The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018 (Part II)

The 16 films selected for the 2018 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme presented a typically wide range of takes on the theme of "(Un)true Colours: Secrets and Lies in Japanese Cinema" that testify to the continued vitality of contemporary Japanese cinema, few of which unfortunately ever receive a wider international release. Part I of the feature on this year's programme included reviews of Initiation Love, Memoirs of a Murderer, Where I Belong, The Dark Maidens, Birds Without Names, Mumon: The Land of Stealth and Joy of Man's Desiring, covering everything from intense relationship drama to dark murder-mystery, ninja battles and gothic horror.

Our coverage continues here in Part II: After School, The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji, Sword of the Stranger, Oh Lucy!, Gukoroku - Traces of Sin and Japanese Girls Never Die are no less eclectic in their treatment of the theme of 'Secrets and Lies', and often even more twisty in their plotting. Whether comic or melodramatic, anime or live action, entertainment or social critique - or as uncategorisable as a Takashi Miike film - the hidden secrets they uncover are often very revealing of many different aspects of Japanese culture, life and behaviours.

After School Dir: Kenji Uchida (2008)

Cast: Yo Oizumi, Kuranosuke Sasaki, Masato Sakai, Tomoko Tabata

Appearances can be deceptive, never take anything on face value; those are the guiding principles that you could apply to any police enquiry, court case or detective investigation. They are also principles that could also apply to films made by Kenji Uchida, and in After School he puts this into practice in a twisting thriller where the nature of the mystery always appears tantalisingly just out of reach and then evolves into something completely different the moment you think you know where it's going.

It's Kimura who at first appears to be the centre of the drama, mysteriously disappearing just after saying goodbye to Miki at the breakfast table one morning. Spotted in Yokohama by a work colleague, the company he works for are concerned enough to hire a private detective to find him, even before anyone really considers him missing. What are they really worried about? The detective then becomes the centre of interest, a seedy character who is in trouble with the yakuza and seems ready to do a runner at any moment. He recruits Kimura's old school-friend Jinno, who is also anxious to find him since Miki is just about to give birth, but the more they find out about Kimura's actions on the day he disappeared, the greater the mystery deepens.

Without understanding exactly what Kimura is involved in, the scale of it is rather more apparent as After School creates a complicated web that involves yakuza, big business, politics, police and ordinary people. Fortunately, no matter how big the case gets, it's the little personal story of Kimura, Miki and Jinno - all of them close friends from their schooldays - that comes through all the intrigue and has a few surprises of its own in store for the viewer.

It's a terrific way to stage a thriller, Uchida constantly shifting the focus from where you think the centre of the drama lies and who the main players are. You might find your patience tested as it is difficult to grasp what each of them are up to and what they are all hiding that makes their behaviour so suspicious, but Uchida has a great ability to keep the viewer hooked with unexpected moments of humour in the revelations. Most importantly, as complicated as it gets, the pay-off is terrific with all the inconsistencies explained and the mysteries resolved in a satisfying conclusion.

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji Dir: Takashi Miike (2013)

Cast: Toma Ikuta, Risa Naka, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Kamiji, Takashi Okamura

You know what to expect now from a Takashi Miike film by now, even if that is just to expect the unexpected. Given that The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji is a comedy based on a manga comic, you can be fairly sure to pitch expectations around 'fun and entertaining' if the director's immediately previous works in the genre are anything to go by. It might not be a full-blown-musical like For Love's Sake and it might not have three exclamation marks in the title like Ninja Kids!!! but Undercover Agent Reiji is just as hyperactively imaginative, wildly unpredictable and luridly colourful as the director's other recent ventures into manga-derived features.

Just as ninjas provided Miike with an opportunity to show how he could put both action and comedy together with considerable flair an imagination, The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiki has yakuza gangsters to provide plenty of broad characterisation, action and comedy. I bet you didn't know that the most important thing about being a yakuza was to be funny? Well, it's fortunate that Reiji Kikukawa measures up well on that front when he attempts to infiltrate the Sukiya-ka clan as an undercover agent, because he's a little too earnest and enthusiastic with laying down the law as a regular police officer.

Gaining the trust of some dangerous gangsters and going deep undercover obviously isn't going to be easy, and Reiki has to prove himself in a few trials first - although being stripped buck-naked, tied to a sports car, taken through a car wash and then driven into a mob car is a bit of a rough initiation - but Reiji manages to gain the trust of Crazy Papillon who guides him through the various stages to become a trusted and respected full member of the Sukiya-ka clan. Ok, maybe not trusted and respected as much as crazy and unpredictable, prone to chewing crockery but hey, this isn't Infernal Affairs.

Expected the unexpected then, but expect to laugh a lot at the bizarre antics, the surreal leaps of imagination and the exaggerated characters that are assembled here. Even more astonishing is how creatively Miike manages to continually find new ways of putting the cartoonish action and violence onto the screen with extensive but wonderfully employed technical trickery and visual effects. You can be guaranteed to see things here that you never seen on the screen before (gutterflies?), but everything is merited by the totally deranged plotting and characters, played with unbridled fervour and comic brilliance by a terrific cast.

Sword of the Stranger Dir: Masahiro Ando (2007)

Cast: Tomoya Nagase, Yuri Chinen, Naoto Takenaka, Koichi Yamadera

Before the trend in Japanese animated features turned towards the adolescent problems and the romantic fantasy genre (often admittedly with spectacular results), Studio Bones - best known for the hugely successful Cowboy Bebop series - made an impressive case for the traditional feudal era jidaigeki samurai period drama with the 2007 feature Sword of the Stranger It may involve lightning-fast swordplay, flying arrows and poison darts, limb dismemberment and fountaining blood, but even within the genre trappings Masahiro Ando's feature proves that it can also address relevant points relating to loyalty and allegiance with regards to the individual and society.

Just to show that it take a rather more complex view of the situation than it just being good guys and bad guys, there are three forces brought into conflict in Sword of the Stranger, or maybe even four. What emerges first and most obviously drawing a line between good and evil is a company of highly trained Chinese warriors who have ventured into Japanese lands looking for a young boy, Koratu, who is hiding out in a remote abandoned temple with his faithful dog. The situation is a little more complicated by the fact that the Chinese warriors are led there by Japanese authorities, but also by the fact that an unknown Ronin known as Nanashi ("No-Name"), who has stopped by to rest at the temple, finds himself reluctantly caught up protecting the young boy from whatever plan the ruthless warriors have for him.

Well, the plan that they have for Kotaru involves a fair bit of hokum, but apart from providing the opportunity for some thrilling and entertaining set pieces, the real issue that emerges from the film is the question of where one can best place one's allegiances. The Japanese and the Chinese have very different views on the faith and respect they place in their leaders and those traditional views, with their associated plotting scheming and betrayals, are now even more complicated by outside foreign influences that now also make up their number. That we discover extends also to the mysterious origins and background of Nanashi that becomes clearer over the course of the film, and it's in this figure who is reluctant to draw his sword that the central dilemma of duty and allegiance lies.

Until he is forced to think otherwise by Kotaru's dilemma, the mysterious stranger has resolved that his only allegiance is towards himself, but that changes and I wouldn't rule out the role that Kotaru's dog has to play in that turnaround either. Tobimaru is not just there as a cute sidekick or for sentimental reasons. Leaping to the defence of his master, his master in turn risking everything to nurse him back to health after Tobimaru is hit by a poison dart, brings No-name to the realisation that there is only one thing truly worth fighting for. It's not country or lord, and its not for oneself, but for those who are in greater need and who would willingly do the same thing for others.

Oh Lucy! Dir: Atsuko Hirayanagi (2017)

Cast: Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Koji Yakusho, Shori Kutsuna

As a Japanese-American production, starring Josh Hartnett and with Will Ferrell as an executive producer, there might be a little concern that Oh Lucy! will end up somewhat compromised or commercialised and overly-reliant on cross-cultural differences and misunderstandings for comedy value. The truth however is that somehow Atsuko Hirayanagi's film finds the best qualities of both Japanese and US indie cinema with a rather more laid back sense of humour and some observations on common social attitudes that are both insightful and painful.

As a favour to her niece Miko, tired and frustrated office worker Setsuko takes on an English language course with an American teacher. John's methods are somewhat unconventional, the young man seeing an attitude of openness as being more important to speaking American-English than merely learning words and conversational phrases. This involves Setsuko adopting the American name Lucy, and greeting everyone with warm hugs. The unusual breaking of social ettiquette opens up a new way of thinking for Setsuko, so when John suddenly cancels the course and returns to America, the new persona of Lucy decides that it's time for her to broaden her horizons too.

There's plenty of broad silly humour in Setsuko's emotional and sexual awakening, but also more than just a degree of truthful observation in the nature of the repressed, uptight and unsatisfying life that she and many like her in dead-end office jobs lead. It's not so much that being in America offers her any real opportunity to fulfil her life, as much as make her aware that other possibilities exist. And yes, as Lucy she can imagine being that someone else, put on a wig and let her hair down, so to speak.

The contrasts are wonderfully drawn, not so much as cultural stereotypes - although there is an implication that a lack of imagination and nerve lets people fall into stereotypical roles - as much as in the whole emotional feel and in the dynamic that has been created. It's the emotional shock content of the film hits harder than any cultural shock. Despite the outbursts and edgy spikes of drama, there is however a beautiful underlying warmth to Oh Lucy! that you can melt into like one of John's big hugs.

Gukoroku - Traces of Sin Dir: Kei Ishikawa (2016)

Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Hikari Mitsushima, Keisuke Koide, Asami Usuda, Yui Ichikawa

It soon becomes apparent that there are two crimes that are being brought into the light in Gukoroku, Traces of Sin; one is linked to the family situation of journalist Tanaka, and one related to a case he is investigating for the magazine he works for. What starts out as one thing however soon turns into something else. The opening scene where Tanaka fakes a limp to shame a man who insists he gives his seat on the bus to an elderly lady, gives some indication of that, since more than just being a question of manners, it also alludes to a certain standards and expectations in Japanese society that apply to a strict hierarchical order. Tanaka clearly has reason to show contempt for these social conventions.

We discover that Tanaka's bus journey is to visit his sister in prison, where she has been serving time for the neglect of her child. The child is currently in intensive care, in a coma, but Mitsuko seems unaware of her failings as a mother. Tanaka and Mitsuko's family drama however soon falls into the background as Tanaka starts to look into an unsolved crime, the murder of a successful businessman, Takuo, his beautiful wife Natsuhara and their young daughter, all brutally stabbed to death in the home the year previously.

It's a slow, deliberate investigation that Tanaka undertakes, ostensibly as a distraction from the headline-generating horrors of his sister's case. The young man interviews everyone who knew Takuo and Natsuhara in forensic detail, cataloguing a complex web of connections and relationships that shows neither of the victims in a particularly favourable light. Much of it seems gossipy, the kind of celebrity tittle-tattle that sells magazine's like the Village Weekly, but in the process Tanaka's investigation reveals a lot about the strict demarcations that exist within Japanese society where there are 'Insiders' and 'Outsiders'.

What starts out like one crime investigation turns into another, and that in turn leads to the revelations of further crimes and abuses committed. Kei Ishikawa's treatment of the issues raised is slow-burn and mood intensive, laying out a complex situation of relationships and social behaviours that are completely recognisable and not just specific to Japanese society. As dark secrets are brought to light and connections made, the film maintains and deepens in intensity as it leads towards its conclusion. You might feel that it lays it on a little too heavy with the final cinematic twists and revelations, but there's no question that Gukoroku, Traces of Sin delivers on the momentum established with shattering impact.

Japanese Girls Never Die Dir: Daigo Matsui (2016)

Cast: Yu Aoi, Mitsuki Takahata, Taiga, Shono Hayama, Huey Ishizaki, Ryo Kase

Daigo Matsui's Japanese Girls Never Die (aka Haruko Azumi is Missing) is a wonderfully ambitious film that uses a complex structure of overlapping stories with a few experimental touches, but it puts it all to meaningful use. It relates the life experiences of several modern women of different ages in parallel or adjacent timelines where they occasionally or abstractly cross paths. As different as the experiences of each of the women are, one thing they share in common is the weight of social expectations they have to bear, how they live with them and how they can work to break them down.

There isn't a great age difference between the two young women who are most central to the drama, but their attitudes, experiences and the worlds they inhabit have little in common. Haruko is 27, working in a small office where she and a 37-year-old female co-worker have to put up with the casual everyday sexism of her male bosses, and considerably lower wages too. One of the social expectations levelled against both women is the social stigma of being an unmarried woman, but most of the male graduates from Haruko's school year are still stuck in dead-end jobs on shop counters and none seems to offer much promise. Her boyfriend Soga lives in the run-down and abandoned house of his grandmother next door to Haruko, which kind of sums up his ambitions and prospects.

From a younger generation, outgoing and vivacious 20-year-old Aina would seem to have less inhibitions and enjoy greater freedom, but in some ways she is also a victim of old ingrained attitudes that will never take her seriously - an attitude that also sums up her boyfriend Yukio, who is happy to share her with his graffiti artist friend Manabu. In this timeline we discover that Haruko has been missing for several years, as the three of them have created a stencil tag that carries the image of Haruko on a missing poster that they have been spraying all over town without really considering the implications.

With an additional element of an even younger group of violent teenage high-school girls assaulting lone men in dark alleys and underpasses, the imagery and the interweaving relating of the stories to carry a specific message is far from conventional, making social commentary without needing to be a social realist. Replaying events and scenes in a spiral around the mystery of what happened to Haruko Azumi, Japanese Girls Never Die presents a unique and fresh approach to a subject that has an important social message. The film isn't exclusively about Japanese women or even women in general, but they do seem to be the ones with the will and the power to get up and change what is wrong.

See also The Japan Foundation Touring Programme 2018 - Part I

Further details on the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme can be found on their website.

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