The Naked Director (2019)

Toru Muranishi is a famous name in the world of Japanese porn, prominent from the heyday of the industry in the 1980’s as one of the most prolific directors of adult videos. Based on real events, this television drama takes us back to the formative years of his directorial career and the numerous revolutions that typified the era. The first episode begins with Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) standing in nothing but his white underwear with a large camera on one shoulder as he holds forth about the importance of his profession. We are then taken back to Muranishi working as a salesman for English encyclopaedias. He has a talent for sales, convincing his customers that they absolutely need these encyclopaedias to improve their personal and professional lives.

When he comes home to find his wife, and the mother of his two children, having an affair with his co-worker, his world is thrown into turmoil. While out drinking he meets Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a young man who is flogging illicit audio recordings of couples from a nearby love hotel. The two strike up an unlikely partnership with Muranishi’s talents making a huge success of their business. Together they get into producing their own magazines together with a third partner Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama). As times change, so do they, setting up adult stores and later getting into making pornographic videos. Along the way they are beset by the puritanical Japanese police and their strict censorship laws; the yakuza who have a hand in the largely underground industry; and their rival porn studio run by wealthy boss Ikezawa (Ryo Ishibashi).

In parallel with Muranishi’s story is that of Megumi (Misato Morita), later to become the porn actress Kaoru Kuroki, one of the industry’s biggest stars and a symbol of sexual liberation. Beginning as a student, Megumi lives at home with her austere mother, but slowly she experiences a sexual awakening and decides to break out of the traditional role ascribed to her and become a porn actress.

The series is hugely enjoyable. While Muranishi and Kuroki are real and this is based on a true story, it is unclear precisely how much of this is dramatized. Whatever the case may be, it is packed with action, with Muranishi on the run from the police or shooting pornographic films, and also a lot of drama, especially in Kuroki’s relationship with her mother that forms the heart of her story. There is a lot of sex and nudity in almost every episode and it doesn’t hold back from a graphic depiction of its subject matter. Some may complain that the series smooths off some of the edges of the porn industry, and of the characters. Later in the series things do take a dark turn as we see the introduction of drugs, in the form of meth, being used to trap young women into performing. However, the majority of the series takes the tone of a light-hearted romp with comical moments and the stakes are largely confined to financial troubles or the company struggling to survive in a competitive industry. The story is full of twists and turns with each episode either bringing a new triumph or disaster to Muranishi and his rag tag gang of employees. This gives the series a sense of forward momentum and you are never quite sure what is going to happen next.

The cast is exceptional. As well as the main cast, the series stars Lily Franky as the police officer who is constantly investigating their activities; Takenori Goto as “Rugby” and Sairi Ito as Junko, Muranishi’s hard-working assistants; Ami Tomite and Nanami Kawakami also feature, and Koyuki gives a great performance as Megumi’s mother Kayo.

The series is based on the book “Zenra Kantoku Muranishi Toru Den” (The Legend of Muranishi Toru, the Naked Director) by Nobuhiro Motohashi, and is directed by Masaharu Take, Eiji Uchida and Hayato Kawai. All three are experienced directors having worked in television or film for a number of years and it shows in the style of the series. Largely set in the eighties, they manage to capture the period feel with costumes and set-design. The soundtrack is an interesting selection of instantly recognizable and catchy western songs.

Despite being the central character, Muranishi remains something of a mystery throughout. We see only briefly the effect his wife’s affair had on him and it is hard to get a sense of what is really driving him to do what he does. In contrast, Kaoru Kuroki is much more of an open book as we see her actions as an expression of personal freedom. The pornographic industry provides an interesting focal point for discussions of personal liberty, exploitation, lust, sex, capitalism, and many other things. The series constantly shows that pornography is a business designed to make money, this is the driving motivation behind almost all of the characters. It also shows how the adult industry is often driven underground in what is a largely conservative society; the strict censorship laws and prohibitions are in stark contrast to the obvious popularity of these materials. The rights and wrongs of government interference are barely touched on. Kaoru Kuroki’s philosophy of sexual emancipation is given more time, but still more could have been done with the character.

“The Naked Director” is a fun show that smooths off most of the rough edges of its protagonist in favour of giving the audience and enjoyable comedy-drama. Excellent direction and design along with an amazing cast make for a hugely enjoyable watch.

Girls und Panzer (2012)

“Girls und Panzer” is an anime where the title really tells you everything you need to know about it. The basic plot revolves around an inter-school championship where all-girls’ schools compete in tank battles. The tank battles are fought with real World War Two tanks and live rounds though the teams are protected within by thick armour and a special ‘carbon coating’ which protects the inside. Being a comedy there is no death, no danger (other than tanks being immobilised) and the stakes are no more than winning or losing a match.

Written by Reiko Yoshida and directed by Tsutomu Mizushima, the story is very simple and will be familiar from many other Japanese shows and films; basically a hopeless team must compete against much stronger opponents to advance in the competition. Essentially, it is a novel take on the typical school sports dramas. While the story is predictable there is a good amount of humour, firstly from the juxtaposition of having a gang of schoolgirls commanding tanks, quoting Caesar, Churchill and other wartime leaders, but also character-based comedy. Each of the protagonists has their own side-stories; the lead Miho has transferred to avoid Panzer battles but is pressed back into it; Hana’s mother is disappointed she isn’t concentrating on flower-arranging; Mako is constantly sleeping in and so on. There are also plenty of in-jokes for people familiar with World War Two history, with the teams representing various countries (America, Britain, Russia and Germany), different terrains and tactics being deployed. Much of the humour derives from stereotypical portrayals of the characters, but there is nothing meanspirited, and the series’ constantly looks to the positive rather than negative traits.

The animation itself is bright and colourful and the detailed work on the tanks themselves, utilizing 3-D computerised animation, makes it an interesting watch. The battles are frenetic and action-packed, switching back and forth between the tanks and the girls piloting them. The music by Shiro Hamaguchi shows a love of military themes, with a very “war movie-feel” to the animation and the music.

I would highly recommend “Girls Und Panzer” to anyone as a fun light-hearted comedy, but people interested in military history might find it particularly amusing. The story can be criticised for ‘sanitising’ warfare; it focuses on the honour, leadership, determination, teamwork and other qualities necessary in operating a tank and fighting a battle, teaching these traits to a younger generation while ignoring the more unsavoury aspects of the war. But the story is so well-meaning, humorous, and entertaining you can’t help but be swept up with the girls’ enthusiasm.

NEET Election (2015) by Hikaru Okita and Kiminari Suzuki

Chihiro Inagaki (Kento Kasahara) is a 30-year old NEET, not in education, employment or training. Despite being a top student, and graduating from a prestigious university, he quit his first job after three months after realising that the world of work was not what he had expected. Following his short-lived career he heads to Tokyo to become an actor, but alas this is also doomed to failure. Finding himself back in his hometown of Niigata, he is struggling to get a job, being rejected from every interview he applies for. Chihiro moves into a share-house with other 30-somethings lacking gainful employment, these include Yumi, a woman who still harbours dreams of working in a maid café, Shiho, a former idol, Shinnosuke and Mr. K, a wannabe wrestler never seen without his mask on. The group want to take over one of the shuttered units in the local shopping precinct, but they are unable to convince anyone to lend them money or support their efforts. Finding himself at a loss, Chihiro meets a man who tells him the best way to get the government to listen is to stand to be an assemblyman in the upcoming city elections. Chihiro sets out to do just this, listening to residents problems and working on his pitch to represent the young people of Niigata city.

“NEET Election” is a solid idea but sadly lacking in its execution. It meanders around far too often and needlessly stretches a thin plot to breaking point. The film is intended as a comedy, but a lot of the jokes fall flat. It is clear that the filmmakers wanted to go for a wacky, loveable comedy about a man struggling against the system, but the set-ups and payoffs of the jokes just aren’t really there. One example of where the film does live up to the promise of an over-the-top comedy is in an impromptu flash-mob performance in the centre of town to generate interest in Chihiro’s campaign. But this feels a little out of place in comparison with the rest of the film that revolves around him talking to citizens, delivering speeches and listening to their problems. A bigger problem than the dearth of comedic moments is the lack of any serious connection with the characters. We find out about the shopkeepers who are struggling through the recession, but the woman whose sweetshop is on the verge of closure seems unconcerned, and we don’t see people particularly concerned about it. Likewise, Chihiro’s fellow NEETs seem to almost shrug off their situation, not pleased by it, but far form angry or upset by the lack of jobs. A moment later in the film, where Chihiro is accosted by two women asking about Japan’s nuclear energy industry, again gives an example of where the film could have delved a little deeper into the difficulties of running for office, but it is almost passed over.

The film doesn’t really succeed as a comedy or political drama, with too few laughs and too little detail or emotional investment garnered for the characters. This is a shame because voter apathy is something that is a real problem and the film had the potential to create engagement with the subject of politics. Kasahara is good in the lead role, and the supporting cast do their best with the material, but it could have gone much further in detailing the genuine problems faced by people and how difficult it is to break through in the political system. Instead it comes across as a bland exploration of its subject, never fully developing the premise into something entertaining.

Psycho-Pass (2012) Series One

Akane Tsunemori (Kana Hanazawa) has recently joined the police as an Investigator tracking down dangerous criminals. Due to advances in technology they are now able to determine an individual’s crime coefficient and take them down without the need for evidence or trial. The Investigators work together with Enforcers, people who have high crime coefficients but work on the side of the law, whose criminal tendencies make them ideally suited to tracking and capturing other criminals. They use guns known as Dominators, which give a reading and will allow either a paralysing or fatal shot to be taken. Among the Enforcers in Akane’s unit is Shinya Kogami (Tomokazu Seki), a man who was once an investigator himself, but whose obsession over a particular case led him to tip over into criminality. Akane’s respect for him puts her at odds with her superior investigator Ginoza (Kenji Nojima), who believes that Enforcers and Investigators are fundamentally different and that her role should be more that of a handler than a colleague. They soon find themselves on the trail of a serial killer named Shogo Makishima (Takahiro Sakurai) who appears to be able to outwit them at every turn. His apparent lack of a crime rating also leads them to question the morality of deciding right and wrong based on the “crime coefficient”.

An intelligent crime drama, “Psycho-Pass” takes theories of criminalistics and forensic psychology to their natural conclusion in a futuristic setting. In deciding that people can be categorised as criminal or innocent through a simple number based on various factors, society has given itself over to notions of right and wrong being determined by computer. In this world there is no room for nuance. There are no crimes of passion, crimes of necessity or opportunity, only crimes. The calculation of this number is opaque, nevertheless the police force have completely prostrated themselves before the technology – and the all-powerful Sibil System that controls it – no longer trusting their own judgement of a person’s character. As well as this criminological aspect, there is also a more philosophical theme running throughout. The notion that people are fated to be a certain way, and that in fact the moral or right path for a person is to do that thing they feel most suited for, even if that involves crime or killing. Essentially, the technology has taken away people’s free will as they are forced into behaving exactly as the machine wants them to, whether right or wrong. As the series progresses the various flaws in this seemingly utopian system become apparent. Ideas of good and evil are subject to question and various revelations regarding the characters leads the viewer to reassess what they have perceived about this world. In Makishima, the series has a villain that is a perfect foil to the protagonists. While they are bound to the law, he is entirely lawless, perhaps even in a Nietzschean sense “Beyond Good and Evil”, believing that the only moral path for a person is to do what they wish or are best at. A secondary villain emphasises this point even more, that criminality is often a matter of context; psychopathy often being a useful aberration in human populations, perhaps the desire to confront and destroy pre-existing systems being a necessity for humankind to progress.

The animation by Production IG (Ghost in the Shell) is exceptional. Textured surfaces, background details and lighting effects all help to create the sense of a real world. Likewise, weather effects such as the pouring rain in the opening episode, or wind rustling coat collars, work towards the noirish feel. There are a number of technologies in the film, such as the avatars that characters can create around themselves, that are interesting additions to the world. The visualisation of online spaces is also well done with unique character designs. The series does not shy away from depicting violent and brutal crimes, with abuse and murder both graphically portrayed. This all helps to create a sense of dread that pervades the story. You are aware early on that there really are lives at stake if the detectives fail to catch the killer. An absolutely thrilling ride from start to finish, with high-tension action sequences and a story that goes headlong for several important questions about how society is managed. A blend of all the best elements of cyberpunk and noir detective stories, with themes of criminality and societal control that encourage the audience to think about the potential implications of these things on our own world.

Madadayo (1993) by Akira Kurosawa

A professor of German at an all-boys school in Tokyo is taking his final lesson. He explains to the class that he is now able to make enough money from his books and has decided to give up teaching to pursue a writing career. He is self-deprecating, funny, and clearly  beloved of the class who hang on his every word. One of the students tells him that he is respected even by students who have left the school, still according him the title “teacher”. Following his retirement from the school, some students continue to call on him at home where they are welcomed in and treated to the professor’s humorous anecdotes and philosophizing. They decide to honour his birthday each year with a celebration that they call “Maadakai”, a play on words that sounds like the question “Not yet?” in reference to his longevity, to which the professor jokingly replies that he will respond “Madadayo” (not yet!).

Akira Kurosawa’s final film is a beautifully crafted portrait of aging, touching on themes of nostalgia, time, and loss, among other things. The film begins in the latter years of the second world war, when Japan was subjected to bombing raids, catching up with his story at intervals over the following decades. The film uses light and colour to great effect in emphasising particular moments, such as red sunlight indicating an auspicious moment. The professor mentions that he never sleeps with the lights off as he is afraid of the dark. He believes that those who are not afraid lack imagination and as such have a defect as a human. At the end of the film the camera moves upwards to a sky that shifts through several colours. Kurosawa was known to paint out his own storyboards and as such colour has a deep significance in his work. One of the standout moments of the film comes when we see the professor and his wife in their small home, following the destruction of their own, as the seasons are changing. It is a wonderful moment, without any dialogue, as we see the slow passage of time with this couple.

Tatsuo Matsumura plays the professor perfectly. He is kind and charismatic, funny and intelligent. It is clear that he was born to be a teacher, as he is able to completely captivate his students with whatever he is saying. They look up to him as an ideal, while also gently ribbing him about his unusual way of thinking. The supporting cast are all great. Kyoko Kagawa plays the professors wife with understated compassion, clearly devoted to her husband. The main group of students are also interesting characters, clearly all having taken different paths in life, but with the same respect and admiration for their former professor.

The professor’s final decades coincide with Kurosawa’s early years as a film-maker and it is clear to see that there is a sense of nostalgia running through everything. The professor loves old songs and sayings and his peculiar sense of humour is something his students take particular delight in (such as his unique burglar protection system). We see this relationship between the younger and older generations as something positive, with them looking up in admiration. Perhaps this is Kurosawa’s way of paying homage to those who have gone before and according them the respect they deserve. Kurosawa shows his mastery of direction in the framing of each scene, in particular the many large group or crowd sequences when there is a turmoil of action and laughter. In working with these large groups he succeeds in multiplying the emotional impact of each moment as the students work almost as a singular entity either laughing or honouring their professor as a collective. The clearest example of this is when they come together, moving backwards and forwards as the waves of the sea to ask him “Maadakai?” during the first birthday celebration.

An elegant depiction of a man who is well-loved and respected, giving everyone something to aspire to. The film’s tender portrayal of the love that his former students still have for him is heart-warming to watch. The ideals of kindness, selflessness, and good humour are shown to be reciprocated by the students, and the film carries this uplifting message through to the end. A worthwhile watch that is packed with some very funny moments, a touching message about kinship and community, and bittersweet ruminations on growing old.