The Third Murder, 三度目の殺人

 

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30 years passed for Misumi San since his first double homicide, which cost him a long period of his life in jail. Now destiny wants that the lawyer who is to defend his present case –also a homicide– happens to be the son of the judge who handed down the former sentence. With this film, director Koreeda enters a new genre, thriller, suspense with murder, court-related movies, that is alien to his work, usually free of violence but always full of moral dilemmas. However, some of his identity signs can still be seen in the ambiguous treatment of the main character: a very grave and psychologically unbalanced suspect –very well in his role Kôji Yakusho, whose performance as an unfaithful husband in Lost Paradise (失楽園, Shitsurakuen), from 1997, left in me a bitter unforgettable feeling back in the day–.

Family issues are not forgotten either in this story, with a more than likely incestuous relationship that might have prompted the murder, and a contradictory and obscure attitude in the victim’s wife. Everything is under doubt for the viewer, who along with the lawyer’s character played by Masaharu Fukuyama –I liked him much more in Scoop (2016) and in the also Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son (そして父になる, Soshite Chichi ni Naru, 2013)–, follows the court’s dynamics until its logical conclusion.

The two men start from a cold and professional relationship, although determined by the family coincidence of the laywer’s father. More and more encounters and visits to jail happen, and Koreeda’s camera registers the approaching of both souls with reflections on the thick glass that divides the men, with the lawyer’s desperation and obsession for entering the accused man’s head in order to understand his motives and to save him from a likely death sentence. At the same time, Misumi’s interest in misleading Shigemori’s investigation will constitute a final twist in the story. And the third assassination is still to be committed in the fashion of sacrifice, which the Japanese judicial system cannot assume.

If in After the Storm (海よりまだ深く、Umi yori mada fukaku, 2016) Koreeda played with broken and abandoned umbrellas at the end of the film as a metaphor of the irreversible wreck of the character’s life, this time we see Misumi leaving the court towards the gallows letting imaginary birds freely fly from his hands, under the constant gaze of Suzu Hirose (Sakie), the young and talented actress omnipresent in Japanese cinema nowadays.

Work and Die for your Company, Sacrifice Yourself for your Motherland

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海賊と呼ばれた男(Kaizoku to Yobareta Otoko), tells the story of a Japanese self-made man, Kunioka Tetsuzô, who was called “the pirate”. Along with the history of Japan in the 20th century, here comes this entrepreneur of the crude oil, from his beginnings as a modest local distributor to his days as an oil magnate after World War II.  Short-tempered and workaholic, he also shows a nicer side: his devotion to his workers. But that doesn’t come for free: he requires from them a likewise allegiance to the company and its leader: himself. A metaphor for the well-known —now in his last days—relationship between Japanese big companies (大企業, Dai Kigyou) and their employees, Tetsuzô, or 店主(Tenshu ,small-shop boss), as he likes to be addressed by his acolytes, sometimes puts their health and lives at risk through insalubrious tasks or through really dangerous endeavors, as when he sends a tanker with a considerable crew to England-blocked Iran, and his ill-dutiful captain doesn’t mind to charge towards a British warship.

Nowadays, we still see how many Japanese companies (public and private) force their employees to work overtime (残業, Zangyou) beyond the law in a tradition that made possible the Japanese economic miracle of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Being the legal cap 45 hours of monthly overwork, special provisions signed by half of the employees elevates that figure to 80. And there have been cases of going further than 100 hours of monthly overwork, most times unpaid. Of course, consequences for health are extremely serious, and the high number of excess of work-related deaths (過労死, Karoushi) has recently made the Japanese government introduce more controls and heavy fines for those “Black companies”.

Going back to the movie, this film, based on the homonymous novel by Hyakuta Naoki, creates a subtle and not-so-subtle connection between 国岡鉄三Kunioka (attention to the last name, whose first kanji 国 means country) Tetsuzou, and Japan as a sovereign nation. He represents the deliverer of energy resources for the country to develop; he supports the military —and the country efforts— in times of WW2; in spite of the economic disaster, he doesn’t fire any employee after the war; when in the 50’s a British rival –the Mayor– closes to his company all Pacific Ocean accesses to crude oil, he defies the British blockade to Iran going there to purchase the so-needed black gold, succeeding in his venture. This last episode makes the most nationalistic audience dream with a different end to WW2 because one of the factors that made Japan enter that war bombing Pearl Harbor was the American oil blockade. The images of Japanese citizens holding flags of Japan when going to see the tanker sail for Iran are not accidental. If we were to find a slogan for the message of the film, it could be something like: work and die for your company, because in doing that you are sacrificing yourself for your country. Of course, it’s never mentioned or alluded the fact that Kunioka Tetsuzô is just a business man mainly focused on the maximum benefits for his private company.

Another interesting thing in this movie is the absolute absence of female characters. There is only ゆきちゃん (Yuki chan), who marries Tetsuzô through omiai but leaves him when she realizes that she cannot bear children for him. Her sacrifice fits perfectly the film’s mood and allows this story of machos to go ahead without unnecessary sentimentalisms not strictly based on the company and the country.

This movie has become a blockbuster in Japan for different reasons: it’s been made by successful director Yamazaki Takashi, specialized in nostalgic depictions of Japanese life such as the Always 3-丁目 saga; it includes quite a bunch of good actors, starring Okada Junichi, who plays Kunioka Tetsuzou’s character from his 20’s to his 90’s; the production and special effects achieve a great deal of powerful images, like the initial bombing of Tokyo with incendiary bombs or the charter of the tanker; and last but not least, it touches the emotional string of love for one’s motherland through hardships and personal sacrifices.

I just wish it had depicted more properly Tetsuzô’s ambition, gotten rid of the nationalistic propaganda and been itself a bit shorter. But I guess it will end up becoming a TV series, for a further use of its indoctrination in smaller but more continuous doses.

MISSING 28-year-old Azumi Haruko

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A 28-year-old young woman is smoking a cigarette next to a car. The camera follows the direction of the smoke that spreads and disappears in the sky; and by the time the image comes back to the car, Azumi Haruko is gone. I like those beginnings in extrema res, whose details and reasons become puzzle pieces for the audience. アズミ・ハルコ 行方不明 (Azumi Haruko Yukue Fumei, Haruko Azumi is Missing) is one of those films with a chaotic structure of characters and time as in a time-traveler machine, a collage of graffiti conceptual art that tells the story of a few young women fed up with a small-town narrow-minded society that doesn’t let them pursue happiness.

We have the group of high-school girls that raid the night in search of lonely guys to beat them up, as in a clockworkorange-like orgy of counter-violence; the two women, respectively in their late 20’s and 30’s, having to work next to two 昭和 Shôwa-era-thinking middle-age misogynists who insist that women should get married by 30, before they get rotten; a 20-year old girl used and despised by her boyfriend; and a happily-divorced young mother who has tasted the sour dream of a conventional family.

The commodification of art is another of the themes that young director Matsui Daigo introduces in the film: an entrepreneur sees in the missing young woman an opportunity for making money trying to revive a forgotten amusement park in a forgotten town with no future, a town where most young people seem to be フリーター (Furita). Of course, the result is failure, and it seems that the only exit for those women in town is to run away from it. The sooner, the better; the faster, the safer.

How should we take Azumi Haruko Yukue Fumei? As a self-contained fable with no referential or mimetic reading? As a metaphor for mainstream Japanese society in line with Koreeda’s Kuuki Ningyou?

In any case, originally based in the homonymous novel by Yamauchi Mariko, it’s a visual pleasure to watch. And 蒼井優 (Aoi Yû) is great in her role.

 

Oboreru Naifu: from a manga for girls to a complex and ambiguous film

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As far as sex is concerned, Japanese morals differ from the Judaeo-Christian-based culture of “the West” in many aspects, but, above all, in the permissive way they deal with the matter. A few years ago, I wrote a review about a Japanese movie called Nude, in which a countryside young woman from Saitama gradually enters the world of Porn Videos (euphemistically known as Adult Videos or AV) as an actress. She is hypocritically rejected by former friends and family but eventually she overcomes those feelings of guilt and shame because she considers herself as an actress and, therefore, enjoys her profession.

In the case of 溺れるナイフ (Oboreru Naifu, Drowning knife), adapted from a 少女漫画 (Manga for young girls) of the same title, the director presents us Natsume’s story: a fifteen-year-old middle school girl whose sexy photographs in men’s magazines make of her a young national idol. What takes her to popularity and fame also means the impossibility of having a “normal” life in the Wakayama village she moves afterwards to with her parents. Besides, she suffers an attempted rape by one of her grown-up fans, causing her a trauma and destroying the relationship with his also teenage boyfriend. It is obvious the director’s open reflection about the sexualization of minors in an adult’s world with the silent complicity of the parents, and ultimately of the whole society.

However, this movie is not just about Natsume’s precocious career as a model and its ambiguous consequences, because it also depicts a confrontation of lifestyles and values: the urban, modern and fashionable Tokyo, which is represented by the capricious girl; and the more traditional, old-fashioned Japan of the 田舎 (Inaka, Countryside), with its slow pace and its animistic summer festivals, represented by こうちゃん, her boyfriend, who suffers the consequences of Natsume’s arriving in town as an element that disturbs in the village the spiritual balance among men and nature.

On a different level, this is also a story about coming-of-age, about crossing the blurry borders between childhood and adulthood, at times violently. We see girls who start using make-up for their 高校デビュー (Koukou Debyu, High School Debut, aka KKD) and look like different people; male teenagers like こうちゃん who join fights to prove their manhood in a self-destructive way. And above all, Natsume, whose dream of success becomes real, but at the price of the loss of her innocence.

Travels with My Uncle or Boku no Ojisan

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“I’m a borderline philosopher. That’s why I read manga”. And the soliloquy goes on with many of the excuses that Masuda Ryouhei’s character in ぼくのおじさん (Boku no Ojisan, My Uncle) raises to justify his indolence and his lack of action (nothing against manga, though).

Working as a 非常勤講師 (part-time university teacher) in Japan can be a tough job if you have to provide for a family and make ends meet, begging for classes here and there. Commuting to different universities on the same day can also keep you half of your day stuck in crowded suburban trains. However, that’s not the case for our protagonist, because teaching only one コマ (Koma, 1’5-hour class) a week, he can have for himself all the time of the world to indulge in a life of laziness and procrastination, as he usually does. His salary, though, is likewise, hardly 30,000 yen (265 US dollars) per month. That makes him a poor among the poor. And he must live at his elder sister’s house with her family, being scolded by all members of the family, including his nephew and his niece, but with whom he keeps a close relationship. The same way the pre-Socratic Stoics claimed that philosophers should be immune to misfortune, he sees himself as a kind of a thinking genius, and tries to overcome the constant humiliations with a simple “Wow!” and quoting Kant.

A single uncle –in this case he doesn’t even seem to have a name, because it is not mentioned in the film– is an interesting figure for children. It’s supposed to an adult, but since it’s not a parent and doesn’t have the obligation to educate, he can become more of a buddy than other thing. That’s the case in this movie, where the middle-school boy, Yukio, is even more mature than the おじさん ojisan, and must takes care of him more than once.

However, there is not only family relations and comedy in the film, because a female character shows up in the ojisan’s life; and that changes everything. He seems to switch from his former good-for-nothing attitude to another one, more of a combative and pro-active man, as in Don Quixote’s discussion about guns and letters,  or even compared to Unamuno’s philosophical character Augusto Pérez’s determination to do anything to get the love of a female passerby. And through Eri, a fourth generation Japanese-American in Hawaii, another interesting topic is grafted in the plot: the descendants of Japanese in the US during WWII, kept isolated in concentration camps, and only at the end allowed to participate in the war in Europe, far from the land of their ancestors. The movie, more interested in showing a touristic Hawaii, doesn’t enter the controversy –now of current concern thanks to Trump–, but the topic is there, ready to be caught by any intelligent spectator.

In summary, this is an unpretentious film that will make you spend a good time and burst into laughter from time to time, thanks to the 空気読めない (Kuuki Yomenai, not able to understand situations) but at the same time likable character of the ojisan, quite well played by Masuda. And great music, by the way, quite cheerful, in the line of The Sting.

I’d do anything for a SCOOP!

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In August 1997 Lady Di died in a fatal car accident while being harassed by paparazzi. Many conspiracy theories were created afterwards, but in general the shutterbugs plus the driver’s taste for alcohol were considered the main causes for the sad episode. In Japanese movie SCOOP! we also have a car chase inside a tunnel, but in this case the paparazzi are the ones being persecuted by the bodyguards of a politician; Shizuka, the protagonist, had just taken a picture of the young, married and faultless public person with his lover in a first-class hotel.

The film is a sequence of different episodes of celebrity hunting and shootings of their excesses with sex, alcohol and violence with the common thread of a couple of paparazzi: a middle-age guy with the most vulgar and politically-incorrect mouth, plus an innocent female journalist, a newcomer to the business who gradually feels the adrenaline of the job and becomes an intrepid scoop hunter.

They can be compared to a couple of soldiers, the veteran and the new private, in a war against society’s hypocrisy, sometimes at the expense of their own physical security, as when Nobi is almost raped by a celebrity’s gang. And from the 先輩―後輩 sempai-kouhai work relationship, strong emotional bonds emerge between both of them, culminating into an inevitable bed scene.

However, above all, this is a story of comradeship among all the members of the sensationalist magazine, especially the senior ones, devoting their private lives to a work they believe in, and supporting each other, even though they can be rivals inside the tabloid. The two sections in the magazine compete for its reading audience: on the one hand, news and photographs of scandals, mainly 不倫事件 (infidelity cases); on the other side, グラビア (gravure), with photos of young models in sexy poses wearing bikini or underwear, which seems to be what is more demanded by the audience nowadays. Here we have an implicit allusion to the consumers of these weeklies and the evolution of their interests.

The turning point of the story with the presence of chameleon-like actor リリー・フランキー Lilly Franky as a deranged drug addict gives a closure to the movie and connects the profession of paparazzi with war press photographers like Robert Capa.

Nagai Iiwake: longing for excuses and answers

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Imagine that your wife dies in a traffic accident. Imagine that at that very moment you were having sex with your young lover. Imagine that when you are told the news the morning afterwards, you don’t feel anything: no emotional pain, no remorse; but you have to play the role of a suffering husband because you are a media star, a writer of a one-time successful novel who switched from literature to TV celebrity programs.  That’s how Sachio suddenly finds himself. It’s not just middle-age crisis, it’s the sensation of not being human anymore. This novel and film, 永い言い訳 (Nagai Iiwake, Long excuses) by writer and director Nishikawa Miwa, deeply captures the dissonance between the social roles assigned to people –husband, intellectual, celebrity– and their own desires and values. The 本音―建て前 (Honne-Tatemae) is taken to a maximum level because cameras are in action. Sometimes too much light doesn’t allow you to see the world. And Sachio is dazzled by the media attention, the audience, the couple’s common friends. So many politically-correct behavior scripts don’t let him search into his own past and present feelings. After a nihilistic period of time, he will look for penance, or at least for answers, taking care of two motherless children whose father is exactly his opposite, but with whom he shares a sensation of emptiness.

This is a long movie that has to be because it shows the ups and downs, as in real life, of real people; the getting closer and the moving away of different relationships.  And we see the characters’ hair growing and getting cut again and again, as in a cyclical repetition of life routines.

Reminiscences of Ichikawa Kon’s 細雪 (Sasameyuki, The Makioka Sisters) in the music and scenes of trains departing, along with Kawabata’s  雪国 (Yukiguni, Snow Country); resemblance of the actor Motoki Masahiro to La Bamba’s Lou Diamonds Philips; metaphor of the zigzag railways and the steep bicycle way back home as the endurance of life; and, finally, the possibility of self-knowledge and redemption through art.

 

Nanimono, Job Hunting, and the Red Pill

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When I first came to Japan in the Pleistocene I met a girl, a 4th-year university student from Kobe Daigaku in the process of job hunting. She was under so much stress that many times she cried for no apparent reason and always looked dismayed. She used to sleep with her cell-phone next to the pillow because night calls from companies hiring new staff were not unlikely, and not answering in time could mean an automatic disqualification. She often went to endless job “seminars” with thousands of other candidates for 大企業 or big Japanese companies where most graduates were willing to work for. That’s the first screen for a multi-phase selection process which, obviously, ends up with a refusal for most of the candidates, gradually undermining their self-esteem.

Strongly advertised in a Japan with a significant population of college student, 何者(Nanimono, Somebody) deals with that process of job hunting through the lives of two young men and two young women struggling to succeed in the marathon-like activity that is called 就職活動 (Shûshoku Katsudô) and abbreviated as 就活 (ShûKatsu). They are college buddies, and help each other in the searching for information, the hand-writing of résumés, printing of materials, etc. But behind the apparent group harmony, through the Twitter microblogging social web we as audience start to feel some dissonance in the middle of that perfect symphony of friendship.

This movie introduces the theme of the theater inside the cinema, and the Calderonian motif of the world as a big theater or play. In the end all characters play different roles, but they are alone with their own miseries, competing with each other but also within themselves.

Eventually they will find something, a group to belong, the same way my Kobe friend entered Japanese society and became Somebody, at the cost of the loss of their innocence.

Friendship can be a full-time occupation

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‘This man has a gift for friendship’, Scott Fitzgerald tells Thomas Wolf in Genius, a movie about Max Perkins, editor at Scribner’s Publishing House in the 20’s and 30’s. This real character helped many writers, including the mentioned two and Hemingway to get their novels published. Usually the ones who end up filling the lists of History of Literature are only the authors, while those thoughtful and intelligent readers that are editors fall into oblivion. Jude Law plays the character of Thomas Wolf, a man who lives to write, but who also makes his life worth of being told, in terms of experiences. He constantly creates real material for his long and poetic novels. Extremely intelligent, drunken, promiscuous, it was his fate to die at 37 out of a myriad of tumors inside his extremely productive brain.

Genius focuses on the relationship between the two men, writer and editor, like father and son, friends, and the hard work of editing a book that is to be readily consumed by readers. An editor can be the genius who makes a writer successful and his work a Bestseller -that’s the Japanese title for the film-, but also the evil who cripples an original masterpiece, as Nicole Kidman, playing Wolf’s lover, holds it against Max. That fight between spontaneous creativity and the constraining structure of normative language is inside each of us every time we grab a pen, we start pressing keys on our computers or we swipe our finger along the cell-phone’s display.

Kimi no na wa and Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar

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Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar wrote in 1956 a short-story called “La noche boca arriba” (The night upside down): a young man in Buenos Aires has a motorcycle accident. When he is taken by ambulance to the hospital, he starts dreaming about the Aztec era and how he is going to be sacrificed to the Gods. In a different sphere of time, a Mesoamerican warrior starts dreaming about a futuristic city and a roaring metal insect that he is riding until he suddenly falls to the ground. Both characters exchange each other’s lives during their sleep.

君の名は (Kiminonawa, Your name?) presents a similar structure in the form of a Japanese animation movie.  High-schooler Taki, from Tokyo, wakes up in the body of Mitsuha, a young girl who lives in the countryside. It’s a dream that repeats itself every day. The same happens with Mitsuha, fed up with the boring life of Itomori and the temple she lives in, delighted to be a boy in hectic Tokyo. In Cortázar’s story the characters are separated by centuries; in Shinkai Makoto’s movie, it’s only three years. But the time lag makes the encounter of the characters impossible. It’s what Doležel calls “exclusive” doppelganger: only one can live at the same time, even though both of them are the same person.

Apparently a movie intended for teenagers, the playing with the time and its relatively-complex narrative structure makes it perfect for any audience. The reflection about identity and the passing of time is a constant motif in Shinkai’s movies, as we saw in 秒速5センチメートル (5 Centimeters per Second) or in 言の葉の庭 (The Garden of Words). The possibility of travelling in time and changing the past connects it with a whole tradition of SF movies. And the ultra-realistic visual depiction of urban and rural life in Japan makes it, too, a good document for people interested in Japanese society.

Less than two months after its release in Japan and already one of most widely viewed movies in Japanese history. This 43-year old director, Shinkai Makoto, has the potential to become the new Miyazaki.

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