Instant Swamp (2009)

In a frenetic opening monologue, Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso) introduces us to her life and philosophies. She goes through her daily routine as a chore, enjoys a sludge of ten spoons of coffee in milk each morning, and lives with her mother (Keiko Matsuzaka), her father has left for a more wealthy woman. Haname loses her job at failing women’s magazine publication and her mother takes ill resulting in a coma. They manage to fish a letter out of a sunken post-box that tells Haname that her real father is not who she thought, but is instead a bohemian figure called Light Bulb (Morio Kazama), who is now running a bric-a-brac store. The eternally upbeat Haname sets out to meet him, hoping that her discovery of her mother’s former partner might return her to consciousness.

“Instant Swamp” has a bizarre and convoluted plot that is perfectly in keeping with its protagonist and her eccentric behaviour. The film is an off-beat comedy that relies heavily on slapstick humour and unusual scenarios. It often delights in subverting expectations with ridiculous reveals. Much of the dialogue is clearly designed more for laughs than realism and it plays like a series of sketches that happen to involve the same characters. Not all of the jokes work, but there are enough of them that this does not matter. In the same way, the plot moves along at such a pace that there is always something else to be invested in, albeit temporarily, like a wild treasure hunt that is constantly throwing up more hints to follow. The jokes are helped, even when the material is weak, by some great comedic performances. Kumiko Aso is very charismatic in the lead role and really sells every gag. Morio Kazama as Light Bulb gives a good performance as the humorous yet untrustworthy shop owner. The supporting actors, Eri Fuse as Haname’s co-worker Ichinose, and Ryo Kase as a punk electrician named Gas, are also excellent in their roles. The film is written and directed by Satoshi Miki, whose fertile imagination shows in every scene.

“Instant Swamp” is a peculiar film about the magic of everyday life. In an early scene, Haname’s mother tells her there is a kappa in the garden. Haname refuses to be drawn in, believing this to be a silly delusion. Similarly, when she is tasked with writing an article on ghosts for her magazine she is highly sceptical, despite her co-workers’ belief in the supernatural. However, by the end of the scene Haname has experienced her own transcendental moment of magic, finally converted to the idea that the world is a wide and wonderful place where anything can happen. The film is not attempting to suggest scepticism is wrong, but that most people spend their lives in narrow channels and often miss out on the opportunities that may be surrounding them for experiencing “magic”. This idea is also emphasised in the use of antiques dealing as a central plot point. Haname’s meeting with Light Bulb proves to be important as she learns that the value of an object is not necessarily in its price, but in its emotional weight. She learns to value things based not solely on their use. Again, this is shown in her own attachment to a bent nail, the importance of which is lost on almost everyone she shows it to. The theme of luck plays throughout the film in parallel with this idea. Haname believes that throwing away a lucky black cat statue in her youth has led to her streak of misfortune. However, when she is tricked into buying something that is seemingly useless at the end of the film, she has grown enough to appreciate the potential in even the lowliest of things. Life, she realises, is not based on luck, but instead on making the most of what you have and in seeing opportunity in every new day.

Orgies of Edo (1969)

“Orgies of Edo” tells three stories connected with themes of sex and violence. The first story follows Oito (Masumi Tachibana), a young woman who is tricked by a gangster into a life of prostitution. The second features a woman with strange sexual perversions. She has a fetish for rape by men who are disfigured. In flashback we learn the dark secret that lies behind her perversion. She is attended by a man who harbours unrequited feelings for her, though towards whom she has no affection. The final story begins with a sadistic lord who delights in watching his harem being gored by a herd of bulls. One of the women takes his eye, seemingly a masochist with an equally insatiable appetite for torture and pain. However, she is also carrying a secret, one that threatens to end their twisted relationship.

The film written by director Teruo Ishii with Masahiro Kakefuda is a portrayal of the most base impulses of human society, lust and violence. Each tale unfolds almost as a dark parable, although the moral of each tale can be hard to discern at first. Despite a heavy emphasis on sex and gore it would be wrong to dismiss the film as mere titillation. There are deeper themes at work. Likewise, although the women are shown as victims in almost all cases, the film is sympathetic towards them. There is a certain sense in which the film delights in the most obscene material, incest, bestiality, rape, sexual violence and sadomasochism, but the film’s almost art house opening and closing sentiments set these things in context. The opening, with grotesques coming forth from a cabinet cues the audience in to the idea that this is intended as gruesome theatre. The stories are exaggerated portrayals of the very worst kinds of behaviour. The opening credits to the film are offensively garish, with names juddering and flashing across the screen while the music blares in concert with the images. Like with other films of the exploitation genre it intends to assault you with its message and has little time for subtlety. Ishii’s voyeuristic directorial style makes the viewer complicit in the horrors, peering from above as the terrible events unfold. There are great performances in all of the stories, especially from the main cast of women. The gory special effects are a little dated, and certain plot points cross the line of unacceptable racism, but a film of this kind is almost obliged to be as offensive as possible.

“Orgies of Edo” is disturbing from its first moments and in a little over 90 minutes manages to cover prostitution, infidelity, rape, incest, bestiality and sadomasochism. The film lays out a brutal worldview, one in which characters do despicable things and women are subject to all manner of sexual and psychological violence. The shock tactics are highly effective and it is not a film that could be considered boring, although some may find it offensive or distasteful. It is hard to summarise the messages of the film as they are multifarious. It does touch on ideas of power in sex relations, on the male tendency to violence, and on the underlying psychological causes of sexual perversion. In a sense the film is intended to provoke strong emotions, both of disgust and empathy towards the characters. The god-like perspective of many scenes also hints at a possible anti-theistic reading, as we are forced to watch impotently as the horrors unfold. This is a world in which morality, if it exists at all, is pushed aside and humans are shown as base and atavistic organisms. While passing decades and an increasingly liberal society may have dated certain scenes (particularly the use of dwarves and a black man as shorthand for ‘difference’ in the middle story), the film works well as a shocking exploitation drama with a message.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Set in Tokyo, in the lead up to New Year, the film follows three unlikely companions, Gin (Toru Emori), an alcoholic who has lost his wife and daughter, Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), a transvestite, and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a young girl who has run-away from her parents. These three homeless individuals become part of a bizarre tale when they find a baby left in a pile of rubbish. Full of unlikely coincidences, hilarity and tragedy, the film follows the trio as they attempt, by following clues left with the baby, to locate her parents.

Satoshi Kon’s third film and a departure from his other work in that this film has very few mind-bending sequences (there are a couple of surreal moments, reserved for flashbacks or dreams). The story could be described as straightforward, however the film is far from boring. Each character has their own demons to fight, or salvation to seek, and the film manages to perfectly weave the central plot through these various private stories, concluding them all satisfactorily. The animation is good throughout, but truly stunning in places with scenes of Tokyo at night, the snowfall that is present throughout, and an almost transcendental moment towards the end of the film of a sunrise. This blend of the everyday and the sublime, is replicated in the short haiku performed by Hana at times. It seems as though the film is asking you to take a look at the world, and see the beauty that is often missed when you are focused on your own life, or street level concerns; also to appreciate fortuitous occurrences rather that focus on misfortune.

This is at heart a feel-good New Year’s movie, centring on a common theme of family (and family reunions), with plenty of tear-jerking moments and lots of laughs throughout. However, the film also deals with some difficult societal problems, such as homelessness, the breakdown of family units, gambling, alcoholism, featuring characters such as transvestites, yakuza and gangs of unruly children. I found that the film had a cumulative effect. The opening scene shows the three protagonists at a Christian ceremony, which Gin seems particularly unmoved by, while Hana is willing to believe in ‘Christmas Miracles’. Throughout the film hope is always a faint glimmer in the distance (the hope that they’ll find the baby’s parents, and the hope they’ll find forgiveness, redemption or salvation). Each unbelievable lucky break might make you shake your head, but you find yourself slowly becoming more involved with these characters, and really willing them to succeed. When the film reaches its finale you are completely prepared to believe in some kind of divine providence.

Love and Peace (2015)

Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa), a lowly office clerk, dreams of becoming a rock star and reliving the successes of his younger years. He also has romantic inclinations towards his co-worker Yuko Terashima (Kumiko Aso). One day at lunch he buys a small pet turtle which he takes back to his apartment, sharing with it his hopes and ambitions and naming it ‘Pikadon’. After being bullied for having the turtle at work, Ryoichi flushes it down the toilet. The film then splits into two stories: one following Ryoichi on his journey to musical greatness via series of unlikely chance encounters; the other following Pikadon as he finds his way to a homeless man (Toshiyuki Nishida) in the sewers, who has collected a group of talking toys and animals to him.

Written and directed by prolific film-maker Sion Sono, this film has the expected blend of hilarity, tragedy and all-out insane spectacle. “Love and Peace” always seems to be heading in one direction and then quickly takes you somewhere unexpected. The finale of the film is a spectacle that is utterly ridiculous, but entirely in keeping with the anarchic sensibilities of the rest of the film. The split narrative of Ryoichi and Pikadon gives an interesting flavour to the film, showing the darker side of society’s relentless obsession with fame to the detriment of compassion and care. The abandoned toys in the sewers serve as a poignant reminder that consumerism often leads to a selfish mindset that neglects anything seen as old or worthless. The acting is great, particularly from Hiroki Hasegawa, who does a fantastic job portraying the put-upon Ryochi, bullied and unable to achieve his dreams, and later his rock-star alter-ego “Wild Ryo”, boastful and comfortable with the adoration of large crowds. Also great is Toshiyuki Nishida, who plays the homeless man to whom all the lost toys manage to find their way. His portrayal of the kindly drunk is one of the most touching parts of the film. The music consists largely of two songs: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, and the constant refrain of Ryoichi’s big hit “Love and Peace”, which you may find yourself humming throughout.

The main theme of the film concerns Ryoichi’s search for fame and how this leads to him abandoning those things that are truly important. It is far from subtle in the transformation of this retiring office worker into an arrogant rock star and likewise in showing the effects of his selfish actions. There is also the complimentary story of the toys, who find themselves abandoned and unloved once Christmas is forgotten (a metaphor for the fickle nature of celebrity and a pointed statement on the consumerism of the season). I would highly recommend this for the unexpected laughs, the bizarreness of the concept, and for some genuinely moving moments involving the homeless man and the toys.

Red Beard (1965)

Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) arrives at a rural clinic run by Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), a doctor whose patients include impoverished individuals without the money for an expensive physician. Yasumoto is insistent that he is only there on an errand and not to work; he tells the staff that he intends to work for the Shogun and leave as soon as possible. After a prickly reception from Red Beard, Yasumoto decides to sabotage his placement, acting in a lazy  and insolent manner in hopes that he will be dismissed. However, he soon comes to respect Red Beard as not only a skilled doctor but a great man. The film also follows the story of a particular patient’s retelling of his ill-fated marriage, and a young girl who is brought to the clinic from a brothel suffering a fever.

“Red Beard” is directed by Akira Kurosawa from a screenplay by Kurosawa and long term collaborators Masato ide, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, based on a short story by Shugoro Yamamoto. As with most ofKurosawa’s films this is a period drama, though set a little later than the samurai epics for which he is most well-known. The film is set in the late 19th century and the world is carefully recreated, not only through the sets and costumes, but in Kurosawa’s use of extras. Scenes are often crowded with characters, such as the group of women working at the hospital, the patients,or denizens of this small town. The use of people filling out the backgrounds give a life and vibrancy to every scene. The cast is led by Yuzo Kayama as the arrogant young Doctor Noboru Yasumoto whose arrival chimes with that of the audience into this world. While he is initially rude and unwilling to take on his duties, he is never unlikeable. And as he develops he grows to be a protagonist whom the audience is fully sympathetic too. Toshiro Mifune, known for his starring roles in several Kurosawa films (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), plays Dr. Kyojo Niide, also known as “Red Beard”. Although he is the titular character,he is used somewhat sparingly and to brilliant effect. We see a number of sides to Niide, though never get close enough to fully understand him. Despite his care for his patients, he is also shown to have negative traits, and himself admits that he may be a terrible person. “Red Beard” has a huge and impressive cast, bolstered by the aforementioned supporting roles. Miyuki Kuwano as Onaka and Tsutomu Yamazaki as Sahachi give great performances in an almost stand-alone romantic tragedy. Terumi Niki also gives a heartbreaking performance as Otoyo, the young woman rescued from the brothel. 

The cinematography by Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito creates some powerfully emotional sequences. There is incredible use of shadow in the film. One example of this is the sequence with Otoyo and Yasumoto, when only her eyes are illuminated in a strip of light through the dense shadows. Expert camera movement also provides for creative yet never distracting sequences. The sequence of a young thief sneaking in to steal rice sees the camera effortlessly integrating itself into the film to the extent that you can get areal sense of the environment.

“Red Beard” is a film that wears its politics proudly. It shows the societal scourge of poverty and its effects on the population. Early in the film there are discussions regarding the possibility of improving the health of many of the clinic’s patients by redistributing wealth from those with an abundance of money. This point is driven home by the inclusion of a lord whose rich diet has led to him having the precise opposite problem to many of his poor subjects. His obesity caused by over-indulgence is starkly contrasted to the young boy reduced to stealing food for his family. The film also deals with the issue of prostitution, and the treatment by society of women and the elderly. The film’s strength is in contrasting these everyday problems with more universal concerns of life and death. The film carefully plays out the final moments of particular characters in a quietly emotional way that brings home the finality of death. The end, when it comes, is final, but further highlights the greatness of those in the film who dedicate themselves to saving lives. It is a simple call for kindness over self interest that hits home thanks to the brilliance of the performances and direction.