If you missed last year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner Shoplifters here’s another opportunity to see filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda in action. Kore-eda’s latest is Shinjitsu (international title: The Truth),which marks a celebratory first foray into working with an international cast and staff. And what a cast: the leads are French femme fatale extraordinaire(s) Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, joined by American indies icon Ethan Hawke.
Don’t let the Kanji character title fool you – nothing about “Shinjitsu is even remotely Japanese. To my relief and Kore-eda’s credit, he’s not pandering to western ideas of ‘Japanese-ness’ here, Not even a mention of a sushi restaurant. And he never shows signs that he’s a bit awed by the exalted figures walking around on his set. He simply goes about doing what he does best, which is portraying women in the family circle. (He does that with men too, but with women his gaze is warmer and far less analytical.) The filmmaker is especially adept at observing the emotional tug-of-war that inevitably erupts between older mothers and middle-aged daughters, the gentle power-mongering between husbands and wives, or the family matriarch quietly exerting her influence on the rest of her family. In Shoplifters, Kore-eda paid special attention and tribute to Kirin Kiki who starred as a sly, feisty old woman on the brink of destitution, surrounded by a family that subsisted on theft and shoplifting. Kiki died last year at the age of 75, – the same age that Catherine Deneuve is now. Kore-eda has said in interviews that he finds older women fascinating, not just because of the lifetime of stories they harbor but because they don’t capitulate easily to his directions, and has their own opinions.
With Catherine Deneuve in Shinjitsu, Kore-eda’s gaze lingers long and lovingly over the stunningly smooth contours of her face. When she speaks, everyone else falls silent, as Kore-eda makes sure she commands the kind of attention usually reserved for royalty. But then, pourquoi pas? Deneuve is probably the closest presence to royalty in France anyway. If Marie Antoinette were around to see Deneuve, she would probably be a fan.
In this, Deneuve plays Fabienne, a veteran French actress who has been estranged from her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) for years. But now her daughter, son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) and granddaughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) has arrived in Paris from New York where they live, ostensibly to celebrate the publishing of Fabienne’s autobiography. From the beginning scenes when Lumir, Hank and Charlotte are rolling their suitcases across Fabienne’s large garden to get to her house, everyone’s nerves are on edge. Lumir is worried about what her mother may have wrote about her, and pissed off that Fabienne hadn’t sent her the galleys, even though she had promised. Hank – a TV actor, is uneasy about the fact that his wife pays most of the bills (Lumir is a screenwriter) and he doesn’t speak French. Even 7-year old Charlotte is apprehensive about meeting “grandmere,” as she understands that Fabienne isn’t your typical doting grandma. Indeed, Fabienne’s reception to the trio is cool and matter of fact, devoid of frilly dramatics that can accompany family reunions.
Lumir and her family is set to stay for a week, and Kore-eda traces each day with meticulous attention to detail. Fabienne is working on a movie – a sci-fi film about a mother who never grows old, but can only see her daughter once every 7 years. Lumir ponders over the wealth of meaning in that premise, while Fabienne just wants to get into the role and be good at it. Everyday, mother, daughter and granddaughter drive together to the film set and Lumir learns to put her initial animosity aside to look after her mom and enjoy her time there. Back at home, Fabienne’s current live-in boyfriend makes all the meals and her long-time secretary Luc arranges all her business affairs. Clearly, Fabienne hasn’t lost her allure to men; they flock around her like bugs to an incandescent light bulb. Even Lumir’s vagabond dad Pierre puts in an appearance. And one night when Fabienne kisses Hank good night, he becomes giddy enough to tell his wife all about it.
In the midst of it all, Lumir’s old resentments toward her mother come tumbling out of her emotional closet, but mother and daughter have both reached a point when they know that arguments won’t change anything – least of all, Fabienne. “I was never a good mother, but I am a splendid actress which is far more important,” says Fabienne at one point. Deneuve wears that line like a queen draping a long fur coat, and damn what the animal activists might say. (In the film, Fabienne walks her dog in leopard skin, the irony of which goes right over her head.) And Lumir turns her face away, and you can see she’s trying to hide a smile as if to say, “that is SO my mother.” It’s odd, eclectic moments like these that Kore-eda loves to depict; and no doubt it wouldn’t have gone over so lightly had the cast been Japanese. Family relations on the archipelago tend to be weighty, accelerated by decades of sameness and continuity. Kore-eda frequently punches a hole in that schematic, and he proceeded to tear that wide open in Shoplifters.
However, in Shinjitsu, and in Paris, Kore-eda seems to breathe easier, untethered by conventions, with a lot less to rebel against or prove. Apparently, the man doesn’t speak French beyond a few mundane phrases and the screenplay (written by him) was adapted into French by Lea Le Dimna. He made the whole thing mostly on gut-feeling and intuition and in many ways, Shinjitsu is his best work. Will he leave Japan to become a full-fledged international director? After Shinjitsu, that seems a likely scenario, which means the Japanese film industry will just have to carry on without him. What a devastating loss.
Certain facts of life we know to be true. The tide will turn. The sun will rise. Hayao Miyazaki is the god of Japanese anime. Still, the throne may be ready for a shakedown – or even a partial step down on the part of Miyazaki. Anime filmmaker extraordinaire Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) has blown a huge hole in the fortress of Miyazaki’s storied production company Studio Ghibli, with his latest: Tenki no Ko (International Title: ‘Weathering With You’).” It’s a semi-utopian spin on the dismally dystopian subject of climate change, and the ending has instigated a controversial firestorm on social media. The question at the eye of the storm is this: “Should we forgive the protagonists for putting their personal happiness before the greater good?”
Though the verdict is still out, my guess is that Hayao Miyazaki would probably say a loud “no way”. As the ultra-stoic-but-always-benevolent tyrant of Japanese anime, he has consistently sacrificed his characters’ romantic inclinations to “much bigger things,” as he once said in an interview – i.e., the benefit or survival, of human society. In a Miyazaki story, boy and girl will get to meet but they will never get together, as there are much bigger things at stake.
In Weathering With You the Tokyo metropolitan area is locked into a rainy season that won’t go away. No one has felt the feeblest of sunshine or glimpsed a patch of blue sky for months. The only exit out of this perpetual wetness seems to lie in the hands of a pretty teenage girl named Hina (voiced by Nana Mori) Her sort-of-boyfriend Hodaka (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) is sort of her boyfriend, because they don’t exchange so much as a kiss–gleans Hina’s secret power. Initially, he advises Hina to cash in by starting a fair weather business and Hina agrees to go on social media and advertise her abilities as the “good weather girl”. Soon, orders for good weather start pouring in and Hina is summoned to a barbecue party here, a sports event there, or even an ancestral ritual at an old lady’s home. The money’s not bad either, and as Hina’s little brother Nagi (voiced by Sakura Kiryu) joins in, the trio start to feel like a cozy little family.
Sixteen-year old Hodaka is too shy to admit his love for Hina–especially since she has informed him that her 18th birthday is coming up and therefore, she’s way too old for a kid like him. That doesn’t stop Hodaka from going online and researching the perfect birthday gift, which he buys with the money he made with Hina. All this will most certainly elicit stern disapproval from their parents but thankfully, there are no such people in Weathering With You. Hodaka has run away, from home and parents left behind on one of the Izu islands scattered along the Pacific. Hina’s mother died a short while ago and she is supporting Nagi in a tiny apartment near Shinjuku. First, she was on the night shift at a McDonald’s and when that didn’t work out, she made a half-hearted attempt to become a porn actress before Hodaka pulled her back.
All the while, the rain never stops.
Fans of Shinkai know dark skies and heavy rains are a big part of his m.o. Plus, the precise, almost photographic depictions of Tokyo’s train stations (mostly the Yamanote line) and streets, especially in the Shinjuku area. Weathering With You has ample portions of both – the story opens on rain-soaked streets, inky puddles and the lesser known alleyways in the Yoyogi neighborhood. When Hina clenches her fingers and prays to the heavens, the clouds part, exposing a glorious patch of azure sky and splendid slants of sunshine. People put their umbrellas away to look up with a smile, and Hodaka rightly observes that “it’s amazing how good you feel when it’s cleared up.”
The contrast of bad weather and good, is one of the factors that propel the story forward – you get a feeling of how badly people need the sun, and what lengths they will go to get it.
The implication is that Tokyoites are ready to sacrifice Hina on the altar of blue skies, even if they’re only very vaguely aware of her powers or even her presence. In the movie, Hina is a ghostly figure whispered about on the Net, and her abilities are never totally understood. The terrible truth is that the more Hina makes good weather happen, the less there is of her own self; her trade-off with fine weather is her own, physical existence.
One morning when Hodaka wakes up, she’s gone without a trace, save for the bathrobe she was wearing the night before.
(SPOILER ALERT: That is nowhere near the ending for Hina or Hodaka、so don’t let this review make you feel like we’ve ruined the movie. ↖)
In reality, Japan braces itself for a rainy season (usually occuring at the beginning of June and lasting four to five weeks) that wreaks havoc on many areas across the archipelago. This year, southwestern Japan was flooded by torrential rains and in Fukuoka city, trucks and cars were submerged in rainwater while soil erosion led to landslides that caused thousands of people to lose their homes. Tokyo wasn’t as bad but enough water came down to partially shut down public transportation and delay construction on Olympic facilities.
In Weathering With You rainfall spells dire consequences for the metropolis as entire neighborhoods disappear underwater and mighty architectural monuments like the Rainbow Bridge, become steeped in water. Still, as a sage old woman in the movie remarks, “It’s all right, Tokyo has gone back to its natural state. That’s all this is.” Indeed, the Japanese capital is a 400-year old artificial island made on a landfill and the greater part of Shinjuku as we know it today, used to be swampland. If we can live with that, surely we can live with Hina getting to have a life of her own, and maybe, eventually–perhaps–falling in love with Hodaka. And the greater good be damned.
Want to talk about movies? From the vantage point of a film writer, the Heisei Era (January 8, 1989 to April 30, 2019) felt like a relationship that neither party had the courage to end. You know – the one where the occasional moments of joy are almost enough to blot out the periodic outbursts of blah. On the plus side, the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the PIA Film Festival’s indies support system enabled young directors to go from “mom, I think I’ll make movies for a living” to getting listed on imdb.com in an unprecedented short span of time. On the minus side, budgets dried up as the economy sank into the mires of a 20-year recession. Japanese movies lost the clout points earned by the cinematic giants of old, like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. The films that came out were drastically reduced in scale. In the meantime, rival filmmakers in China and South Korea emigrated to Hollywood and stunned the world with grandiose, mythical stories funded by mega-budgets.
Still, we kept slingin’ that hammer because deep down in the recesses of our souls, we suspected that this is as good as it gets. Here’s a guide to take you through the most memorable movies (including the bad, the good and the ugly) that adorned the Heisei era – in random order.
1) Spirited Away『千と千尋の神隠し』2001
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
In many ways, Heisei belongs to Hayao Miyazaki, who at 78, remains Japanese anime’s biggest influencer. As co-founder of anime production company Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s works have always been gorgeous to look at but not always easy to understand; he has always avoided there feel-good formulaic plots favored by of Disney, designed to make everyone feel special and loved. Instead, the grand master of Nippon Anime has loftier plans. Part of it comes from his love of flying – Before WWII, Miyazaki’s family owned and operated a small aircrafts manufacturer and apparently, he was drawing airplanes before he could walk. What Japanese film critics describe as the “soar factor” is prevalent in almost every one of Miyazaki’s films, a sensation of flight, freedom and autonomy as the characters aim for the sky and struggle to gain control over their destinies. In Spirited Away,the soar factor is embodied by a flying dragon, and an impossibly high staircase that 10-year old protagonist Sen must navigate several times each day, if she is to survive and rescue her parents who have been changed into pigs. Spirited Away is a great piece of entertainment but it’s also classic Miyazaki – philosophical and stoic to the very last frame.
2) Minbo『ミンボーの女』1992 Directed by Juzo Itami
In the west, Juzo Itami is best known for Tampopo, a hilarious and sensual celebration of food. Minbo is far less light-hearted.
As the son of eminent prewar filmmaker Mansaku Itami, Juzo had always banked on his rich-kid image and a man-about-town snobbishness, both of which he deployed to full advantage in his films. But Minbo was a different breed. The story of a lawyer specializing in organized crime (played by Itami’s wife and leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto) hired to deal with yakuza (Japanese gangster) thugs, Minbo is dark and accusatory. The yakuza are depicted for what they are: childish, insecure bullies protected by clans interested only in profit (not honor, as most Japanese movies would have us believe). To prove his point, Itami swaps out Miyamoto’s trademark buoyancy for a rigid and sometimes leaden performance and the some of the action sequences seem over-the-top silly. Still, Minbo is probably Juzo Itami’s most important work, not least because it marks a crossroad in both his career and his life. After the release of Minbo, Itami was attacked by yakuza henchmen sent from the notorious Goto clan and got his face slashed up. Five years later, he jumped to his death from his office window. Whether Itami’s death was voluntary or enforced (by Goto’s men) remains an open mystery.
One out of 7 children in Japan are living below the poverty line, with school lunches as their main source of nourishment. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Shoplifters, that number feels like more. Starring the always watchable Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as a down and out couple raising a 10 year old son in the ramshackle house of an elderly ‘obaachan (grandma),’ The Shoplifters won Koreeda the Palme D’Or at Cannes – the first ever for a Japanese director. The Abe Administration took offense at how Koreeda took the nation’s dirty linen and washed it in public so to speak. But The Shoplifters did wonderfully well at the box office, soaring to number 4 in the list of Japan’s highest grossing films of all time. One of the takeaways of this film is that in spite of their shoplifting, hand-to-mouth existence, the family is united by a fierce loyalty and is somehow, amazingly content – a rarity among Japan’s urban families mired in stress and societal pressure. A poignant and ultimately tragic film, The Shoplifters makes you want to see it again and again.
Directed by Takashi Miike
Does Takashi Miike have nightmares and if so, what can they possibly look like? As the master portrayer of Japanese stab-and-slash violence, Miike is notorious for his unflinching dedication to drenching the screen in blood and gore. Ichi remains his most memorable work, not least because it stars the internationally respected Tadanobu Asano and the deadpan Nao Omori as rival yakuza henchmen ostensibly bent on revenging the death of their boss. The duo’s real objective however, turns out to be the high savored from killing as many human beings as possible, in the most gruesome of ways. The backdrop is Kabukicho, Shinjuku at the turn of the century, and Ichi’s glamorized violence makes the whole place look dangerously alluring. Present day Kabukicho has turned into a staid tourist trap with surveillance cameras placed in every nook and cranny, to nip violent incidents in the bud, apparently. No worries – even the yakuza go around with eyes glued to their phones.
5) Kamome Shokudo『かもめ食堂』2006
Directed by Naoko Ogigami
Heisei was an era in which many Japanese women categorically refused to get hitched and even more to give birth. The birth rate plummeted to an all-time low of 1.43. In 10 years, one out of five women (and one out of four men) are expected to live out their lives without ever having a partner which may strike the casual observer as a spectacularly tragic statistic. For director Naoko Ogigami however, the numbers are fodder for her particular genre of filmmaking. Kamome Shokudo is her breakthrough work that deal with a trio of single women who come together in Helsinki. One of them, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) runs a local diner and the other two (played by Hairi Katagiri and Masako Motai) decide to work there as well. The utter absence of emotional drama (but an abundance of great food) is incredibly healing as you realize that Japanese women may have more freedom and control over their lives than we thought. Best line: “Onigiri is the soul food of Japan.”
Shinya Tsukamoto is a weird and wonderful film buff. For the entirety of the Heisei Era, he has acted, produced and directed his own films – always on a minuscule budget and a minimal number of staff. He even nabbed a part in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (for which he auditioned along with everyone else), prompting the great Scorsese to seek Tsukamoto out on set and shake his hand.
Last year, Tsukamoto came out with Zan which he shot in less than a month and starred as a wandering samurai in the last days of the Edo Period. The film is brilliant for two reasons: 1) it highlights the samurai class as reluctant murderers who must cut people up to prove themselves, and 2) it shows up the brutally labor-intensive, muck raking poverty of late 19th century Japan. In the midst of the shit-logged ditch water however, you can almost glimpse that gem of hope. An unforgettable cinema experience.
7) Tokyo Sonata『トウキョウソナタ』2008 Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Years have passed since Kiyoshi Kurosawa replaced Akira as the pre-eminent Japanese filmmaker with that surname. Though Kurosawa’s main turf is horror, (Cure, anyone?) Tokyo Sonata is arguably his best and most accessible work, drawing an unexpectedly stunning performance from former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi.
Koizumi plays housewife Megumi, who is ambivalent about her stay-at-home existence in the burbs while having no idea how to break out of her shell. Her husband (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a sarariman (salaryman) who has recently been fired from his job, but pretends to go to work every morning in his suit and tie. The couples’ two reticent teenage sons have plans and desires of their own, of which their parents know nothing. Each of the family members seem to be dancing to a different tune, audible only to themselves until one day, their hidden urges come tumbling out. A haunting beautiful story that amply illustrates the dreariness of Japan’s two-decade long recession.
8) 北野武監督 HANA-BI 1997年
Say what you like about comedian and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, but there’s no denying that for about 20 years in the Heisei period, the man was the closest thing Japan had to a living deity. The man has a violent streak, as demonstrated in the 1986 attack on the offices of papparazi rag “Friday” for which he was arrested and found guilty (but got off with a suspended sentence). In 1994, a motor bike accident that would have killed another man landed him in the hospital for 6 months but before he got out, he went on the air and cracked jokes about his horribly disfigured face.
In the Heisei era, Kitano made some unforgettable movies but HANA-BI, (meaning ‘fireworks’) is a masterpiece. He directed, co-wrote and starred as Nishi, a cop who has just lost a young son. The tragedy causes Nishi’s life to spin out of control, as his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is hospitalized and his buddy Horibe (Ren Osugi) is shot by a perpetrator. Later, Nishi quits the police force to takes his wife on a trip, intending to kill her before putting a bullet in his own head.
Though Kitano has always worked in comedy, he is rarely verbose and HANA-BI is amazingly reticent. The absence of explanatory dialogue matches the extraordinarily lovely visuals, drenched in dark blue and gray tones as the story traces the graceful arc of Nishi’s downfall.
9) “Helter Skelter” 『ヘルタースケルター』2012 Directed by Mika Ninagawa
Mike Ninagawa may have been born with a silver spoon but her talent (and personal struggle) is achingly real. As the daughter of Japan’s foremost theater director Yukio Ninagawa, Mika’s life was both charmed and cursed. Dad’s glorious reputation preceded her everywhere she went so perhaps it was natural for her to choose photography and film instead of the stage. Helter Skelter is her second feature and stars the enfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Erika Sawajiri, as a nymphomaniac actress who lives in fear of losing her beauty. To prevent this from happening, the actress periodically goes under the knife, endangering not just her health but her sanity as well. Helter Skelter is audacious, brilliant and gorgeously shot – and an astute observation of fame and celebrity-dom in Japan’s youth-obsessed media industry.
10) Still the Water 『2つ目の窓』2014 Directed by Naomi Kawase
Naomi Kawase had a chaotic upbringing –her parents more or less abandoned her when she was a baby and the filmmaker was subsequently brought up by a relative. In interviews, Kawase has said she has tried to understand her life by making films about families and indeed, her works show a special fascination (or obsession) with the family dynamic. Still the Water feels especially intimate – a coming of age tale set in gorgeous Amami Oshima island off the coast of Kagoshima prefecture. Two teenagers (Junko Abe and Nijiro MurakamiI) struggle with their roots as their parents fumble about, trying to come to terms with their own identities and personal desires. Miyuki Kumagai plays the island ‘yuta’ (shaman) who must face her own imminent death by cancer, as her family resents her apparent powerlessness over her fate. A film that feels like an solitary, introverted vacation by the beach.
Note: Theories abound as to how mahjong originated in China. Some say the inventor was Confucius who played it, was hooked and ultimately abandoned it because of its addictive nature, some time in the 6th century B.C. In its present state, mahjong is played with 136 to 144 rectangular tiles, over a table seating 3 to 4 players. All the tiles are marked with Chinese characters and symbols.The goal of the game, simplified, is to get a mahjong, which consists of getting all 14 of your tiles into four sets and one pair. A pair is two identical tiles. A set can either be a “pung,” which is three identical tiles, or a “chow,” which is a run of three consecutive numbers in the same suit. A single tile cannot be used in two sets at once. In the west, the closest thing is gin rummy. In Japan, mahjong has been around since the 1900s and is a semi-legitimized form of gambling, provided the stakes are low. It used to be the favorite past-time of college students and bored reporters in the police press club.
On March 17, the day that character actor and performer Pierre Taki (real name: Masanori Taki) was arrested for possession of cocaine, the producers of the film Mahjong Horoki (Mahjong Chronicles) inwhich Taki appears in a significant role, held an emergency meeting. First item on the agenda: to open the film on the slated date of April 5, or to scrap it? Already the Japanese media was moving to make Taki disappear – all his endorsements, events and TV appearances were cancelled. A concert scheduled for this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, evaporated. NHK even rubbed out all of Taki’s scenes in their prime time Sunday night drama Idaten, (including those already aired), making preparations to shoot everything all over again.
Taki had never sold on a nice-guy image but this scandal was huge, packing enough explosives to rock Mahjong Horoki 2020’s distributor company Toei, from its very foundations. After much discussion, the makers of the film – in particular director Kazuya Shiraishi, Taki’s long-time friend, pushed for a go. Letters were sent out to the press explaining the move, and why Shiraishi decided not to slash any of Taki’s scenes before opening. “Taki’s arrest is not the movie’s fault,” said the letter. Fair enough and a good thing, too. “Mahjong Horoki 2020” is weird, gross and ultimately appealing – it’s a celebration, among other things, of the sheer, raging wonders of the Showa era (1926 – 1989). So much, that the last 31 years of the Heisei era start to look like a bland, blah wasteland. As a line in the movie aptly describes it, “the only thing anyone does around here is to live a long, long time.” Ouch.
Still, the Heisei era should be given credit for supplying Shiraishi with the iPhone 8, (eight of them to be exact) that he deploys in shooting the film. The colors schemes are too lurid, and the jittery, hand-held effect doesn’t really work in scenes with open spaces but the device is brilliant for close-ups, of which there is plenty, including Taki’s scary, deadpan visage.
Taki plays a man called Mori – and he’s the kind of snide, rude, power-hungry asshole that Pierre Taki portrays to perfection. Mori is the director of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is abruptly cancelled with the breakout of WWIII. A very pissed off Mori vows to hold an Olympics of something, and as the story progresses that something turns out to be mahjong. On the Friday that the movie opened, Pierre Taki was released on bail and director Shiraishi announced in a press conference that he hoped the Japanese public would “laud and encourage” Taki, once he was rehabilitated and reinstated as a media figure.
Speaking of reinstated, another intriguing presence in the movie is Becky, the half-British, half-Japanese comedienne whose career was all but obliterated following a noisily publicized affair with a married musician. In Japan, infidelity is a serious offense among celebrities, perhaps more so than drug use. Becky was benched for over 2 years while her partner in crime came out relatively unscathed (which is another can of worms labelled gender discrimination). In “Mahong…,” she stars in a double role – first as a mysterious club hostess with incredible mahjong skills, and next as the android “AI Yuki,” programmed to win against the most talented mahjong player.
As you may have guessed, Mahjong...is defined by and obsessed with, the titular game. Based on the first of the 4-part novel series by Tetsuya Asada (aka Takehiro Irokawa) published in 1969, Mahjong…recreates the blood, sweat and tears backdrop of Tokyo’s immediate postwar years as well as highlight the dark grotesqueness that often accompanies the game. Unlike pachinko, mahjong comes under illegal gambling and liable for prosecution, as in the case of a mayor who was arrested in the middle of a game in Fukuoka prefecture 3 years ago. Like pachinko however, the police turn a blind eye to most mahjong players and the “jyanso,” or mahjong houses that host them. As long as the stakes are low, the cops won’t come bursting in – theoretically. The crossover line is 200 yen at 1000 points, which roughly adds up to about 30,000 yen an hour for the winner.
In Japan, one hears of fantastic mahjong stories, like the woman who won 550,000 yen on a single night and then lost double that amount in her next game. Or the guy who put up his home as collateral and how his wife and kids found themselves on the street even as he holed up in a jyanso to turn his luck. When it comes to addiction and self-destruction, mahjong players are in a league of their own and the tumble into the mud sludge of debt generally comes quicker than anyone bargains for. The consequences (since most jyanso are owned and operated by the yakuza) can be severe. Tetsuya Asada’s novel series laid it all out, tracing the life of the protagonist “Boya (which means little boy) Tetsu.” At first, Tetsu was a fresh-faced 16-year old mahjong rookie, being groomed for the game by the pros in Tokyo in 1945, when the city was nothing but ash and rubble. In the last volume, Tetsu is a salariman in his his early 30s, struggling to break free of his addiction (and failing) as Japan gears up to become the world’s number one economy.
Mahjong Horoki was adapted to the screen once before, in 1984 by Makoto Wada. A young and perky Hiroyuki Sanada played Tetsu, and Mariko Kaga played his benefactor and the story’s mahjong goddess. Now in 2020, those roles have gone to Takumi Saito and Becky, respectively. Saito is best known for having cornering the market on degenerate, sexy dude roles but now in his late 30s, the role of Little Boy Tetsu may be a stretch (in the story, he’s also supposed to be a virgin. No way.). But to Saito’s credit, Tetsu’s addiction to the game oozes out of his every pore. The guy can only think of one thing: to sit at the mahjong table and play for the kind of stakes that, even if he wins, would destroy his soul forever.
Japan has changed beyond recognition since Asada penned the original novel series, but addiction – as this movie abundantly illustrates – is a monster that never dies.
You don’t know cool until you’ve seen ZAN (international title: “Killing”). A period action film set in the late Edo Period, ZAN is everything that The Last Samurai is not: minimalist, unpretentious and totally unsentimental. Back in Old Japan, sentiment was often a luxury few people could afford. It was hard enough to secure things like food and basic comforts, and the situation was harder for the samurai because they had to keep up appearances as the authoritative class.
“I want you to think about all the mistakes you’ve made in your life up to this point,” he tells his bleeding victim. “You have plenty of time for reflection until you finally manage to die.”
ZAN notes that a samurai was defined by two things: 1) his sword and 2) his ability to kill others with that sword. The film also makes no bones about the incredible pain and grossness that accompanies a sword fight. It’s not like a TV period drama where one swish of a katana brings on instantaneous death–the process takes hours or even days of intense suffering. In one scene, after a close battle a samurai slices off the arm of an opponent, right from the shoulder. “I want you to think about all the mistakes you’ve made in your life up to this point,” he tells his bleeding victim. “You have plenty of time for reflection until you finally manage to die.”
Chilling. Isn’t it? ZAN is a lesson in Edo Period brutality and despite the obvious disregard for period detail (like speech patterns and vocabulary) it all feels eerily true. No one cracks a smile, wears make-up or even changes out of soiled kimonos. The sky is heavy with perpetual rain, the houses are pitch dark, cramped and dingy. The threat of pain and death is ever-present and the only respite is sex, or more often, masturbation. Something has got to give, but you sense right away that the giving isn’t going to be happy.
ZAN is directed by Shinya Tsukamoto – arguably the most innovative auteur working in the Japanese flm industry today, and distinctive for working solo. An indie wunderkind, he directs, writes his own screenplays, works on his own production designs and acts in crucial roles, in his own and other peoples’ films. Tsukamoto even auditioned for Martin Scorsese’s Silence and got the part of Mokichi. Rumor has it Scorsese thought Tsukamoto “looked familiar,” as the American director is a fan of his work, but didn’t believe that a man of Tsukamoto’s repute would actually show up for an audition. Scorsese was later flabbergasted to learn the truth and professed to be “in awe” of Tsukamoto – at least that’s the story floating around in the Japanese movie industry.
But it’s easy to believe that Scorsese was impressed because as an actor, Tsukamoto radiates a macho allure that’s hard to resist. In the movie, he plays an older samurai named Sawamura, a mysterious vagabond traveling from village to village in search of talent. Sawamura has an agenda – to form a platoon of free agent samurai and offer their services to some powerful lord. The era is late Edo, when the whole of Japan was in the fever grip of confusion and intrigue, all the while being pressured by Europe and the US to open up the nation, after nearly 260 years of isolation. Against this backdrop, hordes of samurai were fired from their clans and left to fend for themselves. Many of them were recruited as foot soldiers by the Tokugawa shogunate and its supporters that were anti-foreigner and desperate to preserve the status quo. Sawamura’s own political views are unclear but most likely he has none. Like many unemployed samurai at the time, gaining a steady position was the biggest priority and as a samurai, that meant killing people with his sword. “I want to do my part in these chaotic times,” he explains.
Sawamura’s statement reveals the Edo samurai mind-set: Fighting for a cause or a political slogan was tacky. Killing to assert one’s identity as a samurai, was more like it. He wanders over to a village on the outskirts of Edo and observes a young samurai, Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) having a mock sword battle with farmer boy Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda). Tsuzuki had been hired on a farm in lieu of food and board, and had been giving katana lessons to Ichisuke whenever they had a moment free from working the rice paddies. Tsuzuki is an excellent swordsman and under his tutelage, Ichisuke has acquired a lot of skill. Sawamura wastes no time in recruiting them both, and proposes leaving for Edo in two days. Ichisuke is keen to go but Tsuzuki is inexplicably reluctant. The presence of Ichisuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi) is part of the reason – Tsuzuki always masturbates to the sight of her bathing and the story suggests he is a virgin. Could it be that he’s also a virgin as a murderer, and for all his grace and expertise with the sword, Tsuzuki has never brought his blade down on another man’s flesh?
ZAN twists and writhes its way to a bloody climax and by then you become well aware of the wondrous weirdness of the samurai. They are darkly backward in their thinking, swayed by a single desire to assert their samurai identity, which is on par with the will to kill. It overrides all other desires – for happiness, for justice, even for survival. It depicts not the noble samurai of Japanese fiction and The Last Samurai, but the samurai as they really were: bloody, brutal, barbaric and with no notions of the word Bushido(武士道). Bushido, both the word and the concept of a noble samurai were retroactively imposed upon the Edo-era culture by the writer Inazo Nitobe in 1900. His book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, written in English, was aimed at Western audiences, and tried to elevate the popular image of Japan. (The “Cool Japan” strategy of 1900).
In ZAN, the opening of Japan to the West and the subsequent demolishment of the samurai was just around the corner, but Tsuzuki and Sawamura are locked into an existence that no one, not even themselves, could fully comprehend or accept. They take us to a place that defies logic and explanation, to a time when such things were beside the point. It’s only when the lights come on that we take stock of what Japan has lost in the wake of modernization and wonder briefly whether the trade-off was completely worth it.
Editor’s Opinion: Yet, are the samurai really missed? ” For the peasants and underclass who were often brutalized by the samurai, probably not. Samurai could legally murder the lower class of merchants, farmers, prostitutes, etc–kirisutegomen–for being impolite or simply being annoying. The movie reminds us that maybe for the rest of us, the cutting down of the Samurai was a boon to Japan, not a curse. What do you think?
We’re nearing the end of the world but there’s a sliver of a chance that we may be able to go out in style.
That pretty much sums up the message behind “Ten Years Japan (十年)” part of a film project in 4 Asian locales (Honk Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan) to imagine the future of their nations, 10 years from now. “Ten Years Japan” is a 5-story omnibus, showcasing the talents of five directors – three of whom are women. You can see it in the way they grapple with themes like aging, nuclear fallout and a mother-daughter relationship. Gender comparisons are always dangerous but in the case of “Ten Years Japan,” these women directors clearly offer more wiggle room for hope and emotions like heartfelt gratitude, wrenching nostalgia and love. In the bleakest moments of their stories you sense that love will show up, eventually; a much-awaited guest late for the planet’s last dinner party.
The launch force behind “Ten Years” was Hong Kong in 2016. Hong Kong’s “Ten Years” played to wildly enthused audiences at home and went on to the international film festival circuit, but the contents were viewed as “problematic” by Beijing and banned in mainland China. Inspired by the Hong Kong team and their stories, the Thailand version came out in May this year. And now we have our own, here in Japan, which has been playing in a few Tokyo art house theaters for a limited 3 week release from November 3rd. Which is way too short to do this film justice but given the current political climate, maybe we should be thankful it’s being released at all.
“Ten Years Japan” was creatively supervised by Hirokazu Koreeda whose name and international repute has become on par with if not replaced, that of Takeshi Kitano. Koreeda is now the film critics’ darling in Cannes and London and when he speaks, his words become news print.
Koreeda shows a side of Japan that rarely makes it to the international stage. No samurai, geisha or yakuza splash guts and sex in his vehicles. Instead, he wants to tell stories about quietly dysfunctional families. Or a mom who abandoned her four kids and never told anyone, until one of them dies. In his latest triumph “The Shoplifters” Koreeda addressed the problem of poverty and child abuse and was snubbed by none other than Prime Minister Abe when the latter said that Koreeda was perhaps, exaggerating a bit and that poverty in Japan is practically non-existent. Cue: sad laughter.
Koreeda has repeated said that he’s interested in the here-and-now of Japan, and working with performers that can transport and translate the urgency of our times onto the screen. This is probably why Koreeda demonstrates a flair for working with child actors. In his stories, they are sharp observers of adult sins and tellers of inconvenient truths as at the same time they are victims in a world over which they have no control.
A stark example of that is seen in “Itazura Doumei (Mischievous Alliance),” a tale directed by Yusuke Kimura. In this, elementary school education has become all about relentless surveillance, as the pupils are made to wear command devices on their heads, obeying instructions on where to go next, what to study and how to interact with classmates. They also receive “suggestions’ to consider this career or that, and how they can optimize their studying choices. Sort of like push notifications on a much more pushier level. The teachers fare no better. Only the school janitor (played by the always reliable Jun Kunimura) seems to enjoy a modicum of independence. The janitor takes care of an aging horse (part of a school experiment), soon to be exterminated on the whim of a digital authority. He can’t help but side wth the rebellious Ryo (Seiya Ohkawa) when the latter breaks the key to the stable and sets the horse free.
Another tale of childhood helplessness is “Sono Kuukiwa Mienai (You Can’t See This Air),” directed by Akiyo Fujimura. In this, the stage is an underground nuclear shelter inhabited by a small community of survivors. Mizuki (Ririya Mita) nurses a growing obsession with “the world above” as her anxious mother (Chizuru Ikewaki) warns there is nothing but danger “up there.” Mizuki longs for sunshine and rain until she can’t stand it anymore. The audience is left to surmise the consequences of her escape to freedom.
Utsukushii Kuni (美しい国) is a sharp poke in the ribs of Prime Minister Abe, who authored a book of the same title. The episode depicts in subdued tones, the ultimate outcome of Japan’s militaristic leanings as the Ministry of Defense puts a mandatory draft into place. The episode centers around an up and coming advertising executive who must inform a famous artist that her propaganda poster design, just isn’t quite what the ministry wants. It ends with a subtle twist, reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, that leaves the viewer with a tiny chill–in a moment of quiet understated dread.
Perhaps the most harrowing is the first story: “Plan 75” directed by Chie Hayakawa. It’s about our super-aged society: the most urgent and costliest problem facing Japan today. Hayakawa imagines a near future in which the government launches the titular program: people over 75 are offered a quick and painless euthanizing. The public service announcement advertising this expedited exit, sponsored by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, is such a dead-on parody of Japanese PSAs that it almost seems real. Those urged to cross over to the other side, of course, are the low-income elderly or the infirm. But there are perks; those who agree to die even get a cash reward of 100,000 yen, so they can go out in relative style. There is an unforgettable death scene where an old man lays prostrate on a clinical cot – there are sounds of another man groaning nearby. The old man is visited by an intense loneliness and just as he’s about to burst into tears, a pair of female hands reach out to clasp his own. His face relaxes and there’s a wave of joyful relief. Cliched as it sounds, “Plan 75” confirms the old adage: all we need out of life is someone to hold our hands when we die.
Beloved film critic and journalist, who spent much of his career in Japan, James Bailey, passed away on August 24, after a long battle with cancer, at the age of 72. He was born in Bryan, Texas on December 13th, 1946. He is survived by his wife Yurika, his son, Chris, and his daughter, Chelsea.
Bailey served as Entertainment Editor for Tokyo Weekender, which some consider the oldest on-going English publication in Japan (that is not a newspaper); it was founded in 1970. Bailey also wrote for Variety, Tokyo Journal, and other publications. Bailey was known as an observant and authoritative film reviewer, fluent in Japanese, and able to write with great wit and insight about all aspects of Japanese society.
Bailey’s film reviews, like those of Kaori Shoji, were always more than simple film reviews but a starting point for meditations on Japan, popular culture, cinema tropes and dark comedy. Take this paragraph from his epic review of Godzilla movies, in this case Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero:
“Confirming the widely held assumption that Western men are irresistibly attracted to Japanese women, Glenn falls for and, unusual for a sci-fi feature, beds the lovely Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), albeit off camera. Nonetheless, the purity of Japanese womanhood is preserved when it’s revealed that Namikawa is not really Japanese at all, but [an alien race] a Xian. And the parlous nature of ethnically mixed relationships is underlined when she is disintegrated by her own people.”
Bailey had no patience for bullshit and took great delight in setting things straight. His former editor at Tokyo Journal, Greg Starr, notes “He was a ferocious researcher. I remember his prodigious memory; if you were with him and Mark Schreiber, you didn’t need the internet.”
Mike Tharp, former Tokyo bureau chief of U.S. News And World Report, writes, “I met James a few months after I arrived in Tokyo in 1976. Like many expats, I read the Tokyo Weekender, Corky Alexander’s free weekly newspaper. For the most part, its stories were forgettable. But the movie reviews were exceptionally well written, filled with wry humor,
So when I happened to meet their author, James Bailey, at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, I gushed over his reviews. I said they were good enough to appear anywhere. He blushed and said a head-bowed thank-you.
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. James, fluent in Japanese, also reviewed Japanese subtitles on English-language films. I was astonished at his insights. He wrote with grace and wit. His stories for Variety told that audience more about Japan than most any other publication. James could write for anyone.
He was a gentle man. His voice never rose above a quiet pitch. His laugh was contagious. He shone when he smiled.
After he and Yurika moved their family to Seattle, we stayed in constant touch. I was in L.A. James would make what today are called ‘mixed tapes’ and send them to me. He wanted me to expand my musical interests beyond old rock ‘n’ roll.
He was an incisive critic of the media, sending me examples of redundancy, verbosity and grammar screw-ups every week. Just in the last two years we exchanged nearly 300 emails. He and Tokyo-based Mark Schreiber, described by James as a polymath, staged written contests to see who could fashion the worst puns in headlines. I think it was a draw.
James had appeared on GE College Bowl. He knew so much about everything. I stole his phrase to use in my college classrooms: I wanted to make my students ‘garbage brains’, knowing something about a lot. He was one of the handful of geniuses I have known.
James knew of my passion for Elvis and never ceased to send me stories about The King. If I were to write an inscription for James, it would be from this Elvis song: “And you’re there to always lend a hand in everything I do. That’s the wonder, the wonder of you.”
His wife, Yurika Bailey writes, ” In accordance with Jim’s wishes, he wanted to stay home in Mercer Island Washington. He spent the last week of his life with me, Chris and Chelsea which made him feel happy and peaceful. Jim and I are incredibly fortunate to have [had such] good friends in our life.”
His son, Chris Bailey, writes, “My dad was one of the most selfless people I knew. He did everything to make my mom, my sister, and myself happy. We are grateful that he had a peaceful end with loved ones at his side.”
Chelsea Sakura Bailey, didn’t realize until visiting Japan, the great respect his colleagues had for James. “As a girl in our home, he was always ‘my dad’. As a woman living in Tokyo in the city he knew among his peers it was only then that I came close to knowing the man Jim Bailey was. At a very young age, I was keenly aware that there was something unique about him. He was always quietly observant, profoundly curious about all that surrounded him. He always had a book in one hand and a notebook and pen in the other. He was always humble about his accomplishments and gracious about his natural talents as a writer. So much so, that I didn’t fully know how talented he was until I was an adult, until I was in Tokyo, until I was among his community. Few children are given the opportunity to see their parents outside of their home, as anything more than ‘dad’. With that experience and spending his last moments of life, I am grateful that I can say I truly knew this man, my father, James Bailey.” Chelsea, said that on 6pm Friday (August 24th), that she kissed her Dad on her way to work, and said “I love you. I’m going. Rest well, okay?”
He passed away in his sleep twenty minutes later, knowing that he was loved and will be missed.
TOKYO – July 16, 2018 Filmsnoir Motion Pictures and Fusion For Peace Productions are proud to share their rewards-based crowdfunding campaign for the independent motion picture STAY, shot in Tokyo by award-winning filmmaker Darryl Wharton-Rigby. The campaign seeks to raise 1500000\ ($15K) to complete final post-production in preparation for distribution and to raise awareness of their collective efforts to change the landscape of the Japanese Film Industry, as Wharton-Rigby is only the second African American to produce a feature film in Japan, in its 100+ years history. To date the campaign has secured over 600000\ ($6K) from supporters on Makuake, the Japanese crowdfunding platform. With just 9 days remaining, in this all of nothing effort, the producers are urgently pleading with the public to support their efforts.
“We are extremely grateful for the contributions we’ve received in response to the crowdfunding campaign for our feature film Stay. Because of generous donations, we are currently close to reaching 40% of our objective,” comments Executive Producer, Christopher Rathbone. “We believe in this film and are excited by the possibilities. Given the global festival acceptance rate and the awards won, STAY has great potential. With continued support, we can maintain this momentum and raise enough funds to complete the project in preparation for distribution and the Japanese premiere.”
The campaign seeks to build a community committed to film diversity and offers a variety of rewards including chopsticks, key chains, posters, screenplay copies, digital downloads, film credits, invitation to private screening as well as lunch with the director and film and it’s star, Shogen.
STAY, a touching romance, the story follows a couple who fall passionately in love over a long weekend. Ryuu is a Japanese man who is a recovering drug addict, and Hope, is an American enjoying her last days in Japan. The film features emerging Japanese star, Shogen and introduces British model/actress, Ana Tanaka. Lensed by photographer Jeremy Goldberg, STAY, Wharton-Rigby’s second feature film, was shot on the Tokyo streets in fifteen days, guerrilla style. It’s a technique the former Homicide: Life on the Street writer has used throughout his career.
“Shooting STAY in Tokyo on the BlackMagic Pocket Camera made us virtually invisible and allowed us to capture the city up close and personal. We shot on train platforms and trains, Tsukiji Fish Market, ramen shops. Everywhere,” explains Writer/Director Darryl Wharton-Rigby. “Every day was something new and challenging. We were constantly on edge. I really wanted STAY to feel like it was made by a Japanese filmmaker,” says Rigby.
For the black filmmaker, who lives with his family in Saitama, Japan, this story is personal as his father supervised recovery houses in Baltimore where he grew up. However, after reading aboutthe plight of those dealing with recovery in Japan, he decided that Tokyo would make an interesting backdrop for STAY, while simultaneously promoting diversity and inclusion in the Japanese film industry.
If you are unlucky enough to be indicted for a crime in Japan, you’ll find that the system actually works on the presumption that you are guilty until proven guilty. The conviction rate is 99%. If Franz Kafka was alive today, he’d find that Japan’s courts provided ample material for his pessimistic work. The recently released film The Trial (審判）based on Kafka’s famous work, and directed by John Williams, thus seems tremendously disturbing.
John Williams is that rare western filmmaker who has chosen to live and work in Tokyo, though he originally came to Japan in 1988 with the intention of saving enough money to go to film school in the US. “I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 14,” he said, in the offices above the Eurospace Theater in Shibuya, where his latest work The Trial (Shinpan) is showing. It’s not everyone who keeps a promise made in their teens, but John Williams did just that, albeit in a place very far from his native England.
John Williams is from South Wales and back in the mid 1980s when he graduated from university, the British film industry wasn’t what you’d call thriving, in fact it was rather gomping. “Actually it was at a very low ebb,” laughed Williams. “Of course in the 90s, works like ‘Trainspotting’ changed the landscape but we couldn’t see that coming just yet. There were practically no film schools for young students and the average age at the National Film School – the only institution for aspiring filmmakers, was 27.” So John Williams decided, like many others before and after him, to study movie-making in the US, specifically at NYU film school. To that end, he needed to get some cash together and Japan seemed like the place to earn it.
Fast forward 30 years and with the completion of “The Trial,” Williams has 5 films under his belt. He also teaches film production/European films at Sophia University’s Foreign Languages Department. But he never did get to NYU since, just like in the Lennon song, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. By the time Williams got the funds together for New York, he was deep in the throes of life in Japan and travels in Asia. “I was in India when the acceptance letter came and didn’t even see it till I got back. And, well, going to the US seemed to me like a conventional, boring choice. Staying here seemed much more interesting.”
Listening to Williams say that in the Eurospace office, the moment felt like a movie scene all by itself. Eurospace is an iconic Shibuya theater, famed for showcasing indie gems from around the world. There was Wayne Wang’s “Smoke.” Francois Ozon’s “Criminal Lovers.” More recently, it put on “Frances Ha” when few Japanese were even aware of the now Academy award contender Greta Gerwig. And now Williams’ “The Trial” is being shown as a limited release, it will currently be running as the late show every night until the 20th. Given the story (based on the Kafka novel) and weird but intriguing vibe, “The Trial” and the Eurospace venue seem to be made for each other. (Please check with Eurospace website for movie times as they may change).
Eurospace – situated in Maruyamacho, and sandwiched between two love hotels. In fact, every square meter of land in the area is occupied by love hotels. Couples sheepishly stroll around, checking on room prices and curiously eyeing the movie theater. “The Trial” – a film about a young Japanese salariman suddenly condemned for an unnamed crime, and who has a weakness for women and sex.
Otherwise the movie is an invitation to match and compare. Williams does a superb job of superimposing Kafka’s most famous character Josef K., a 30-year old German banker in 1914, onto the life of Yosuke Kimura, a 30-year old banker in present day Tokyo. “It’s present day, but I deliberately made the time frame abstract, almost non-technological,” said Williams. Indeed, Kimura’s hand isn’t welded to his smartphone the way everyone’s is these days, and he almost never looks at a computer screen. Kimura’s main interest seems to be women, as he tries to hook up with every female who crosses his path. His success rate is dismal however, and there’s clearly no emotion or chemistry involved. “I thought about Japanese women a lot when making this movie,” said Williams. “They’re trapped in a society controlled by men. They get so much encouragement to please men and become good wives and mothers, and practically no support when it comes to voicing their opinions or carving out careers.”
Aptly, “The Trial” is wintry and bleak, steeped in various shades of black and gray. Kimura (played with studied excellence by Tsutomu Niwa) even lives in a monotone apartment, devoid of color, clutter or any human warmth. On the morning of his 30th birthday, Kimura wakes up to find two strange men in his bedroom, and they inform him that his “case” is coming up for trial. Kimura has no idea what they’re talking about but in a few days, he receives an envelope summoning him to court the following Sunday. It doesn’t say what time or where exactly and when Kimura finally arrives, the Judge (Ichiro Murata) informs him that he is one hour and 26 minutes late. Kimura is incensed by this, and tries to argue that he cannot be late for an event that doesn’t specify the time. While this is going on, a woman (Shizuko Kawakami) has loud sex with a man in a dark suit in a back room. When Kimura returns to court the next day, the woman crudely seduces him and Kimura is ready to fall for it, until they’re interrupted by the janitor (Ichi Omiya) who tells Kimura that the woman is his wife. Later, Kimura encounters a group of people who are all awaiting trial, and no one seems to have any answers, either to the nature of their crimes or the system that seems convinced of their guilt. Yes, I know – surreal, right?
On another level, “The Trial” shows up the very Kafka-esqueness of Japan’s judicial system – the long, grueling process of scrutiny between arrest and indictment, and how, once indictment kicks in, it’s impossible to overturn it＊. “For me, it was less about Japan’s judicial system than it was about dealing with the bureaucrats in Tokyo,” said Williams. “And what I’m seeing in Japan right now – the secrecy law, changes in the constitution, the rise of the nationalistic, quasi religious groups – I find all that very creepy. But at the same time, life goes on here. The Japanese don’t seem to paying much attention to this shadow creeping across the country. The metaphorical message of ‘The Trial’ works really well for what we’re seeing in Japan at this point.”
And how. Watching Kimura’s expression shift from incredulity and contempt to finally – defeated resignation, a kind of dread washes over me like a wave in a polluted ocean. The whole thing is maybe a little too close to home.
＊Editor’s note: One of the dark secrets of Japan’s criminal justice system is that the prosecution in Japan will punt (fail to prosecute) any case that is not a slam-dunk for fear of losing. Sexual assault cases have a particularly low prosecution rate and politicians or high-ranking bureaucrats are often allowed to walk free–including the 39 bureaucrats involved in forging, deleting and altering documents in a dubious land deal involving a right-wing school and the Prime Minister of Japan. The prosecutor who dropped the cases was recently promoted.
『UPDATE: There will be a showing of the film with English subtitles at 7pm on June 21, at the Roppongi Hill Cinema. There will be a Q & A with the director afterwards. Details of the showing are after the review』
The titular family in “Shoplifters” give a new slant to the term “living in squalor.” (The film is partially based on true events) Their house looks more like a bizarre crime scene than an actual dwelling for normal people but – and this is a crucial point in “Shoplifters” – the family is HAPPY. They enjoy the kind of freedom that one rarely sees in Tokyo families. The 10-year old son doesn’t go to cram school (or any kind of school for that matter). The dad is not an over-worked salariman whose only solace is the company drinking party. The mom couldn’t care less about keeping up with the Tanakas. And grandma – she’s an entertaining but cantankerous piece of work who drives well-meaning social workers up the wall.
Amid the filth and debris they huddle together for warmth and comfort. At mealtimes, they poke chopsticks into ramen tubs and food cans. The catch in this cozy utopia is that they must steal almost everything they need. The other catch is that dad has just kidnapped a 5-year old girl named Yuri. She had been neglected and abused by her biological parents, so the dad just had to rescue her. “We’ll return her to her folks in the morning” he says, but then he doesn’t and Yuri joins their little clan, adding another item to their history of crime.
“Shoplifters” just won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival – a first for a Japanese director in 21 years. The last time this happened was back in 1997, when Shohei Imamura came out with “Unagi,” and put leading man Koji Yakusho’s name on the international map. In Japan however, “Unagi” didn’t exactly break box office. It was artsy, dark and posed too many philosophical questions. While these ingredients worked wonderfully at Cannes, the general feeling in Japan was that everyone would rather watch Keanu Reeves.
“Shoplifters” is another animal. Keanu Reeves isn’t in it (too bad) but the director is Hirokazu Kore-eda: a constant contender at Cannes and other major international film festivals for the past two decades. He’s also a former TV documentarian with a shrewd sense of business. Shohei Imamura was an auteur of the old school, but Kore-eda has a nose for what sells. In his films, art never overwhelms commercialism and on the other hand, it’s not all business either. Kore-eda knows that in the international market, the biggest appeal of a Japanese film is its Japanese-ness and in “Shoplifters,” he adopts a Zen-like approach, letting the characters do their thing at their own pace, in their own space. A lot of things are unexplained or left for the audience to surmise. And pretty soon, the squalor of that awful house starts to grow on you. The ancient and no doubt odorous tatami mats, the wild, unruly shrubbery that grow all over the garden, the stained and mildewed bathtub – somehow, these things begin to assume a patina of Japanese charm. After all, we’re so used to seeing spanking clean Japanese homes inhabited by perfectly manicured people, at least in the media and after awhile, the hypocrisy of this set-up just gets to you. Such a house and family appear in the story for about 5 minutes and the contrast between them and the Shoplifters is jarring.
The Shoplifters’ house is a real one, sleuthed out by Kore-eda’s staff who combed the northeast wards of Tokyo for weeks before hitting upon the perfect specimen. Surrounded by high rise apartment buildings on all sides, the house is a tiny, crumbling Showa era relic. In the movie, it belongs to the grandmother, Hatsue played by Kirin Kiki. Divorced before becoming a widow, Hatsue still keeps her ex-husband’s photo on the ‘butsudan (miniature buddhist shrine)’ and takes out his pension every month to supplement her own. It’s the only steady source of income the family has, since the mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and dad (Lily Franky) earn minimum wage doing part time work and even that’s jeopardized when their employers install a workshare program. “What’s work share?,” asks the son and the dad’s response – “ahhhm, it’s when you share the work.” It also means less pay and less income to share with the family.
Nobuyo’s younger sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a ‘JK (short for ‘Joshikosei, which means high school girl) sex shop, which entails dressing in a school uniform and opening her legs in front of a two-way mirror. Aki’s wages are 3000 yen per session and upon hearing this, grandma Hatsue lets out a sigh of real envy. “That’s such a well-paid job!”
Of course, even working an honest job at minimum wage or a shady job at 3000 yen per hour, isn’t enough for a family to survive on and so shoplifting supplements their income. The movie was partly inspired by real events.
The film is full of dark humor but it is also a biting criticism of modern Japan. Kore-eda is not a fan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The film references how the rights and wages of workers keep deteriorating and a growing number of people live in poverty, while “Abenomics” only benefits the elite.
The Japanese family has cultivated a certain image – that they revere their elders, that fathers work themselves to the bone, that the kids are models of scholastic excellence and good manners. In real life, that image is shattered again and again – consider that 1 out of 6 children live in poverty while the number of abused kids have been on the rise for the past 20 years. In the movie, Yuri’s biological mom is beaten by a rat of a husband and she takes out her anger on her daughter. And for all the love they show the son, the Shoplifter parents think nothing of depriving the boy of his future by keeping him home and teaching him to steal. The son, played by Kairi Jyo, is a compelling figure to watch – he loves the couple who have raised him, but at the same time he knows theirs is not a sustainable relationship. They have good times together but the son comes to realize that they’re bound more by crime and money than blood and love.
So, like a Bruce Springsteen song, it had to end. For me, the final scenes were blurred by a blizzard of tears, triggered by a longing for a raucous, uproarious, hugger-mugger childhood that never happened.
Shoplifters (万引き家族) opened nationwide in Japan on June 8th.
The English subtitled screening and Q&A session of “Shoplifters” will be taken place on Thursday, June 21st.
【Date】Thursday, June 21st
【Time】19:00～（Q&A session after the screening）
【Venue】TOHO CINEMAS ROPPONGI HILLS
【Guest (tentative)】Kore-eda Hirokazu (director)
＜How to buy the ticket＞
・By PC & smart phone : Ticket site will be opened from Saturday, June 16th 0:00 at internet ticket vit (https://www.tohotheater.jp/vit/)
・Ticket counter at the theater : Ticket will be on sale from the opening on Saturday, June 16th at the theater (if the tickets are available.)
Standard price *This film is rated PG12
※Additional costs will needed for Premium box seats. Please check the theater website.
※Movie tickets can be used.
※Free admission tickets can not be used.
※The screening is with English subtitles.
※Press will cover the Q&A and there will be a possibility that the audience could be on camera.
※The guests and Q&A session are tentative and are subject to change without notice.
※Reserved seating only and the ticket is for only 1 screening. You must obtain the seat for this screening to attend the Q&A.
※Resale is strictly prohibited.
※No camera (including by phoens) shooting or recoding are strictly prohibited.
※Once paid, ticket fees are non-refundable/non-changeable.