Hitsudan Hostess (2010) by Hajime Takezono

This television drama tells the true story of Rie Saito, a deaf woman who became the number one hostess in Ginza. After contracting meningitis as a young child, Rie is left without her hearing. Her mother (Yoshiko Tanaka) is determined that she achieve her potential, encouraging her daughter to take calligraphy and other classes. After being bullied at school, Rie (Keiko Kitagawa) drops out and starts work at a clothing store. When the store closes she is left with few options and little idea of what to do with her life. A chance encounter with a hostess working at a nearby club offers her a chance to begin a new career, one that her mother is less than pleased with. Rie soon becomes popular at the club and later moves from her home town in Aomori Prefecture, leaving her parents and older brother, to Tokyo in order to work as a hostess in the exclusive Ginza District.

Based on Saito’s own memoirs, with a screenplay by Ayako Kato, the story is a poignant and heartwarming story of triumph over adversity. It is hard not to be moved by her ordeals growing up with hearing loss, struggling to communicate with friends, feeling isolated, being made fun of, bullied and abused by classmates. It is not until she becomes a hostess that her intelligence and charm are fully recognized and she begins to gain popularity, the customers seeing her virtues and not her disability. Keiko Kitagawa gives a great performance a Rie, vulnerable yet determined and able to convey deep emotion without dialogue. Yoshiko Tanaka is also excellent as her mother, and the two share a tearjerking scene towards the end, communicated entirely without words. Seiji Fukushi plays Rie’s brother Satoshi, and his narration structures the drama, explaining various events. It is an interesting choice, and often superfluous, stating the obvious at times. Music supervisor Naoki Yamauchi provides a sentimental score that underlines the turbulent emotions of the characters. Being a made-for-television drama, there are moments where a lack of budget is apparent, but being small-scale the story doesn’t suffer for it.

As is explained in a brief summary at the end of the film, Rie Saito has become an important figure in the fight for recognition and acceptance of disability in Japanese society. She became a member of a local council which implemented text-to-speech systems to help representatives engage at meetings. She wishes to make Japan more inclusive for those with all kinds of disability to fully participate in society. There is a strong theme throughout the film of communication, with Rie losing her ability to communicate, her speech impacted by her hearing loss, yet later finding herself empowered with her pen and notepad. It is mentioned in the film that the writing down of her words had a powerful impact on her clients, as both she and they found themselves able to express themselves truthfully in writing in a way that speaking did not allow. In the aforementioned scene, Rie and her mother find themselves finally able to communicate honestly and openly with each other after many years of bad feeling between them. This powerful message, about the importance of communication and understanding, not only perfectly encapsulates Rie’s own journey but also is a strong call for all people not to ignore those in need, to speak honestly and openly, and to try to understand one another.

Black Rat (2010) by Kenta Fukasaku

A low budget slasher flick set in a high school, “Black Rat” begins with a scene that will shock and delight fans of the genre. The agonized groans of a boy, stripped to his underwear and covered in blood reverberate around the empty high-school corridors. The reason for his distress: a figure with a large rat head mask carrying a metal pole who is stalking him with murderous intent. As this figure reaches his victim the credits roll, overlaid by a legend about 7 rats, all of whom had various characteristics, that ends with an enigmatic message asking: “who is the last rat?”. We then see a girl dancing on the school roof, black rat mask before her, before jumping to her death. The suicide of this girl, Asuka (Rina Saito), is followed months later by her classmates receiving a message telling them all to come to the school that night. Our unhappy group include Misato (Misaki Yonemura), Asuka’s best friend, Kengo, Ryota (Hiroya Matsumoto), Saki and Kaneko, all of whom have some connection to Asuka. As they arrive at the school they are met by a female in a school uniform wearing the bloodied black rat mask. She tells them she is there for revenge and one by one they will be killed.

Written by Futoshi Fujita and directed by Kenta Fukasaku (Battle Royale 2), “Black Rat” follows a fairly predictable slasher narrative with a group of unlucky individuals brought together to be bumped off in innovative ways. Flashbacks give us a little detail on them and their relationship with their deceased classmate. The plot’s major weakness is in the reveal of the killer’s motivation. Each flashback  provokes no great feeling of dawning realisation but a shrug. It seems unlikely that their minor indiscretions, being slightly uncaring about Asuka’s end of term project, or cheating on her, would provoke the bloody slaughter they are subjected too. Twists later in the film go some way to explaining what is happening, but again it doesn’t tie together in an entirely logical way. The audience is left to wonder why the students aren’t able to overwhelm their adversary, or run from her. The tenuous plot does not necessarily harm the film, depending on what you are looking for there are still moments to enjoy.

While clearly filmed on a low budget, using a single location and small cast, the film excels in making the most of what it has. The abandoned school at night offers the perfect spot for horror, with deep pools of shadow in every room, the impenetrable darkness gathering in each corner, creating a chilling atmosphere. The eerie silence of the building sets up the tension perfectly in the early portion of the film and as things move into action mode later we see colour shifts through green and red to highlight the change of tone. There is also gothic imagery used to good effect, with the dissected animals of the biology class and the uniformed schoolgirl with a rat’s head creates an instantly unpleasant and iconic antagonist.

While it is generic and the plot leaves something to be desired, “Black Rat” is an entertaining diversion. From the very beginning you know exactly the type of film you are going to get and it delivers that. The concept of a masked killer and a high-school grudge is hardly new to the genre, but the film knows this and wastes little extraneous time attempting to be anything other than a cheap slasher flick. The art direction makes it worth a watch and it is clear that much of it is intended to be tongue-in-cheek fun.