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A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad's an Alcoholic

Alcohol poisoning
Light-hearted comedies can sometimes grate with their over-acting, banal soundtracks and overly-simplistic moral messages on conclusion. Kenji Katagiri's second feature "A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad's an Alcoholic" has all of these elements, but while you'd expect a straightforward comedy, there are some unexpected, and welcome, surprises on offer. Kanpai!

Toshifumi (usually hairstyled slacker Kiyohiko Shibukawa) works in HR - he's the mushroom at parties - and supports his dutiful, religious wife Saeko (Rie Tomosaka) and two daughters, Saki and Fumi (played by various actresses at different life stages). Feeling it part of his role, Toshi frequently stays out all night drinking with work colleagues and hosts all night mahjong sessions with his friends, while Saeko plays hostess, regularly opening the fridge door.

But while Toshi enjoys himself, the three females of the family suffer in silence, until Saeko can take no more and takes action. This leaves an ageing Toshi to take care of the now adult Saki (Honoka Matsumoto) and Fumi (Yui Imaizumi), and while he starts off with good intentions, he is soon led astray once more.

The two daughters increasingly lose sympathy for their father, particularly the elder Saki, who increasingly defines her life around her dad's behaviour. But, once things come to a head, Saki questions where things went wrong for her family.

While the subject matter is far from comical, Shibukawa is an actor you typically associate with a more comic role. And indeed, as the alcoholic, he is regularly tasked with arriving home at all hours drunk as a skunk, playing the fool. The jovial soundtrack only adds to this, as you feel you might be headed for a typically whimsical Japanese comedy.

But all this changes when Saki, a budding manga artist, silently reflects on her thoughts on the situation. Manga thought bubbles appear and the soundtrack falls silent as a young woman struggles to deal with her father's drunken behaviour. Is he wrong? Is she herself wrong? What is causing this situation?

While this becomes a regular feature, the initial moment of self-reflection comes with a deafening silence and instantly kills this as a quirky comedy. Quickly, we are taken into the mind of a troubled young woman having to negotiate a difficult scenario, and for this Katagiri has to be commended. Combined with Toshi's larger-than-life drunken behaviour, this feels every bit a manga adaptation of Mariko Kikuchi's work.

That's not to say that "A Life Turned Upside Down" isn't a little unrefined, however. Overacting is commonplace throughout, particularly when Toshi is drunk with his gaggle of friends. Sadly, they become a little too one dimensional as characters who drink and not a whole lot more. This detracts from the more serious topic of workplace social drinking, well documented in Japan. Toshi himself is not always a violent or out-of-control drunk; and drinking is part of the work culture he must adhere to. This is highlighted by his best friend at work, Kinoshita (Kenta Hamano), who doesn't drink being overlooked for promotion and eventually ousted. But the larger-than-life nature of Toshi's drinking make this less of a focus on the social and work pressures to drink.

Toshi is a happy drunk, only once really getting violent, and Saki's lack of reaching out to her father is noticeable. Not to defend her father's actions and behaviour, but the younger sister, Fumi, has a more happy-go-lucky outlook and so doesn't internalise her father's drinking as much. She appears to cope much better and more maturely, particularly when she can see Saki walking into an abusive relationship with her drunken boyfriend. As ever, Saki's revelations perhaps come too late. Sometimes perhaps the manga thought bubbles hinder her vision.

Shibukawa gives a performance that is a little different to his usual: here his drunkenness is more in-your-face than apathetic; and his blank expressions more of a middle-aged man struggling to cope, than a more youthful slacker. He fits the role well and we may see more of him as a salaryman as age catches up with him.

Several difficult subjects are handled in a less than conventional manner, and the manga elements are woven in well and have the desired effect. Much like Toshi, the film's heart is there, but it gets a little misguided at times and indulges itself a little too often. But, it certainly offers enough to discuss down the pub after...if only you could go there.


Yoidore tenshi

Hope from despair
Starting with 1946's "No Regrets for Our Youth", Akira Kurosawa made a number of political films focused on post-War social comment. Despite being better-known for his samurai films, Kurosawa's films looking at (at the time) contemporary society and its ills are among his best works, notably 1963's "High and Low". Of his films made immediately after the end of World War II, 1948's "Drunken Angel" is, alongside "Stray Dog", his best pre-"Rashomon" (and the international fame it brought) film.

A tale of two rogue characters, "Drunken Angel" serves as a sparring match for Kurosawa's two favourite actors: Toshio Mifune and Takashi Shimura. The former as yakuza Matsunaga - seemingly not quite so cold-hearted as he'd like us to believe; and the latter as drunken doctor Sanada - though perhaps not quite as cynical as he believes he has become.

But there is a third key character present: the swamp that serves as the epicentre for the run-down, downtown community which they inhabit. Where debris, waste and junk end up, it is a source of tuberculosis, but also a playground for local children, much to Sanada's chagrin. Serving as doctor for the poor local community, he serves many a tuberculosis patient, but also the odd wounded yakuza. After a drunken night out, Matsunaga stumbles into his practice. Despite the doctor-patient roles, the pair are involved in violent exchanges. But Sanada quickly discovers that Matsunaga is likely his next tuberculosis sufferer.

Matsunaga is the suave man about town, but once his elder, Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), is released from prison, his power and influence begin to wane. He is no longer the first choice of gangster molls and soon finds himself edged out. Combined with his deteriorating health, Matsunaga can put up little resistance to change.

But he is not such a bad man - perhaps his real weakness. Sanada can see through him and so gives as good as he gets when the yakuza repeatedly comes into his practice after not following his doctor's advice. And despite their constant battles, Sanada gradually warms to him.

There is little hope in Sanada's world. Children keep getting ill, patients rarely follow his advice and he inhabits the slums. To combat this, he takes on the role of drunken cynic. Former classmates have gone on to bigger and better things, but Sanada is a man who wants to treat the poor where he can. A young school girl (Yoshiko Kuga) is his only model patient, succeeding in overcoming her illness, as well as a hope for the future academically. In reality Sanada is a man who wants to see a better world and takes joy in any success. He sees Matsunaga as something of a project, like a father wanting the prodigal son to return.

The toxic liquid in the swamp is mirrored by the toxic liquid flowing through both their veins. Both alcoholics, their lives are ruled by alcohol as much as anything - a sickness, like the tuberculosis that is killing those in a city and time of little hope.

Mifune's first film with Kurosawa, he is overshadowed by Shimura's drunken angel as a troubled doctor fighting sickness, low-lives and alcohol. Beaten, but not broken, he provides humour, anger and disappointment at the world he inhabits in equal measure. Matsunaga's demise, however, shows some of the showmanship natural to Mifune that we would later see throughout Kurosawa's best work, notably his famous death in "Throne of Blood".

Kurosawa himself also stands out in his first work of real merit, never labouring the points he is trying to make, but showing a clear and obvious problem that people have learnt to live with. Sanada and Matsunaga rely on alcohol to cope, but it's not so easy for those less fortunate than themselves.

Kurosawa creates a world of death and despair, though this would be the first hope in his long career. His eighth feature, it was Kurosawa's first standout, and it's only natural that Shimura and Mifune's faces are at the centre of it.


Yuki yukite, shingun

What did you do during the war?
Some documentaries are brought to life by the skill of the director; others don't need it as the subject is so compelling. Kazuo Hara's documentary about the journey for justice of Second World War veteran Kenzo Okuzaki fits into both categories, but as this one-man army takes on an army of war veterans, the man in front of the camera is as much directing the man behind it as vice versa.

At the suggestion of Shohei Imamura, Hara's documentary follows the voyage of Okuzaki to unearth the truth about the deaths of some soldiers stationed in New Guinea four decades after the end of the war. A well documented period of hell for all sides involved, Okuzaki has made it his personal mission to force soldiers involved in the deaths of three soldiers in two separate incidents. To do this, he goes, one-by-one, to each of the soldiers involved still alive demanding their confession as to what occurred. Naturally, he is met with reluctance.

His up-front questions, initially posed with a polite manner, are met with lies, claims of forgetting the exact details and a simple desire to not speak about what happened in the past. But Okuzaki is not a man to lie down at a half-hearted response. A former convict, as well as soldier, having spent a number of years in prison for murder and dissemination of pornographic material featuring the Emperor, as well as taking a shot at the man himself. If Okuzaki does not like the response, he becomes forceful, even violent, until he gets the answer he knows is correct.

Obviously, Okuzaki himself is not a man completely without sin, but having time to think over his deeds in lengthy prison terms, he is determined to see those he sees as responsible for war crimes exposed - the Emperor his most wanted man. He will use any means necessary until the truth is revealed.

Okuzaki is a violent spirit. While he is now a self-appointed judge on these former soldiers, his actions are far from on the right side of the law. To start, he approaches each with politeness, but at times unexpected to his poor 'victims.' Whether in the early hours, in the hospital or at their place of work, he shows up to talk, and he won't leave until he likes what he hears. Once sat down at the table, his determination knows no bounds. He is also happy to use the dark arts, with stand-ins for family members of the dead soldiers to further cajole the truth to the surface.

He is very non-Japanese in this way. The soldiers he confronts all would rather forget about the past. Seemingly having come to an agreement to never reveal the truth of what happened, this is the story they all initially stick to. The difficulties in Japan with accepting responsibility for what happened during the Second World War a firm example of the Japanese psyche for not lamenting on what has occurred and simply moving forward without question.

His persistence gradually exposes cracks; and like a good TV detective, he pushes these cracks on to the next witness to reveal more and more until the full story emerges. The truth is shocking, but one that Okuzaki is well aware of and takes in his stride. He is not so much concerned by what happened, but that those involved admit to it.

This is a push to take responsibility for what happened - he paid his time for his crimes, these soldiers should at least acknowledge and live with theirs, rather than simply pushing them aside. But these are not events that can ever be forgotten, hence why he doesn't accept initial meagre responses. While initially reluctant, eventually the soldiers talk about what happened as if in a therapy session. Okuzaki is an accuser, but also a facilitator, as if this is the moment they had been choosing to avoid, but knew one day would come.

Okuzaki is a fearless man, and so is Hara's camera. He follows his subject into the lives of these soldiers and keeps it rolling. This leaves very awkward, but also very revealing scenes of a determination on both sides, often resulting in violence; or a heated debate over a can of Fanta. Okuzaki knows where he wants Hara's camera to be, and Hara duly obliges. Unlike the war, all will be documented.

Okuzaki is the nucleus with everyone else the electrons spinning around him. Hara takes a step back to observe all that happens, not showing Okuzaki to be right or wrong, but simply a man determined. The real family members of the dead lose heart once more is exposed, and Okuzaki is not afraid to call them weak for this. He will keep fighting to the end. But by the end, like for all those involved, will he ever be able to truly reach peace? Not while the Emperor's army marches on (exposed, or otherwise).


Futsû wa hashiridasu

Get on with it
Hirobumi Watanabe certainly puts a lot of his own life into his films. Setting his films in his hometown of Otawara in Tochigi prefecture he is a man clearly writing and filming about what he knows. Seemingly starring his elderly grandmother in a silent role in his films, from his debut "And the Mud Ship Sails Away..." in 2013 there has been a clear autobiographical line running through his work.

"Life Finds Away" is the most overtly autobiographical in his career as a filmmaker, starring as himself in the summer of 2018, during the Russian World Cup, where he spends his days going for coffee, driving around aimlessly scouting locations, fishing and bothering librarians. He is in something of a funk, lacking inspiration for his next work, and thus is struggling for funding. This leads to something of a crisis of confidence in his abilities as a writer-director, and indeed in cinema itself.

Like much of his work, this isn't exactly a plot-heavy piece, more a summer diary of his thoughts about Japan, cinema and South Korea's chances at the World Cup. A lot of sitting about in a cluttered house - with mementos to all his films carefully placed - while his aged grandmother sits looking on - talking on the phone and discussions from the passenger seat of a moving car occur, as is his way.

You could say that much hasn't changed since his debut, where Kiyohiko Shibukawa plays a director struggling with creativity and motivation. His style - inspired heavily by Jim Jarmusch with its black and white tones, chaptered themes, slow pace and deadpan humour - has been present throughout, though it is certainly a more polished product here. "And the Mud Ship Sails Away..." had the budget constraints as seen in Kevin Smith's debut "Clerks", but here the style feels more intentional than out of necessity.

He also goes for a slightly surreal anding, as seen in his debut, but while first time around the film lost its way, here warped footage of his struggles to deal with questions as to his films and cinema itself. While this could have been slightly better executed, it creates the sort of breakdown too much internet traffic and opinion can result in.

Questions of his health (from a doctor and a dentist he visits), his behaviour (from a librarian), his credibility (from the mayor's office) and his talent (from an anonymous letter) build throughout: he is an overweight man headed for an early grave if he doesn't improve his diet and exercise; and he needs to work harder at his career if he is to progress, rather than simply blaming it on not being born French. Questions that obviously race through the director's head.

The other characters (the aforementioned) are all interviewed as to their thoughts on cinema, such as their favourite actors, films and what cinema means to them. The answers probably are not ones to improve his mood.

But this film is his answer to those questions. A self-aware film, he mentions his intentions to make a collaboration film with band Triple Fire whose music features throughout. That idea is this film. As such, this feels like a stop-gap piece, made while struggling to find another, grander idea to work on. Just simply film away and see if it forms into something - keep on doing what you're doing and well, life will find a way. It's fairly simple, quick and breezy, but is enjoyable in its humour and lightness of pace, and things can always look good in black and white.

While little seems to have changed since his debut, beyond some better polishing, his three films wedged in between "7 Days", "Poolside Man" and "Party 'Round the Globe" were all critically-acclaimed, if still minor in commercial successes. Here, he has returned to roots, seemingly with an upgrade, but with so many ideas revisited, is the real question for Watanabe to ask "is it time for a change?"


Lost in Translation

When I first saw Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" I was at university, I was idealistic and everybody saw me next Tuesday. People loved it (the film I mean); but a friend of mine told me he walked out of it. But most importantly, at that stage of my life I was an emerging Japanophile, who had never been to Japan, and in all actuality knew very little about the archipelago beyond a few computer games and having seen an above average number of Japanese films for a British person.

But that was approaching two decades ago, and I'm now much more Japan-wise, having been a number of times, eaten ramen and know how to spell "konnichiwa" in both romaji and hiragana. It's been a number of years since I last watched Coppola's most regarded film to date - I can't remember when - and now older, the things that I always knew about the film are still present (perhaps now heightened). And while it has a certain charm, there is far more to dislike about this film than like.

One thing I'd have probably changed about the film, is that I'd have made far more references to Japanese people being short in the opening ten minutes. The second thing I'd change is that I'd make far more references to Japanese pronunciation of R/L when speaking in English. When you watch an old, beloved TV show, you might find yourself surprised to find out-dated references to race/sex/gender which you'd forgotten and couldn't believe they were part this show you loved so much. But Coppola throws it out there straight away, packing as many casually racist elements into the first half hour as possible. As a film that so many refer to when discussing films set in/about Japan, there is very little of a Japanese perspective on show.

All Japanese characters are peripheral, have few lines (beyond cheap gags) and merely serve our western leads. They far from have a voice. While still faltering perhaps, more recent crossover works, such as "Isle of Dogs" or "Giri/Haji", at least give the impression a Japanese person has been consulted before the script was finalised, and indeed even gave the Japanese cast some Nihon-go to speak. Here, the Japanese simply smile and politely laugh when the Americans speak and tryout a Japanese word (ironically probably pronounced incorrectly). If Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte spending half the film in her underwear is an ironic statement against the portrayal of women in cinema, all that work is undone by its treatment of the locals.

Japan itself is also given short shrift in its portrayal. Little is shown of Tokyo beyond the obvious neon lights. At a time when tourism to Japan wasn't quite as high as the booming numbers of recent years, this gave the image of Japan that westerners wanted to have (and indeed Japan promotes): cool Japan, with bright lights and huge cities of skyscrapers; but also where the modern meets the old, with a temple thrown in here or there. This Japan is strange, exciting, crazy, like being on another planet. But what do we really see of it? The majority of the film is set in the hotel where our two leads temporarily reside, before quickly running through some neon-lit streets and pachinko parlours. Though this is perhaps true of much modern day travel.

Going outside into the real world is shown as an escape, rather than exploring; and Charlotte's tears that she went to a temple and didn't feel anything state more about her sheltered life than the culture in which she finds herself. Reading Donald Richie's "The Inland Sea", he describes how parts of Japan are "very attractive to a heritage-starved, history parched American," and one can see that this search for a meaning beyond is not a new problem.

In an interview at the time of release, Coppola comes across in the same way as Johansson's Charlotte: someone seemingly unsure as what they really want to do with their life because those around her have afforded her the freedom to do so. A philosophy graduate with no direction, Charlotte spends the film wandering and wondering, somehow thinking she will find meaning in something. This is a notion Coppola executes well: modern day tourism as a vain attempt at immersing oneself in a culture, while we constantly crave home comforts. Travelling to another country won't give you the answers to finding yourself. Despite its imagery, this is far from a love letter to Tokyo, with the world of Japan largely gazed from the other side of a window, detached.

Bill Murray's Bob is a man who has lost control of his own life, taking orders from his distant wife and agent. He, like Charlotte, has become a person with little to do each day and has regressed into the role of a child sneaking out for some fun. The struggles to cope with adapting to life in Japan parallel their struggles to adapt to a new life stage for both: Bob now a washed-up, out-of-work, middle-aged actor; Charlotte a young woman entering the real world without the necessary tools. What place do they have in this new world? Finding each other as kindred spirits in these life crises alleviates this holiday ennui.

The supporting roles, namely Charlotte's husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) and Anna Faris as his casual acquaintance Kelly, are airhead products of MTV with little or nothing to really say and are obvious plot pieces to make Charlotte's plight seem all the more deeply rooted in her life. How and why has she found herself here?! While not the most likeable leads, Johansson and Murray do play them well, Murray the stand-out in a role that reinvigorated his career. Everyone else, however, is a little caricature.

The film has a certain mood, a well-worked one, which is aided by the soundtrack, which is probably the film's strongest element. "Girls" by Death in Vegas plays as Murray enters Japan with a sense of coming up for air, drowned in the city's bright lights. When first arriving, you are entering a world of new sounds, sights and smells. Air's "Alone in Kyoto" is another standout, but one feels that perhaps some Japanese artists could have been afforded a place on the soundtrack.

This mood also makes the film somewhat re-watchable - even if it took me years to watch it again - and there is a certain charm to it. Perhaps it's the atmosphere of Tokyo which westerners want to hold true, before having actually been there. A bit like a break in a nice hotel, it flatters you and is a nice break from reality, but sooner or later you find yourself wanting to return to the real world.

This is a Japan of stylish photography and pretty pictures; of cultural stereotypes and amazement from outsiders. But like many when going on a holiday in a foreign culture, the host culture is heard, but are we really listening?

Bokemasukara, yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

Business never personal
If you had to give a label to TV documentarian Naoko Nobutomo, professional would probably be it - to a fault perhaps. Making her feature documentary debut, like with her television work, Nobutomo has chosen a very private subject, but does not allow her personal involvement in the scenario to get in the way of her work as a director.

Her parents, like an increasing number of Japanese, are approaching nearly a century of life. But stubborn as ever, they want to maintain their independence. With Naoko their only daughter - and only source of family support - living in Tokyo, the couple live on top of each other in their cramped Kure, Hiroshima home, surrounded by her father's endless piles of books. Her father, a typical male, sits reading all day, with little-to-no domestic skills. But as a man approaching 100 years of life perhaps deserves a rest. Her mother is hard working and takes charge of all the household chores.

But becoming increasingly forgetful, her mother is diagnosed with dementia, posing a difficult question for the parents and the daughter. Naoko offers to move back to join them and help, but having always been encouraging of her in her career, they refuse; though she still visits regularly to film them going about their daily lives. But with her father deaf and her mother's condition deteriorating, it is clear that they need help. Well into his Nineties now, her father starts to take charge with cooking and laundry for the first time in his life, but he is an old, slow man who can only do so much. As such, support workers come in to help cook and clean, as well as check up on them, which they reluctantly accept.

They remain stubborn and struggle along; him not hearing her while she endlessly shouts in need. This obviously causes tension between the couple of six decades, as Naoko's camera keeps rolling.

Nobutomo acquired a camera early in the new millennium. As such, she practiced by filming her parents, and indeed her own life. This resulted in her making a television documentary about her breast cancer. Early in the film, we are shown clips of her treatment, and resulting hairloss; Nobutomo exposing herself to the camera. These clips show the support her parents gave her during this period; parents strong for their only daughter.

This openness is present throughout "I Go Gaga, My Dear", with Nobutomo keeping the camera rolling throughout arguments and moments that would clearly embarrass her mother as her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. This also makes for awkward viewing: she watches as her father struggles with two bags of shopping and her mother chooses to lie on the pile of laundry, rather than place it in the washing machine. As a daughter, she should intervene; as a filmmaker, she keeps the camera rolling. Kamera wo tomeruna!

But the parents' stubbornness has worn off on her and she pursues her work. Her parents - while eventually calling her to stop the camera in later scenes when tiredness clearly rules over them - have always been encouraging of her in her career, even if that involves her filing them relentlessly at their worst. They gave everything for her, and in her own way she is showing her gratitude.

But along with the awkwardness is comedy. This is a no doubt comedy scenario: her mother has dementia while her father is increasingly deaf. Conversations, therefore, are stunted and repetitive, with the daughter clearly taking some amusement from this. Combined with typical bickering between a couple who have been together so long, this is not a bleak portrait. And while references are made to insurance relating to care and support, Nobutomo does not turn this into a political message about Japan's ageing population and strains on all concerned.

Reminiscent of the long-term relationship of Mo-young Jin's "My Love Don't Cross that River" and the observational filmmaking of Kazuhiro Soda, Nobutomo takes a simple approach to her film, allowing minimal narration and narrative. And despite her closeness to the subject, she does not appear too much on screen herself, allowing her two stars to speak for themselves.



Family planning
This is where I get all smug and talk about how I remember when "The Host" was released, and in fact I've owned the DVD for well over a decade now. And at that time I wanted to see "Barking Dogs Never Bite" as it starred Bae Doo-na, who was popular among me at the time; and I'd heard "Memories of Murder" was worth a watch, but my limited attempts never found an available copy - a film that now seems criminally under-promoted in the UK. But after the release of 2009's "Mother", as I am neither a Netflix or Jamie Bell subscriber, Joon-ho Bong's name hasn't been in my consciousness a great deal over the last decade.

Until about a year ago, when talk was of his latest work being really quite good - tipped, and then fulfilling promise, to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Now South Korean cinema is all popular and that and Oscars are being won - breaking new ground along the way.

But, despite my interest in his first two feature length films, I have still yet to see either. "The Host" was an entertaining film, but is somewhat clunky in parts; and the dancing on the bus finale from "Mother" stayed in my memory, but I had to re-watch it to have my recollection of the rest of the film restored - a tidy little film. But, while good, he was not a director blowing my mind, and after a relatively meagre last decade in terms of the volume of output, I was surprised by both the hype surrounding "Parasite" and its ground-breaking achievements. Is it really all that and a bag of Oscars?

Well, the premise, is a nice one.

The Kims are a poor family living in a basement flat, looking out at the rest of the world from street level. They are more-or-less living in the gutter. Working by pre-folding pizza boxes for a local takeaway, they steal wifi off their neighbours or local businesses - the toilet their wifi hotspot. The son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), has two things going for him: while completing his military service, he learnt English to a good standard; and his friend Min (Seo-joon Park), a suave and sophisticated young gentleman about to travel abroad.

While he is away, Min asks Ki-woo if he can take over his role as the wealthy Park family's daughter Da-hye's (Ji-so Jung) English teacher. Ki-woo will be able to pass as an English teacher, and as a failed college applicant, poses little threat to Min's designs on Da-hye. Enlisting his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) to forge college certificates for him, Ki-woo goes for an interview with Park mother Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), exploiting her simple, wealthy naivety.

Quickly, Ki-woo learns that the son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung) also needs a new art teacher and recommends his sister for the role, though denies their family connection, of course. Through mischief, Ki-woo and Ki-jung soon get their father, Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), recruited as the father Dong-ik's (Sun-kyun Lee) driver and their mother, Ching-sook (Hye-jin Yang), as housemaid. Soon, the Kims occupy the splendidly modern house as much as the Parks, unbeknownst to their hosts.

But ousted housemaid Moon-gwang (Jeong-eun Lee) returns when the host family are away, finding the Kims enjoying a night of luxury, unearthing a dark secret kept within the house. Complacently, their cover is blown, and the Kims must do what it takes to keep their real identity, among other things, hidden.

As stated, "The Host" was an entertaining film, though like any comedy, can have moments where the script feels a little clunky/awkward/Swiss cheese. "Mother" was a step up in overall quality, with better storytelling, while maintaining entertainment value. With "Parasite", Bong has created a near perfect balance of good storytelling with entertainment value. The first hour is an introduction to each of the nine central characters in what is quite a light comedy drama about con artists.

But throughout, Bong leaves subtle references to what will become the film's climax. These start off small, but gradually become more frequent, and when literal push comes to literal shove, the bubbles rise to the surface and boil over. Tension is brought in as we switch to the second half of the film, when the Kims start to enjoy imagining themselves in a life of luxury - another subtle hint, perhaps. Happy-go-lucky tricksters soon become criminals, with Bong pacing this development well.

In their showhome advert for the way of life of the mega rich, the Parks are not portrayed as horrible for it. Yeon-kyo is nice, if a little slow, and the Kims recognise this; Dong-ik is complimentary enough; and the two children are normal kids - Da-song deserving of some sympathy. The Kims are more relaxed and likeable, but also manipulative and criminal in their work. Here, the poor appear more immoral.

But, as things progress, the Parks begin to show their disgust at those from poorer backgrounds. What start off as seemingly minor comments about how Ki-taek smells, become more frequent references to it, comparing it to the smell of people on the subway, and we all know what that means. Ki-taek is increasingly disturbed by these comments, repeatedly hearing it on a stress-filled night, returning home to his flooded basement apartment. Dong-ik refers to Ki-taek getting close to crossing the line, and returning from his fantasy to his reality, it may be time for that move to be made.

Despite exploiting them, the Kims initially liked the Parks; but the more they get to know them, the more they realise the Parks will never truly like them back. The stunning view from the window of the Parks' house is contrasted by the view from the gutter the Kims have from theirs, with Kyung-pyo Hong's cinematography telling a story in itself. As the Kims are punished for their crimes, sympathy grows for them, and indeed their whole neighbourhood destroyed by flooding. While they try to rescue their children from the floodwater, the Parks casually watch over Da-song as he sleeps in his teepee in their garden - it won't leak, it was ordered from America.

Both families are left scathed by the end, but which do you feel more sympathy for? Who was really exploiting who? Bong weaves these questions in subtly throughout, sucking you in.

Now, where's that subsequent "Early Bong Blu-Ray Boxset" we all know is about to come?!


Suzuki-ke no uso

Secrets and Lies
Recent figures have once again shown a decline in the number of suicides in Japan: a trend across the past decade. But Japan is still a place where rates of suicide are high, unless you live through the long, lonely nights of Greenland, of course. Katsumi Nojiri, in his feature debut, tackles both the problem of suicide and the hikikomori phenomenon and the impact both have on the family left out in the cold and/or behind.

Initially, "Lying to Mom" may feel like something of a Japanese remake of Wolfgang Becker's "Good Bye Lenin!" We start with Koichi (Ryo Kase), a hikikomori, hanging himself in his bedroom - his world. Yuko (Hideko Hara), his mother, returns home from the shops to find him. Running for a knife from the kitchen, she ends up on the floor herself; her arm slashed. It is then left for sister Fumi (Mai Kiryu) to find them both when she returns home later that day.

But with Yuko left in a coma from her injury, when she wakes on the 49th day of mourning for Koichi, along with husband Yukio (Ittoku Kishibe) and younger brother Hiroshi (Nao Omori), her family can't bring themselves to tell her about Koichi's death; suffering, as she is, from slight amnesia. Linked to Hiroshi's work contacts, they tell her he suddenly gave up the hikikomori lifestyle and moved to Argentina.

Yuko's joy at the news is huge, realising her son has a normal life, with Hiroshi's work contact sending postcards from Koichi, as well as anything loosely connected to Argentina. Going to extreme lengths for the charade, it leads to further lies, before the truth finally outs itself, with inevitable fallout.

The earlier comparison to "Good Bye Lenin!" may on the surface initially seem correct, and with its Argentine connections, could be named "Good Bye Che!" But as the story develops, this is a much more Japanese film, with various significant cultural reference points throughout. On waking, Yuko finds her family dressed in black, the 49th day of mourning the first concealment. The family also suffer with the social stigma of suicide, with Buddhist ceremonies refused on account of this. And there is also the phenomenon of hikikomori, and the family trying to uncover what may have caused Koichi to become a recluse in the first place.

Each of the family cope in their own way, with both the suicide and the deceit. Yukio haunts a soapland massage parlour hoping to speak to a woman to whom Koichi mysteriously left his life insurance; and try and find some answers to his son's mysterious life. Fumi spends her days in a grief support group, but is often unable to open up in front of other mourners of suicide victims; and her attempts at floor gymnastics are clearly affected by the distress of her words thrown in her brother's direction. While Hiroshi, an eternal child, giggles at everything.

The cast of familiar faces all do their best, with Kishibe the inscrutable father, Hara the proud mother and Omori the giggling, carefree man of youth. The ever-serious Kiryu steals the show, however, with numerous breakdowns, both in counselling and at the gym. This is very much her film. Kase, as Ryo, appears only in the opening scene, voiceovers and flashbacks, and so is both central to the film, but also on the periphery.

But despite good performances from the cast, this is a film that isn't quite sure what it wants to be. The bizarre premise is executed in an, at times, silly and inexplicable manner. This culminates in the revelation as to Koichi's fate in farcical circumstances, with Hiroshi's work colleague's drunken stupor causing him to do anything but "keep mum." But this clumsy humour is offset against moments of serious drama and emotion. While balance is always good, the two extremes on display hinder consistency. As such, you're left not entirely sure as to who this is aimed at. And, in the end, Yuki doesn't seem too distraught, even playing a foolish prank on the remainder of the family in revenge.

But based on his own personal circumstances, with an older brother who was a hikikomori who committed suicide, Nojiri provides enough of the good to not completely lose his cause. It is clear that Fumi reflects his own part in his family situation, hence why she is the key focus. And despite its lengthy run time, "Lying to Mom" doesn't drag on. But lying creates the need for more lies, which will eventually result in inconsistencies. Nojiri could have perhaps focused more on the truth, and less on the movie lies.


Tôkyô Marîgôrudo

Out with the old...
I'm currently reading Mark Schilling's latest book "Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000". Having previously read his earlier "Contemporary Japanese Film", one thing is perfectly clear: Schilling very much likes the cinema of Jun Ichikawa. I've only seen two Ichikawa films: the excellent "Tony Takitani", which I watched multiple times around thirteen or fourteen years ago; and "Tokyo Marigold", a film that I watched, but didn't really get into. The former no longer requires another chance, but the latter perhaps deserved a second outing.

Eriko (Rena Tanaka - who is not my wife) is a young woman somewhat lost in adult life. Working as a clerk for an out-of-the-ordinary Morris Minor dealership and garage - though her office appears more a British-theme cafe - she is drifting through her days of no sex and the big city. Around her, colleagues and friends appear more sure of themselves, going places with their lives, offering her friendly advice, job opportunities and chances at love.

Job opportunities come in the form of Miyashita (Yoichiro Saito), and old school friend she bumps into her on her Tokyo wanderings. Quickly, he asks her to appear in an unusual baseball commercial he is working on. This seems an empty promise. Meanwhile a work colleague offers her a chance at love. Invited to join a formal dating party, five eligible bachelors advertise their career prospects to the five young women sat opposite. It is at this party, when all is coming to an end, she bonds with the slightly older, but heavily drunk, Tamura (Yukiyoshi Ozawa). Clearly a step to the left from the rest of the group, Tamura asks for her details and she agrees to meet again while he is awake and vertical.

The pair meet and get on like the Tokyo skyline meeting the sunset, but Tamura is holding back. He reveals he has a girlfriend, the unseen Mayumi, who is away studying in the US for a year. The revelation takes the pressure off the couple, however, and there is no need to force anything. As such, romance blossoms.

Quickly, they get a flat together, under the agreement that, for a year, they will be a couple. But Eriko's life drifting on the wind is no more. She is now an adult having an affair. The twilight mood grows dark into the night, with Tamura unsheathing his drunk salaryman innards, neglecting his temporary girlfriend, as they live a lifelong relationship within the twelve month timeframe of his setting.

For a film that moves at a slow, steady pace in perpetual twilight, there is a lot of variety on offer. Ichikawa, a director of commercials by trade, mixes music videos and commercials into his tale. Ozuesque fixed camera cross-section shots of the pair's love nest are matched with a Shunji Iwai sense of modern day youthful ennui throughout. The soundtrack whistles along on the breeze, much like Eriko, though darker tones emerge once Eriko and Tamura's relationship becomes sexual.

This is very much modern Tokyo (despite being two decades old now). A Bubble Era spill-off facade of clean streets and skyscrapers are the backdrop to Eriko's wandering mind. This is a Tokyo of minimalism, full of new-build apartments furnished by MUJI, where coffee shops are the ultimate hangout. I'm sure the Tokyo 2020 organising committee would like to agree.

If that's the "Tokyo" of the title, the "Marigold" is the new replacing the old. At the house of her artist mother Ritsuko (Kirin Kiki), her uncle Kunio (Akira Terao) discusses the marigolds in the garden. And this ephemeral flower of short life cycle is the obvious homerun for Eriko's scenario: she was merely a substitute where love came with a sell-by date. On realising this, Eriko is once again drifting on the breezy soundtrack.

But it is not just Eriko's love life where the new replaces the old. Ichikawa shows a Tokyo fifty years on from Ozu's 1953 masterpiece; and Miyashita's commercial shows there is a lot to this Tokyo for the new millennium. "Tokyo Marigold", however, will not be a film held in such high regard.

A cruel twist at the end, however, shows how love's enforced deadline may have been the true facade all along. But this is not "Tokyo Evergreen". And while Tamura is left in tears, Eriko is left to think on, though now with a matured glint in her eye.

Come on. Let's play baseball...on the toilet?!

Kimi no tori wa utaeru

Cheers for the beers
"Happiness is a State of Mind" is the title of this year's Japan Foundation Touring film Programme. The idea that happiness is something different to everyone and that you have to work at it if you ever want to achieve it. Positive mental attitude, and all that jazz.

This year's programme, therefore, hand picks a selection of films that demonstrate different views of happiness and how one builds it. But this is a two-sided Brexit 50p. Do you go out positively in the world to do all you can to achieve your goals?; or see happiness before you, but shy away from taking the plunge to achieving it? Does happiness come from achievement, or from the journey towards failure? For most of us - and as this collection of films suggest - it's probably the latter.

If that's the theme, then Sho Miyake's 2018 "And Your Bird Can Sing" is a good place to kick-off the tour.

The novels of Yasushi Sato are frequently adapted for the big screen, namely the Hakodate-set "The Light Shines Only There" and "Over the Fence". Perhaps the strongest is Sho Miyake's adaptation of "And Your Bird Can Sing". While the original novel is set in early 1980s Tokyo, Miyake simply can't resist transporting it to modern day Hakodate; a move that certainly enhances the story of one wild summer for three aimless youths.

We are introduced through our unnamed narrator (Tasuku Emoto) to the story of a few months' drinking in the sun. Working part-time at a book shop, he is the ultimate slacker; frequently turning up late for work, if at all, and taking little or no interest in the shop's business. Another part-timer is student Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), who takes a liking to our hero's laidback charm, despite already being involved in an affair with book shop manager Shimada (Masato Hagiwara).

Starting a relationship, she soon meets our slacker's roommate, Shizuo (Shota Sometani), and Sachiko suddenly has a third man who takes her fancy. Sharing a bunk-bed together to save on rent, the three spend the summer living on top of each other, drinking until the early hours on a daily basis, avoiding work, their families, their studies and general adulthood altogether.

The summer is fun, but as it rolls on, Sachiko starts to develop greater feelings for the more innocent Shizuo, with whom she shares more conversation, than her apparently thought-less unnamed lover. With his lack of displaying any emotion one way or other, Sachiko feels the need to end the wonderful summer.

Miyake's creates a realistic portrayal of a carefree summer for people in their early Twenties. This is one wonderful summer, where there are no ties and the only concern is ensuring there are enough beers in the fridge. The scene at the OMSB and DJ Hi'Spec (who provided the soundtrack) gig is extended, but with all the traits of a small-level gig with: too many beers; lots of people stood around at the background; and being unable to hear each other over the music. You feel that Miyake gave them a crate of beers and sent them in and let the cameras roll. It's also ten minutes of pleasure for any fan of Japanese hip hop. Let's just say, by the end credits, I really wanted a beer.

But this carefree vibe also provides little explanation as to our trio's lives. The most is known about Shizuo's life, often meeting his older brother to borrow money (though unseen) and his struggling mother, who in turn asks him for cash. But beyond money, Shizuo seems to have little real care or concern for his family: He is without urgency on learning his mother has collapsed. Sachiko may study, but she seems to be neglecting this for sex and booze; her home never shown. And our slacker hero leaves nothing of his life explained at all. All three are keen to stave off adulthood for now.

Sachiko is the one with any sort of potential future on the surface, though what this might be is also left unexplained. Shizuo is perhaps a man of intrigue, quietly watching the world in front of his eyes, but so far has done little except work in an ice-cream factory and claim unemployment benefits. As a part-time book shop employee, our hero knows he is no good at his low requirement job. But he shows no concern for this. He is living for the now.

The males, while hardly successes, are more sure of their positions, and have something like happiness. Sachiko, however, in one summer falls for three separate men. There are obviously the financial benefits of her affair with her boss, able to go to fancier places; sexual gratification comes in the form of our hero; while Shizuo is the emotional shoulder she relies on for heart-to-hearts. But when Shizuo asks about his butting-in on the relationship with his roommate, she simply avoids the question.

The final shot also shows that she is not sure what she wants her future to be. Was she in it for just the fun? Does she see anything really beyond the summer? As a student, she is well aware her life to come will change.

As Miyake shows at the film's conclusion, our hero does finally show he is capable of thought, and indeed a desire for something. For one hundred minutes, Emoto is a face of little concern; laughter and a wry smile his only showing of any sort emotion. His live-and-let-live attitude sees him barely bat an eyelid when the two people closest to him begin to shut the door - or indeed at Sachiko's initial revelation of her affair with the boss while they are dating.

But underneath the facade, he cares for the pair: He helps Shizuo's mother when she comes calling; and violently defends Sachiko when a colleague bad-mouths her. But when faced with a definite change in circumstances, he can't help but reveal his inner thoughts. It is he who matures, while Sachiko remains indecisive.



Raw, I give it to ya...
Music, at its simplest, is a form of raw expression. Ongaku, the Japanese for music, could be read as 'sound enjoyment', if your Japanese is as bad as mine. Based on Hiroyuki Ohashi's manga, Kenji Iwaisawa's feature debut of such a name looks at a group of young delinquents, seemingly aimless, who find a way of expressing themselves in the most raw of forms.

Kenji, Asakura and Ota are three high school delinquents who sit around all day, playing computer games and not much else. Kenji, the stone-faced head of the trio, out of nowhere suddenly decides he wants to start a band, after a chance encounter where a guitar was placed in his hand. Acquiring two bass guitars and a basic drum kit, the band is formed. There is just one problem: they have no idea what they are doing.

They play anyway, with two bass guitars and drums, even giving themselves a name and developing a very basic sound. But, a folk music trio at the school have a very similar sounding name. Word gets round, and Kenji wants to meet this rival band, much to everybody's fear. But, against supposed reputation, Kenji wants nothing more than to listen to their music, and a cultural exchange is made. Surprisingly, Morita, the lead in the folk trio, loves their raw expression of sound and wants Kenji, Asakura and Ota to join them at an upcoming festival.

But, just as his love of music came from nowhere, Kenji's interest in the band is just as fleeting and he quits. With Kenji and Ota essentially playing the same sound on bass, Ota and Asakura play on and are set to appear at the festival. But Kenji discovers his sound and returns for an eruption of musical expression on stage.

It's difficult to explain why you like a certain music; you simply respond to the sound. A lack of explanation is what sums up "On-gaku: Our Sound". Kenji's decision to start the band has no reasoning, nor does Morita's decision to ask them to join the festival. In what is a script that could essentially be written on the back of a matchbox, narrative is not what is important here, but feeling. Character motivations are not a cause for concern; just letting them play their music, as the finale attests to.

Throughout, there are visual nods to psychedelia, The Beatles and even Monty Python's Terry Gilliam. But in what is a short film, there are a few extended shots of the characters doing little more than walking from A-to-B with accompanying music, as we move from music video to music; from live performance to live performance. The music is allowed to flow, with the animation a simple visual accompaniment.

And this is where the comedy in the film arises. The fact that everything is left unexplained, but met with such normality, can only prompt amusement. The dead-pan nature of Kenji's expression at all times complements the film, but it finally comes alive when on stage at the festival: a cacophony of noise fills our ears, but soon becomes a hypnotic rhythm of music taken back to its roots. Here, Iwaisawa shows music as that fleeting moment in which band and crowd alike lose themselves.

A project that has taken several years to be realised, "On-gaku: Our Sound" is an inexplicable mix of music, comedy and a sense of enjoyment that you can't quite explain.



A grass half empty
With a Hong Sang-soo film, you know what you're going to get: drunken conversations shot in long takes in a critique of human interactions; an older male artist/academic trying to seduce a younger female; a character's sense of worthlessness at it all; and a post-modern quirk to magnify it all. But that's all for the audience. The characters themselves typically seem to have no idea as to what is going on in their lives, unaware as to their role in Hong's puppet show.

"Grass", however, may be a little different in that respect, given that Ah-reum (increasing Hong muse Kim Min-hee) is very much in on our observations of the rest of the cast and is quick to put her own interpretations on what is being discussed.

Our setting, much like any Hong film, is a cafe (or bar, if you sneak in alcohol). A young couple discuss a deceased female friend - a death neither seems to have particularly come to terms with - and blame is laid at each other's feet. Their conversation coming to an end, we pan to the corner surveillance of Ah-reum, typing away on her MacBook as to the nature of the conversation we have just witnessed. It would appear she is a writer, observing those around her and fictionalising the reality.

But she is accosted by fellow cafe rat Kyung-soo (Jung Jin-young), an actor and writer, eager to know what she is up to. He suspects she has been writing about what she observes. But she puts him straight that she is no writer, merely a young lady keeping a "diary, that is not quite a diary." His rather brash offer of putting work her way is brushed aside as she leaves to meet her brother and his girlfriend for lunch.

But her family get-together doesn't end well, Ah-reum overly critical of the young couple and their choices, though seemingly far from one to comment herself. Midway, we are distracted by a conversation between a pair at the next table. We only ever see the back of the male involved, as is Ah-reum's perspective.

Having alienated herself from her brother, she returns to the cafe once more to listen in, but is instead invited to join the table of her elders, including Kyung-soo, and at last is brought into the conversation.

So, let's play a bit of Hong Sang-soo bingo: Conversations over a table in which drinks are involved; zoom-in close-ups to draw on the character's level of comfort; older men trying to seduce younger women; a quirk that allows for an insight into the nature of human interactions. "Grass" has got all of this. A bedroom is perhaps the most notable absentee from a full house, but you certainly know you have watched a Hong film.

As is increasingly becoming the case with his works, however, the focus is more on the deficiencies of a female here, as opposed to men in much of his work. Ah-reum seems to have difficulty in dealing with human interactions, stating that she, like her unseen boyfriend, is shy. Rather than feel happy for her brother at his potential engagement, she criticises both for not yet being ready for the real world and being unable to handle the situation. Her frustrations at her brother seem more aimed at herself.

But, as is the way, she is more than happy to observe and comment (to herself) on the interactions of others, with poetic descriptions as to the emotions both are feeling. With Ah-reum playing the role of audience to all other conversations, Hong is directing us to analyse her behaviour and how she chooses to observe rather than join in; eavesdropping on the lives of others and creating her own stories.

With the bland sets and long takes, like many Hong films, this is one you feel can easily be transferred to the stage, with emphasis always placed on the dialogue. The black and white film noir is typical of Hong, with his usual simple but stylish filmmaking.

But, as my neighbour in the audience commented as we left: "So short." Much like "Hill of Freedom" before it, "Grass" is more of a fleeting, chance meeting in a bar in which an enjoyable, and at times insightful, conversation is struck up. But there is no second round, and the night is cut short just as it got going, leaving you to wonder what might have been. The initial young couple and her brother and his girlfriend both suggest going on for a drink. But, unusually for Hong, the film never asks this of us, and we are given only a short snippet of life, much like one of Ah-reum's brief observations in her mind.


The House of Us

Coming of age never tasted so good
When making a coming-of-age film, a happy ending is a real no-no - how will you ever grow if everything always turns out perfect? In her second feature, "The House of Us" - coming after 2016's "The World of Us" - Ga-eun Yoon again looks at a group of young girls during their summer vacation where relationships with parents are strained, and friends are there to pick up the pieces.

Hana (Na-yeon Kim) is something of the class nerd. Winning her Classmate of the Year award at school, she starts the summer holiday with something of a mooted reaction from her parents and older brother. Wanting to have a family get away to the beach, her father acts willing, but uses her mother's being busy as an excuse; while her brother simply doesn't want to hear. With arguments all around her, she tries to help out as much as possible at home to ease tensions - her summer homework project is to create a cookbook after all.

On one of her many helpful errands, she comes across sisters Yoo-mi (Shi-a Kim) and Yoo-jin (Ye-rim Joo) at the supermarket. Ever helpful, she stays with Yoo-jin when she loses her older sister and, being their elder, starts too cook for them as their parents live and work in another town; their uncle coming in the evenings to watch over them. And that is how their summer progresses.

But as summer draws to a close, Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin's landlady keeps showing prospective tenants around. Unbeknownst to them, their parents are planning to make their move permanent. Meanwhile, for Hana, her mother seems all set to take her busy work life to Germany while her dad appears to be having an affair; a divorce imminent. Her parents wanting to give her a last wish before they split, they agree to her constant requests for a trip away. But with her new friends set to be moving away within a week, Hana is torn between her decaying family and her blossoming friendships.

From the first shot, Yoon makes it clear that Hana is a marginalised voice in her home. Her face is prominent, while her family's are not shown, but we only hear their voices, not hers. It's outside of the house: at school, the library and Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin's flat where Hana is truly heard. Hana's parents and brother when shown are arguing, drunk or in a bad mood. Nobody particularly takes the time to sit down and listen to each other. Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin's parents, and indeed supposed guardian uncle, are invisible throughout.

Mobile phones, however, feature widely. Indeed, this is the main mode of communication between parents and children. And this requires no face-to-face time. Hana, not only wanting to go on a family trip together also wants the family to sit around the dinner table together for evening meals. Something which the other three members of the family simply don't want to have time for. Hana's surrogate family, therefore, becomes Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin. Her preparing of meals for them each day gives her the familial interaction she craves; her recipes with them noted down in her book for her homework assignment. But the book is not just for school; rather a journal of the dream she has throughout the summer.

If the film itself was a recipe, however, you can certainly see numerous ingredients from previous films. The focus on the childhood perspective for adults reflects many a Kore-eda Hirokazu film, with the three leads providing natural interactions to a light and breezy soundtrack. The trio's travelling on their own recalls "I Wish" in an attempt to save a failing family unit. A lack of communication across the dinner table also brings elements of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata" to mind.

But as the chef, Yoon cooks together the elements well enough and adds touches of her own flair to make this not just a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age piece. The situation is a natural one. While the parents are far from perfect in their relationships with the rest of the family, they are not completely unreasonable alcoholics/workaholics, but are just people that need to remember to have a day off. Chan, Hana's older brother, is a typical teenage boy in all this, both annoyed and sympathetic to his sister and the situation.

Hana has a steely-eye by the film's somewhat abrupt, but ultimately satisfying conclusion: a situation that isn't fully resolved; and is neither happy nor sad, with Hana showing a hint of the matured Renko in Shinji Somai's "Ohikkoshi". Tomorrow probably won't bring Hana what she wants, but she is now at least a little more prepared for the "real trip" that is to come. And having taken things into her own hands, she finally got what she wanted out of the summer.



Miike Rediscovered
How good is Takashi Miike as a director? A man who has directed over one hundred titles, how many would you deem great pieces of cinema? In his peak years at the turn of the millennium, he was churning out five or six titles a year, but at what cost? While perhaps slightly before Miike's career really took off, in his 1999 book looking over the past decade of Japanese cinema, leading critic Mark Schilling only referenced two Miike works, one of which, "The Bird People in China", he wasn't completely complimentary of.

As such, Miike's career could be wedged more into that of the "cult". Starting off in V-cinema, before building to more mainstream works, many of his films in the latter Nineties was extreme yakuza pieces of high creativity, but at times wobbly composure.

You could pretty much get your hands on any Miike film, if you looked hard enough, from the Nineties or early Naughties after the DVD wave came in, off the back of titles such as "Audition" and "Ichi the Killer". There was no doubt that these films were a lot of fun. But, from a cult perspective. How good, genuinely, are many of his films, on which many look back fondly?

As international recognition increased, as did expectation. Could Miike still be considered a cult director, with festival accolades and bigger budgets? Indeed, much of what he has directed over the last decade, if not for much longer, would be considered average at best. The wilder movies have rarely been offset by more assured films, as they were around two decades ago. And there have certainly been periods when his films weren't as easy to come by as they once were.

But enough about my DVD collection, he's directed a new film. And "First Love" fits well into the mould of his late-Nineties work. This is a fast-paced romp of extreme violence and humour; Yakuza wars, lone heroes and insane characters. "First Love" is the most fun I've had watching a Miike film in many a year, but, like much of those Nineties works, is it any good?

Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a young boxer with a seemingly bright future. About to win a bout, he is hit with a sucker punch to the head and is floored. Scans reveal that he has a brain tumour, causing him to fall in the fight. He is lost at the news; everything seemingly over.

Also in Shinjuku, yakuza Kase (Shota Sometani) is plotting to ambush his own organisation's drug running. Under agreement with the police to not deal drugs, Kase teams up with low-life cop Otomo (Nao Omori) to get himself out of organised crime. He will take the drugs from his own men and pass them on to Otomo, taking the heat for the drugs with the police, but putting the blame on the Chinese with his family, leading to a war which Kase will miss; leaving prison in two-to-three years after everyone has wiped each other out.

So goes his plan, anyway. Otomo is to take care of drug-addict prostitute Monica (Sakurako Konishi), who lives at the apartment where the drugs will be stored; while a low-level Chinese is given the task of handling the drug dealer's girlfriend. Unfortunately for Kase, the girlfriend fights off the Chinese, while Monica flees Otomo screaming from her drug hallucinations, straight passed to wandering Leo. Protecting Monica, Leo gives Otomo a swift punch and floors him, taking his police badge.

Rumours spill throughout the streets, and Kase has the drugs, but his organisation know he has double-crossed them. Otomo needs to get his badge back off Leo and Monica. And the Chinese, who believe Monica holds the drugs, want to get hold of them themselves. All of which leads to a shoot-out of various interests and directions.

Much like the opening six minutes of "Dead or Alive", there is a lot going on: a lot of characters are introduced; and you're well aware that you will not be sitting through a conventional film. Humour is an element of "First Love" that very much stands out; and this is a good thing. Little in this film is to be taken seriously, with silly jokes and exuberant acting. Indeed, Shota Sometani stands out in his role as the double-crossing Kase, playing him with a real sense of glee at the role. Fight scenes are played out with a tongue firmly in the cheek, and all action scenes come with a laugh on the side.

The most deadpan characters in the film are Leo and Monica: a young man with promise seemingly condemned to an early grave; and a drug addict haunted by her abusive father wherever she goes. As the film's hero, Masataka Kubota barely cracks a smile all film.

As with any Yakuza film, the large number of key characters can make things either confusing or deter interest in following the plot, craving more fight scenes. Takeshi Kitano's "Outrage" comes to mind as a modern Yakuza comparison early on, but as things progress, this is very much a Miike film, ending more with a feel of "Full Metal Yakuza" or "City of Lost Souls". Indeed, the finale comes with a hint of "Dead or Alive" unexpectedness.

Like much of Miike's work, it's fair to say that in parts "First Love" is a little clunky in making everything marry up nicely, and there could have been more of this and less of that, but the experimentation to make the bits that work comes at a cost of things that don't. The end shot, however, shows a little more maturity in Miike as a director. Leo and Monica settle into their new, humble life together in a shot that is sombre and static, and is a welcome conclusion to end what madness has come before.

With "First Love", Miike has returned to the style which made his name. A director wearing many hats over the years, some have worked, while others have not. Is "First Love" any good as a film? This is far from the best film you will watch this year, but it will certainly be among the most fun - the break that we all need now and then. And perhaps a fair few years of disappointment have helped us rediscover why we first loved Miike.


Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari

The Sound of Uzbek
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's best work has always been when he's stepped away from straight horror: The psychological thriller of "Cure" and family drama of "Tokyo Sonata" his two stand-out films. His latest, "To the Ends of the Earth", shows a young woman quite literally finding her voice while lost and confused in a foreign land.

Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is a young TV travel show presenter in rural Uzbekistan working with a three man crew. Along with their translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov) they join a local fisherman to hunt a giant fish of local legend. But, as Yoko makes a brave face for the camera, they have no luck; the fisherman blaming the fact that the scent of a woman scares the fish away. Dejected, they pass on to a nearby village where director Yoshioka (Shota Sometani) talks her in to eating undercooked food for the camera. She does so with a smile.

Not exactly feeling the love from her crew, she decides to head off on her own to visit the local bazaars. But, while a travel show presenter, she knows little about the language, geography or culture of the country she is currently within. Lost, she wanders the streets alone, scared, eventually finding a bus that takes her to her hotel. On her lone journey, however, she does find something she can perhaps connect with.

Once they reach the capital Tashkent, they realise they have little workable footage. Again, Yoko wanders off alone, discovering the Navoi Theatre. Here she has a moment of revelation. On hearing Temur's story regarding the theatre, the crew seem inspired, but Yoshioka is less convinced that this will be "useable" footage. They carry on, with Yoko enthusiastic for the camera for one last try, but again her wandering sees her lost, as the closer she gets to the local milieu, the more she runs away from it.

As Temur describes when alone with Yoko, Uzbekistan is a landlocked nation in the centre of the Eurasian continent. As such, to him the sea, and indeed an island nation like Japan, represent freedom. There is perhaps an obvious metaphor at work here in the cultural differences between the nationalities. Yoko is a TV presenter who can go anywhere in the world, yet feels little freedom in her work. Her decision to release a goat for the show is a somewhat bizarre one, as is the usually rigid Yoshioka's willingness to humour her. What they end up with isn't necessarily good footage, but perhaps from the experience they learn a little about the land they are in.

The "tourist gaze" is a theme running through "To the Ends of the Earth". The crew end up with little to work with and are often frustrated: unable to locate mythical beasts; eating underprepared food; and getting lost in the bazaars. This is what the viewers will want to see. But the real Uzbekistan is seen when the camera stops.

But this is countered by the nature of modern tourism itself. While smiling for the camera, when out wandering on her own Yoko is fearful, running away from anyone speaking to her in local dialect, including the police. Filming or taking photos of official buildings in restricted areas is something commonly forbidden without permission and something, as a tour guide, she should perhaps know. But when approached, she runs, seemingly terrified by anyone not speaking Japanese.

The Navoi Theatre is a central element towards the film's conclusion, though as Temur diligently explains his motivations for learning Japanese, one feels this could be wedged-in to cement the two nations' co-production to mark the anniversary of diplomatic relations. Yoko feels a connection to the Navoi Theatre, but is this due to some unspoken telepathy of its links to the Japanese? Perhaps why Yoko feels more comfortable there.

But Yoko's connection to the theatre is two-fold. Her real desire is to sing, as she confides in cameraman Iwao (Ryo Kase). This leads to an unexpected, and somewhat awkward, moment inside the theatre. But again, from having found her voice, she is brought back to where she is instantly, again running away. Inevitably, the final shot sees Yoko return to her true calling, and it appears to be the lead in "The Sound of Music". The concluding shot isn't perhaps an image you'd want to end on, and as "To the Ends of the Earth" builds, it deserves a less awkward conclusion.

But Kurosawa is teaching us about the pitfalls of modern day tourism, which Yoko learns, but has she has learnt more about herself than the country? As she is taught the hard way, perhaps she will learn, and indeed enjoy, more about the country if she took the time to stop and listen to its people. But for her viewers at home, Uzbekistan could have been any of the four corners of the Earth.


A Dobugawa Dream

It's fair to say that the world is a difficult place in which to find your position and how you fit in. It would also be fair to say that Asato Watanabe's debut feature film - also his student thesis - is a difficult film in which to place yourself; unsure as to where exactly "A Dobugawa Dream" is going. But, as with life, while there may be some failures along the way, you need to stick with it, and eventually things might start to fall into place.

Something of a semiautobiographical character, Tatsumi (Yuwa Kitagaki) is on the verge of leaving high school. But, when meeting to discuss his career options, he is far from focused; his mind out the window. It is clear there is something troubling him, so much so that he becomes a shut-in in his bedroom, endlessly watching VHS copies of TV shows. Fully-bearded, he begins to fear the attempts of his parents to bring him out.

Escaping via the window, he flees to a rundown neighbourhood, populated by the unemployed, poor and alcoholic. After a run-in with a policeman, he comes across an unusual celebration of revellers, carting a body to its funeral. He follows and discovers the body is not a corpse, but ageing alcoholic Tsuchiro (Takahiro Fujita), who declares himself not dead, yet again, and knocks Tatsumi out cold.

Tatsumi wakes to Tsuchiro carting him to his house, seemingly adopting him as his son. He takes him to his rundown shack and Tatsumi is eventually brought into the elder's world of alcohol and erratic behaviour. Warned, but not listening, Tatsumi drops deeper into the maze of backstreets and alleyways, seemingly to become like father, like son.

Much like Tatsumi's life stage, the earlier parts of the film feel confused, odd and unsure where they're going. Random editing leads to a string of shots with little dialogue or direction, and a penchant for quirkily-timed humour. This is the want of a student director with a leaning towards the experimental, but can be understandable that some, as in the screening I attended, would give up on such an opening.

I myself, was a little unsure as to how "A Dobugawa Dream" was going to leave me feeling the morning after. But luckily, it builds as the story emerges. What starts off as a "Destruction Babies" like romp into alcoholism (rather than violence), ends up a character piece, with both the elder and the younger of the pair escaping a past, more specifically the death of a dear friend (or indeed foe).

Tsuchiro was left with an unfinished existence after the death of his shogi rival, whom he never beat, and so drifted into the maze of back streets and alcohol. Tatsumi failed to recover from a friend's suicide, though his response is more abstract. Shots and editing reminiscent of Sadako's video in "Ring" fill his memories, which feature throughout, but become clearer as he makes his escape; the image now much lucid to him when sober. Watanabe's work certainly gets you in this lost frame of mind. And perhaps explains Tatsumi's watching of redundant VHS.

Indeed, a Nineties influence is apparent throughout: the sequences of Tatsumi running and an endless maze of streets without direction recall Sabu's "Dangan Ranna", while a sense of twilight at an unexplained death harks to Kore-eda Hirokazu's "Maborosi". You also get a feel for his "Shoplifters" with the modern family of strangers living below the line and out of sight. Watanabe is clearly a student of film.

He is also well versed in the part of Osaka where is was filmed. Spending time in the rundown area, frequented by society's forgotten underclass. Locals fill the background as unwitting extras and impacted on the shoot. This is something of a love letter to the area and its people, which clearly fascinated Watanabe.

Not the longest running film, it is also one that you need to give time. But all becomes clear by the end and Tatsumi's journey reflects our own. As with a young life ending school days, it can go in a number of directions, with cinematic influence and experimentation running throughout. Watanabe's career can probably go in many directions, and I won't be guessing as to which.


Bullet Ballet

Manga come to life
Visually, each of Shinya Tsukamoto's films have their own differentiating look, while at the same time are unmistakably his. All his works are a manga come to life, with bursts of over-the-top, graphic imagery, with the energy of the moving image. Along with "Tetsuo", "Bullet Ballet's" use of black and white furthers the likeness of his films to manga: but instead quietly absorbing the images and texts from the page, they leap out at you and shake you to your core.

Goda (Tsukamoto), a somewhat timid and indecisive advertising exec, returns home to find his fiancée has shot herself in their bathroom. His life is devastated. But the key question on his mind is "how did she get hold of a gun?" To find answers, he takes to the streets, delving into the underworld of Shinjuku, approaching anyone, often foreign, he feels may be a connection to a source.

But, out of his depth, he soon finds himself the victim of con men taking his money for toys; as well as a failed attempt at some home engineering. Angered and frustrated, his further delving leads him to numerous beatings. But by chance, a foreign woman approaches him with a deal: marry her for a visa and she will hand over a gun to him. Immediately he agrees.

Seeking out the gang who repeatedly inflicted beatings upon him, he approaches them with his new toy, but is soon caught up in a gang war. Drawn to young Chisato (Kirina Mano), he helps the gang with the real gun, before joining them in their final battle.

You don't watch Tsukamoto films; you experience them. Regular collaborator, the late Chu Ishikawa, again delivers an industrial-metal-electro-punk soundtrack that seeps into every part of your brain, heightened by the sudden switches to complete silence. The urban development of Shinjuku is also used to good effect, with corrugated iron fences of building sites and cranes the backdrop to an industrial landscape of metal and violence. This is the world beneath the skyscrapers of mass urbanisation; a bleak and grotty underbelly of Tokyo of low lives, dirty clubs and gang violence.

Much like "Tokyo Fist" before it, the violence is exaggerated, with blows heavy and the resulting impact more true to manga than real life. Tsukamoto draws inspiration from the drawn image, with the facial impact and bruising those you would expect to see on the page, exaggerated so that you are aware they have been beaten. In black and white, as manga are, you feel you are watching the paper form.

The characters, typical of Tsukamoto, are obsessives, doing whatever is necessary to achieve their aim, fighting to the death. Mano's Chisato has something of Faye Wong's Faye in "Chungking Express" about her, secretly playing around in Goda's flat. Goda is also a man who will do whatever it takes to get hold of a gun, taking numerous humiliations along the way, but is in no way fazed by them.

But, as ever with Tsukamoto, the plot is a little clunky in parts along the way. Things seem to just happen out of nowhere, such as the approach of Goda's new "wife" regarding the gun; as well as his quick descent into the underworld. But plot is never what one looks for too much in his films. The style and the wild ride are what we are after, along with some iconic images. His own cinematographer again, there are numerous shots that make the camerawork a definite step up in quality from his previous films, and act as a precursor to 2002's "A Snake of June".

Overall, "Bullet Ballet" is perhaps a step down in terms of the innovation of "Tetsuo", the extreme violence of "Tokyo Fist" and the film noir style of "A Snake of June", but is certainly among Tsukamoto's better works in his distinctive brand of filmmaking that comes straight out of a comic book.


Diego Maradona

A man of two halves
Football is a game of two halves (now with 10% extra free thanks to VAR), and the career of Diego Maradona is one remembered largely due to two goals. With the third of his trio of documentaries about famous people, director Asif Kapadia portrays a man of two personas.

Looking mainly at his time in Napoli (during which essentially all the things we know of Maradona happened), the opening credits show his motorcade to Napoli's Stadio San Paolo intertwined with clips summarising the first eight years of his career through Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors and Barcelona, in all its knee-to-the-head glory. There's probably a story to be made of these years as well, but this is not the time.

We are then introduced to the first persona of Diego: the fifth child of a poor family in Buenos Aires, living in a one room shack. At 15, he signs a contract with Argentinos Juniors and has a one-bedroom apartment bought for him by the club. His family move in and he becomes the main bread-winner for a family of seven as its youngest member. What then happened to the young player in Argentina and then Spain is ignored. Instead, we are taken to a 23-year-old being mobbed as he enters Napoli's stadium to dozens of thousands of baying supporters waiting to see the world's most expensive player kick a ball.

He seems a fairly meek man, dealing with difficult questions with a little awkwardness. His introduction to Italian football is a difficult one: Naples seen as the sewer of Italy and hated by the teams from the north, it takes a while for the goals and the wins to come. But after a mid-table finish, the years soon bring with them success on the pitch - including that World Cup win in Mexico - but see the birth of Maradona.

His connections to the Camorra see a party lifestyle with late nights of cocaine and women. Affairs and an illegitimate son come before the birth of his daughters, living half of his life as a celebrity - if not god - and the other half training to burn ready for Sunday. The on the field success continues for a while, but it clearly takes its toll on his body, growing bigger as the years pass. With Napoli already a city and club disliked by fellow Italians, Maradona as its poster-boy is likewise. Italia '90 comes and brings a semi-final held at the Stadio San Paolo: Naples' nation plays its god. He scores his penalty in the shoot-out, helping to send the hosts out, in, for him, a damned if you do, damned if you don't move.

Overnight, all support for him disappears. The infamous booing of the Argentina national anthem in the final prompting cries of abuse from the captain. The final lost, he has little to go back to Naples for. His nose cocaines abuse and womanising are exposed, coming with an unprecedented ban. His time in Italy, and essentially his career now over.

As a British person, I obviously despise all other nations and races and as such my opinions of Maradona are pre-determined by an act which occurred when I was 2-years-old: the fat, cheating cocaine addict. But Kapadia has some sympathy with one-of-two-of-the-best-Argentine-footballers of all time.

While not focusing on it, he makes the point that he was a young man put under a lot of pressure to support his family financially. Then, for a city infamous for its poverty at the time, he is the world's most expensive player with the whole population depending on him to give them something to live for on Sunday. Coming close to being a living god, he delivers the promise of footballing success, but as such is hounded everywhere he goes and is a play thing for the mob. These demands see the more timid Diego create the Maradona character as a coping strategy. A clip of Pele stating he lacks the maturity to be the best player in the world is perhaps telling. But, with Pele playing in a different era, Maradona had the problems now seen in Messi's tax scandal or Ronaldo's rape accusation that come with the tag of best player in the world. Lest we forget that first player to win PFA Player of the Year in the Premier League era was a known alcoholic. Maradona, therefore, is not too different from any other modern great in coming with countless problems.

Football, however, is a lover of talking points and controversy (hence why VAR will both create new talking points but remove moments of beauty). And making a documentary to paint a picture of a player most people have already determined their opinions of is a challenge. Kapadia creates a portrait of a young man put under immense pressure who created a second persona to cope with it.

But, you do feel there could be some more to the storytelling to further this. His links to the Camorra are largely looked at in terms of cocaine supplies and using him as a celebrity endorsement. The extent of their grip on him is not fully explored to see if this was a genuine prison for him, or something he could have fled at any moment. The nature of his signing as well is left largely untold. Here is the most expensive deal ever to happen in football to a team with few prospects in a city with a poor economy. Who financed the deal would also tell more of the exact nature of his relationship with the city as a whole, not just as its best player.

This is perhaps a fault of Kapadia's style: as a pure archive footage documentary, with voiceover interviews from those involved, the opportunity for analysis isn't particularly afforded. It is more show and tell. With a running length of 90 minutes plus extra time, we are largely treated to Match of the Day highlights, only with less Gary Lineker. This can, even as a beautiful game (Villa fan) follower myself, be a little draining in terms of entertainment value.

But the barrage creates an intensity that feels appropriate to the six years the film largely covers. A whirlwind period of success with added cocaine, you get a sense of the passion, intensity and lastly hatred. As such, we gain a sympathy for him as a person, a sense of the pressures he was under, but only part of the story. More sympathy might be gained if learning more about the younger Diego; though less sympathy may be afforded if we didn't have a three decade gap in the story of his relationship with his illegitimate son. Archive footage always brings with it selectivity.

But what the footage does show is a player who could waltz passed defences at a time when defenders could slide tackle with the subtlety of a tank and how perhaps England also had some hands to play in that quarter final. He led teams with limited talent to major success, and so his tag as a true great cannot be denied.

So, does Kapadia succeed in his attempts to shed new light on a pre-determined figure? Well, to some extent. It is difficult to persuade any football fan as to their feelings, and Kapadia does go some way to creating some sympathy for the much vilified footballer. The footage available both on and off the pitch is used to good effect, as well as interviews with the man himself overlaying it. But with documentary focusing on a period rather than a lifetime, you do feel that there is more story left to tell.


Jiang hu er nü

Role Reversal
It's fair to say that the earlier films of Jia Zhang-ke could be described as slow-paced, focusing much more on a lack of movement like an observational documentary, typified by 2006's "Still Life". But since 2013's "A Touch of Sin" there has been a touch more action in his work, with storylines moved along at a pace starting to focus on the "moving" element of moving pictures. His most recent feature, "Ash is the Purest White" continues this trend of slightly more active cinema, though is still true to his earlier roots.

Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao) are a couple holding minor celebrity in their small town. Bin, a member of the jianghu, the criminal underworld of nomadic characters, is something of a big fish in a small pond, though commands respect from both those above and below him. Qiao is something of a gangster's moll, always by his side, but never directly involved in crime. Until, suffering and injury in a random street attack, Bin offers a gun to Qiao. This is when their lives cross paths.

Bin's random attack was perhaps the start of younger gangs wanting a piece of his action. Bin and Qiao's car is attacked by a bike gang, with the street altercation seeing Bin, while stronger, grossly outnumbered. Fearing the worst, Qiao reaches for the gun, steps out of the car and fires a warning shot. She has made her first step into the underworld.

Confessing to owning the gun, Qiao is sentenced to five years in prison; Bin for a single year for his part. On her release, however, the four years head start have seen Bin move on and start a new life as a legitimate businessman. Tracking him down, Qiao learns how she has been abandoned with nothing to her name. But prison brought with it a new confidence, and Qiao cons and tricks her way to money and mild adventure, enjoying a freedom before returning to her former hometown.

Bin, having failed at his new life, has seen alcoholism cause a stroke. Lost, he returns home; Qiao taking him in now she runs the local haunts. Some are happy to see the old face, other less so, and Bin feels lost, invalid and without any power. Under the same mountain view where he first handed Qiao a gun, she reminds him that he is no longer jianghu.

The Chinese title "Jianghu Ernu", translating to "Sons and Daughters of the Jianghu" (as Tony Rayns, credited with the English subtitles, wrote in Sight and Sound) perhaps gives a better idea as to the content of the film. A man and a woman grow within the realms of the jianghu, but in different directions, with Bin trying to find new money, while Qiao is a growing female confidence within this world. Though ironically the pair are far from brother and sister in this world: when they are in it, they comment how the other is not of their world, and so wouldn't understand.

Covering a number of years, it feels as though it covers a number of elements in Jia's previous films: The impact of the Three Gorges Damn echoes "Still Life"; the lost criminality of "Xiao Wu" and "Unknown Pleasures"; and the emerging violence of "A Touch of Sin". Elements of wandering seen throughout his films is also present with Qiao's encounter with a "UFO hunter" emphasising a sense of being lost and far away from home - if home does indeed exist - as well as a close encounter with some science fiction in the direction.

Eric Gautier's cinematography is simple, but effective alongside Jia's ever-slow pace, as we observe more than experience. And while there is more story to tell than is typical with Jia, he doesn't move it along any faster than he chooses to, ensuring we take everything in.

The two leads have a good chemistry in the highs and lows of their relationship in a film which sees them have numerous scenes of extended dialogue. Tao Zhao takes glee in her new found role of petty criminal, talking her way into free meals, rides and cash from easily-tricked men. Her face evolves from the smiling sidekick to the gangster noir of Bin, to stoic prisoner, to cocky trickster before settling for the hardened grin of a life in the criminal underworld. Fan Liao likewise switches from cool to sap to angry lowlife comfortably, forever the opposite of Qiao.

The film comes full circle, under the mountain where Bin first handed Qiao a gun. With this act he lead her into the jianghu. Back there years later, Bin now disabled in recovery from his stroke, she encourages him to walk by himself towards her, only to find that he will get up and walk away from her all by himself. Bin is not tied by location of relationships, and so perhaps she has brought him back into the underworld at a time when she may have being willing to climb out of it with him.


Aoi haru

Flower power
Toshiaki Toyoda's "Blue Spring" (Aoi Haru, 2001) is a film that seems to fit into several Japanese cinematic and pop culture staples. Based on a "yankii" (juvenile delinquent) manga of the same name, this fits into a long-line of Japanese manga, anime and cinema which feature teenage boys, decked out in their black uniforms, hitting each other in increasingly inventive forms of violence. Referencing the seasons in the title to reflect the characters' life stage has also been known to be used.

Asahi High is a school where the boys rule and teachers are little more than babysitters the students pick and choose whether to listen to or not. On the roof, the school's gangs meet to hang off the rails and play a round of "clapping", where the winner is the one who can let go of the railing and clap the most times before grabbing back hold once more. The victor gets to rule the school.

Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) is the latest winner and initially takes to his new role, dishing out violence to those that come across him. His gang, however, are a bit more fractured in a school world of every man for himself. The teachers make little real effort to get through to the kids, beyond Hanada (Mame Yamada), and sooner or later, the boys start to realise that they can't rely on each other, and/or simply feel alienated.

The manga was a collection of short stories, and as such, Toyoda's incarnation doesn't have much overarching plot of which to speak. The "gang" are quite independent of each other and have their own stories, with random characters thrown-in here and there.

"Blue Spring" reflects the era from which it came. The manga published in 1993, what followed were a number of films in the mid-late Nineties looking at disaffected youth in the midst of economic downturn. As such, we see a familiar tale of children seeing little future after school, similar to Takeshi Kitano's 1995 "Kids Return": A baseball player who failed to make the national finals runs away to join the yakuza; a punk told he is failing and will have to repeat a year when just wanting to graduate, stabs his friend with a stoic expression.

Asahi High is a school of fantasy. With graffiti-laden walls and toilets of spray paint, blood and filth, the teachers let the kids rule, walking in and out of class at will, eating and throwing allsorts at the blackboards. Toyoda's flare for slow motion shots is also prevalent; the gang moving en masse to guitar music. While somewhat indulgent, he achieves the desired cool: the cast maintaining a balance of tough guy with youthful naivety.

We barely see the world outside of the school's walls: the gang seeing little future beyond them. Outside, there are only concrete blocks, power lines and waiting yakuza recruiters. While this achieves some nice lines for Norimichi Kasamatsu's cinematography, it doesn't paint a pretty picture for the boys.

Kujo asks the rest of the gang individually what they want to do with their lives. They don't really have answers. Nor really does he. While achieving his position of power, he glides through the halls and overlooks the school grounds from his victory spot. He could be a star footballer, but lacks dedication to it and gradually starts to reject his new-found position. He has no explicit ambitions, choosing to go with the flow. Best friend Aoki (Hirofumi Arai) can't cope with Kujo's new behaviour. With Kujo as leader and his best friend, he had power. If Kujo doesn't have the power over others in their small world, neither does he.

Kujo, new yakuza recruit Kimura (Yusuke Oshiba) and newly arrested Yukio (Sosuke Takaoka) all plant flowers under Hanada's observation. The three grow at different rates, marked by cigarettes with their names; Kujo's the one to bloom best. By seemingly rejecting violence, he may move on to summer, but the others may be forever trapped in their eternal spring.


Love Letter

Empty envelope
Shunji Iwai first entered my consciousness (and confused it) with 2001's "All About Lily Chou-Chou". By no means an easy film to figure out. My subsequent dips into his work have left me struggling to figure out whether I like him or not. His feature debut, 1995's "Love Letter", is a film I first watched when unwell ("clinically fed-up"), and it didn't help me in feeling any better. In many ways, it helped me feel more sick, but for some reason, I was compelled to watch more of it.

Hiroko (Miho Nakayama) attends the memorial of her deceased fiancé, Itsuki Fujii, in present day Kobe. Visiting his mother's home, she looks through his old school yearbook from when he grew up in Otaru, Hokkaido. For no reason whatsoever, she notes down their address from his school days in secret. She then decides to write a letter to said Itsuki Fujii at said Otaru address.

She gets a reply.

Itsuki Fujii (Miho Nakayama) (hang on, we've heard that name - and the actress' - before!) is a librarian working in Otaru who receives a mysterious letter from Kobe from someone called Hiroko. On a whim, she responds. She too gets a reply. And thus, back-and-forth correspondence between the two women begins.

As the letters develop, we learn that Ituski (female) was a class mate of Itsuki (male), with their shared name causing much amusement to their classmates, but causing both to be a little miffed by their peers. Despite now being engaged to one of Itsuki (male)'s friends, Hiroko still can't let her first love go, and wants to learn as much as possible about her fiancé's younger self. Itsuki (female) obliges; the bringing back of forgotten memories gives her a spring in her step.

The two leads, enjoying their banter, gradually have to face some home truths. Hiroko's new fiancé, Akiba, need her to let Ituski (male) go if they are to marry. Perpetually ill Itsuki (female) has a cough throughout, paralleling her father who died from a cough left to simmer. Choosing to put their touching reminisce to bed, the pair begin to get on with their lives.

Now, for all that is good with this film, I feel that it is quickly countered by a great annoyance. In fact, watching a second time when not ill, I again was often annoyed by this film.

Annoyance Number 1: The premise is a little bit cheese, isn't it?! Hiroko states that her writing the initial letter was as a way of confirming that her love was gone - a "letter to Heaven." This is fine, but the fact that, while the name is correct, the address supposedly no longer exists. The initial letter reaching the unintended recipient is a bit farfetched. I know you're supposed to allow for artistic license, but this simply annoys me and leads me to question the credibility of everything in the film, particularly Akiba's glass-blowing techniques.

Charm Number 1: The opening shot sees Hiroko lying in the snow (for some reason, no real reason probably; another annoyance). We then pan to her walking down towards the memorial. This is a very nice shot, complemented by the soundtrack by Remedios. Perhaps a nod to his pre-career in music video, Iwai certainly knows how to add music to visuals, and, as in his other films, the cinematography is fine, creating enough whimsy to leave you wanting more.

Annoyance Number 2: This music video expertise, however, creates a whole lot of style over substance; which is essentially the purpose of music video. While there are some great shots on display here, from Noboru Shinoda, they feel there simply because they look nice. As discovered in his other films, Iwai tries to pack his films with mystery and unusual artistry, but essentially it all feels a bit naff. His films, by-and-large, are art for the sake of it. There is a lack of real meaning behind it all. Watching his films, you will not learn much about the human condition, but a lot about what mainstream media wants you to enjoy.

Charm Number 2: on that mainstream point, this is certainly a well put together film, ticking the right boxes in pacing and ticking the right boxes in tugging on the ol' heart strings of remembering days gone by. This is the exact sort of film which will lead people to say "I watch too many movies", in that it is, for a novice, the sort of film that sits perfectly alongside anything Hollywood can throw its way. This is good movie making and Iwai certainly knows what he's doing, with all the gloss and sheen the seemingly large budget offers. However, if you want some more depth, this is perhaps not the place.

Annoyance Number 3: This is sick. Just really sickly sweet. Iwai's TV movie past gives an overly sentimental feel throughout. We're taught when to emote with the soundtrack timed perfectly, and the Nakayama voiceovers of the letters are delivered in a voice that just demands you to get all gooey about things. As with much TV drama, you are not required to think too much, simply feel, and your feelings are conducted by Iwai. This approach simply annoys the likes of me, who feel they are superior to the likes of you.

I could probably endlessly list the elements of "Love Letter" which annoy me, but it has - I'm not sure what the French call it, but - a certain je ne sais quoi about it. It's like a catchy pop song which you know you can't stand, but still hum. It's silly, but easily flows through you and touches you in a way you know is inappropriate.

"All About Lily Chou-Chou" is a film that leaves you asking a lot of questions. It contains a lot of elements which are unexplained, largely because it doesn't do a huge amount to explain them. But it leaves its mark. Other works by Iwai, namely "Undo", "Picnic" and "Swallowtail Butterfly", however, are in parts daft, over-stylised and try too hard to be art; the results quite messy.

"Love Letter" is far from messy, but it's too perfect at the same time. It's good for being the ultimate popcorn-movie-fodder-switch-off. But, if you would prefer your brain didn't turn to mush (probably a massive exaggeration), I probably wouldn't recommend it. This letter has you turning the page, but mainly because you're asking "Where is the love?"



Slow burner
Recently watching Yukiko Mishima's "Dear Etranger" - where an everyday male is pushed to his limits, but rather than exploding violently, returns to a calm after a passive aggressive outburst - I was struck by the hero's choice to keep on the straight and narrow, rather than let that tension get the better of him. Based on the Haruki Murakami short "Barn Burning" (and also William Faulkner's story of the same name), "Peppermint Candy" director Lee Chang-dong chooses to let that tension out violently, allowing it to boil to an inevitable conclusion.

Adapting the character backgrounds, their interactions, however, are reasonably faithful to the original short. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is somewhat of a lowly figure in Seoul. A farmer's son, he works low-level jobs while holding his ambition of becoming a writer. By chance he meets an old school friend from his farming village, Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) and the pair get chatting, meeting on several occasions before consummating their born-again friendship. But, having saved some money, she intends to travel to Africa, asking Jong-su to take care of her (non-existent) cat.

On her return, following an attack on the airport in Nairobi, Hae-mi returns, though not alone. Asking him to meet her at the airport, Jong-su is surprised to see her accompanied by the suave Ben (Steven Yeun); the trio then going for a meal together. Intrigued by his writing, Ben often accompanies Hae-mi whenever she meets up with Jong-su. Though feeling uneasy about being the third wheel and out-of-place among Ben's high society friends, Jong-su is also suspicious of Ben's wealth for one so young and mysterious about his earnings.

His father imprisoned for a violent outburst, Jong-su has to return to his family farm to tend to its needs. It is on the farm, after smoking some weed together, that Ben reveals to Jong-su his passion for burning greenhouses: ones simply asking to be burnt down. This only adds to the man's mystery. Indicating that he has found his next "victim" nearby to Jong-su's farm, Jong-su is obsessive in trying to figure out which it will be. After receiving a call from a distressed Hae-mi, she subsequently disappears, leaving him to obsessively pursue Ben in order to find answers to both Hae-mi's whereabouts and the puzzle of the next greenhouse.

The first thing to note about "Burning" is that it is long. At two-and-a-half hours with a slow pace, Lee allows a long of time for the suspense to rise, which he does well. Jong-su's life is coming to a low point: his dad in prison, taking over a failed farm and no clear career path or love life to speak of. Almost as if researching for a novel, he plots the possibilities for Ben's next barn attack, as well as staking out his home - this has become what he lives for. But the length doesn't drag too much; come the end, you are searching for numerous answers. "Burning", much like the Japanese short story, leads a lot of open ends and leaves it up to you to piece them together.

Ben is the anti-Jong-su: successful, confident and full of mystery. Steven Yeun plays him adeptly; his time in America giving him an aura of the foreign in Jong-su's world. His charm and seeming boredom at Hae-mi - the nature of their relationship unclear, as it is with his subsequent love interest - make Jong-su question what his exact motives are, fuelled by his story of burning greenhouses. Was this merely a stoned prank, or is there a much more sinister man lying beneath? He is fully under Jong-su's skin.

Ben is almost calling Jong-su to act. A man of mystery, he seems as if he doesn't even know himself, living the high life, but without any real purpose. As in his interview in Sight & Sound, Lee wanted to show the difficulties for today's youth in South Korea. Jong-su has nothing but intentions and feels unable to act on them; while Ben has everything but no sense of purpose. Jong-su's final act is the rage of the have-nots against the haves.

The ending may feel somewhat inevitable by the time it comes, but much like Jong-su's obsession, the longer you leave it and the more you mull it over, the more intriguing it gets. Having re-read the short after, as well as adding the ending, Lee adds a greater sense of mystery, obsession and social comment. What starts as a burning candle, explodes like a firework.

Osanago warera ni umare

What lies beneath...
Often when a film explores the underlying rage of an middle-class, middle-aged, middle-management type, it will explode in a terrible act from which there is no turning back. Yukiko Mishima's "Dear Etranger", however, chooses not to go for the sensational, and is an exploration in how it's easier to simply lose it rather than stick to the straight and narrow.

Makoto (Tadanobu Asano) is a man struggling between two families. Divorced and re-married, he struggles to balance keeping contact with his daughter from his first marriage, Saori (Raiju Kamata), and treating his two stepdaughters, Kaoru (Sara Minami) and Eriko (Miu Arai) as if they're his own.

Playing the good husband and father, he doesn't stay after work to drink with colleagues, takes all of his annual leave and tries as much as possible to include his two new daughters in his life. However, his good intentions at home see him first for the chop when his company restructures, leaving him relegated to working in a warehouse.

At home, while Eriko plays along with the scenario, the elder Kaoru is less happy to play along at happy families, wanting to see her real father, the way he meets with Saori. Adding a further difficulty to his situation, his new wife, Nanae (Rena Tanaka) announces she is pregnant, leaving Makoto wanting to cut his losses and move on.

However, when looking at two other fathers: Kaoru and Eriko's real father, Sawada (Kankuro Kudo); and Saori's stepfather see him stick to being a father to all four of his children, the tension released and returning to normal.

Throughout the first half, Mishima keeps a kick drum soundtrack playing, signifying the tension building under the surface for Makoto. Despite all the negative points coming to his life, he keeps going with a stoic attitude. But the repetition and constant grief he receives from Kaoru, along with the news of the pregnancy, cause this tension to rise to the surface. Kaoru's words both push him over the edge and bring him back from the brink when she compares him to her real father.

Makoto's anger comes out in realistic and unspectacular bursts. Rather than simply lashing out, his nature is more passive aggressive, carrying out Kaoru's request in anger. Asano's performance and Mishima's direction create a believable response to the situation and feels a truthful reflection of family tensions. Though the spiteful nature of Kaoru might seem a little strong for some, but she is a girl struggling to accept the situation.

No one character is portrayed as a hero, however, or indeed a monster. Sawada may be shown to have been a terrible father in flashbacks, but on meeting him today, he is very aware of how he is when it comes to children and his thoughts on parenthood; a life he simply doesn't wish to have. Makoto also is guilty of unconscious bad habits, pointed out to him ex-wife Yuka (Shinobu Terajima). Her words clearly sit with him in his better understanding of Kaoru, becoming a guiding father to her, rather than simply forcing her to call him "Dad." All can learn something from one another.

Mishima paces the film well, switching between the present day and flashbacks of key moments in the previous marriages. In a career that hadn't quite hit the heights until now, "Dear Etranger" is a mature film, and shows that there is potential for Mishima to develop into a consistently strong director. Asano's performance also shows his versatility; an older man now, giving an equally mature performance as a man trying to keep his tensions under control, and not always succeeding. Both create a realistic character and show that it's more difficult to keep your cool and keep going than to let it all out in a violent outburst.

Yu wo wakasuhodo no atsui ai

Bathed in Tears
It's funny how some coincidences happen. Just before going to watch Ryota Nakano's "Her Love Boils Bathwater" I read Mark Schilling's review of Seijiro Koyama's "Sakura" from his book "Contemporary Japanese Film". To start, he quote Donald Richie with whom he watched the film: "Now that was a Japanese movie." This is a statement that could be lodged firmly at the start of any review for Nakano's film.

So I went there. Featuring a cast of people you have definitely seen in other films, this is a classic Japanese movie of a constant barrage of turmoil heaved our heroine's way, forcing her to dig deep to overcome adversity, with a big dollop of "we can succeed if we all pull together" spirit.

Futaba (Rie Miyazawa) is a single mother to her sole daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki). Living at their now defunct public bathhouse - the owner, her husband, having "disappeared like steam" - she works in a bakery while Azumi struggles with bullying at school. On learning she has terminal pancreatic cancer, she feels it's time to re-ignite an old flame.

Having located her husband Kazuhiro (man of hair Joe Odagiri), via a Japanese staple PI (Taro Suruga), she drags him, and his illegitimate daughter Ayuko (Aoi Ito), back to the bathhouse to open its doors once more. As Futaba's illness worsens, so do Azumi's school troubles, but tears provoke strength in her daughter to overcome the bullies and take on her share of responsibility for the bathhouse.

Planning one final road trip with the girls to see Mount Fuji, Futaba has one final revelation for Azumi: she is not her real mother. It is following this that Futaba's health takes a turn for the worse, seeing out her final days in a hospital bed while her family keep the bathhouse waters running.

In the world of "Her Love Boils Bathwater", the turmoil that needs to be overcome seems to be that of abandoning mothers: Ayuko has been abandoned by her mother, left with her loafing buffoon of a father; PI Takimoto is always accompanied by his young daughter after his wife died in childbirth; and as we discover, Azumi is not Futaba's daughter, but the child of the deaf-mute ex-wife of Kazuhiro.

All of these young women find a surrogate mother-figure in Futaba, showing her strength of character to help raise and comfort them, despite, as we learn, having been abandoned by her own mother when a young child. All this doesn't exactly paint a great image of mothers, but also makes Miyazawa and her relationships with her fellow cast members the strength of the film.

Nakano tried to build close relationships between the cast during shooting, creating an almost temporary family among them. And this works. The young "daughters" respond well to Futaba when she's at both her most strict and caring, and grow as Futaba declines. This is a far cry from Odagiri's performance as the seemingly apathetic Kazuhiro. He seems to perpetually play the role of an eighteen year-old boyfriend responding to his girlfriend's calls to meet her parents, while smoking a cigarette, but he does this with an effortless cool; the perfect foil to Futaba's strength.

But while the acting and character relations are strong, the Japanese movie Richie was referring to perhaps sends this film into overkill territory. Adversity is slapped around our faces like a wet fish, with tears thrown straight into our eyes by the bucket-load. This somewhat detracts from the power of Futaba's struggle, with certain elements that could have been removed. Poignancy can come a little more subtly.

When I watched Akio Kondo's"Eclair" I was perhaps somewhat naive in my conclusions. While indentifying the over-sentimentality on display, I should have perhaps been more aware of the staple diet of Japanese commercial cinema and its need to tick boxes. You simply must have someone give someone a bike ride. The "all pulling together" spirit of the film's conclusion is as cheesy as it is sickly sweet.

Put forward as Japan's 2017 Oscar submission, this is a film that certainly represents Japanese film. The fact that it wasn't put forward for nomination, however, reflects its overall quality.

Kamera wo tomeruna!

Keep on rolling...
Perhaps for some time now, cinema has been lacking in original ideas for stories, meaning that style is becoming more important. CGI, films shot entirely on green screen and the failed attempt at 3D have seen special effects used as a way of overcoming this. But as hipsters love independent movies, increasingly there seems to be a move towards special effort, as opposed to effects.

While not an overall excellent film, 2017's "Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops" was shot in one sixty-plus minute take, including various locations and musical interludes along the way. And the "Inside No. 9" team revisited the idea of filming a live episode last year. Relative unknown director Shinichiro Ueda's "One Cut of the Dead" (or more appropriately the Japanese title: "Kamera o tomeru na!" / "Don't Stop the Camera") - a film within a film within a film - combines this use of a single take with the perils of trying to shoot scripted material live.

In an abandoned army facility, a girl is attacked by her zombie boyfriend. Except that she isn't. Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) is a low-rent actress starring in a zombie film directed by the erratic Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu). Dismayed at her forty-second take failure, they break from filming. But as they wait around, the small crew are attacked by zombies - Higurashi knowing that the location has a "history" of army experiments.

What follows is a one-shot chase as the survivors try to escape their newly dead attackers, with awkward dialogue, strange behaviour, blood splattering and breaking the fourth wall. The sole survivor, Chinatsu is left standing on the roof of the facility, staring up at the slowly and awkwardly rising camera as the end credits then scroll up the screen.

But we haven't got there yet.

It is after this thirty-plus minute single take that "One Cut of the Dead" actually begins. A month earlier, Higurashi is approached by producers from the "Zombie Channel" to film a single-take zombie film to be broadcast live in the afternoon - his "cheap, but average" style seemingly what they're looking for. Something of a hack director, he is initially reluctant, but is too weak to say "no." As such, he takes on the role and is introduced to his cast and crew: a less than inspiring bunch.

After a troubled preparation, the day of the shoot comes, but as they prepare for their risky move, everything that can go wrong goes wrong. As such, Higurashi and his crew are left to improvise and get by as best they can, making sure to follow the mantra: "kameru o tomeru na!"

Itself a film made on a very small budget, I'd seen a lot about the record-breaking profit levels that "One Cut of the Dead" had already made and the strong social media marketing efforts by the cast and crew. As such, I chose to read little about the film itself before seeing it, trying to remove all "Blair Witch" comparisons and expectations.

Not just a film within a film within a film, this is essentially the film, making-of and bloopers all-in-one. To start the "one cut" is a breath-taking ride of hilarity; seemingly baffling acting, behaviour and dialogue; blood splattering; gore; talking directly to the camera; various mistakes; and what must be a very tired cameraman. As the initial end credits roll, we're left thinking "o-kay."

The film's second part offers explanation as to the above, in what is a witty, well-crafted script to create all of the mistakes that appear in the live broadcast we're thrown into. The stress and pressure the crew are put under shows, with none worse affected than Higurashi and his wife, Nao (Harumi Shuhama), drafted into the production late on. Both go rogue, not so much acting, as letting their frustrations out - the director determined to make the shoot work for the sake of his art.

The television producers, while setting the difficult task, are less concerned by the art, embracing the chaos. Indeed, much of the middle section of "One Cut of the Dead" feels like a Japanese TV drama; the style of shooting and music feeling very much part of a Japanese small screen. But this is a film made for the big screen and a big audience. The laughter track provided by a big crowd adds to the undoubted fun that this is. Ueda shows that a lot of ideas that come out of a live shoot will be improvised out of necessity, and has fun in doing so. The laughs are big, the timing spot-on and the acting suitably awkward.

But while showing improvisation is necessary, Ueda's film is one that has been carefully thought-out and choreographed, like a well rehearsed stage production. The cast and crew have obviously been challenged in making this, and the crew's efforts are shown as the actual end credits roll in true Jackie Chan fashion: the "making-of" cameraman following the actual camera and sound men as they take a well-earned drinks break as the camera continues to roll.

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