Edinburgh International Film Festival – Goodbye Don Glees

EIFF2022 – Goodbye Don Glees,
Directed by Atsuko Ishizuka,
Starring Natsuki Hanae, Yuki Kaji, Ayumu Murase

Making its UK debut at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ishizuka’s Goodbye Don Glees comes out of the Madhouse stable, and we got to see it relatively quickly by the standards of some Japanese films – it was released only in February in Japan. Ostensibly it’s a coming-of-age tale – Roma (voiced by Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji) are best friends, founders and only members of the Don Glees club. They’re the two uncoolest kids in their school and small town, a situation that only gets worse as they go through Junior High and are about to move on up, and Toto goes off to a special school programme in Tokyo, leaving Roma stuck at home, shovelling manure on the family farm – not exactly his dream life.

When Toto returns for a few days for a big local festival, he’s boasting a cool haircut and big-city manners and confidence, making Roma feel even more left behind, but as the film goes on we discover Toto’s life isn’t as perfect as he projects. He’s barely back before he’s introduced to a new, third member of the Don Glees, a slightly younger, very exuberant boy, Drop, who seems full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, becoming something of an engine for driving the older two forward into an adventure, which includes tracking a crashed drone they were using to take photos, a forest fire and a wilderness trek.

In the time-honoured tradition, the adventure as they head out into, then get lost in, the forest, leads to hidden thoughts, fears, hopes and submerged emotions coming out. And yes, we’ve all seen similar tales before, of course, but that really doesn’t distract from this story, because Ishizuka handles it so deftly – she revealed when writing it then coming to direct it, that she wanted to avoid “anime speak”, where certain styles, even pauses, are used quite a lot. She said she thought of it the way she would approach a live-action film, and told her voice actors that she wanted it to be more naturalistic, more the way teens actually talk to one another. It certainly works, you quickly come to love the characters and feel their emotions. There’s a good bit more to it than that, but I won’t risk spoilers, except to say that it involves some very deeply emotional moments (be prepared to be blinking away tears at a couple of points – in the best way). I was reminded of other coming-of-age films, especially Stand By Me, and Ishizuka actually mentioned in the post-film talk that it has indeed been a huge influence.

The animation is frequently gorgeous, especially the nature scenes – the forest looks beautiful, a night-sky in the woods as the kids stare into the Milky Way is breathtaking, while rivers and waterfalls are recurrent visual themes, with especial importance for young Drop’s story arc, flipping between scenes in the Japanese countryside to time Drop spent living in Iceland. Talking with the audience through an interpreter after the screening, Ishizuka described her feelings that animation should be beautiful, that some scenes should look like a painting.

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(Director and writer Atsuko Ishizuka talking to the audience after the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of her Goodbye Don Glees – taken from several rows back in a dark cinema, so please excuse the quality!)

Goodbye Don Glees warmly captures those teenage years of yearning and doubt and hope as you totter on the bores of childhood into adulthood, that huge importance of good friends, of the time you spend with them, how that will mark you for life, create some of the core emotions and memories that will be inside your for as long as you live; for younger viewers it will talk to them of their own lives as they grow, for the adults it will remind you of the importance of those years, emotions, friendships and what they meant to you, what they still mean to you years on. A beautiful-looking, wonderfully emotional work, Ishizuka told us that there will be a UK release in November – I highly recommend watching out for this one.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: First Love

First Love,
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.

This review was first penned for Live For Films.

First Love is released by Signature in UK cinemas and Digital HD from Februry 14th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from February 24th.

Yukki-onna – Snow Woman

Yuki-onna / Snow Woman,

Directed by Kiki Sugino,

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.

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(Kiki Sugino talking after the film festival screening of Snow Woman)

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Complex

Another quick review of one of the genre movies I caught recently as part of my annual Edinburgh Film Festival week, this one by the great J-Horror director Hideo Nakata. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

The Complex

Director: Hideo Nakata

Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Narimiya, Masanobu Katsumura, Naomi Nishida, Kanau Tanaka

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Hideo Nakata is a name well known to fans of horror films, especially that rich seams of J-Horror, with very influential entries in the genre such as Dark Water and Ring. When I went to see The Complex I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – much as I love horror film and have enjoyed the works which Japan (and them more parts of Asian cinema) have been adding to the genre, I have to admit that there has been a bit too much in terms of generic tropes and repetitive imitations – too many close ups of rolling eyeballs over loud soundtrack noise and very long haired girls crawling in unnatural poses have diluted this part of the genre through inferior copying and imitation. Refreshingly with The Complex Nakata treads a different but highly effective path, here opting for more of a straight ghost story, proper hauntings with real reasons for the ghosts’ existence and mostly avoiding the jump-shock or gore approach for creepy atmosphere, something a well told ghost tale can do so well and to such phantasmagorical effect.

Asuka is a young student, moving into a slightly run down looking 60s style concrete apartment complex with her family, in order to be nearer to her college, where she is studying to work in healthcare. The opening scenes of unpacking in the new home seem very tranquil and domestic and fairly cheery, with her little brother and loving parents around her, but for those of us who have a lot of horror flicks under our belts there are signs even then that there are dark clouds in the horizon. A solitary, rather tatty box of possessions, oh, these are mum’s thinks Asuka as she unpacks in her room, and takes it through to her parent’s room. Somehow you just know that box is foreshadowing something later in the film. Other warning signs that not all is right with the apparent domestic bliss of a new family home come when over breakfast on different mornings her mother and father have exactly the same conversation… Nakata’s world it isn’t just the dark, spooky places that can harbour something odd or frightening, as with Lynch so too can the cheerfully suburban dometic.

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And then there are the neighbours – Asuka is sent with little homemade cakes to introduce the family to their new neighbours and starts with the apartment opposite them on their landing. She rings the bell and knocks the door; she thinks she hears someone inside, but no-one actually answers the door. And then in best creepy horror tradition the door opens itself, just a few inches, but with no-one visible. And then it closes again. Creepy things going on or just an elderly neighbour who doesn’t care for company? And why are there no kids in the playground, save for one single wee boy? As night falls on those first evenings in the new apartment the noises start, some awful, drawn out noise from the apartment right through from her bedroom…

I’m not going to expand any further into what the source of that noise is in the neighbouring apartment, or indeed why the apparent domesticity of the new family home feels so off despite the apparently happy surface, because that would take us into the realm of spoilers. Suffice to say Nakata takes his time in slowly building up the setting and introducing characters, the slow burn, ratchetting gradually up with the tension and creepiness that a good ghost tale requires.

My only complaint about the Complex is that a couple of the twists I saw coming very early on in the film; perhaps Nakata telegraphed them a little less subtly than he should, but then again it is equally possible there’s no real fault in the narrative and it is simply having seen so many genre flicks the regular viewer picks up on some foreshadowing quicker than other viewers. It certainly didn’t spoil my viewing and Nakata being the master of horror that he is there were other revelations I didn’t see coming. Besides, J-Horror or horror from anywhere else, the key to a good ghost story is atmosphere, and that Nakata has in spades here. Good late night horror viewing.

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Rent-a-Cat

Edinburgh Film Fest: Rent-a-Cat (Rentaneko)

Dir: Naoko Ogigami

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.

“Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so…”

I noticed a spike in one of my photos from this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe this week and wondered why:

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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.