Directed by Takashi Miike,
Starring Masataka Kubota, Nao Ohmori, Shōta Sometani, Becky, Sakurako Konishi
The superb and prolific Takashi Miike returns to our screens on Valentine’s Day, and that is, of course, a good thing for those of us who love film. In First Love Miike returns to the Yakuza gangster genre that he has done so well before, but, naturally being who he is, he gleefully plays with the expected elements of the genre too, while still delivering a strong narrative with a sense of fun. And, as the title intimates, there is some romance going on between the drug deals gone wrong, the inter-gang warfare, the bullets, the sword-based beheadings, the corrupt police and conniving gang lieutenants. Oh, and the ghost of a middle-aged man in his underpants.
While there’s a good array of cast members, the main focus here is on two innocents, Leo (Kubota) and Monica (Konishi), who become accidentally embroiled in inter-gang warfare between the traditional Yakuza of Japan (now somewhat in decline) and the opportunistic Chinese Triads moving into their turf. Leo is a failing boxer, skilled but somehow not quite getting his act in the ring together as he should,, and now living with recently revealed news that he has a terminal brain tumour. Monica (Konishi – Miike specifically wanted a newcomer for this role) is a troubled young woman, effectively sold by her father into sex work and living next to one of the Yakuza members and his rather nasty girlfriend with anger management issues. And poor Monica is also troubled by the spectre of her father appearing to her, clad only in his white underpants; a symptom of trauma brought on by abuse or just hallucinations brought on by drug use? Or both?
As the Yakuza and Triads fight one another over a bungled drug deal, and plotting gang members attempt double or more crosses to further their own personal gains, Monica is pursued, suspected of having a missing drug shipment. When she runs from a corrupt police detective who is involved with the Yakuza after being spooked by another ghostly vision (which no-one else can see), Leo rather gallantly floors the pursuing officer. Unfortunately he had no idea it was a policeman he had just knocked out, he thought he was protecting a young woman from a predatory older man.
The pursuit of these two young people, caught between competing Yakuza and Triads, is the main engine of the story here, but a simple description of the plot like that doesn’t do First Love justice. It is, after all, a film by Miike, so you will be unsurprised to hear me tell you that is is replete with some delicious, delectable moments of sly, often gallows-black humour (a fast editing cut from a falling boxer to a gangster’s head rolling across an alley after being decapitated by a katana blade, a conspiratorial gangster who ends up with an accidental dose of the missing drugs sparking both a sexual faux-pas and a hilarious inability to feel pain during a fight scene), while Miike, as always, takes generic elements and puts his own very stylish stamp on them to great effect, and yes, there is a romance here, but again it takes its own peculiar form.
Action, romance, humour, bullets, swords, drug deals gone bad, gang warfare and ghosts in underpants, First Love is an absolute pleasure.
Starring Kiki Sugino , Munetaka Aoki, Mayu Yamaguchi
Another of the films I caught during the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was Kiki Sugino’s hauntingly beautiful film from Japan, Snow Woman. Drawing on an ancient folkloric tradition of the Yuki-onna, a spirit, almost ghostly being who, like the vampire, has had many variations in the telling and re-telling of her tale across the year. Here director Sugino takes the eponymous role, first appearing in an opening prologue, shot in a silvery black and white as a pair of hunters struggle through heavy snow on the mountains around Hiroshima, the elder male clearly losing the struggle, his young companion aiding him into the relative shelter of an old hunting cabin.
Awoken in the middle of the night, the younger man, Minokichi, is frozen by terror as much as the bitter cold, for their rough shelter has been invaded silently by a pale woman with piercing eyes and long, dark hair, crouched over his companion, and as her chill breath passes over his face the older man dies. Turning her attention to Minokichi the Snow Woman looks as if she is about to do the same to him, but then she tells him she will take pity on him because of his youth, and spare his life, on the condition he never tell another person what happened (a detail nicely lifted from one of the more popular versions of the many stories of the Snow Woman in Japan).
Moving to colour, it is now much later, the winters have departed the mountains, and Minokichi is returning from a hunting trip when he finds a beautiful woman alone on one of the paths. She asks the way to the ferry, and he takes her, inviting her to spend the night in the home of he and his elderly mother. The woman, Yuki, is beautiful but quiet and mysterious – she seems not to know where she came from, or of any family, but she is pleasant and both Minokichi and his mother are happy for her simply to stay with them, Minokichi slowly falling in love with her and asking her to become his wife. And for many years they are quite happy – Minokichi is curious about his strange wife, but as they live and love together and even have a child – a girl, Ume – he swallows this curiosity and seems content to live his life with wife and daughter in their small, barely changing village.
Of course it can’t last – Yuki has a familiar look to her and it is clear Minokichi has wondered if she is related to the Snow Woman he encountered (but if so how can she be here living as a human wife outside of her winter season?). He bites back his curiosity, partly perhaps because the Snow Woman warned him never to mention what happened on pain of death, but mostly, one feels, because he loves her and his daughter. But as the years pass – Yuki looks no older than the day she arrived – and their daughter starts to grow up, events start to happen around the village and mountain, strange deaths, the victims frozen…
This is such a beautifully crafted film – despite the supernatural elements and the folklore it is based on, it avoids the route of J-horror, instead creating a more chilling atmosphere in some places (no pun intended), like a Victorian ghost tale, perhaps. But mostly this is less a tale of strange spirits and more a tale of love and people and men and women, and how they can love one another truly but still sometimes simply cannot share a life, or at least not always, and sometimws can’t even communicate properly to one another (“husbands and wives are strangers to each other” Minokichi’s mother once tells him), a theme of Sugino’s other works too – she explained in a Q&A after the film that as a Korean-Japanese the idea of the outsider and not quite understanding one another is one she is very familiar with, while the tale itself reminds me of elements of the Selkie wife from my own country’s folklore tradition.
Snow Woman is a work of beauty though, the slow pacing and the almost timeless setting (a few items, like electric lights, hint at mid-20th century, but the village and clothing could be almost any time in the last few hundred years) allowing the audience to sink into the pace with the nature the villagers live closely to, and there is a real feeling of the turning of the seasons here (appropriately enough as some versions of the Yuki-onna associate her with seasonal spirits), the feeling of the village life in the shadow of the mountains and forest, the closeness of the natural world (and the supernatural Other World), told in some luscious cinematography and clever, precise use of soundscape until it feels less like watching a film and more like walking slowly through a dream. I can see why Sugino is making a name for herself in Asian cinema.
(Kiki Sugino talking after the film festival screening of Snow Woman)
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
Moogs is a sculptor and jewellery maker, as well as a comics creator, working out of the well known Hope Street Studios in Glasgow. In fact it was her hand-made jewellery which caught my eye at the recent Dundee Comics Expo (I had to get a close up of the supercute Domo earrings she had made for one of my manga-mad colleagues). And while chatting away to Moogs at the Dundee show I noticed her Big in Japan comic, with a very colourful and rather joyful cover and an unusual small landscape format. I’m not a major Japanophile or manga reader, but this caught my eye and I had to give it a go. Besides I do have a bit of a weakness for travel lit, especially done in comics form.
(some of Moogs’ jewellery at the Dundee Comics Expo, pic from my Flickr)
This is essentially a diary of Moogs’ trip to Japan, drawn in a manga-influenced style, to attend the wedding of her friends Masami and Taka, and knowing her trip starts with a hideously early morning call for the shuttle down to London to catch her main flight she’s decided to go in style – no budget airline here, the real deal complete with nice service and cooked breakfast, and a delighted looking Moogs tucking into it with a “screw you, Easyjet” speech bubble. Anyone who normally has to take the budget flights and then gets a full service one will sympathise with that reaction.
There’s the very, very long flight halfway round the globe to Japan, complete with turbulence and the “is there a doctor on board” moment you hope only happens in movies, but it appears does sometimes happen in real life. Still, it’s not al bad as she’s prepared with a bag full of distractions and snacks, plus there’s around eleven hours of viewing to watch. And at last she’s there, Japan – jetlagged nad tired, but arrived at her destination. Which is more than can be said for her luggage…
But getting there is just the start and forget the annoying lost luggage thing, because there are her friends waiting for her, and the real reason for her trip, to see her chums and be a part of their wedding. Of course there will be a bit of proper sightseeing, holiday making and socialising going on around her while she’s there, as well as the wedding herself. There’s the great delights of the Ghibli Museum (wouldn’t we all love to go there?), some dining form called Okonomiyaki and, of course, there is dancing and karoake. And then there is the shopping – and some wonderfully peculiar oddities, such as a shop that sells a Marie Antoinette action figure, complete with removable head! Ah, Japan…
The sightseeing and trips are fun, both the landmark, historical site and the quirky themed varieties – cafes (a Moomin cafe in Japan? Fab), theme parks and other venues – and taking in more traditional Japanese pastimes, such as the hot springs. But the core of this wee book is the wedding and sharing time with good friends, friends she obviously doesn’t get to see too often given the vast geographical differences, and the book reflects the sheer pleasure and delight in being among your friends and celebrating an important moment with them. It doesn’t get maudlin or overly nostalgic, instead the comic is suffused with a simple feeling of fun and joy, which left me smiling. It’s a short, personal work, but quite charming, and although much of it is drawn in a manga-influenced style (except for more detailed depictions of some of the historical landmarks) it’s still very easy on the eyes even to someone like me who doesn’t read a lot of manga. A short and pleasurable delight.
Well, as you may infer from the title, this is not a film for anyone who dislikes felines. That said you don’t have to be a cat lover to take enjoyment from this film (although it helps, those of us who are were sitting in the audience going aww at particularly cute kitty antics) as Naoko Ogigami’s film is a rather lovely, slow-paced, gentle look at life and urban loneliness in modern day Japan, how one can be living in a busy city with a huge population and yet remain isolated, alone despite being surrounded by people. And the wonderful power of our animals to enrich our lives; we know sometimes we may be projecting our own human emotions and motivations on them, but as anyone who has ever lived with animals knows they do seem to set up a familiar domestic habit with their humans, both ‘owner’ (not a title that really can apply to a cat, as anyone who lives with them knows) and pet settle into their rhythms around each other, making their own household, an ersatz extended family.
Sayoko lives alone in her small house, overlooked in her garden by her odd neighbour (who has a remarkable resemblance to a sort of Japanese Ronnie Corbett in drag). Since she was a child she’s never found it easy to make friends, let alone find romance, but while other humans don’t seem to warm to her for some reason cats do. Each day she pulls a small cart along near the river, crying out through a bull horn that if you are lonely she can rent you a cat. It’s not as bizarre a business idea as you might think (although some of the local schoolkids have already branded her as the crazy cat lady archetype) – I’ve read of professionally run cafés in Japan where cats live and the customers come not just for tea and cake but to stroke the cats, people who love animals but for whatever reason (not enough space, not allowed pets in their rented home, only staying a few months) they can’t have animals at home, so they come for the undeniable comfort that stroking a purring kitty can give.
One of Sayoko’s first customers we see is a very old lady, looking through the cats napping contentedly in her cart. She is taken straightaway not with the youngest or cutest but with a mature ‘grand old lady’ of a ginger cat, who reminds her very much of her own cat who has passed on. Her cat had helped her fill that awful hole after losing her husband, her son, we get the impression, is pretty distant from his elderly mum, and now with her beloved pet gone she is alone, the apartment empty, lifeless to her. When Sayoko checks her home to make sure it is suitable for cats she can see right away the old woman is perfect for this – she desperately wants another cat to bring some warmth and companionship into her life, but being so old she has decided pragmatically she can’t have one as who would look after it when she dies (a genuine worry for many elderly who value their animal companions even more than the rest of us)? But here she can have the cat from Sayoko and know she will come to take her home when the old lady is gone, that the kitty will still be looked after and loved – hearing this she knows the old woman has a good heart and that the cat will make her remaining weeks better. It’s incredibly touching and, animal lover or not, you’d have to be a brick not to feel empathy for the old woman’s situation and the pleasure she gets from the cat’s company.
The film moves through some more encounters with people in the city – a businessman who has to work away from his family and home and is lonely in his isolated city home, a young girl working dedicatedly away reciting her company mantra but realising she spends all day at work then at home mostly alone. Through her encounters Sayoko’s own faults and problems are as on show as much as those lonely souls she helps with her cats – on her own since her gran’s death (rather sweetly she talks to the departed old lady every day at her household shrine), she writes goals up for herself, such as find a husband, but has no idea how to attain them, tells her clients when she charges them only a pittance to rent the cats that she doesn’t need the money because she makes lots as a stockbroker playing the markets, or as a famous psychic. We can never really tell how much of this may be genuine and just how much is a Walter Mitty fantasy of Sayoko’s to make herself feel better.
Rent-a-Cat moves at a very slow pace and, like the pets who help to fill the holes in people’s lives, it doesn’t render a judgement on the poor, lonely humans who move through its scenes; they and their lives and flaws are simply presented as is and while you may not identify totally with any one character there are elements of each that pretty much all of us will recognise and empathise with. Sweet, gentle, moving and touching, a lovely little flower of a film that you should stop to inhale the scent from. Then go tickle a cat’s soft tummy afterwards.
Singaporean director and former comic creator Eric Khoo debuted his homage to legendary Japanese comics creator Yoshihiro Tatsumi at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival last spring, an animated feature which draws largely on Tatsumi’s much-acclaimed A Drifting Life (published in English by the good folks at Drawn & Quarterly). It’s an interesting work exploring the life and career of the godfather of the gekiga form of manga, which helped establish the comics form in Japan as a medium which could also appeal to an adult audience and not just child readers, combined with animating some of Tatsumi’s own short comic stories such as Occupied (our young artist works so hard on his children’s strips he makes himself ill, only to find new inspiration in an unlikely spot), Hell (an army reporter is sent to document the devastation of Hiroshima after the atomic blast), Good-Bye (a prostitute daughter and estranged drunken father struggle with their relationship and to survive in American occupied post-war Japan) and more.
It’s an interesting approach to documenting one of the most influential creators from the Japanese comics scene, taking us from his childhood, growing up in post-war Japan, being influenced by his big brother’s drawing, the work of manga godfather Tezuka (who he still respectfully refers to as Mister Tezuka), his first success as a boy winning newspaper comics competitions and getting a break when one of those newspapers decides to do a report on his success in the manga competitions, helping lead the way for him to work on his own children’s strips to appear regularly. This encouraging early success is diluted, however, by problems at home – his brother is often forced to stay in bed with a serious illness and slowly comes to resent his younger brother being able to go out and about while he remains an invalid. His drawing during his enforced convalescence had inspired Tatsumi but now his younger brother’s growing success fed his brother’s resentment and the fact that Tatsumi’s competition success meant he earned money which he gave to his mother to help the family finances because his father was less than efficient at looking after them made it worse.
(In Hell a young man is dispatched to document the dreadful aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing)
The film criss-crosses between animated adaptations of Tatsumi’s own short manga tales, mostly in black and white like the comics, and autobiographical sections which are in colour. The level of animation in both strands is fairly simple, it has to be said, but given the low budget that isn’t surprising. Besides which I suspect the fairly simple animation methods is a deliberate stylistic choice by Khoo and he would have stuck with it even if he had the budget for the much more expensive and time consuming forms of animation. And he would have been right to stick with the simpler version because it takes Tatsumi’s own iconic visuals, which themselves were often influenced by imagery from films and simply adapt them to the moving form of animated film, maintaining Tatsumi’s clear style effectively, something fans of his books will appreciate (and if you are new to his work then it is a good introduction to his style).
The adaptations of the short manga tales is simple but effective, although for anyone who has read the original comics (which would, I imagine, be a lot of the potential audience for the film, surely?) they don’t really offer anything new. Personally I found Hell the most effective, following a young man sent to Hiroshima, taking photographs of the nuclear devastation, including a shadow of a mother and child burnt into a wall by the blast. Years later he takes this picture to the newspapers and in the 50s it becomes an emblem of the growing anti nuclear weapon movement, leading to an international campaign, fame for the photographer (who feels guilt at making a living from documenting suffering) and yet it may all be built on an unintentional false assumption…
(young Tatsumi tells the newspaper reporters of his love for the work of Tezuka)
For myself I found the autobiographical segments to be far more fascinating, not least because Tatsumi himself was not only involved in the making of the film, especially those sections, but because he himself lends his voice to it, giving those parts an air of authenticity, the artist’s own stamp of approval, and it is quite fascinating to hear Tatsumi in his own words speaking about his life. There’s much there to fascinate anyone interested in the comics medium, regardless of their level of knowledge of the Japanese scene – some elements are pretty universal, such as having to move to the big city (leaving Osaka for Tokyo) to pursue work opportunities, struggling to find your own creative voice and style, build a reputation, secure regular work and more that I think any comics creator today, in any country or language, would still identify with.
I was particularly fascinated by sections where young Tatsumi is sharing an apartment with fellow cartoonists, all trying to make their mark. Determined to show that manga can be aimed squarely at an adult readership and deal with mature themes he becomes frustrated with the virulent reaction these new gekiga strips and the ‘concerned’ parents and teachers who attack it for being a bad influence on younger readers. It’s not for younger readers, it’s for adults, he rails, so how can it be a bad influence. Ah, his friend comments, but in the manga rental stores (where readers can borrow several comics in one go for a handful of Yen) our work is shelved right alongside the main ranks of kid’s manga, you see… It’s a problem that has beset the comics medium around the world, irrespective or language or culture – those who don’t read them often assume they are aimed only at children, so are horrified if they then see comics which pursue serious, adult storylines, not realising that they are not meant for younger eyes. The struggle to have readers accept that the medium can deal with mature themes and storylines and not just child-like jolly romps has been going on for decades, and continues still. Likewise the claims, usually by those who haven’t actually read the books but decide to pronounce judgement on them anyway (for the ‘greater good’ of course), that comics exert some svengali like evil influence to corrupt the innocent is something that’s been going on for decades in all countries, and indeed is still a problem today, and it is remarkable to think of Tatsumi nailing his gekiga manifesto the mast and dealing with these problems decades ago.
The autobiographical sections also include happier moments, not the least of which two important meetings in his life, one as an adult, meeting the woman who would be his wife, one as a young boy being introduced to the great Osamu Tezuka himself, a remarkable moment for a young boy, hugely influenced by him, just at the very start of his artistic career and being taken to meet his great hero who greets him warmly. As I said I think I found the autobiographical chapters to be the most interesting, but the comics adaptations laced throughout are also with merit and for those in the audience who haven’t read much Tatsumi they function as a good introduction to some of his themes and styles. And as with Tatsumi’s work itself the film shows that the manga world is far broader than a cursory glance at ranks of multi-volume younger reader series might suggest to those who haven’t dabbled in it much (I include myself in those ranks, recent Indy and underground manga translations by D&Q (including Tatsumi’s work), Fantagraphics and Top Shelf have been a great eye-opener to the diversity of adult manga work), and that certain problems are pretty much universal to comics creators everywhere. The film is getting a release on the arthouse cinema circuit in the UK at the moment – I spotted it due this month in Edinburgh’s wonderful Filmhouse, so check your own local Indy/arthouse cinemas to keep an eye out for it, it’s certainly well worth your time, if you are already a fan of Tatsumi or new to his work, it’s of huge interest to anyone with a love of the comics medium.
I noticed a spike in one of my photos from this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe this week and wondered why:
Turned out it was being linked to from several websites, including this Japanese one. I’ve seen my pics borrowed numerous times on other sites – including, rather pleasingly, the New Yorker book blog at one point – but I think this is the first time (that I know of anyway) that I’ve been used on a Japanese site. Truly I am a cosmopolitan chap.
This time lapse video of nocturnal Tokyo by Samuel Cockedey is absolutely amazing (and the soundtrack by Woob is pretty damned good too), gorgeous visuals somewhere between Blade Runner and Akira’s Neo Tokyo. The cinematography is beautifully crisp and clear (especially for night work) and looks astonishing in HD (via BoingBoing):
Japan is unhappy with Australia. Why? Because of pictures released showing the hideous slaughter their whaling fleet inflicts on harmless animals for ‘scientific research’ – said research seems to consist of proving that shooting a large mammal with an explosive harpoon causes a long, slow, lingering, painful death and that you can cook the bits later for food (although actually there is some research which says they can hardly give whale meat away in Japan, so why they pursue this slaughter is beyond all comprehension and one is left to think those responsible are just evil bastards). One set of images taken clearly shows the swines killing a mother and a calf then dragging their carcasses up into their mobile concentration camp ships.
These pictures didn’t come from Greenpeace, they came from observers in a team of Australian customs officers.
“It is explicitly clear from these images that this is indiscriminate killing of whales, where you have a whale and its calf killed in this way… And to claim that this is in any way scientific is to continue the charade that has surrounded this issue from day one…” Peter Garrett, Australian environment minister.
Japan’s state-supported Institute for Cetacean Research (where they research whales by killing them slowly and chopping up their carcasses like some sea-going Jack the Rippers) has claimed that releasing these pictures “created a dangerous emotional propaganda that could cause serious damage to the relationship between our two countries.” Well no argument on the first part – it does create emotions but I can’t help but think they are more worried about being seen by the entire world committing these atrocious acts than anything else. They were caught out slaughtering a mother and calf on camera. There’s no excuse for that. And to then try and blame Australia for showing what these bastards were more than happy to do when they thought no-one would notice is just plain cowardice. Then again, this is a country that still likes to pretend they didn’t engage in systematic torture, rape, murder and even using humans as guinea pigs for chemical warfare experiments during the Second World War. Maybe Japan needs to have evidence shoved in its nose and be made to see what the hell it has done.
I’ve got a great idea for some maritime ‘scientific research’ – let’s see scientifically what happens when we fire torpedoes into a whaling ship…