19 (ナインティーン) Director: Kazushi Watanabe (2001)

19

19 (ナインティーン)19 Nainti-n

Release Date: July 14th, 2001

Duration: 82 mins.

Director: Kazushi Watanabe

Writer: Kazushi Watanabe (Script),

Starring: Daijiro Kawaoka, Kazushi Watanabe, Takeo Noro, Ryo Shinmyo, Masashi Endo, Nachi Nozawa,

IMDB

19 is a coming-of-age drama that takes place on the open roads of the Kanto region. It starts with a university student named Usami (Daijiro Kawaoka) being kidnapped in broad daylight by a trio of young men in a car and taken on a road trip with no destination in mind and no explanation on offer.

Said kidnappers are beanie-wearing Chiba (Takeo Noro) who takes photographs, tight-lipped sunglasses-wearing Kobe (Ryo Shinmyo) who does the driving, and their leader, the more garrulous Yokohama (director Kazushi Watanabe himself), a real wise-ass. Their names seem to indicate where they come from but whatever the case, the three will not permit Usami to leave their company. Pretty soon, even when the opportunity is on offer, Usami is unable to leave of his own free will because he falls under the influence of his captors. Their influence is obvious: they act less like kidnappers and more like delinquent elder brothers. Their petty crimes rely on being audacious – walking out of a supermarket without paying? Sure. Stealing a car? Yep. It escalates, however. Kidnapping more people? Can do. Anything and everything is possible on their road trip.

19 Film Image 4

There is the occasional reveal of a philosophical bent to the young men, such as posing questions about life, the universe, and Einstein’s theories on the speed of light. Some of it sounds cool – if you go fast enough, time slows down, therefore driving means they can live forever. But there is much more of the mundane such as their hunt for Max Coffee. Whatever they choose to reveal, they remain mysterious. There is tension inherent in the scenario they have set up and their misadventures.

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Hole in the Sky 空の穴 (2001) Director: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

Hole in the Sky    Hole in the Sky Film Poster

空の穴 Sora no Ana

Release Date: September 29th, 2001

Duration: 127 mins.

Director: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

Writer: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, Akihiko Akizuki (Script),

Starring: Susumu Terajima, Rinko Kikuchi, Bunmei Tobayama, Ryo Kase, Shunsuke Sawada, Akemi Kobayashi, Megumi Asaoka,

Website IMDB

That long face. That thin mouth. That implacable stare. Once seen, never forgotten. Susumu Terajima, by-player. Arguably underused.

He is a familiar presence from Japanese cinema of the 90s and early 2000s, often times cast in the role of a yakuza or cop. Takeshi Kitano used him like a right-hand man like in Hana-bi and Sonatine while Takashi Ishii had him in the Black Angel and Gonin series.

Sometimes, other directors see his dramatic potential as in All Around Us.

Some directors see his comic potential to undercut his grim features as with the inglorious role of a yakuza with poop on his head in The Taste of Tea.

There’ll be blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearances like in Rampo Noir (a mirror salesman) and Still Walking (sushi delivery guy).

Sometimes, not often, he gets a lead role which is what happened with Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Hole in the Sky. In it, he shows he is an actor who can hold a film in his own right.

Terajima’s collaboration with Kumakiri began after the director made his feature film debut with Kichiku dai enkai (1997). Finding himself riding a tide of success due to the international attention the film garnered, Kumakiri took four years out to write and shoot Hole in the Sky. With it he fulfilled a long-held desire to work with Terajima, a desire sparked by detecting a “complicated side” to the actor he saw when watching the Okinawa-set yakuza film Sonatine (source).

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Angry Son 世界は僕らに気づかない Dir: Kasho Iizuka

Angry Son      Angry Son Film Poster

世界は僕らに気づかない Seikatsu wa Bokura ni Kidzukanai

Release Date: 2022

Duration: 112 mins.

Director: Kasho Iizuka

Writer: Kasho Iizuka (Screenplay),

Starring: Kazuki Horike, GOW, Masafumi Shinohara, Tomoka Murayama, Kenji Iwaya,

Website    IMDB

For transgender director Kasho Iizuka, representation matters. Starting with his 2011 Pia Film Festival Special Jury Prize-winning autobiographical feature debut, Our Future, his works have been concerned with the lives of people who don’t fit neatly into Japanese society due to factors like class, sexuality, and ethnicity. Angry Son, his latest drama, tackles immigration and mixed-race experiences through the prism of a single-parent family where social issues of differences in nationality and the place of minorities in society are wrapped up in a strong parent and child relationship drama.

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Ju-On: Origins 呪怨: 呪いの家 Director: Sho Miyake (2020)

From its origins as shorts Takashi Shimizu made for Kansai TV’s 1998 Haunted School G series to his low-budget V-Cinema debut to becoming a banner title during the J-horror boom, the Ju-On franchise has shown a considerable lifespan with around ten Japanese feature films, four American adaptations, numerous novelisations, and a Nintendo Wii video game.

Key to its success was the elegant simplicity of the structure of the initial films: each is structured as a series of vignettes featuring people entering a haunted house and getting cursed to be tormented the resident ghosts of Kayako and her little boy Toshio. Tension ratchets up as the two make their presence felt in everyday environments. They slowly make offices and hallways and even beds alien through their manipulations, before pulling off some shocking (and genuinely surprising) coup de graces, often with the scare delivered with just a simple switch in camera angle and an actor contorting themselves in some way

Ju-On the Curse 2's Kayako Greets a Much Valued Guest

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Strangers 人知れず Director: Sae Suzuki [Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022]

Strangers     Strangers Film Poster

人知れず Hitoshirezu

Release Date: 2022

Duration: 38 mins.

Director: Sae Suzuki

Writer: Sae Suzuki (Screenplay),

Starring: Manami Usamaru, Akihiro Yamamoto, Sayaka Nakakochi, Natsuki Murata,

IMDB

In the last few years Japan has been experiencing its own #MeToo moments as stories of power/sexual harassment have hit scandal mags and SNS. Such stories have taken down a variety of people from cinema chain managers to film directors and producers. Despite this, problems of harassment persist in many areas of life. Fortunately, filmmakers are using their platform so titles like Strangers can shine a light on these problems.

Strangers is a melancholic but hopeful short film from Sae Suzuki that circles around the idea of individuals experiencing sexual harassment, suffering in silence, and the release from trauma found in shedding an identity and sharing a problem.

Strangers Film Image

Manami Usamaru of Sisterhood (2019) fame plays Yukie, a dental nurse from a rural town. Quiet and unassuming, it is only when we listen in on Yukie’s conversations with a co-worker that we hear her dreams, a vague desire to live by the sea, a vague desire for freedom. This desire becomes reality when the power harassment of her boss turns into sexual harassment and Yukie makes the impulsive decision to flee to Tokyo with the dental clinic’s cash. There, she can be free to do as she pleases and so she changes her appearance and personality and meets up with a guy named Minato on a dating app who is hiding his own inner pain. Together as strangers, they offer each other hope for a new life even as they wrestle with painful ideas from their old lives.

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Rampo Noir 乱歩地獄 (2005) Dirs: Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisyasu Sato, Atsushi Kaneko

Happy Halloween! This is the time of year when people celebrate the supernatural and ghoulish aspects of popular culture and national myths. I do my part by highlighting horror movies on Halloween night. So far I have reviewed Nightmare DetectiveStrange CircusShokuzaiPOV: A Cursed Film CharismaDon’t Look Up, Snow Woman (2017) Snow Woman (1968)  Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel, Gemini, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’ll be returning to Japan for the next Halloween Review, an anthology film based on the erotic-grotesque-nonsense works of Edogawa Rampo.


Rampo Noir    Rampo Noir Film Poster

乱歩地獄 Rampo Jigoku

Release Date: November 05th, 2005

Duration: 134 mins.

Director: Suguru Takeuchi (Mars Canal), Akio Jissoji (Mirror Hell), Hisyasu Sato (The Caterpillar), Atsushi Kaneko (Crawling Bugs),

Writer: Suguru Takeuchi (Mars Canal), Akio Satsukawa (Mirror Hell), Shiro Yumeno (The Caterpillar), Atsushi Kaneko (Crawling Bugs), (Script), Edogawa Rampo (Original Stories),

Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Yumi Yoshiyuki, Susumu Terajima, Yuuko Daike, Chisako Hara, Mikako Ichikawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Hanae Kan, Nao Omori, Yukiko Okamoto,

IMDB

Hirai Taro aka Edogawa Rampo. A prolific writer whose stories were serialised in newspapers and published as novels. Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, the source of his pen name, Rampo turned his literary talents to stories of detectives, the supernatural, the erotic and the psycho-sexual. These works proved ripe for cinematic treatment, particularly around the time of the pink film boom.

Blind Beast (1969, Yasuzo Masumura) Black Lizard (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968) Horrors of Malformed Men (Teruo Ishii, 1969), Watcher in the Attic (Nobuo Tanaka, 1976), and Gemini (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999) stand as the most famous adaptations. Even this year there have been adaptations with Hiroki Inoue’s drama Hito de nashi no Koi released in June.

And we return to Rampo Noir. Back in 2004, as the J-horror genre started to shamble along zombie-like on the back of recycled tropes and trends, this anthology film was made that allowed its directors to approach Rampo’s macabre and menacing material in their own unique and memorable ways. It also allowed some of the leading acting talents of the early 2000s to wrestle with some truly disturbing material, particularly Tadanobu Asano (Bright Future, My Man, Survive Style 5+, Vital) who appears in the four chapters of the film and plays Rampo’s famous Detective Akechi Kogoro in two. While Rampo Noir does not feature jump scares or bone-chilling frights, it packs in a lot of ero-guro sights to leave an average viewer sickened and disturbed.

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Call Boy 娼年 (2018) Director: Daisuke Miura

Call Boy    Call Boy Film Poster

娼年  Shonen

Release Date: April 06th, 2018

Duration: 119 mins.

Director: Daisuke Miura

Writer: Daisuke Miura (Screenplay), Ira Ishida (Original Novel)

Starring: Tori Matsuzaka, Sei Matobu, Ami Tomite, Kenta Izuka, Yuki Sakurai, Erika Mabuchi, Kokone Sasaki, Kyoko Enami, Ruri Shinato,

Website IMDB

Depicting female desire on the screen isn’t exactly rare but nor is it common, especially when compared to the extent male fantasies and experiences get the cinematic treatment. It certainly isn’t as explicit or as funny as Call Boy, an adaptation of Ira Ishida’s novel by playwright-turned-director Daisuke Miura. His eye for erotic shots and character quirks super-charges female-first sexual fantasies  that Tori Matsuzaka bravely steps into.

The story follows Ryo Morinaka (Tori Matsuzaka), a student at a top-ranked university who works part-time at a bar. He’s bored with his daily existence of dating young women he sees as floozies and blowing off classes he has lost interest in so when he gets recruited to join an escort service by sophisticated and intriguing older lady Mido Shizuka (Sei Matobu), he has a new mission in life: to discover the passions of his clients and to fulfil them. Through that, he discovers more about himself.

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Love’s Whirlpool 愛の渦  Director: Daisuke Miura (2014)

Love’s Whirlpool  Love's Whirlpool Film Poster

愛の渦   「Ai no Uzu」

Release Date: March 01st, 2014

Duration: 123 mins.

Director: Daisuke Miura

Writer: Daisuke Miura (Script/Stage Play/Original Novel)

Starring: Mugi Kadowaki, Sosuke Ikematsu, Yoko Mitsuya, Hirofumi Arai, Kenichi Takito, Ryusuke Komakime, Tokio Emoto, Yu Nobue, Eriko Nakamura, Muck Akazawa, Tetsushi Tanaka, Yosuke Kubozuka,

Website   IMDB

“Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love”

From the song “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love

A group of people gather at a well-furnished apartment in Roppongi for sex. They have from midnight to 5AM. The rules are simple: use condoms, shower between partners, respect women’s requests, and leave quietly without exchanging information at the end. It is meant to be no-strings sex, but for some it becomes more meaningful as the emotions that drove them to the party are tapped…

This is the set-up to Daisuke Miura’s Love’s Whirlpool, an erotic drama from 2014. It is adapted from his own 2005 stage-play that raised eyebrows for its nudity but ultimately went on to win awards. The film itself became a something of a hit on the indie circuit and it is easy to see why as it bridges the gap between mainstream cinema and pink films as known actors engaging in explicit depictions of sex you might see in softcore. The hook for those of a less prurient nature is the way that psychological drama and social status emerges amongst a group of anonymous strangers simply seeking sex.

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All Around Us ぐるりのこと。(2008) Director: Ryosuke Hashiguchi

All Around Us    All Around Us Film Poster 2

ぐるりのこと。 Gururi no Koto.

Release Date: June 07th, 2008

Duration: 140 mins.

Director: Ryosuke Hashiguchi

Writer: Ryosuke Hashiguchi (Script),

Starring: Lily Franky, Tae Kimura, Akira Emoto, Susumu Terajima, Tamae Ando, Mitsuko Baisho, Ken Mitsuishi, Ryo Kase, Yoji Tanaka, Reiko Kataoka, Jiro Sato, Rie Minemura,

IMDB

2008 was a vintage year for Japanese cinema as a number of titles were released that have stood the test of time. The most notable are a triumvirate of slice-of-life dramas that left an indelible mark on the film world with Tokyo Sonata and Still Walking leaving a lasting impression with cinephiles while Departures had enough crossover appeal for mainstream audiences to become the first Japanese film to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. 

Not talked about as much but equal to all three is All Around Us, a hidden gem of a marriage story that takes in an epic sweep of social history while delivering intimate character studies all told through subtle direction that respects the audience’s ability to understand and naturalistic acting that is heartfelt and compelling.

The film starts in 1993 in Tokyo and introduces us to Kanao (Lily Franky) and Shoko (Tae Kimura). We enter their lives just as she launches a campaign to get pregnant.

The two are a study in contrasts that is initially fun. She is a controlling woman who works at a small publisher and is capable of great things. He is a laid-back and louche lothario who slums it as a street-side shoe repairman. She dresses primly. He dresses sloppily. She uses diaries and calendars to orchestrate book launches in work and marital sex nights at home to maximise chances of getting pregnant. He loafs around and dutifully, if a little perturbed, goes along with her instructions after days of flirting with female customers. For her, sex is almost laughably clinical while he goes with his passions, as shown in one hilarious scene where he cheekily surprises her by trying out a new sexual position that throws her off her game. 

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While the Women are Sleeping 女が眠る時 (2016) Director: Wayne Wang

While the Women are Sleeping     

While the Women are Sleeping Film Poster
While the Women are Sleeping Film Poster

女が眠る時 「Onna ga Nemuru Toki」 

Release Date: February 27th, 2016

Duration: 103 mins.

Director: Wayne Wang

Writer: Michael Ray, Lee Shin-ho, Mami Sunada (Screenplay) Javier Marias (Original Story)

Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Sayuri Oyamada, Lily Franky, Shioli Kutsuna, Makiko Watanabe, Hirofumi Arai,

Website IMDB

An undercooked psycho-sexual thriller, While the Women are Sleeping wastes a stellar cast – Hidetoshi Nishijima (License to Live), Takeshi Kitano (Hana-bi), Lily Franky (Like Father, Like Son), Makiko Watanabe (Love Exposure) – on a poor story.

We are at a posh holiday resort on the Izu Peninsula with unhappily married couple Kenji (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an author, and Aya (Sayuri Oyamada), a book editor.

While the Women are Sleeping Hidetoshi Nishijima and Sayuri Oyamada,

They are spending a week at the hotel over the summer. It is a bit of work and play, as she disappears during the day to coach an author while Kenji is left to his own devices and flip-flops between procrastination and wading through writer’s block. Although picture perfect together, marital strain is apparent as they snipe at each other over him skimping on sex and whether he should write or start life over as a salaryman. Things go really off the rails when they encounter a strange couple amongst the other guests.

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