Beneath the Shadow (Eiri) 影裏 Dir: Keishi Otomo (2020)

Beneath the Shadow   Eiri Film Poster

影裏  Eiri

Release Date: February 14th, 2020

Duration: 134 mins.

Director: Keishi Otomo

Writer: Kaori Sawai (Script), Shinsuke Numata (Story) 

Starring: Gou Ayano, Ryuhei Matsuda, Mariko Tsutsui, Tomoya Nakamura, Ken Yasuda, Jun Kunimura,

Website IMDB

After spending the 90s working in TV, director Keishi Otomo moved into film and has built a filmography stacked with adaptations of novels and manga. He is best known for the internationally successful Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, a big-budget samurai series with a visual sheen of intense action, dizzying stunt work and exquisite period details that swept viewers away. He reigns everything in for his latest work, Beneath the Shadow, Eirin in Japanese. 

This is based on a same-named 2017 Akutagawa prize-winning novel by Shinsuke Numata and is set in the director’s hometown of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, both before and after the 3/11 disaster. It features a slow-burn character-driven drama that teases audiences with a light mystery that hinges on the idea that our interpretations of people’s behaviour can be wrong if our emotions get in the way but also, that all of us have something we keep in the shadows.

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Shell and Joint Dir: Isamu Hirabayashi (2019) [Nippon Connection 2020]

Shell and Joint    Shell and Joint Film Poster

Release Date: 2019

Duration: 154 mins.

Director: Isamu Hirabayashi

Writer: Isamu Hirabayashi (Script) 

Starring: Mariko Tsutsui, Keisuke Horibe, Kanako Higashi, Aiko Sato, Hiromi Kitagawa, Kaori Takeshita,

Website IMDB

Isamu Hirabayashi moved from the world of advertising and graphic design to indie films in 2001 and has made a number of shorts that have been selected for festivals like Locarno and Berlinale. Shell and Joint (2019) is his first feature and it is a truly unique title that shines with a visual opulence derived from someone with an eye for framing and a deep consideration for angles and colours, while its script shimmers with a comedic wit that tackles universal themes in a variety of genres and tones, as brought out in a series of stories that are enhanced by the look and sound of the film.

Opening proceeding are Nitobe (Keisuke Horibe) and Sakamoto (Mariko Tsutsui), two people who have been friends from childhood who now work together at the front desk of a capsule hotel. Nitobe has a particular fondness for philosophy and crustaceans while Sakamoto is fixated on suicide and winding up her friend during their long conversations. They form the manzai duo whose interactions rise in silliness as the film keeps revisiting them while guests come and go.

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Samurai Marathon  サムライマラソン Dir: Bernard Rose (2019) [New York Asian Film Festival 2019]

Samurai Marathon 

サムライマラソン Samurai MarasonSamurai Marathon Film Poster

Duration: 104 mins.

Release Date: February 22nd, 2019

Director:  Bernard Rose

Writer: Hiroshi Saito, Kikumi Yamagishi Bernard Rose (Screenplay), Akihiro Dobashi (Original Novel)

Starring: Takeru Satoh, Shota Sometani, Mirai Moriyama, Nana Komatsu, Munetaka Aoki, Hiroki Hasegawa, Etsushi Toyokawa, Naoto Takenaka, Danny Huston, Junko Abe, Mugi Kadowaki, Mariko Tsutsui,

Website IMDB

Every May in Annaka city, Gunma Prefecture, a marathon is held that claims to be the oldest in Japan. Its origins can be traced back to when Commodore Perry arrived off the coast of the country in 1854 with his black ships and, through threat of aggression, ended 260 years of Japan’s self-imposed isolation. Leaders across the land reacted differently to his arrival. One cautious feudal lord, Katsuaki Itakura of the Annaka clan, tested the abilities of his samurai by holding a marathon. This story is brought to life by British director Bernard Rose – famous for Candyman (1992) – who worked from the novel “The Marathon Samurai: Five Tales of Japan’s First Marathon” by Akihiro Dobashi. The resulting film, Samurai Marathon will sweep audiences away in its neatly executed adventure that, once it gets running, provides plenty of action and amusement.

The film’s set-up is a sprint to get everyone to the starting line. Opening with the arrival of Commodore Perry (Danny Huston) and his treaty demands it dashes into Katsuaki Itakura’s (Hiroki Hasegawa) organising a marathon 36 miles long to toughen up his warriors in mind and body for potential attacks from foreigners. The promise of a wish being granted to the winner is the motivation for the ensemble of runners which consists of fighting men of all stripes from lower-class spear-men like Hironoshi Uesugi (Shota Sometani), who dreams of being raised to the status of a higher-class samurai, an aged samurai recently put out to pasture named Mataemon Kurita (Naoto Takenaka), to the chief retainer’s son, Heikuro Tsujimura (Mirai Moriyama) who wants to marry Itakura’s daughter Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu). All are vying to win and all are introduced quickly as are the people connected to them such as wives and children. By the time we get to the starting line at the 40-minute mark we get a vertical view of samurai society and become connected to characters who are all distinctly sketched.

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jam Dir: Sabu (2018) [New York Asian Film Festival 2019]

jam    jam Film Poster

Release Date: December 01st, 2018

Duration: 102 mins.

Director:  SABU

Writer: SABU (Screenplay),

Starring: Sho Aoyagi, Keita Machida, Nobuyuki Suzuki, Shintaro Akiyama, Mariko Tsutsui, Yuta Ozawa, Kanta Sato,

Website IMDB

Sabu’s films frequently feature hapless heroes thrown into dangerous circumstances where they are subject to spates of seemingly random encounters, weird coincidences and serendipitous occurrences that all eventually fit together like a jigsaw to reveal smartly constructed narratives that seem free-form but actually tease the idea of fate guiding everything. Jam (2018) features this, however, unlike Sabu’s earlier titles like Dangan Runner (1996) and Postman Blues (1997) which are high tension bounce-about thrillers complete with adrenaline fuelled chases, this one follows the trend of his latest works like Mr Long (2017) and Miss Zombie (2013) by being more contemplative and downbeat. Jam still has time for an awesome chase.

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Harmonium 深田晃司 Dir: Koji Fukada (2016)

Harmonium  harmonium-film-poster 

深田晃司 「Fuchi ni Tatsu

Release Date: October 10th, 2016

Running Time: 118 mins.

Director: Koji Fukada

Writer: Koji Fukada

Starring: Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Taiga, Takahiro Miura, Momone Shinokawa,

IMDB   Website

Koji Fukada’s Harmonium took the Jury Prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and for good reason because it shows a director in precise control of his material. Story-wise, it follows in the footsteps of his debut feature Hospitalite (2011) wherein a stranger enters the lives of a family and disrupts things. While Fukada’s earlier title was light-hearted and poked fun at the social mores of Japan, this film is harsher with only a few dashes of hope beaming down in the final scenes.

Taking the lead is experienced thesp Kanji Futurachi, a familiar face from Fukada’s earlier films like Au Revoir l’ete (2015) and Human Comedy Tokyo (2012) and, crucially, Hospitalite (2011) where he was the stranger that forced a revolution on a family. In a role reversal he is the patriarch and a victim of sorts here as he plays Toshio, the owner of a small factory in the suburbs of some city or other. No location is given. It’s a nondescript and quiet place where he lives a quiet existence with his church-going wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and their daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). It is she who plays the titular harmonium that gives the film’s soundtrack a funereal sense.

Harmonium Film Image

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Born Bone Born 洗骨 (2018) Dir: Toshiyuki Teruya

Born Bone Born   Born Bone Born Film Poster

洗骨 Senkotsu

Running Time: 111 mins.

Release Date: 2018

Director:  Toshiyuki Teruya

Writer: Toshiyuki Teruya (Screenplay),

Starring: Ayame Misaki, Eiji Okuda, Michitaka Tsutsui, Yoko Oshima, Akira Sakamoto, Kyutaro Suzuki, Mariko Tsutsui,

There is diversity to Japan that would surprise people but when one considers it is an archipelago which consists of over 6000 islands, of which 430 are inhabited with a diverse mix of people, most famously the Ainu in Hokkaido and the Ryukyu of Okinawa, it makes sense. Each region in Japan has its own unique custom, culinary dish, and colloquialisms and some places can be so cut-off from the mainland or under-explored that they have traditions that are unheard of even to Japanese which is what this film uses to give new life to the dysfunctional family reunion narrative.

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The Hungry Lion 飢えたライオン Dir: Takaomi Ogata (2017)

The Hungry Lion    The Hungry Lion Film Poster   

飢えたライオン Ueta Raion

Running Time: 78 mins.

Release Date: N/A

Director:  Takaomi Ogata

Writer: Takaomi Ogata, Fujio Ikeda (Screenplay)

Starring: Urara Matsubayashi, Atomu Mizuishi, Mariko Tsutsui,

This was at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year and Rotterdam and the New York Asian Film Festival this year.

The Hungry Lion is the fourth feature from Fukuoka-born indie filmmaker Takaomi Ogata. Each of his films address pressing social issues faced by modern Japan. Never Ending Blue (2011) shows a teenage girl enduring child abuse and self-abuse and was potent enough to win the Runner-up Grand Prix at the 2010 Okinawa Motion Picture Festival. Body Temperature (2011) featured the story of an intensely lonely man too focussed on a life-sized doll to make a connection with other humans. Sunk Into the Womb (2013) features a Nobody Knows type of story about a single-mother who abandons her children. The Hungry Lion has the harrowing story of an innocent person having their reputation murdered by liars, gossip-mongers, and the media.

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Antiporno アンチポルノ Dir: Sion Sono (2016)

Antiporno

アンチポルノ 「AnchiporunoAntiporno Film Poster

Running Time: 78 mins

Release Date: January 28th, 2017

Director:  Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono (Screenplay),

Starring: Ami Tomite, Mariko Tsutsui, Asami, Fujiko, Ami Fukuda, Honoka Ishibashi, Yuya Takayama,

Website IMDB

The Roman Porno Reboot is a celebration of the series of softcore films put out by Nikkatsu from the 70s to the late 80s. Roman Porno is a realm where writers and directors can exercise creative freedom in content so long as they adhere to tight shooting deadlines and insert a sex scene in the proceedings every so often. Sion Sono is one of the veteran directors who took part in this reboot and he has taken this freedom to creative extremes and made a challenging film, an overwhelming visual and aural assault on the senses that delivers a feminist diatribe against the subjection of women.

The story starts with Kyoko (Ami Tomite), a highly-strung celebrity novelist and artist who also considers herself a super whore exploring the furthest reaches of sex. She is feeling the nerves before an interview and photo shoot with a major magazine writer and fashion photographer so she decides to take her insecurities out on her older eager-to-please assistant Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) whom she sadistically humiliates through various lewd acts. The intensity ratchets up through the actual interview as Noriko, in an effort to be a whore like Kyoko, allows herself to be violated by the photographer’s assistants whilst being denigrated by Kyoko.

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The Land of Hope 希望の国 (2012)

Genki The Land of Hope Review Banner

The Land of Hope                               The Land of Hope Movie Poster

Japanese: 希望 の 国

Romaji: Kibou no Kuni

Release Date: October 20th, 2012 (Japan)

UK Release Date: August 26th, 2013

UK Distributor: Third Window Films

Running Time: 133 mins.

Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono

Starring: Isao Natsuyagi, Naoko Otani, Jun Murakami, Megumi Kagurazaka, Yutaka Shimizu, Hikari Kajiwara, Denden, Mariko Tsutsui, Yusuke Iseya, Mitsuru Fukikoshi,

When Sion Sono’s last film Himizu came to its stunning open ending it was clear that he was far from finished addressing the issues surrounding the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tusnami. The Land of Hope is the powerful and important follow-up which is epic in scale and drama. For daring to take on such a taboo subject in Japan, Sono had to go to foreign investors but what has resulted is a film that is a key way of seeing the effects of a disaster. At two hours it captures all sorts of aspects about the disaster but remains incredibly humane as it centres on the travails of two families.

An old couple named Yasuhiko and Chieko Ono (Natsuyagi and Otani) live on a farm with their son Yoichi (Murakami) and his wife Izumi (Kagurazaka) near Ohara town in Nagashima prefecture.

 The Land of Hope Ono and Suzuki Families

It is a peaceful place whose only claim to fame is the nearby Nagashima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Yasuhiko’s days are spent farming land owned by his family for generations, taking care of Chieko who suffers dementia and talking with the neighbouring Suzuki family made up of father Ken (Denden), mother Meiko (Tsutsui), son Mitsuru (Shimizu) and his girlfriend Yoko (Kajiwara). 

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