, ‘Aki’, is seated at a table in a room without other furnishing. Across the table is a young man who reads to her a statement, in effect a confession, detailing how she murdered the 3 year-old daughter of her childhood friend Nodoka. The young man who may be a police officer or a court official wishes Aki to confirm her statement formally as she is now being ‘brought to justice’. Aki is confused and at one point she starts to sing a “gloomy Japanese folksong ‘Moon over Ruined Castle'” (as identified by Hayley Scanlon on her blog ‘Windows on Worlds’). The relevance of the song will become clear later, but what does this opening scene represent? Many reviews suggest that this is the climax of the story and that the whole story will appear in a long flashback. I’m not sure about that.

The third actor, joins in the reading

In the second scene, the same actor playing Aki (Shibuya Asami) is joined by a second actor (Kasajima Tomo) and after a while we realise that they are reading a script dealing with the events that Aki has related in her confession. Immediately we have a problem. Is ‘Aki’ a character in a fictional drama and are we still in the same fiction? Or is this a formal deconstruction of the narrative in which Kasajima reads the lines belonging to Aki’s friend Nodoka, but isn’t actually going to play the character in the fictional narrative? (I think I saw a comment that this film has something in common with Kore-eda’s After Life (Japan 1998) and there might be something in that.) The two actors read and re-read lines and there is a camera and a clapperboard to confuse us. We are in a rehearsal room. Why are these dialogue scenes being filmed, sometimes with ten takes? We do notice that the readings become more animated and soon a third actor appears. Adachi Tomomitsu reads the dialogue of Nodoka’s husband Naota and the same process of re-readings carries on. Eventually we do leave the rehearsal room to make brief journeys by foot and by car visiting various important locations. The basic story doesn’t change but gradually the elements of the story accrete more details and insights. But this doesn’t sound much for 150 minutes does it? I should emphasise that the pacing is very slow and there are several moments when a fade to black or a static composition is held so long that I wondered whether the streaming had frozen.

Aki has been given a present, a knitted hat by Nodoka

I can see that the formal operation here does reveal something about how theatrical and cinematic narratives work and how actors engage with and develop scripts. The slow pacing and the repetition is arguably necessary to illustrate these processes. We also get time to think about the other aspect of Kusano’s film – the story of the three characters.

Aki and Nodoka went to a girls’ school together in this small community and then to the local university where they met Naota. Aki then left to work in Tokyo, an hour’s journey away and only returned to visit her friend after four years. Aki is currently on some form of sick leave, having suffered a minor breakdown at her job in the production division of a publishing house. Naoto has a job as an art teacher in a middle school and Nodoka has been at home with her daughter Honoka (who is now 3 and will soon go to kindergarten). When Aki arrives at Nodoka’s house for the first time, she notices the temperature and humidity, but also that Nodoka has changed and that she appears repressed in some way. It is then that we realise the importance of the song about castles and the film’s title ‘Domains’. Naoto the teacher is governed by ‘logic’ and by language, the importance of words. This is his ‘domain’. Aki and Nodoka as children had their own ‘domain’ – ‘castles’ built by stretching fabric over chairs and climbing inside. Aki sees this as a domain of feelings. The clash with Naota feels inevitable.

The drive to a different fabric shop . . .

All of this seems to me to be familiar from aspects of Japanese culture and Japanese cinema. I’ll just offer two observations on this. First Kusano also offers us a number of static shots. Some are shots of significant story elements such as images of trees in the wind (the murder takes place during a specific moment in the ‘eye’ of a typhoon in the Kanto region). Others may be symbolic, but also reminded me of Ozu’s classic ‘pillow shots’ – an outside shot of a house or an empty room, often with a sense of graphic design, that serves to punctuate the flow of images and to subtly change our expectation of the next shot. But some of these seemed to be held too long to play the same kind of role as in Ozu’s family dramas. Secondly, the discourse about male and female power/status is here explored in a situation where the social position of Nodoka is determined solely by her maternal role. All three characters have the same background and the same education. For Naota to retain control, he must oppose Aki. She is a threat to family and to his ‘logic’.

Does this shot symbolise the missing child?

Domains is an interesting film. It is also, for me, frustrating. I’m interested in the story and in the presentation of the narrative. But I really do think it could be accomplished in less than 150 minutes and that if the audience was more continuously engaged they would get more from it. I note that the film was written by Takahashi Tomoyuki, who was one of three writers on Happy Hour (2015) a five hour marathon about the lives of four 30 something women and reviewed by Nick Lacey, which also streamed on MUBI. Nick tells us that: “Overall it was well worth the effort of sitting in front of a television for hours”. He watched it in two parts. The subject matter sounds similar but the presentation sounds more conventional. I’m interested that this male screen writer should be writing women’s stories for a woman to direct (he also wrote Kusano’s first film Antonym). I suspect that for the moment Kusano Natsuka might find her work confined to festivals, although this was actually a MUBI release in the UK – disrupted by the pandemic. I will be interested to see what she produces next.

Tokyo! (Japan-France 2008)

Tokyo! is a triptych, a three part ‘compendium film’ made as a Japanese-French co-production partnership and featuring two of the quirkiest French directors, Michel Gondry and Leos Carax. The reason for writing about it now is that I am researching the third director, the then rising star of South Korean cinema, Bong Joon-ho. All three directors were asked to make a film lasting roughly 36 minutes set in Tokyo. This follows similar projects set in Paris and New York. I don’t know how the commission was worded but the three films take quite different approaches. Two of them do focus on ‘living in Tokyo’.

The young couple arrive in Tokyo and eventually find a place to park in Michel Gondry’s film

Michel Gondry’s ‘Interior Design’ is up first. He adapted a graphic novel story, ‘Cecil and Jordan in New York’ by Gabrielle Bell, and presents it as a young couple driving into Tokyo and then sleeping on the floor of a university friend’s apartment. Space is at a premium in Tokyo so all the apartments are cramped and expensive and there is nowhere to park the car. The guy in the couple is an aspiring filmmaker with some novel ideas but the woman has not yet decided what she wants to do and the experience of coping with Tokyo (and how it changes their relationship) affects her much more than him. Gondry finds a fascinating and delightful way of visualising how she feels and I greatly enjoyed his film.

Denis Lavant plays the central character in Leos Carax’s film ‘Merde’

The middle film by Leos Carax is titled ‘Merde’ and features a demented character emerging from the sewers and racing down the streets in Tokyo’s high-end shopping area, knocking down shoppers and stealing odd items to chew on. Dressed in a vivid but filthy green suit the man is played by Carax’s ‘go to’ actor Denis Lavant with relish. He has a milky eye, a red beard, sooty hands and feet and gurns enthusiastically. His rampage is repeated a little later but this time he stages a terrorist act and is arrested. In what follows, Carax offers a satire on a range of social and political issues that are universal but here they are made specific to Japan. The final section utilises the judicial system in Japan as a narrative device to pick out specific Japanese issues about wartime atrocities and immigration policies and also offers a prescient commentary on how populist media campaigns are fuelled (and contested) by the ways in which incidents are reported. A caption at the end promises us a ‘Merde in New York’ follow-up.

the ‘hikikomori’ in Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Shaking Tokyo

Bong Joon-ho’s film completes the triptych with a more composed and beautifully designed film, ‘Shaking Tokyo’. The central character is a hikikomori – a recluse who lives alone in an apartment from which he never emerges, only opening the door to the delivery drivers/riders who bring his food and drink and other necessities. Even then he doesn’t look up to make eye contact. He hasn’t left the apartment for more than 10 years. He is still relatively young and receives money from his father each week. One day he opens the door for his Saturday pizza delivery. As usual, his gaze is lowered to focus on the pizza box onto which he will place the cash for the deliverer, but today his eye catches the leg of the person holding the box. There is an almost fetishistic suspender joining the person’s shorts and leggings. Our recluse hero looks up and sees this is an attractive young woman who delivers pizzas using a motor scooter. For a moment their eyes make contact and then a rumble announces an earthquake. The apartment full of supplies and carefully stored pizza boxes etc. starts to shake and the young woman faints. The recluse is forced to act. I won’t spoil what happens in the rest of the narrative, but after this classic ‘inciting incident’ the hikikomori can’t just carry on as he did before. He feels compelled to leave the apartment.

The trhree directors with Bong in the centre

Bong’s film is beautifully shot by Fukumoto Jun. Kagawa Teruyuki, playing the role of the recluse, makes almost imperceptible movements in close-up to convey his thought processes (which are sometimes confirmed by his voice-over thoughts). Within the confines of the apartment and an exquisite mise en scène comprising neatly stacked boxes, bottles and toilet roles, Bong is still able to construct an engaging narrative. How do we relate this to Bong’s concerns in his features? Unusual for a Bong film there is no form of family or social group to enable a commentary on society – perhaps because this is Japan rather than South Korea? Instead the film demonstrates Bong’s mastery of design and choreography of action. And the hikikomori is a familiar marginal character who is forced out of his home to search for the young woman. Once out of the apartment and out on the street, perhaps Bong does critique Japanese society, albeit obliquely and in a way that might only be possible for a Korean. Whatever you make of the last few minutes of Bong’s film, he has done what all the best short films should do in my view – produce a narrative with ideas and try to make it as ‘filmic’ as possible. I don’t how his crew were able to create the final scenes but it works very well. I would recommend the the triptych for Bong’s film alone with Gondry’s as a bonus. I know Leos Carax has his fans and they may enjoy his contribution. 

Weathering With You (Tenki no ko, Japan 2019)

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Dazzled by the spectacle

I only recently caught Shinkai Makoto’s much lauded Your Name (Kimi no na wa, Japan 2016) whose gender-swapping premise, mixed with natural disasters, was a fascinating mix of teen pic and SF. Weathering With Me is even better, though I’m not sure how much my delight in the latter film was influenced by seeing it on an IMAX screen.

The last film I saw on the big screen format was Blade Runner 2049 which seemed to me to be diminished by the large screen. I have found it difficult to know where to look on the IMAX space and this uncertainty interrupts the flow of the filmic experience. As Weathering With You was limited to one screening in Bradford I’m grateful to my daughter for insisting we go, despite my reservations. Whilst I haven’t wholly changed my views on IMAX’s suitability as a medium for narrative cinema, I am pretty sure this anime benefited from the eyeball-encompassing space facilitated by the large screen: it is an exceptionally beautiful film. However, I found Blade Runner 2049‘s visuals superb too so I’m not sure what the difference is. If anything, watching Weathering, because the need to read subtitles necessitates an obvious movement of the gaze to the bottom of the screen, should have been an even less fulfilling experience but I was simply bowled over by the images.

Like Your NameWeathering With You deals with a coming of age narrative but instead of a backdrop of natural disasters, here it is ecological disaster that affords the context to teenage travails: it is raining incessantly in Tokyo. At first it appeared that Makoto was making a point about climate change, Gaia is mentioned early on, but by the conclusion it seems, disappointingly, to have been more a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and first love. Morishima runs away from the boring sticks to make his fortune in Tokyo and Amano finds she is ‘weather girl’, a modern shaman who can make the sun shine. How they get together is subject to many (sometimes implausible but who cares when you’re seeing such sumptuous images?) narrative obstacles, some of which are funny.

Wallowing in the sky

In one scene the protagonists fall slowly, upside down, from the sky and I can’t work out why that image affected me so much. Whilst falling from the sky is obviously not a good idea for everyday life, maybe the image is about connecting with the unearthly aspects of our planet; hence Amano is a shaman. In our ‘sophisticated’ capitalist world we have lost touch with Earth, hence most don’t notice the incremental changes as we destroy it. Science has often been at the service of capitalism, developing products, services and new markets, and when it has attempted to speak loudly about climate catastrophe its message has been mangled and muted by vested (money) interests. Although Weathering With Me isn’t directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one week!

Tag (Riaru onigokko, Japan 2015)

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Sticking it to patriarchy

I’m very much a later-comer to the Sono Sion party who directed four other films in the year Tag came out; his total is over 50 features. He reminded me Miike Takashi, who now has over 100 films as director, in that he is prolific and multiplies ‘going overboard’ with ‘throwing in the kitchen sink’. I stumbled across the film on Prime and had zero idea what to expect so my eyeballs were well and truly shredded around five minutes into the film. Critical commentary on the film is favourable but as I watched it I had no idea whether I was watching something that was entirely exploitation horror or whether there was, as is often the case in this type of horror film, more to it. When I realised, about half way through, no male character had made an appearance so far I twigged that writer-director Sono was saying something.

The fact that most of the characters to that point had been Japanese school girls in short skirts and had included many knicker-shots suggested dubious (to be polite) character but it turned out that the film was making a point about gender. Having cake and eating it does spring to mind but to critique patriarchy does sometimes require it to be mimicked.

To avoid spoilers I won’t go into the details of exactly how Sono is critiquing male dominance as the film does manage to pull off, in the denouement, the pretty impressive trick of actually explaining the bonkers-ness of what we have seen before. The source material is Yamada Yusuke’s novel Real Onigokko (2001) but I suspect that this has only formed the narrative premise rather than the feminist perspective.

It’s not a film for those for whom gore is a turn-off, though it is strictly cartoonish rather than realistic hence its 15-certificate in the UK. I’ve tagged the film SF as the narrative explanation for the bizarre events qualifies for the genre rather than fantasy, which seems to be the usual category used in reviews.

I now have the challenge of catching up with the rest of Sono’s ouevre; come to think of it, I’m still in single figures for the number of Miike films I’ve seen. Of course, it is an impossible task to keep up with everything, especially as most of the rest-of-the-world cinema never gets distributed in the UK. By the way, the Japanese title apparently translates as ‘real tag’, the game when you’re ‘it’ until you touch someone; we used to call it ‘tick’.

Inland Sea (Minatomachi, Japan-US 2018)

Wai-chan, the fisherman in his 80s.

This is an engaging documentary about characters in a small Japanese fishing port. It’s long for a film of its kind, but it has an energy, the camera is often moving and the characters are interesting. Japan’s demographic of an ageing society and its experience of stagflation is indicative of where the UK and much of Europe is heading, so it’s also an important sociological insight into our futures. The good news is that in general the older people in the town seem cheerful and at ease with themselves and their situation. The exception to this rule inevitably becomes the central character and this reveals both the positives and negatives of the filmmakers’ approach.

Inland Sea is officially ‘No 7’ in the series of ‘Observations’ by Sôda Kazuhiro, the Japanese documentarist working out of New York with his producing partner Kashiwagi Kiyoko. I hadn’t come across Sôda’s work before. I think that in the UK he may be known only by those frequenting documentary or ‘non-fiction’ festivals (or strands in major festivals – this film was screened at Berlin in 2018), so I was pleased to be able to watch Inland Sea courtesy of distributors Rock Salt Releasing in the US. Most of Sôda’s previous work seems only to have streamed for 30 days on MUBI in various territories but now it is available to stream/download in the US (on Amazon, InDemand, Hoopla, Vimeo on Demand, Fandango).

Sôda trained in New York but only became interested in documentary after completing his course. He then discovered Fred Wiseman and became intrigued by his approach. If Inland Sea is typical of Sôda’s practice he is certainly a worthy disciple of Wiseman’s methods, becoming, as the subtitle to his films attests, an ‘observer’ of first the individual actions of people in their environment and ultimately of the communities and institutions in which they operate. Japan’s ‘Inland Sea’ is the body of water between three of the five main islands of Japan, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku in South-Western Japan. The focus of this film is the small fishing town of Ushimado, one of many ‘left-behind’ towns with a rapidly ageing population as younger people leave. Perhaps as a means to invoke this idea of ‘left behind’ by ‘progress’, Sôda decided to grade the film in monochrome although it was shot in colour.

This cat seems to cope very well with life in Ushimado.

‘conversation with Sôda on MUBI’s website by K. F. Watanabe suggests that Sôda operates under a set of self-imposed rules much like the Dogme ’95 Manifesto. The ’10 Commandments’ are listed on Sôda’s own website. They stress that this is to be a sole authored (and financed) film that will proceed with no research, no script, no theme, no narration and no music. It will have long takes and shooting will continue as long as required. This means that the film’s narrative (all films have a narrative of sorts) will be dependent on who Sôda and Kashiwaga come across as they observe a community. One review I read suggested that Kashiwaga comes from Ushimado or at least the region around it, so that might mean the people they meet are not completely random. Also, Sôda has worked in the area before, making Oyster Factory in 2015. I think that he met a couple of this film’s characters on the earlier shoot. Ushimado was also a favourite location for Imamura Shohei.

Sôda and Kashiwaga work as a duo as far as I can see. They are, in a sense, in the long line of North American ‘direct cinema’ filmmakers except that Sôda does intervene and prompt, occasionally asking questions. Though he only appears as a shadow holding the camera, his partner does sometimes appear in the background. I’m not sure this pushes him into ciné vérité territory in which the filmmaker becomes a provocateur, but it does mean that this is something other than ‘only observation’. Even if neither Sôda or Kashiwaga speak, the subject of the camera’s gaze often addresses them directly and questions them or cajoles them into action.

Kumiko spends her day on the sea-front and becomes the central character of the narrative.

Inland Sea begins and ends on the seafront with the woman who becomes central, Kumiko. She’s 84 during filming and we learn something of her difficult life. She is clearly lonely but also energetic and knowledgeable about the town and Sôda’s methodology means that he engages with her, seemingly ‘because she is there’. How the audience then reads how she is presented and how she presents herself will then determine whether she comes across as symbolic of a refusal to accept inevitable decline or that she becomes the focus for a critique of a society which just regards her as another case for welfare services. The same is true for the town itself with its empty houses (“the people died”, Kumiko tells us) but also with inhabitants who have found ways to continue – as in the case of the two other major characters, Wai-chan the fisherman and Koso the owner of the fresh fish shop who buys his catch. (I found Koso the most interesting character and I enjoyed the ‘procedural’ narrative that takes the fish from the sea to the customer.) We could argue that this selection of characters makes the film ‘humanist’ and doesn’t tell us what to think, even if it does ‘direct’ us towards different lines of investigation. I wonder how you will feel when you see the final shot?

I’d like to be able to show this film and I hope someone in the UK eventually finds Sôda Kazuhiro interesting enough to consider a DVD or digital download. Below is a film festival trailer. I should point out that the music isn’t in the film. Also, as someone who eats fish I found the fishing scenes disturbing, but as a cat lover I really enjoyed the feline characters.