Dependence/ふしだらな女 真昼に濡れる

dependence

Fushidara na onna mahiru ni nureru, 2006

Chasing one’s dream, finding love under extraordinary circumstances or gaining affirmation throughout adversity, are subjects which have long been part of the cinema going experience, as we often find them serving as crutches for our own desires and fears.  Tapping into relatable themes of loneliness, parental anguish and depression, Yuji Tajiri’s Dependence (otherwise known as Forest of Virtue on home video, or the literal original title A Slut gets Wet in the Noon) tackles such issues via the most pertinent of means, resulting in a tale of welcome simplicity.

The story sees Hayato Tsukamoto (Daishi Matsunaga) return home to visit his father, Masakuni (Kazuhiro Sano), who has recently been involved in a car accident and has been cared for by a friend of Hayato’s named Fuko (Mari Yamaguchi).  Joining him is his wife, Ami (Akebi Futsumoto), who has recently endured a miscarriage and has suffered through depression ever since.  Hoping that the trip will be good for Ami’s health, Hayato encourages her to enjoy the rural landscape while she attempts to make peace with herself.  Meanwhile, he enjoys being back in the company of old friends, including Fuko’s boyfriend Daichi (Yuya Matsuura), who dreams of hanging up his farming gear and escaping to the big city.  When Ami strikes up a relationship with Masakuni, upon hearing about a beautiful waterfall situated nearby, they embark on a journey of sexual discovery, which soon threatens to destroy the foundation of their family.

Japan’s pastoral landscapes have often served as metaphorical devices on film, whether that is to aid the protagonist’s journey toward becoming a greater person; owing to remind people of where they came from, or being juxtaposed against the modernisation of society, which has required rural assimilation in order to thrive.  Dependence is a picture which takes these viewpoints in order to illustrate characters’ hardships, perhaps biting off a little more than it can chew in the process.

Although Yuji Tajiri’s intentions come across reasonably well, there’s a sense that his direction wanes at certain intervals.  While the story of Hayato and Ami appears to take centre stage, the lack of charisma shared between the two actors soon sees our focus shift to the character of Fuko, who bears much more relevance to the overall message of the film, despite her background presence at first encounter.  As the plot unravels through her eyes, this narrative evolution is made easier to digest, not only on account of Futsumoto’s stoic performance, but also through the sorry series of events that Fuko is made to suffer: from discovering the truth about what Ami is up to while keeping her silence, to being dumped by Daichi, whose father never wished for him to spread his wings.

The sense of entrapment, which overshadows the majority of Tajiri’s characters, spearheads events to a satisfying enough conclusion, using rural symbolism and maternal compassion to support any social commentary contained within, while the numerous sex scenes do their job to prolong events, however pedestrian their inclusion.

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High Noon Ripper/真昼の切り裂き魔

darkroomfantasies

Mahiru no Kirisakima, 1984

Since making his directorial debut in 1981, having graduated from an assistant position under the tutelage of prolific pink film masters such as Mamoru Watanabe and Shinya Yamamoto, Yojiro Takita had spent the better part of the eighties building his reputation as a comical storyteller, spending much of his time with the Chikan Densha (Molester Train) series; one which served well in the lead up to his mainstream transition by 1986.

While the Chikan Densha films and those between were largely typified by their comedic bent, Takita had defined himself as being a Jack of all trades, flirting with other genre elements throughout the decade, from romance and mystery to politics and science fiction.  During the earlier part of his directorial career, however, he delved into far darker territory, notably with 1983’s Serial Rape (Renzoku Bokan): a psychological thriller starring Kaoru Orimoto in a dual role, which went on to earn some major accolades within the Pink Film industry.  Unsurprisingly then, Takita followed up this success one year later with High Noon Ripper (Mahiru no Kirisakima) a.k.a. Darkroom Fantasies for the Kokuei Company – another murder mystery owing some of its style to The Master of Suspense himself.

The story follows dedicated news journalist Noriko (Kaoru Orimoto – who also appeared in Takita’s earlier Chikan Densha: Momoe no Oshiri) and her photographer colleague Kajii (Shiro Shimomoto, S&M Hunter), who pair up when they attend a grizzly murder scene involving the stabbing of a young female.  Presenting their unsettlingly detailed shots to their editor (Pink Film legend Yutaka Ikejima), they are quickly encouraged to go out and find more in order to boost the reputation and sales of the magazine.  Due to the sexual nature of the crime, however, Kajii is reminded of a previously published photo he saw in a magazine, belonging to a young man by the name of Shun (Toru Nakane), who happens to reside in the local area where the crime took place.  As the murder spree begins to escalate, Kajii, his girlfriend (Usagi Aso) and Noriko find themselves in a desperate race to get answers.

Opting to target media sensationalism as part of a backdrop for its nasty narrative, Yojiro Takita, along with his screenwriter Shiro Yumeno, creates a suitably dour whodunnit, whereby obtuse visual metaphors and trenchant sound design works in tandem to ensure that the viewer is left guessing right up to the moment it reveals its final hand.  The unnerving atmosphere, which sees our protagonists at constant loggerheads – whether it be due to the clashing of egos or sexual politics – is maintained at a leisurely pace, utilising voyeuristic framing devices and a clever usage of edit wipes to maximise the efficiency of both its shifting perspectives and its incumbent sex scenes.  Takita relishes the opportunity here to pay homage to some of Hollywood’s greats; a nod to Psycho, for instance, may lack subtlety but its execution is nonetheless effective and would go on to see the director continue to reference western cinema in subsequent pink outings.

Within its sixty minutes, High Noon Ripper does well to reveal different sides of our protagonists in an effort to show that nothing is ever quite what it appears to be, as it flits between cycles.  By day, Noriko is a fierce go-getter and by night she’s a perpetually horny and vulnerable lass, pleasuring herself with whatever household object is within reach.  Meanwhile, Kajii is all about the shoot and dedicated to a deadly fault.  These elements do have natural payoffs, along with a supporting dichotomy which stretches between the picture’s vacant urban landscape and that of its claustrophobic depictions of dimly-lit offices and compact apartments.  Any misgivings to found here are largely down to the director’s enforced sex scenes: one shoehorned encounter in particular – a late night office dalliance – serves little more than padding, while Takita’s slight penchant for comedy in the form of a chase sequence backed by chirpy jazz, does feel somewhat at odds with the rest of the film’s tone.  Otherwise, High Noon Ripper is a welcome entry into the director’s oeuvre and part of a genre which he, unfortunately, rarely revisited in the years since.

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Naked Desire/オナニーシスター たぎる肉壺

nakeddesire.jpg

Onanie Sister Tagiru Nikutsubo, 2015

With Japan continuing to find itself troubled by increasingly low fertility rates and high life expectancies, its government has scrambled over the years for solutions to its current population crisis.  As recently as 2014, it was reported that a quarter of the country’s citizens was made up of those over the age of 65, with an insufficient social care system in place to better cater for elderly needs; concurrently, many able-bodied pensioners still work well over the intended retirement age in agricultural and other general labour sectors.  Given the inevitable increase of government spending on care services, its welfare infrastructure has recently come under review once more, as it was revealed earlier this year that the country will require as many as one million qualified personnel for such an undertaking.  With many carers being seniors themselves, Japan has sought help from other Asian territories such as Indonesia and the Philippines, to provide younger professionals in the field and thus perhaps negate the need for expensive Carebots.

The contemporaneous concern amongst charitable organisations – whereby more and more elderly illness sufferers are quite literally dumped on the doorsteps of hospitals due to financially-burdened families or otherwise – provides additional context for Hideo Sakaki’s 2015 Naked Desire (aka Onanie Sister Tagiru Nikutsubo), featuring a framework which certainly has a lot to say about the nation’s modern climate.

The story stars Shou Nishino as Kayoko: a former care giver who wakes up naked on a seafront hillside, after what you could say was a rough night out on the town.  Eventually stumbling upon a quaint-looking beach house, which she enters without an invite, she’s soon introduced to a sister by the name of Akane (Gravure idol and singer Ui Mita), who accuses her of being a thief.  This misunderstanding is soon played down by the uninhibited and vivacious vixen, who quickly learns that Akane is caring for an elderly gentleman and former social activist by the name of Mr. Yamanami (Shigeru Harihara), who has been abandoned by his family.  Opting to stay at the house and help care for Yamanami, they’re soon interrupted by the arrival of another party: school teacher Rina (Yusuyo Shiba – The Wolverine, Man from Reno) and her student lover Shinji (Yuta Kogiri).  meanwhile, hot on their trail is a trio of police officers (played by Tadashi Mizuno, Mataro Umeya, and Ayumi Tamiyama), who have been tasked by family members and the school board to bring home the runaways in an attempt to save them from humiliation.

With pink cinema serving as a budget-conscious battleground for sociopolitical observations, it comes as no surprise here to see actor/director Hideo Sakaki (yes, he of Versus, Alive, Azumi) utilise the genre as a springboard for the similarly pertinent commentary his earlier films have been known for.  Specifically, his 2008 feature debut My Grandma (Boku no Obaachan) and 2012’s A Drop from Tomato (Tomato no Shizuku), both told the importance of rekindling family bonds and caring for those through daily hardships, while detailing the importance of communication, all under the security of sentimentalism and cartoonish behaviour.  With screenwriter and acting A.D. Koichi Miwa (who also appears in the film as a creepy old man who bribes Rina with covertly shot videos in exchange for sex), the pair bring to the fore a subject which does enough to resonate within the confines and constraints of the format, while managing to find the time to throw in a subplot about the devotion to one’s faith, its effects on how we perceive human desire and what denotes true misappropriation of a solemn vow.

Enter Shou Nishino, who acts as the films central voice of reasoning; whose outlook on life simply boils down to being able to enjoy it regardless of bodily restrictions and pre-judged assumptions thrown our way.  Her mantra of “No sex is no life” – stamped upon a shirt she dresses Yamanami in – is not unlike that of the character Sakura, from Yutaka Ikejima’s celebrated The Japanese Wife Next Door and its sequel, in which the idea of sexual therapy provides suitable ammunition for a tale of repressed passion.  Nishino brings to the role a lovely sense of free-spiritedness and cheeky authoritarianism; she’s a mysterious entrant, with an angle that Sakaki admirably keeps under wraps for much of the feature’s early portion, building into a well-rounded figure whose influence on others proves to be a positive factor when pitted against taboo boundaries which aren’t strictly meant to be crossed.  Arguably, the subplot of Akane wrestling with her devotion to Christianity, coupled with imagery of her releasing pent-up sexual frustrations, remains a tricky subject, but nonetheless, it harbours a deeper sentiment which holds a certain sense of subjective reasoning.

Compared to the average run time of a pink film, Naked Desire’s 87 minutes may seem enough to justify the presence of its various themes, with a fairly large ensemble given the reigns to fully liberate themselves on screen.  With an impressive roster, all of whom commit enjoyable performances, Sakaki maintains, for the most part, a well-measured comedic tone, backed by consistently strong sexual encounters; however, an uncomfortable – for all intents – rape scene, does threaten to spoil proceedings somewhat.  As events shift between the central household and that of our bumbling officers’ investigation, moments do waver from time to time: the cops’ sub-story features its share of padding, with encounters that don’t lead to anywhere worthwhile, while the brazen sexual buffoonery shared amongst them – and in particular toward that of Ayumi Tamiyama’s hapless female officer – is bizarre to say the least, only being remedied by her deadpan delivery.   Likewise, the film’s climactic event is slightly undermined by a revelation of sorts, when Yamanami enjoys a biblical-like rejuvenation, which finds itself juxtaposing political activist slurs from a bygone era and a strange sexual liberation which disbands our core cast beyond initial expectations.

Braving some serious subject matter, while retaining a welcome comical presence, Naked Desire is overall an enjoyable sex romp with good production values, a committed and likeable cast and a sense of conviction which dares to challenge its audience.

 

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Sweet Home/スウィートホーム

sweethome

Suito Homu, 1989

Prior to Kiyoshi Kurosawa achieving international recognition with 1997’s Cure, it’s important to note the transitional period in his career, which saw him go from directing Pink Eiga features during the early part of the 80s, to becoming ostracised by the studio system on account of his maverick sensibilities, which ultimately led him into the realm of V-Cinema throughout much of the following decade.  Kurosawa had already clashed with studio heads early on when he bought the rights to his unreleased pink film, College Girl: Shameful Seminar, an outsourced Nikkatsu production which was shelved in the wake of his debut feature, Kandagawa Pervert Wars, failing to earn the enthusiasm of pink film studio, Million Film. His second feature, then, renamed The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl in 1985, involved heavy reworking and, upon initial release, was met with warm praise. By this point, however, his associated ties with leading Pink cinema studios were all but severed.

By the time that 1988 rolled around, Kurosawa had been approached by Toho and his friend and prolific actor/writer/director Juzo Itami (who has starred earlier in Do-Re-Mi-Fa) to direct a horror feature for theatrical consumption.  The plan was to work alongside video-game developers Capcom, concurrently, in an effort to mutually benefit one another via the simultaneous release of both mediums; the game ended up hitting shelves in time for Christmas ’88, while the film followed one month later. Kurosawa would write and direct the feature, which Itami oversaw as producer, while the celebrated Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts ’n Goblins, Bionic Commando) would hawk over the film’s development to create what would become one of Nintendo’s most obscure treasures never released outside of Japan – a survival game like nothing before it, which would later evolve into of the most enduring video-game franchises of all time: Resident Evil.

Controversy struck Kurosawa again, when it was learned that Juzo Itami later intervened with the film’s structure, by reshooting certain elements in the lead up to its home video release; Kurosawa would publicly go on record to voice his displeasure with the move, which saw him file a legal complaint. The ruling went in Toho’s favour, however, and Kurosawa reportedly fell out with Itami, removing his name from the feature and leaving behind a piece of work which didn’t end up suiting his original ideas quite so fittingly. Yet Sweet Home [lit. derived from Suito Homu) isn’t all doom and gloom, in fact it’s a highly entertaining slice of J-Horror, reminiscent in many ways of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 debut Hausu, with its often sunny disposition, creative visual effects and juxtaposing themes of familial bonds.

The plot sees widowed Producer Kazuo Hoshino (Shingo Yamashiro, Battles Without Honour and Humanity) arrive at a small community, as a member of a documentary crew hoping to uncover more tales about the town. His main goal, however, involves trying to obtain access to the Mamiya Mansion: once home to famed artist Ichirou Mamiya, who died there thirty years ago and left behind a series of frescos which have since become the thing of legend. When Kazuo is granted access, he heads to the site with his crew of three (Ichiro Furutachi, Nobuko Miyamoto and Fukumi Kuroda), alongside his daughter Emi (singer-songwriter Nokko). Together, they ascend into the derelict mansion, soon learning the disturbing secrets behind the death of Ichirou and unwittingly disturbing the spirit of his departed wife, which will soon prove fatal for the unsuspecting team.

When sitting through Sweet Home in its officially released home video guise, there’s a distinct impression of a film which is attempting to marry western sensibilities with that of an intrinsic belief system.  As a film designed for mass mainstream appeal, given the impact of Japan’s huge gaming sub-culture and the rise in home video distribution, its frantic style is one well suited to a time when Hollywood action and horror tropes were filtering through the market.  Similarly to how Toho required Nobuhiko Obayashi to create a film to rival the likes of Jaws’s popularity over a decade prior, here we have a feature which not only takes cues from OB’s Hausu, but also finds itself harking back to an era during which western horror cinema was creating its own waves.  The interest in studios such as Hammer and American International Pictures during their heyday, had previously influenced other notable Japanese horror features; one only needs to take a gander at Michio Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy for Toho (1970-1974) to see such an example of how European cinema impacted this shift.

And so, Sweet Home does find itself nestled comfortably between western and Japanese tradition, with a narrative which is arguably derivative but functional in its simplicity. Adding to the crossover appeal is the employment of Academy Award-winning make-up effects artist Dick Smith, who, alongside other greats such as Etsuko Egawa and Kazuhiro Tsuji, brings to the fore an incredibly inventive aesthetic, which leaves behind some particularly memorable scenes. It’s suggested that Juzo Itami (who also co-stars in the film as a whisky-swilling, expository aid, who winds up singing a ditty to a bottle of alcohol) had a great hand in how the film ultimately found its pacing, but it’s to no detrimental effect here, with a brisk runtime which never outstays its welcome.  Once the Sweet Home’s revealed curse gets underway, the inventiveness on display is nothing short of impressive; gore kills are satisfyingly realised with sharp editing, while the film’s more enticing use of shadow-play is something which could easily become attributed to Kurosawa’s later acclaimed works. What we end up with is a dramatically unnerving experience on account of just how well these techniques are realised, with the conviction of psychological terror over the more visceral, for which Japan has always reigned supreme.

Despite any reports of post-tinkering, then, Sweet Home retains all the necessary hallmarks of Kurosawa to suggest that his overall message isn’t entirely extinguished. The film is set up in a jovial manner, with a soundtrack and sense of humour which maintains consistency throughout, but just as systematically as the picture strikes down half of its core cast, it also expresses clear parental issues as it denotes the importance of coming of age and moving on in life. The playful dynamic shared between father and daughter delicately helps to explore such subject matter as loss and finding new love, with Kurosawa’s original script introducing another key member in Akiko, played by Juzo Itami’s wife, Nobuko Miyamoto. Kurosawa’s strength here is that he doesn’t simply make his female protagonist the archetypal damsel in distress/love interest, but rather reveals Akiko to be a strong, independent woman, who in fact can be attributed as being one of the film’s central heroic figures. Just as Kazuo’s arc from being a timid father to self-sacrificing soul is well handled, so too is Akiko’s journey toward finding a resolution, which leads to a heart-wrenching, yet uplifting denouement on motherhood, bolstered by some expressive puppetry effects and an ideology that has befitted the best of Japan’s ghostly offerings.

Due to the nature of Sweet Home’s trial, the film was never again released on home video formats. To this day, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s original cut languishes within the vaults of Toho, waiting for the day to be unearthed and presented in its original glory. Given the pedigree of the film and its influence on modern gaming pop-culture, it’s with hope that one day a new audience will rediscover it.

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Evil Spirits of Japan/日本の悪霊

evilspiritsofjapan

Nippon no Akuryo, 1970

With a financially burdened Kazuo Kuroki, having finally found a home of sorts with the Art Theatre Guild, Evil Spirits of Japan [Nippon no Akuryo, lit. ‘Demon Spirits of Japan’] marked his directorial debut with the company – a production, which common enough for the studio, saw them front half of the film’s reported 10 million yen budget, leaving the director himself to hustle for the rest.

Filmed as a period piece, Evil Spirits of Japan is very much entrenched in a modern sensibility. Released barely ten years after the real life movement which inspired it, it’s a film whose origins lay with a novel written by Kazumi Takahashi (the Dostoyevsky-inspired title adapted here by Yoshikazu Fukuda), himself a vocal supporter of the student movement of the sixties, in which the ‘Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan’ sparked violent protests across the nation.  Shot under harsh conditions, in which the director and his crew even struggled to see a good meal, the result is a raw but tight Gendai-geki, which traverses contemporary sociopolitical themes to present a largely unsung Yakuza tale of much prominence.

The fairly straightforward plot sees a yakuza bodyguard by the name of Murase (Kei Sato – The Human Condition, Onibaba) stroll into a town situated within the Gunma prefecture, which is currently serving as the battleground for a violent conflict between two yakuza families – the Kito and Tenchi. When Murase arrives at his digs, expecting to be greeted by a female bar hostess (Eiko Horii) who has been assigned to him by the Kito group, he discovers that she’s already in bed with another man. That man is Ochiai (Kei Sato) – a police detective with eighteen years on the force and a former student activist, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to the yakuza member. Seizing an opportunity for his own gain, Murase forces Ochiai to swap identities, which eventually leads Murase to investigate a murder case dating back to a time in which Ochiai belonged to a militant group. As Murase effortlessly infiltrates the police force and finds himself settling in nicely, so too does Ochiai find some sort of comfort in the dubious acts he partakes in. Confronted by ethic and moral questions, both men will inevitably find themselves spiraling toward a path of self-destruction.

With Kazuo Kuroki’s previous feature, Cuban Lover, failing to leave a lasting impression at the box office and plunging production into debt – later seeing Kuroki hounded by loan sharks and yakuza – Evil Spirits of Japan is a heartier attempt at bringing both the director’s artistic sensibilities and personal struggles to the forefront of a modern thriller.  On the face of it, his picture might not seem revelatory in a sense that part of its fundamental goal is to highlight government corruption, yet any predictability in its message is far outmatched by its aesthetic trickery and surprising humour.

The documentarian, freestyle approach of which Kuroki had honed during his early filmmaking years throughout the late fifties to early sixties, assists well as a means to explore a chaotic narrative coloured by shades of grey; its political bent, which echoes parts of the director’s late youth, is presented in stark monochrome, with Murase and Ochiai’s contrasting black and white attire illustrating a simple dichotomy of the feature’s themes as it tackles a nation’s crisis of identity, along with showcasing the dubious hierarchical system which makes up the fabric of  its being. Kuroki’s camera is often found lingering on scenes, soaking up the general malaise of the time, while occasionally focusing on a hopeful society which looks upon the lens to remind us of an often organic process at play. Moments such as this are bolstered by some fitting figures from other parts of the Angura [underground] scene, perhaps one of the more unlikely notables being the “God of Folk” himself, Nobuyashi Okabayashi, who undercuts the tale with several songs, which just about border on the unsubtle. In its context, however, the singer-songwriter, whose protest writings provided the voice of a disillusioned generation whilst leaving broadcasters on tenterhooks, works in highlighting much of the absurdity on display, with his wall-breaking turns aiming to subvert expectations in what becomes a picture that relishes the opportunity to lampoon some of Toei’s already successful Ninkyo eiga [chivalry films] productions.

Kazuo Kuroki’s tale is ultimately a confident debut with the ATG; a film with some startling motifs, which symbolise concepts of good and evil, crime and punishment and sexual desire via more unconventional patterns, while serving as a precursor for many of the great Doppelganger movies to come.

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A Man Vanishes/人間蒸発

amanvanishes

Ningen Jōhatsu, 1967

To understand the significance of Shohei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes [Ningen Jōhatsu, 1967], one must first have an understanding of the reason behind its genesis.  Perhaps the most consistently alarming aspect of Japanese society today – and indeed for the best part of half a century – has been the rate in which its citizens have simply vanished into thin air, with a statistic of 100,000 per annum being roughly estimated.  Compared to Japan’s unusually high suicide rate – one of the largest in the world – which makes up just 0.1% of that sum by comparison, it’s easy to place such a terrifying prospect into far greater context.

Commonly referred to as “Jōhatsu” [lit. Evaporated], it’s often believed that these people simply disappear of their own volition, leaving behind only frustration for their families.  The reason behind these orchestrations can only be looked upon at a speculative level – whether they were owed to circumstances such as divorce, severe debt, job loss or fear of failure, the leftover result is one which stirs feelings of anger and befuddlement; a sense of hopelessness which is only heightened by how the police force chooses to investigate missing persons cases, many of which are terminated on account of just how “successful” the victim has been in never wanting to be discovered.  Few cases, for whatever reason however, are not always reported, perhaps in part due to the shame that such an act brings upon the family.

Entering the scene barely two decades after the events of World War II, from which Japan as a nation was struggling with a great sense of disgrace and was rebuilding itself from the ashes, A Man Vanishes also came during a timely period in which the Art Theatre Guild – which was initially established to distribute foreign and domestic arthouse cinema – ventured into producing their own features in a bid to help out struggling artists, whose visions would often be at odds with that of the industry’s major distributing houses.  The ATG itself was born from years of national turmoil, which saw Japan enter a period of student uprisings as unions voiced their concerns over the Anpo treaty, designed to see the United States commit themselves to help defend Japan in the case of future conflict; a by-product being that the setting up of U.S. military bases would breed social paranoia. This was but the beginning of a decade-long struggle, which saw student groups go on to oppose other conflicts happening within their homeland and overseas – and the ATG would be there every step of the way.

The Art Theatre Guild, then, would ultimately serve as an axis for vocal and talented filmmakers; the co-productions themselves would see the ATG front half of the bill, while the director would have to get creative in mustering up the rest.  These were typically known to be 10,000,000 yen productions and while for a director to have to split the budget down the middle seemed unorthodox at the time, it meant that the payoff resulted in having carte blanche.

Director Shohei Imamura had already amassed a respectable reputation for himself, thanks to features like Pigs and Battleships and The Pornographers earning himself western recognition; his desire to uncover more secrets within Japan’s underbelly, however, saw him move toward a more documentarian approach, resulting in him collaborating with the ATG for his inaugural feature with them.  The intentions behind A Man Vanishes are sincere enough, with Ishimura initially having set out to document the disappearances of twenty or so citizens, only to soon realise that such an undertaking would be far too ambitious a feat.  Instead, the director chose to focus on just one case: a man by the name of Oshima Tadashi, who vanished without a trace, leaving behind his grieving parents and his fiancée, Yoshie Hayakawa, who had searched desperately for almost two years until being contacted by the director.

There is something futile from its ominous tone to suggest that A Man Vanishes won’t culminate with a sunset denouement, presenting the realisation that nothing is ever simply black and white, with areas so grey that it will forever remain an enigma in Japanese cinema.  What starts off as an earnest attempt to portray a fractured soul raised by a humble upbringing, soon subverts itself to all-out character assassination, as through various interviews with Tadashi’s parents, colleagues and formally betrothed, we’re painted a portrait of a kind, yet self-conscious man with criminal tendencies, who shunned a society that had tried to help him. Or did it?

Ishimura’s film, for all its determination to uncover the truth behind Tadashi’s disappearance, is one which perhaps unwittingly reveals more about the human condition than it may have set out to achieve.  As the investigation moves between street vendors and the family domicile – to which things become so hopeless that spirit mediums are called in to solve a riddle which should ordinarily come down to basic logic – A Man Vanishes does more to overshadow its initial subject in the way it tests the will of the human spirit; how it dissects the core being of its players to reveal certain truths, personal fears and concerns, which inevitably exposes deep flaws under the surface, thus forcing the viewer question just what it is that we can really bring ourselves to trust.

Nothing is more relevant than in seeing Ishimura’s star player, Yoshie a.k.a. “The Rat”, at work. Taking to the streets with actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi by her side – here, covering for the film’s director in order to maintain credibility – the stone-faced jilted one becomes less of a sympathetic heroine as much as she does a defiant voice in contemporary society.  As theories begin to escalate and tension rises upon the discovery of a body which bears an almost uncanny likeness to that of Tadashi, the unravelling of Yoshie’s psyche creates an unintentional commentary on Japan’s patriarchal system, when the investigation turns to her own upbringing.  Ishimura, having spent the best part of a year working with Yoshie, saw over time that she was a character all to herself and as such she becomes the feature’s main thread by the time it hits its midway point.  Peeling away the layers, we begin to witness what was once a timid women in front of the lens now transforming into an outspoken individual who refuses to be subservient to the antiquated ideology that society dictates, much to her eventual undoing.  With the interaction between her and sister Sayo – a rather pitiful lass who is referred to by the crew rather unfairly as “The Witch” and is often spoken about as if she’s not even in the same room – it becomes an almost villainous transition as we discover through her family that Yoshie was always a hardened spirit who wasn’t averse to bullying others and getting her own way. Could she have even been the catalyst for Tadashi’s disappearance?

This revelation is perhaps what makes A Man Vanishes the conundrum it is, given how Ishimura resigns himself to the notion that truth can be stranger than fiction, and in doing so restructures the documentary to to fit an alternative way of processing questions raised earlier.  Provoking Yoshie and her sister with personal questions at times, which only goes on to create further hostility between them, Imamura’s conspiracy theories concerning a family plot centred around the whole sorry ordeal constructs a surreal narrative, which is compounded by his growing suspicions of Yoshie and her own motivations, whether they be boosted by the idea of fame and general attention or indeed whether she’s merely exhausted her options and hopes to create a new start in life thanks to this chance landing on her lap.  This strange turn of events is only aided by the revelation that Yoshie may now be in love with Tsuyuguchi, which is eventually confirmed in a covertly shot confession, which plays out like an outtake from some melodrama.

However, in what becomes something of a self-referential piece of work, Ishimura finds himself forced to make a dramatic decision by its conclusion – quite literally – as he tears down the walls around him to reveal a construct which suggests that nothing we’ve seen here can be considered as being neither truth or fiction; that circumstantial happenings can often trigger the desired outcome.  After all, everything we become privy to here is merely dealt with through second and third hand testimony, most of which is so absurdly vague and at times fantastical that uncovering the truth seems only about as realistic as filtering though uncertain recollections and outright fabrications.

In the end, it seems as though Shohei Ishimura reached a certain sense of enlightenment during his time spent on A Man Vanishes, one which perhaps helped him to find solace within his disillusionment of the whole process and thus steer him toward his chosen path of documenting Japan in the way that he eventually would.  In the decades since Imamura’s first collaboration with the ATG, A Man Vanishes still holds a powerful grip. Few films manage to blur the lines of fantasy and reality quite so hauntingly as this, and it remains a testament to the will of a director who never gave up trying to seek the answers to questions we all invariably share.

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Milk the Maid/ 大奶女佣

milkthemaid

Mutchiri kasei-fu: Sui-tsuki go hôshi, 2013

Directed by the award-winning Mototsugu Watanabe (Sexy Battle Girls, Whore Angels, Sexy S.W.A.T. Team, Ogenki Clinic), Milk the Maid stars AV idol Tia Bejean as Milk – a young lady who’s quickly adopted into the family of Ruriko Aiba (Mirei Yokoyama), when she passes out on her from near starvation at a local cemetery. Ruriko’s husband, Sohei (Kukujiro Honda), is initially skeptical about the lass, while his son, Koichi (Yasunari Kubota), takes quite a shine to her. It’s soon learned that Milk is actually a baby angel, sent down from the heavens to appease God.

Well, the family don’t argue too much about it, and soon Milk is invited to stay as a live-in maid. She quickly realizes that the family isn’t so perfect though, with Ruriko going off having affairs, while her unemployed, but suspicious shut-in of a husband fantasizes about taking Milk for himself. Meanwhile, Koichi has like-minded dreams, while an old school friend in Miki (Ayum) yearns for his affection. It looks like Milk has her work cut out for her if she’s to earn her wings!

For the best part of the new millennium, the obsession with maid worshipping has been a staple part of Japan’s Otaku culture. From anime and manga to the specifically designed ‘maid cafes’ which started it all in Akihabara, businesses have done all they can to tap into typically perceived male fantasies, capitalising on the idea of a subservient dream woman, who dotes on her admirer and entertains his every request – well, within reason of course. It’s a topic ripe for Pink Film consumption and several features, such as Akiyoshi Sugiura’s Pretty Maid Café, Naoyuki Tomomatsu’s Maid Droid, Chise Matoba’s Maid in Japan and Nakamura Kazuyoshi’s Maid’s Secret, have done their utmost to take such escapes from reality to the extreme; to serve on a plate large helpings of unadulterated, fetishized content, which goes against the usual rule that the maid doesn’t get involved in sexual relations with her client.

2013’s Milk the Maid takes things away from the realms of the catering industry, but holds onto some familiar ideas as it shamelessly parades around its star in little more than an apron, which provides a lot of side boob when the gal’s not required to show 100% boob, which is like 90% of the time I might add! Tia (her name shortened presumably for the purpose of defining her “acting” roles) is a naturally appealing presence, which is probably just as well given how utterly terrible an actress she appears to be here; the reliance on pouting her face and exaggerating her body gestures signals an attempt to mask such obvious failings, which only helps to portray her role as a one-dimensional caricature – a robotic kind of pandering which is perhaps intentional upon further inspection. However, given director Watanabe’s idiosyncrasies, there’s little cause for too much concern, with a premise so comically ridiculous that it wouldn’t entirely be a stretch to assume that the majority of screen veterans seem to be in on the gag.

Watanabe’s frequent collaborator, Koji Yamazaki, drafts together a playful script, which manages to keep things fun, despite a gamut of gestating social themes, building toward an arguably shoehorned climax which raises questions about karma and redemption. Throughout the feature the director skirts around religious motifs, while at the same time commenting on serious family matters involving infidelity and economic recession; the formally widowed Sohei coming somewhere between the coined term “Ikumen” (At-home Dad) and hopeless layabout, while in a desperate turn of events his wife – AV Idol Mirei Yokoyama putting in a show-stealing turn – becomes the chief moneymaker. To the credit of cast and crew the overall jovial nature of the film, in which everybody is trying to get their jollies on at once, does allow the sixty minutes of footage to briskly move along, backed by a delightfully odd score which illustrates the circus it all really is.

Watanabe’s direction of Milk the Maid’s sex scenes is just as enthused, with each one offering something different of interest. There’s a vibrant amount of energy on display, despite little overall creativity in trying to escape the censors, with some of the most distracting mosaic you could hope to see on a release such as this.

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Hausu/ハウス

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Hausu, 1977

Nobuhiko Obayashi might not be one of the most readily recognised names outside of Japan; his films have rarely enjoyed international fame past festival screenings, but he’s a man who early on in his career helped to define a new movement in experimental film making, subsequently leading him to becoming one of the country’s most successful commercial directors.

It was during the fifties and sixties that the twenty-something student began making short 8mm and 16mm films, whereby he earned local recognition for his candid portrayals of everyday Japanese life: pseudo-documentaries such as Onomichi (1961) and Confession (1968), for example, proved to be nice tributes to the quiet Hiroshima town he grew up in and predominantly made all of his shorts, but much of the decade was spent in finding new ways to tackle various genres through his keenness to take his camera to its very limits. Drifting between fantasy, horror, documentaries and romance, Obayashi churned out some fascinating experimental pieces: he would hark back to the silent era with the reflective insertions of 1960’s The Girl in the Picture; dabble with numerous filters in the satirical Complexe; unnerve with The Eaten Person’s seemingly literal commentary on consumption; and even present his own take on the vampire tale with Emotion, the film that would eventually catch the eye of Toho Pictures. All of these were accompanied by self-composed piano ditties and varying editing styles and would often acknowledge his European influences and appreciation through his fond use of slapping ‘Un film de’ introductions on their opening title cards and throwing in homage’s to various cinematic greats.

By the seventies he found himself working in the field of television, primarily directing commercials for popular brand products; his unbridled approach would attract the attention of major Hollywood stars: one such fellow by the name of Charles Bronson would bestow the moniker of “OB” upon Obayashi, due to initial pronunciation difficulties, but it became an affectionate nickname which would serve the director well throughout his subsequent years as he traveled between countries. Obayashi’s approach to commercials would continue to be as unique as his previous home movies, showing him as a director with a distinctive voice worth hearing. By 1976 that was enough for Toho to approach him. The director was now entering his forties and Japanese cinema was in decline, with little revenue coming in from domestic releases. He was offered an opportunity to direct his first studio feature under conditions that not even he could afford to pass up. He would be allowed to defy the conventions that Toho itself had become so tired of, given absolute free reign and a respectable budget – anything he wanted in order to get audiences back into theatres. He would ultimately leave his unforgettable mark on cinema with what would become his most fascinating feature.

It’s close to Summer vacation, and Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is excited to be spending some quality time with her beloved father (Saho Sasazawa). That is until her hopes are shattered when one day he introduces her to his new girlfriend, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi). Despite Ryoko’s sincere efforts, Oshare can’t bring herself to accept this potential family member, and soon begins to reminisce about her deceased mother. She recalls her auntie, who has lived out in the countryside all her life, and feels that it’s about time she went out for a visit after an impromptu visit from a mysterious white cat.

Oshare decides to invite her closest friends along:  Fanta (Kumiko Oba), Sweet (Masayo Miyako), Gari (Ai Matsubara), Mac (Meiko Sato), Melody (Eriko Tanaka) and Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo) – each of whom hasn’t experienced life outside of the big city. After a fun train journey and short trek through the woods, they reach their destination and are readily greeted by Oshare’s aunt (Yoko Minamida), who invites them into her huge estate. Little do the girls know, however, that auntie isn’t all she appears to be, and that very soon their lives will be extinguished for a seemingly greater good.

Though widely regarded as a horror feature, House is very much a deceptive piece of work; the first of many from Obayashi that would retain whimsical fantasy elements and sentimental drama, set to an assortment of unorthodox visual aids which eschew traditional genre practices. The film’s opening act is a bit of pot-boiler, predominantly constructed of pure angst-ridden melodrama and social satire, with the latter showing the director for his deftness in enlivening a sparse narrative through a clever and serenely executed dismantling of a decade’s worth of commercialism. There’s very little subtlety to it all. For instance, our first introduction to Oshare’s father’s new woman immediately sets alarm bells ringing: mirroring some cheesy perfume advertisement, it comes replete with slow wispy garments and flowing locks of hair, set to the cawing of invisible seagulls on a warm summer’s breeze.

Elsewhere, idyllic sunsets permeate almost every frame and sickly sweet conversations are shared between a cacophony of naïve, giggling schoolgirls. Our introduction to the sisterly seven is swift, with their idiosyncratic nicknames telling us all we need to know before the director places them on that fateful train journey; itself taking shots at the tourism industry as a cartoon-ish skit sees the young ladies transplanted into a welcoming countryside of animated rainbows and pastel fields. It’s here that OB goes some way to revisit the rural encapsulation of his earlier – and more intimate short – Nakasendo. Obayashi’s overtly direct attitude is refreshing in that he uses humour to great effect in illustrating his point: the hilariously oversized countryside signboards (which even appear over the backdrop of a matted rural landscape) provide the neat juxtaposition of modern tastes ebbing away at traditional values. At the same time his fascinating homage to silent cinema, which sees the girl’s provide an excitable commentary on their journey over sepia-toned wartime imagery, fuels the imagination with recurring fairytale fantasizing.

Indeed, for its absurdly sprightly presentation it’s not without a spot of cynicism, which even goes so far as to extend to a key figure. Just as Obayashi could be considered a rebellious force, so too is his lead protagonist, Oshare. There’s a slight flaw in her character, however, in that she’s rarely ever likeable. It’s a curious move on the director’s part because by rights if you’re gonna place young innocents in harms way then you should probably make an effort to get the viewer on their side. Most of his cast, despite their one-dimensional and archetypical personalities, at least have an air of charisma about them, yet this one individual almost burdens the entire feature. Her name – literally translating to ‘fashionable’ – is all too apt, and it’s practically from the moment she arrives home after school in the opening ten minutes that she’s painted no less than a heavily spoiled and selfish individual, who decides to rebel against her father’s best wishes by rejecting Ryoko and running off to her dear auntie’s house in the countryside, where she can continue being the centre of attention to her friends, whilst seeking solace in a more desirable surrogate.

Within this somewhat shallow characterization though is a clear delving into parental/child relationships, with underlying themes of sexuality, romantic idealism and superficiality lending fair credence to a tale based around teen adolescence. All of which leads to an oddly poignant catharsis by the time the film reaches its dire ultimatum, which is further compounded by our auntie’s desire to meet her own needs as well. House was Obayashi’s first feature film and granted he would go on to make more successful emotionally-driven pieces, which further explored the coming of one’s age, yet the tremulous depictions of his debut feature’s cast remains largely unrivaled on account that there seems to be a point to their thinly drawn persona’s in its overall eschewing of audience preconceptions, despite its embracing of well worn clichés.

Because at this point all he’s done is create an artificial sense of hope in showing us an absolute perfect world inhabited by promising young lives –  a world that without much warning he then chooses to systematically tear apart before our eyes. The director’s twisting of the knife occurs once the girls arrive at the malevolent house, whereby all of the cutesy preamble and social commentary soon dissolves into a string of wild and sadistically humorous set-pieces, which sees his deconstruction of conventional melodrama and horror staples come to full fruition; a mélange of bizarre and wonderful trickery, showing the feature for it being a wild amalgamation of all that he had taught himself throughout his experimental beginnings, along the way knowingly referencing and re-inventing key moments from several of those productions. Obayashi’s ultimate playfulness in disfiguring House’s framework is the very thing which has undoubtedly earned it the recognition it now readily enjoys. Its defiance as it sets about cruelly bumping off its protagonists one-by-one remains largely unrivalled by today’s standards, thanks to the sheer originality on display. It’s not the typical stalk and slash affair which has become so ingrained in contemporary cinema, but an entirely different beast altogether, born from the mind of the director’s then 11 year-old daughter, Chigumi, who found there to be nothing scarier than a house which consumed its inhabitants in many nefarious ways.

What was once envisioned to be a new breed of monster movie in a bid to rival overseas success stories such as JAWS, eventually became a rare thing of ingenuity over what was a gestation period of two years. An entire house to himself, Obayashi finds no shortage of wicked ways to antagonise his girls, from an ominous white cat named Snowy, to killer lampshades, possessed smothering pillows and a carnivorous piano which has to be seen to be believed. Sure, there’s a hokeyness to House; it’s the kind of feature that wouldn’t ordinarily be made today given advances in technology and changes in audience tastes (about as close is Gil Kenan’s more recent Monster House, which perhaps can be directly attributed to it), but that’s all part of its charm and a testament to Obayashi’s distinct personal ideals. It’s raw film making at its best, pulling no punches as the auteur lets himself loose in the editing suite like a child in a candy store. Each and every scene is punctuated by some kind of stylized trait as he opts to illustrate various mood changes through the use of literally dozens of varying cinematic techniques, created both in-camera and some off, with the help of blue-screen. Double exposures; numerous colour filters; super-impositions; frequent dissolves; heavy cranking; under cranking; animation and matt paintings; vignettes, diffused focuses; dreamy lighting; abrupt scene shifts – the list goes on. Obayashi often heeds to repetition, as a means it seems to disorient the viewer as the girls are pulled deeper into the ghostly chasm of despair. Running in tandem is a ridiculously catchy score, surreal in its equally repetitive, though chirpy pop playfulness. Asei Kobayashi (watch for his cameo as the watermelon man) and Godeigo’s Mickie Yoshino – who would later go on to provide further memorable melodies with NHK’s Saiyuki (a.k.a. Monkey!) and Galaxy Express 999 – adopts a romanticised approach of predominantly piano-led ditties, some of which are assigned to particular characters in maintaining welcomed emotional undercurrents, while at other times they go all-out-silly, with one of the most amusing recurring themes belonging to Kung-Fu: a catchy action tune that heightens whenever she finds an opportunistic moment to kick down parts of the abode with total abandonment.

In all Nobuhiko Obayashi is all too aware of his environment and House perfectly sums up the kind of man he is: a cunning and methodical thinker, who defies convention to the best of his abilities, while simultaneously laughing in its face. His debut film – although harbouring some perfectly deep sentiments and clever satire – is ultimately one of enormous fun. It’s an event movie that you want to kick back with amongst friends and reel over its sheer unperturbed madness. I think at the end of the day that’s all Obayashi wants as well.

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Hana & Alice/花とアリス

hanaandalice

Hana to Arisu, 2004

Over the past few years director Shunji Iwai has attained quite a following, amidst several of his short stories and four feature length films (discounting the recent Kon Ichikawa Story). Following on from Love Letter, Swallowtail Butterfly, April Story (’98 short) and All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana & Alice continues to thematically link the director’s ideals of young love, family and friendship and the trials of simply growing up and learning through experience. However, Hana & Alice might never have come about had it not been for Iwai’s fortunate advertising streak with Nestle. In 2003 he was hired to write and direct a short series of films to promote “Kit-Kat” chocolate bars, which subsequently made their way onto Nestlé’s website. Due to the popularity of these shorts, which featured best friends Hana and Alice, Iwai was given the green-light to produce a fully fledged film.

The story follows best friends Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) as they go through adolescence. One day, while taking their regular train journey to school, Alice – an aspiring actress – points out a Japanese-American boy she’s attracted to. Next to him is a much shorter, younger man who they assume is his half-brother. From there they start taking photographs and looking out for the pair every day on the train. Some time passes and the foreigner who Alice once admired from afar is no longer around. She soon forgets about him, but Hana can’t stop thinking about the younger bookworm who always stood beside him.

Soon it’s back to high-school and Hana discovers that the boy she likes belongs to the Rakugo club. His name is Masashi Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku) bearing an amusing similarity to a famous swordsman. She joins his class in the hopes of getting close to him and it works, to a certain extent. She also gets into the habit of discreetly following him wherever he goes. On one such occasion she witnesses him banging his head on a half-closed shutter, whilst reciting some lines for the upcoming school festival. As he lies on the road in a daze she hurries over to see if everything is alright. He seems fine, except he can’t recall who Hana is. On impulse she decides to tell him that she’s his girlfriend, which sets into motion a series of not-so-innocent deceptions which Hana thinks is all too perfect. Only it isn’t as easy as she thought. She soon asks of her friend Alice to act as an accomplice in her efforts to win the heart of the confused Miyamoto, to which Alice agrees. But the more Alice enjoys her role of being Miyamoto’s love, the more she enjoys making up more lies in order to appear authentic. Soon Miyamoto finds himself drawn to Alice, which soon creates friction between the close friends, who appear to be now heading their separate ways.

It would be simple enough to pick apart Hana & Alice for employing a narrative device that’s not exactly original; after all it makes itself quite an easy target by taking a well-worn premise such as a conflicting love triangle and letting it stew for two and a quarter hours. But then anyone who knows anything about Shunji Iwai knows that he never does anything by halves; rather than indulge himself with a conventional narrative and have it play out in a routine manner, his films seek to deliver a myriad of existential emotions through the use of poignant and realistic dialogue, gorgeous framing devices and mellowing concertos which compliment his likeable characters. True to good form, then, Hana & Alice has all of the redeeming qualities that makes Iwai’s work so memorable and yet it also goes that little step further by injecting a hefty dose of light humour. While the latter statement might suggest it as being gimmicky by nature, the truth is that overall it’s far too well realised to allow itself to become a silly experimental exercise.

Hana & Alice isn’t your typical quirky comedy, however, deriving its humour from serious situations and playing out its scenes with genuine sincerity. Much of this stems from the fact that our female protagonists create their own complicated situations from the get-go, which inadvertently but inevitably threatens to destroy their close-knit bond over something as normal as the infatuation over a boy. Their romantic naivety contributes to the deepening hole which they’ve begun to dig for themselves, thus evoking a sense of impending tragedy, however restrained it ultimately feels. Iwai never greatly oversteps his mark; said tragedy is one which can be readily fixed before it escalates into a saddening mess, and as such the film manages to balance itself nicely enough thanks to some well timed exchanges. Sure, the director toys with the obligatory cliché, which might suggest a parting of ways for Hana and Alice, but there’s a sense that deep down even they know that something such as this is merely trivial when weighed next to the meaningfulness of their love for one another. It’s no great surprise then to see the director throw in a suitably fluffy denouement to warm our cockles.

Seeing as Hana & Alice resists the temptation to stray into hardened melodrama to remain a charming comedic tale, the story finds itself lacking a grandiose emotional pull. In actuality this works to the film’s benefit, as we’re drawn to the leads without being force-fed sappy sentiments, and in exploring the household lives of Hana and Alice, Iwai truly impresses in a wonderfully understated way. He never examines his subjects too closely, but frankly speaking he doesn’t have to, allowing for the smaller moments that creep in to resonate on a more sympatheitc scale. We have Alice’s somewhat distant relationship from her mother who runs a tip of a house and tries to keep her daughter out of the way of her new boyfriend (Abe Hiroshi in a small cameo), and then there’s Alice’s somewhat estranged but heartening meeting with her father, which is wonderfully handled. Iwai skilfully establishes the essence of the characters and exactly what they mean to each other, while also signifying communication breakdowns between families.

Of course this all happens in-between the main drive of the story, but Iwai does remarkably well in dividing his time between both Hana and Alice, allowing them to live out their individual lives at a distance, whilst also keeping their bond firmly secured. Hana studies a Rakugo monologue for the upcoming school festival, in addition to hounding the boy she likes, while Alice goes from audition to audition, just hoping for her first big break. And we want them to succeed. Despite Hana’s dubious lies we want her to be happy, just as we tire of seeing Alice fail time after time and being teased because of her rather simple nature. The strength of Hana and Alice’s relationship and how it’s portrayed through two marvellous performers such as Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi (returning after Iwai’s Lily Chou-Chou) is enough to ensure that any other characters who come and go can be dismissed with little fuss made on their part, such as the object of affection himself, Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku also returning after Lily Chou-Chou): a typical, despondent male caricature worthy of any Japanese melodrama. Sure enough, as with almost everything Shunji Iwai, it’s the female contingent which warrants our attention.

In trying to illustrate and highlight the affection that these girls share for one another, Iwai adopts an almost documentarian-like study on friendship, family and school life. From the film’s opening montage we get the feeling of an outsider’s approach to the material, as the camera wavers and often lingers during single takes, capturing perfectly innocent moments in time, which can be as simple as one getting on a train, admiring a person from afar or taking dainty walks. He creates a majesty of images, accompanied by a wonderfully self-composed score consisting mainly of piano and violin solos. But Hana & Alice is as much indebted to regular Iwai cinematographer Noboru Shinoda, who sadly passed away shortly after the film’s completion. Iwai’s aforementioned score and Shinoda’s compelling attention to details work in perfect unison, demonstrating firm adherence with regards to the inner struggles and personal feelings of the characters they support. On occasion Iwai does let his images get in the way, to the point that they become almost distractingly beguiling, but these occasions are often rare and easily overlooked in favour of scenes of utmost beauty, some of which cannot be fully expressed without having seen them play out: when Alice performs a ballet routine for an audition, Shunji Iwai’s music and Yu Aoi’s heart-stopping talents create an emotional impact which words needn’t express. Hana & Alice probably shouldn’t have worked quite so well, but in the hands of such an assured and confident director even the simplest of tales can be deceptively rewarding.

Despite an initially daunting run time and a concept that might have been thought up in five minutes, Hana & Alice proves to be another triumph for the consistently entertaining Shunji Iwai. Playing to his strengths of being able to deliver pleasing compositions and allowing his two female leads to bounce off of each other with sheer elegance, his latest story manages to rise above cliché and still come away with plenty of warmth and sincerity in relation to the sometimes unpredictable nature of the human heart.

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Blind Love/わいせつステージ 何度もつっこんで

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Waisetsu steeji nando mo tsukkonde, 2005

It’s a bit of shame that Daisuke Goto hasn’t gone on to greater mainstream success. For the past twenty years he’s been dabbling in and out of the pink film scene; he briefly interrupted his stint at the end of the 90s in trying to strengthen the Zero Woman and Sasori/Prisoner Scorpion franchises, but to very little fanfare. Upon returning to his niche field he’s received plenty of adoration for his work, which has seen him go on to win several awards throughout the present decade. The reason I lament this is because here’s a director who harbours a strong sense of compassion toward his subjects. His films might be laced with the same amounts of copious nudity seen in the majority of pink output, but his flawed characters and clear interest toward his homeland’s current climate have an undeniable weight to them. He comes across as a man who genuinely seems to have something say, who, if given the right tools and opportunities, could no doubt become a much stronger force within the Japanese film industry.

2005’s Blind Love follows the life of Kato Daisuke (Shota Kotaki): a struggling ventriloquist who, at odds with his own short demeanour, plays out desperate jokes with his dummy, much to his audiences’ bewilderment. However, he has managed to amass one fan. Her name is Hikari (Konatsu), a blind girl, who having fallen for Daisuke through his voice, advances him in the hopes of getting a date. But bad luck befalls Daisuke when Hikari mistakes his much taller assistant, Yoichi (Yota Kawase) for him. Knowing only the touch of Yoichi and the voice of Daisuke presents a major problem for the two men, who agree to both escort the young lady around town, Daisuke being a mere observer and conversationalist. But he finds it increasingly difficult to keep up the ruse as he watches his only friend in the business take advantage of the situation.

Two years after A Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn, Goto continues to explore familiar issues with a tightly-knit group of individuals who each suffer from certain personal inadequacies. Regardless of the disabilities or insecurities portrayed, the message here is succinct: that in life we are forced to make many important decisions, but we can also be so complacent as to continue going around in circles and not seize our opportunities. The characters here represent realistic human attributes, with Goto dispersing amongst them various states of emotional conflicts, such as selfishness, loneliness, and cowardice, which in turn presents some naturally empathetic themes. The director also shows a tad more cynicism this time around, as he imprisons his leads within an environment that demands more from them; traditional values are put into question as Daisuke struggles to keep a dying art form in the public eye, while in contrast Hikari’s young friend, Luna, casually gets by on servicing one-note businessmen. These disparate elements make for an interesting subject matter, taking their relevant place within the ever-changing face of society, but as admirable as Goto’s intentions might be there is a mixed air about his presentation.

Blind Love just doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. By handing us one of the most awkward love triangles we’re ever likely to see, it attempts to counter scenes of poignancy with moments of humour, only the latter is far less subtle; its generally pitiable, far-fetched and occasionally naïve nature making for some frankly questionable scenes. It’s almost impossible to buy into the notion of Hikari never realizing that Daisuke is always in her presence for the majority of time, as Yoichi takes her out for drinks and has sex with her later; while the general bumbling about on the part of Daisuke is often strange rather than infectious, leaving us with the feeling that what we have here is comedy introduced for the sake of it, rather than being a wholly organic product. And the same goes for the sex. An obvious given, it only serves as a detriment in that these lengthy encounters strip our central trio of some much-needed development time. Worse still is that one or two are quite ill-conceived and overstep the mark: an impromptu rape which is all too quickly skirted around for a happy ending of sorts leaves behind a somewhat bitter taste in heaping an unnecessary amount of pain upon a protagonist who has already gone through enough shit as it is. Despite some strong themes being examined, Goto can only achieve so much within the restrictions of what the genre affords, and unfortunately, while the film might look nice enough and the acting is certainly admirable, his narrative comes across a little more disjointed than with his earlier Lonely Cow…, struggling to maintain individual character arcs as they share moments with lesser-standing support characters.

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