Contrary to the optimistic messages that films often sell audiences, dreams don’t always come true no matter how hard you work. The lesson learned by the two protagonists in The Workhorse and the Bigmouth, a dramedy about wannabe writers trying to make it in the movies, is that one has to be realistic.
The titular workhorse is Michiyo Mabuchi (Kumiko Aso), a 34-year-old woman who is single and works in a kinken shop (金券ショップ ticket reseller). She has dedicated herself to the art of writing and has written screenplays consistently since graduating from university and has consistently failed to break into the film world despite attending workshops and classes, entering competitions, networking, and knowing all of the technical aspects of screenwriting.
The bigmouth is Yoshimi Tendo (Shota Yasuda), a 20-something loafer with dyed-blonde hair who works as a chef in a fast-food joint. He spends more time daydreaming about movie-writing fame than trying to achieve it. He loves the attention he gets when he says he is a writer and bragging about his ambitions but putting in the work is another matter.
The two are a chalk-and-cheese pair who meet in a screenwriting class in downtown Osaka and both are desperate to make it and so they enter a competition launched by a Tokyo-based TV channel. While audiences might expect a romance of the “opposites attract” variety to happen, the story resists going the obvious route.
It is fair to say that most people go into acting with the expectation that they will be cast in a leading role at some point. However, not everyone can be centre stage and some are relegated to a career of supporting roles. In a profession where acting in the limelight is what actors pursue, how does being in the shadows feel? This is a question that the titular actor, Takuji Kameoka, faces when a mid-career crisis meets an existential crisis as he takes stock of his life in this melancholy comedy, or should that be, melancomedy.
Takuji Kameoka (Ken Yasuda) is a lonely thirty-something bachelor who plays bit-parts in movies and dramas. His only interest outside of cinema is drinking. One day, on a shoot in snowy Nagano, he gets drunk and sadder than usual at an izakaya where a woman named Azumi Murota (Kumiko Aso) runs the bar in her father’s stead. Takuji and Azumi talk while sharing saké. He quietly falls in love with her and it happens just at the point he begins to wonder if he will ever be the leading man in his own life and in the acting profession.
After a career with titles that flirted with fantasy, from 2010’s Colorful and the 2015 award-winning smash-hit Miss Hokusai, director Keiichi Hara leaps straight into the genre with this movie adaptation of Sachiko Kashiwaba’s 1988 children’s story “Strange Journey From The Basement”. This Ghibli-esque tale is a delightful family-friendly female-led fantasy that is sure to entertain all but the most cynical individuals with its jaunt through a cute wonderland full of colourful characters and creatures in its story of a girl who learns how to stand up for herself and take responsibility by saving another world.
Akane Uesugi is our protagonist. A shy elementary school student (around 12 years old), she has trouble telling other people how she feels and this causes a crisis for her after one dicey situation in school where a friend is ostracised by her social circle while she stands by and does nothing. Feeling a little guilty, she decides to hide out at home by feigning an illness. The day before her birthday, Akane’s mother, Midori, sends her on an errand to go get her birthday present from her aunt Chi who owns an antique shop.
Christmas movies range far and wide in terms of content from Heavenly interventions seen in Frank Capra’s classic It’s A Wonderful Life to the monstrous antics of the little green Gremlins seen in Joe Dante’s same-named film but these appear normal compared to Sion Sono‘s 2015 film Love & Peace which takes the seasonal setting and goes down a radically different path as he makesgenre mash-up of a Christmas movie with a kaiju rock opera epic with a little help from Santa…
Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa) once dreamed of becoming a punk rock star but he gave up on his dreams and became a salaryman at a musical instrument parts company in Tokyo. Life is miserable because he is bullied by his colleagues and he has no friends but he has feelings for a timid office lady named Yuko Terashima (Kumiko Aso) whose kindness towards him keeps him from going insane. Alas, he can’t express his love for her. but fate soon strikes!
The year is 1995 and the place is the Dictionary Editorial Department of the publisher Genbu Books. The staff include Matsumoto (Kato), a veteran editor in chief of dictionaries who is assisted by his key right-hand man Araki (Kobayashi), a skilled editor who is on the verge of quitting because his wife is ailing and he wants to be by her side. Also in the department are Sasaki (Isayama), the oil for the team ensuring that word entries are logged on computers and filed away and young blade Nishioka (Odagiri) who, while not as is good at defining words, is a pro at getting more up to date definitions and examples because he has skill with human contact.
And that’s it for the dictionary team. All dedicated to the beauty of words but considered weird by the rest of the staff at the publisher. Fact of the matter is that compiling dictionaries is not hot shot work in publishing terms because such things are boring and costly in an age when digital technology is coming to prominence and everybody else would rather work on glossy magazines.
With Araki seeking to retire it places great strain on the department at a time when Matsuoka wants to initiate a new project called The Great Passage, a 240,000 word dictionary that will capture everything from the most current youth slang to the most technical terms of different fields like theatre and literature making it the most comprehensive and representative dictionary in the country.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is better known in the west for his horror films thanks to titles like Cure, Pulse, and Retribution being more available than his dramas and crime thrillers. In fact he is adept at working in other genres and there is a large body of work from his v-cinema days during the 90’s missing to those of us outside Japan. Overall his best film is the drama Tokyo Sonata, a masterful portrait of the breakdown of a modern family. License to Live is another drama film with similar themes to Tokyo Sonata but from 1999, ten years prior, and with a lighter comic touch.
Yutaka Yoshii (Nishijima) has just awoken from a ten year coma caused when he was knocked off his bicycle by a man named Murota (Osugi). It comes as a shock to the hospital staff and Murota who can’t forget the story and paid for Yutaka’s medical bills but Yutaka is conscious and so Murota gives him 500,000 yen to put an end to it.
Yutaka’s family might be glad of his recovery but they have all separated having accepted the possibility he might never wake up. His parents are divorced and his sister is supposedly in America. The only person willing to take Yutaka in is Fujimori (Yakusho), an old college friend of his father who raises carp in a fish farm on the Yoshii’s family property.
With Fujimori’s help Yutaka begins to grow up but soon his family hear about his recovery. First to appear is his father Shinichiro (Sugata) who travels the globe and has consigned Yutaka to the past. Next is Yutaka’s sister Chizuru (Aso) who shows up on the fish farm with her fiancé Kasaki (Aikawa) but she doesn’t want to stick around. Finally Yutaka finds out about mother Sachiko (Lily) who is the only one to stick by him.
“Your new life is what counts,” others tell him but Yutaka wants to bring his family back together again, even if only for a moment.
Well this week saw me start off my Genki Christmas Season with my look into the haunted girl’s school franchise with a review of the classic Whispering Corridors followed by (my personal favourite) Memento Mori. I had meant to post the third instalment yesterday but a combination of commuter nightmares (train delays meant I lost two vital hours) and a looming appointment at a Japanese restaurant with my class for a Christmas meal meant that I had to miss it out. I might have been disappointed but the Christmas meal had great food, great company and great conversation. It was wonderful. There is one Christmas party for work some time next week but I am actually ahead in reviews… which means I should be able to beef up my drafts and just hit post. I suspect that the reviews might pile up towards the end of the month if I want to keep reviewing Korean horror.
Kamen Rider X Kamen Rider Wizard & Fourze: Movie War Ultimatum
Love for Beginners
Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo
Inazuma Eleven The Movie 2012
Lesson of the Evil
The Floating Castle
Ninkyo Helper: Beautiful World.
A Chorus of Angels
Trouble with the Curve
This happens too often… I ignore a Kamen Rider film one week and it tops the charts the next. It has happened again. Last week Kamen Rider X Kamen Rider Wizard & Fourze: Movie War Ultimatum was released and now it reigns supreme. I don’t watch these super sentai shows and have never liked them so I’m totally bemused by them and their popularity but kids love them. Anyway my prediction that Skyfall would still remain at the top was wrong as it falls to two and my prediction that Love for Beginners would hit the charts was right as it enters at three.
What are some of the Japanese movies released in Japanese cinemas today?
One Piece Film Z
Japanese Title: Wan Pi-su Firumu Z
Romaji: ワンピースフィルム Z
Release Date: 15th December 2012 (Japan)
Running Time: N/A
Director: Tatsuya Nagamine
Writer: Osamu Suzuki (Script),Eiichiro Oda (original manga)
Starring: Mayumi Tanaka (Monkey D. Luffy), Cho (Brook), Kazuya Nakai (Roronoa Zoro), Akemi Okamura (Nami), Yuriko Yamaguchi (Nico Robin), Hiroaki Hirata (Sanji), Ikue Ohtani (Tony Tony Chopper), Kazuki Yao (Franky), Kappei Yamaguchi (Usopp), Teruyuki Kagawa (Bins)
Everybody go home, the latest big screen adaptation of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece is released today so expect it to dominate the charts for the next month or so. The film will cover the “Saigo no Umi Shinsekai Hen” or New World Saga arc of the manga which was launched in October 2010. The film has been written by Eiichiro Oda, the creator of the original manga who is also producing the film. He has been helped with the screenplay by Osamu Suzuki. It is directed by Tatsuya Nagamine who has worked on massive franchise movies like Dragonball and the Pretty Cure.
The familiar One Piece seiyuu are back with Mayumi Tanaka (Krilin in Dragonball) voicing Monkey D. Luffy, Akemi Okamura (Asuka Kaminogi in Noein) voicing the sexy Nami and Hiroaki Hirata (Tatsuji in Another, Benny in Black Lagoon, Wild Tiger in Tiger and Bunny) voicing the suave Sanji. They are joined by live-action actor Teruyuki Kagawa (Tokyo Sonata, Key of Life) and the singer Ryoko Shinohara (Kamikaze Girls, Summer of Ubume).
With the Straw Hat Pirates in the New World they face having to save it and pirates everywhere since a legendary ex-Navy admiral named Zetto is leading a group who want to destroy all pirates. Monkey D. Luffy will have to rally his crew to defeat their most powerful enemy yet!
Starring: Suzuka Morita, Misaki Momose, Kimito Totani, Mika Hijii, Mayu Sugano, Sayuri Otomo, Kensuke Ikeda, Yuichiro Hirose, Akiho Ohtsubo
This movie is based on a 2010 novel Ima, Yari no Yukimasu: RE-DUX Kyofu Jitsuwashū by Yumeaki Hirayama. Said novel was a collection of five horror tales. I have heard of some of the actors – Akiho Ohtsubo appeared in Vanished, Yuichiro Hirose appeared in Love Exposure – and some of Seiji Chiba’s works are familiar but for the most part I cannot judge it apart from what I read in the synopsis and it reads like something you would find on Japanese television, Tales of Terror for instance. It looks pretty awful.
Watashi no Shishuu
High school student Nao (Morita) buys a collection of poems from a homeless man which touches her. Despite warnings from her boyfriend Satoru (Totani), she tells the homeless man. Bad move because this homeless guy soon appears to be stalking Nao.
Orie (Momose) leads a normal life with her boyfriend Tomoki (Ikeda) until she buys a photobook with a DVD in the back. When she plays it on her television, she sees something horrific.
When Chie (Hijii) receives a call about a lost pencil case from a stranger (Hirose) she is confused until she remembers that she once lost one all the way back in elementary school. Who might this caller be? Is it Ōtomo, a former classmate? This being a horror tale, she should probably duck collecting the pencil case.
Natsumi (Sugano) is desperately in need of a public rest room and just as she finds one a girl (Ohtsubo) warns her that the place is dangerous. Natsumi ignores her…
Ima, Yari ni Yukimasu
Misuzu (Sugano) js threatened by a strange man but manages to escape. When she gets ome she reeives a call and hears a man telling her “now, I’m going to kill”.
Starring: Kumiko Aso, Yo Oizumi, Ayaka Miyoshi, Akira Takemura
This is the most promising film released today and it stars Kumiko Aso (Pulse, The Wolf Children, Kaidan, License to Live, Ayaka Miyoshi (Confessions), Yo Oizumi, a man who has turned up in a number of Ghibli movies like Spirited Away, The Cat Returns and Howl’s Moving Castle as well as the lead role in Phone Call to the Bar)
Aki (Aso) was once a guitarist in a punk band until she became pregnant at the age of 17 and became a single-mother to a daughter named Hatsuki (Miyoshi). The two of them live happily together until a man named Yagu (Oizumi) enters their lives. It turns out that he was once in the same band as Aki and he still has feelings for her.
Humanoid Monster Bem
Japanese Title:映画 妖怪 人間 ベム
Romaji: Eiga Yōkai Ningen Bemu
Release Date: 15th December 2012 (Japan)
Running Time: N/A
Director: Shunsuke Kariyama
Starring: Kazuya Kamenashi, Anne Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Anna Ishibashi, Fuku Suzuki, Arisa Muzuki
This is the latest adaptation of the popular Humanoid Monster Bem anime (1968-69). It follows the 2011 television series and stars Kazuya Kamenashi (Member of Kat-Tun), Anne Watanabe (Ninja Kids!!!), and Akira Emoto (Villain, Starfish Hotel).
Bem (Kamenashi) is a monster with a good heart. He and Bela (Watanabe) and Belo (Suzuki) are all monsters disguised as humans but their disguise drops when they get extremely excited or sad. They live to protect against a fearsome villain known as the Man with No Name (Emoto).
The Wolf Children was the first film I saw at the 56th BFI London Film Festival and a film I had been eagerly tracking all year. Despite being left cold by the director’s last film I went into this with an open mind and was soon won over.
Maybe you’ll laugh and say it’s a fairy tale. Think it too preposterous to be true. But it is a true story about my mother.
The Wolf Children is a story about identity and love between parents and children that takes place over thirteen years. It starts when a university student named Hana falls in love with Ōkami who is a “wolf man”. The two have children named after the weather on the day they were born – Yuki (Snow) the older sister and Ame (Rain) the younger brother. The four live quietly in Tokyo concealing the true nature of their existence. Then Ōkami leaves and Hana is faced with the prospect of being a single mother with two children who are half wolf.
The film’s writer and director Mamoru Hosoda is frequently compared to Hayao Miyazaki but while his work shows a similar ease at mixing the fantastical with realism there was always something forced and, in the case of Summer Wars, bland. The Wolf Children is different. Despite providing a familiar coming-of-age tale it is executed with subtlety, realism, detail and humanity, leaving the film feeling refreshingly natural and meaningful.
Till the field
The synopsis, trailers and character design suggest heart-warming fantasy fun but the film’s direction is rooted in realism which is used to underline the struggles faced by characters and depth of feelings felt by the characters. By presenting us with such detail the film defines itself and makes itself original and gripping.
We are first introduced to Hana and through a few deft details like dialogue and a family picture we understand her independent character. We then witness the courtship between Hana and Ōkami and while the idea of a wolf man and a human woman having children sounds outrageous it is handled in a subdued and naturalistic way whether it’s seeing Ōkami’s day job or Hana’s pregnancy cycle, morning sickness and all. The early quarter of the film tracks the parents who sacrifice their own identities as they build a family life. It ensures that we understand that Hana’s acceptance of Ōkami and her children is based on love.
When Ōkami leaves it is Hana who emerges as the hero. She exists in a universe which can be quite indifferent and must dig deep into her character to create a family life for the rambunctious and cute Ame and Yuki.
The wolf children are quite a handful. The script sets up many charmingly cute scenes where they are a recognisable and exhausting combination of child and puppy. They burst with energy and desire to be as mobile as possible, constantly morphing into wolves. This has genuinely amusing consequences like Ame and Yuki’s teething troubles ruining furniture and tantrums usually involving screaming, tears and sprouting whiskers and pointy ears.
While the situations start off as amusing it is clearly difficult to handle in a crowded place like a city and soon there is a believable undercurrent of fear faced by Hana. Walks in the park are impossible and living in an apartment with a no-pets policy becomes stifling as she restricts her children’s natural exuberance. Most menacingly the child welfare agency appear. All the while Hana is making things up as she goes along but never wavering despite exhaustion. Soon she takes the gutsy decision of moving to the country which opens the film up visually and offers a celebration of family, community and nature.
You have to be stronger
When Hana moves to the country she is initially an outsider herself with locals whispering things like “She’s going to start missing convenience stores”.
She buys a ramshackle house which is lovingly detailed in all of its disrepair. In a montage we see her fixing the place up and engaging in back-breaking farming. These activities display the beautiful animation and speak volumes on Hana’s hope, belief and determination in providing a future for her children. These sequences are most like the Ghibli classic My Neighbour Totoro but what defines TheWolf Children is the observation on the struggles that Hana faces and the refusal to be sentimental which I appreciated immensely.
Eventually Hana and her children are accepted, albeit by hiding their odd forms. While the negativity they faced in the city remains in the memory, the countryside folks exhibit all of the good qualities of Japanese society and the message of the film becomes one of community spirit, as voiced by one of the elderly characters when she says “We have to help each other”.
There is a consistent theme of nature and traditional values and it is told with no fuss. The use of montage and succinct sequences providing vignettes of daily life continue to track the change in the characters, seasons and nature.
With the change in location the film truly comes alive with brilliantly animated sequences which are truly breathtaking and capture spectacular scenes of the natural world in Japan. Mist wreathed mountains, surging waterfalls, endless fields, and dense forests are all vividly brought to life with vibrant colours and deep levels of detail. Gone are the claustrophobic close-ups of the city and in come long-shots of the terrain with the bright pink and blue of Ame and Yuki moving through it. The film moves the action onto a larger canvass as the wolf children experiment with their abilities like being a wolf up against cats and snakes, dashing through tall grass up trees and discovering which part of the natural world’s eco-system they belong to. The best sequence is an exhilarating chase over a snowy landscape as it evokes feelings of youth, discovery, freedom and joy.
While the titular wolf children can morph between human and wolf in the blink of an eye they face the same difficulties of growing that are universal to everyone, mainly the need to be accepted and know their place in the world and define themselves in their journey to decide whether they will be human or wolf while Hana must also learn to change her character as she watches them mature. Their character arcs are not completely original but thanks to the realism, playfulness and sharp characterisation we are anchored in their struggle and root for them. Every funny use of wolf transformation draws laughter, every dangerous situation draws gasps of shock (one woman in the audience gave a gasp so loud I initially misinterpreted as being part of the soundtrack) and every moment of love and growth draws a smile and, for many in the audience, tears of happiness.
Be human or wolf
I cannot praise the visuals or script enough but on top of direction, script and images, Hosoda also gets pitch-perfect performances from the voice actors. I especially loved the performances of the younger voice actors of Ame and Yuki.
Momoka Oona who plays the youngest version of Yuki is brilliant. Her voice overflows with such tomboyish enthusiasm and energy when she does particularly unladylike things like chasing cats and bagging snakes. Every growl, shout and squeal contained a childish and admirable joy of life and the determination to face the world around them.
Amon Kabe who plays the youngest version of Ame adds such depth to the script’s characterisation with his shy voice full of searching questions and a need for certainty and reassurance. Typical childhood things like fairy tales become sources of pain as he discovers the wolf is always the bad guy. Through him you feel the precarious nature of their situation.
They have the lion’s share of the film and the comedy and they essay their characters so well they become an intrinsic part of the character and remained the way I chose to remember how the characters sounded.
The Wolf Children has to be one of the best films I have ever seen. Its intelligent script and assured direction justify Hosoda’s high critical regard and wash away any doubts about his abilities. Despite echoes of the finest of Ghibli’s output, The Wolf Children feels like its own beast thanks to a script which mixes fantasy with realism and humanity that makes the film have substance. It is a film that pays tribute to Japan and Japanese culture while remaining universal because of its trio of characters who will charm and be familiar to us all.
“It must be some mistake, that’s the only hope” (from Franz Kafka’s The Trial)
Kafka? Don’t worry, Crime or Punishment?!? is not a grim existentialist tale but an absurd and surreal comedy.
The name of the writer-director is Keralino Sandorovich. It might sound Russian but he’s actually a Japanese comedian/theatre director. Crime or Punishment!?! is his third feature film and it carries a simple message: stop relying on others and assert yourself. The film delivers this message in an existential candy-coloured adventure which is filled with accidents, murder, bizarre coincidences and surreal incongruities.