After a month-long sickness, I am continuing to get better and I am hoping that trend continues. I have continued my run of reviews for the New York Asian Film Festival 2022 with Offbeat Cops, Lesson in Murder, and Broken Commandment. All three films are from different genres and all worth watching.
This week I have been playing Dragon’s Crown and I watched Berberian Sound Studio (2012).
Broken Commandmentis an adaptation of Toson Shimazaki’s 1906 novel. Set in Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912), it tells the story of Ushimatsu Segawa (Shotaro Mamiya) a popular teacher in a rural town in who hides his burakumin heritage to avoid social stigma.
The titular commandment that is broken is one Ushimatsu’s father gave (intoned with deep seriousness by Yoji Tanaka in a strikingly dramatic storm-filled flashback) telling his son to hide his background because, to be burakumin is to be part of a community of ethnic Japanese who suffered discrimination based solely on the basis of their class.
Whether or not Ushimatsu will break that commandment is always a knife-edge question.
Despite having idealistic ideas of equality inspired by living in a more modern age and imbibing on socialist teachings, Ushimatsu has good cause to hide his origins because, while Japan might be modernising, old prejudices die hard. This can be witnessed in scenes where a rich man (Renji Ishibashi) is met with physical violence after being revealed as burakumin and turfed out of the guesthouse Ushimatsu stays in. There are also instances when the insidious prejudice is demonstrated in everyday conversations and at the school that he is teaching in where members of the conservative administration and even some of his students are openly discriminatory.
Ushimatsu’s uneasy situation brings him further personal pain when he decamps from the inn to temple lodgings and starts a budding romance with Shiho (Anna Ishii), a beautiful book-loving young woman from an impoverished family descended from more noble samurai stock.
One of Kazuya Shiraishi’s favourite metiers is the crime genre. He is probably best known for The Blood of the Wolves (2018) and Last of the Wolves (2021), two yakuza x cop films that hark back to the Battles Without Honour and Humanity works of Kinji Fukasaku. Beyond that he has done corrupt cops, like in Twisted Justice (2016), and serial killer movies like sleepy true-crime story The Devil’s Path (2013). He returns to the latter genre with the far superior Lesson in Murder, a well shot film that works thanks to the casting of Sadawo Abe and the use of the actor’s beaming smile and cheerful demeanour to create an unforgettably chilling, sadistic murderer.
The story centres on Masaya (Kenshi Okada), a despondent student who attends a second-choice university while labouring under an oppressive family atmosphere.
Masaya’s dark days of depressive encounters with an overbearing disappointed dad (Takuji Suzuki), mousy mom (Miho Nakayama), and callous classmates are shaken when he is contacted by a serial killer named Yamato Haimura (Sadawo Abe), a figure from his time in junior high school whom he remembers used to be popular and run a bakery before it was discovered he was responsible for the murder of fresh-faced pure-hearted high school teens. Now on death row, Yamato is facing his final days. His letter summons Masaya to a meeting at a prison interview room where he claims that he did not commit the last murder that he is accused of, that of a 26-year-old office worker. If his preferred prey were teens, why target an adult? He makes the case that the real culprit is still on the loose. Masaya, intrigued, investigates.Continue reading “Lesson in Murder 死刑にいたる病 Director: Kazuya Shiraishi [New York Asian Film Festival 2022]”→
Director Eiji Uchida and Actor Hiroshi Abe will attend the screening.
Offbeat Cops is an original film written and directed by Eiji Uchida. With it, he continues to move away from indie films like blackly comic satires Greatful Dead (2013), Lowlife Love (2015), and Love and Other Cults (2017), to more mainstream fare like with Midnight Swan (2020) which won Best Film and Best Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards.
While the Japanese title is merely functional when directly translated – The Transfer Order is for the Music Corps! – the English-language title for Offbeat Cops is perfect as its multiple meanings accurately describe the content of this film where the central protagonist is out of time with other people in his life.
The man whose life has gotten out of rhythm is Tsukasa Naruse (Hiroshi Abe), a bulldog of a veteran detective who never tires of telling everyone he has been on the beat for 30 years. His latest case is chasing down a team of crooks who run a phishing scam where they call up elderly people while posing as cops, get information on money kept in their residences, and rob them. Lately, deaths have occurred. It all has Naruse fired up as he suspects a long-time nemesis is the mastermind, however, his old school Showa-style methods of beating down doors and beating up perps make him enemies amongst his more straight-laced Reiwa-era colleagues and it isn’t long before he gets busted for being a loose-cannon and taken off the detective beat altogether.
Transferred to the disharmonious police orchestra, he is given the position of drummer, even if Western-style drums aren’t his forte. The indignity of having to learn to keep time as the rhythm section rather than catch crooks has Naruse fly off the handle frequently. Worse still, his overworking nature means that his home life is a disaster as he is divorced, alienated from his budding musician daughter Noriko (Ai Mikami) and struggling with a mother (Mitsuko Baisho) who has Alzheimer’s. At his lowest ebb, Naruse has to find a new beat to march to.
There is something satisfying in seeing the return and rise of Non (real name Rena Nounen) following troubles with a talent agency. After getting plaudits for her performance in Akiko Ohku’s Hold Me Back, the Audience Award winner at the 2020 Tokyo International Film Festival, Non continues to strike her own path by making her debut feature movie as director/editor/writer with Ribbon, an imaginative and fun coming-of-age that takes on life in the ongoing Coivd-19 pandemic at a time when so many other films ignore it.
Inspired by an interview with an art college graduate who said that she considered a work that she had spent a year making little more than “trash because she could no longer exhibit it due to a lockdown” (source), Non crafts and acts out the story of Itsuka Asakawa, an art university student who is about to experience this crushing mindset.
Mayu Nakamura is an award-winning documentarian and fiction filmmaker. Her recent works includes Alone Again in Fukushima, the post Fukushima meltdown study of a man who stayed behind to look after animals, and Covid-19 short film Among Four of Us (interview with director Mayu Nakamura about that film). She returns to the screens with Intimate Stranger, a psycho-sexual thriller short on story surprises but deep in social critique and wonderfully heavy on eerie atmosphere. Nakamura works well with her cast as she channels a magnificent performance by criminally under-utilised lead actress Asuka Kurosawa.
Somewhere in Tokyo is Megumi Ishikawa (Asuka Kurosawa) a 46-year-old part-time salesperson at a baby clothing store. Her routine boils down to going to work and returning home where she has been waiting for her son, Shinpei (Yu Uemura), who went missing a year ago. When a cash-strapped 20-year-old young man named Yuji (Fuju Kamio) claims to know Shinpei’s whereabouts, Megumi invites him to stay with her. The audience knows that Yuji isn’t entirely on the level since, at the start of the film, we see him perform an “ore-ore” scam and fleece an old lady out of her money for a criminal gang led by Kenichi (Shogen) and it looks like Megumi might be his next target.
As we wait and watch what happens between the two, Megumi’s behaviour starts to become inconsistent. The close proximity of Yuji and Megumi to each other tantalisingly reveals hidden secrets and they develop a strange sort of intimacy that gets us to question reality. Their relationship becomes one that sometimes seems like a parent and child and other times seems sexual and we in the audience get caught up in an ever-shifting game of trying to guess who is predator and who is prey and who will come out on top.
Director Takashi Shimizu will attend the screening.
Ox-Head Village is the third film in a series directed by Takashi Shimizu following Howling Village (2019) and Suicide Forest Village (2021). In each film, he has a haunted village taking centre stage and uses the same formula for each instalment: a mystery story framework where everything is typically initiated through an urban legend spreading on social media and a main young protagonist investigating it, all while having close encounters of the spooky kind. Curses are uncovered and a supernatural confrontation ensues.
This set-up is par for the course when it comes to Shimizu, the man behind Reincarnation (2005) but fans of his earlier works should be prepared to lower expectations on frights. This trilogy is Shimizu at his most audience-friendly. Compared to his earlier work, the cast of each film skews young, albeit with a supporting cast that has one or two veteran actors for background support. The characters get involved in a mixture of found footage, folk horror and also comedy, the latter of which is used to temper the supernatural scares. Ox-head Village adheres to the above formulas as it presents a solidly shot, broadly entertaining film that should appeal to a mainstream audience but leave horror fans slightly deflated.
The story begins when a duo of wannabe vloggers head for an overnight stay at a haunted hotel to live-stream a video of a girl named Shion (Koki) wearing an ox head taking a test of courage by entering an elevator reputed to be a portal to a supernatural realm. Things go wrong when spirits intervene and the girl, trapped in the elevator, actually goes missing. The video goes viral online. This is how Tokyo high school boy Ren (Riku Hagiwara) comes to see it and shows it to Kanon (Koki), the girl he is crushing on. The two realise that she bears an uncanny resemblance to Shion. This is just the first in a strange series of incidents that affect Kanon as she gets eerie calls on her smartphone, experiences the sight of a spectre, and has strange dreams that hint at a twin from her childhood. But with all this spooky stuff happening, could it be a doppelganger instead? Kanon becomes determined to find out the truth behind the video and travels to the site of Shion’s disappearance with Ren in tow.