Tamaran Hill (2019) by Tadasuke Kotani

Hinako (Hinako Watanabe) is struggling to write a personal introduction for her job seeking applications. She lost her mother at a young age and lives with her father and younger brother. Her teacher tells her simply to create a character and write about that version of herself instead, suggesting some ideas based on current popular literary trends. While at a bookstore, Hinako finds a book called “Tamaran Hill”. Amused by the title (“Tamaran” (unbearable) being her father’s favourite curse word), she purchases it. The book tells the story of a man who lives on Tamaran Hill and further delves into the potential origins and meanings of the name. As Hinako reads she is carried along on a journey that leads through time, history and fiction, to comprehend the significance of this name and this word.

Based on a script by Shinobu Tsuchiya, and directed by Tadasuke Kotani, “Tamaran Hill” is an unconventional film. Many of the shots are of Hinako reading this book as she slips into her visualisation of the story, or historical reveries as she discovers references to this place in various texts. Shot in black and white and with changing aspect ratios, the framing and cinematography from Kosuke Kuramoto is wonderful in its abstraction of the everyday. Whether scenes of the tangled mass of train tracks, buildings and powerlines that comprise the modern city; the delicate historical recreations; or the stylish dramatisations of the “Tamaran Hill” novel, everything is framed with precision and seems infused with significance. At moments the film will use illustrations, or photo stills, that sit comfortably alongside the artistic style of the filmed segments. Hinako Watanabe is excellent in the lead role, as a girl attempting to find herself, to discover her inner will and a sense of identity.

A curious work about the search for meaning and identity in a world that is full of ambiguity. Early in the film we see a robot helping to carry the teacher’s bag and the use of data analysis to predict literary trends. This hypermodern, computer-led world is in stark contrast to the literary world that Hinako delves into, one that is full of meaning yet without clear quantitative answers. Her visit to the bookshop captures the joy of personal discovery that bibliophiles will be familiar with: that of being surrounded by a cacophony of voices, and having that power to choose your own path. The film perfectly depicts that sense of exploration in delving into a new book, not only reading the book but also unlocking something within yourself at the same time. Hinako is able to lose herself completely in this world that is at once ambiguous, yet bursting with life and meaning, and find in it the courage to see herself and develop her own identity. She comes to understand that every life is different, just as everyone’s experience of “Tamaran Hill” is unique, and that the important thing is finding her own truth.

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.

The Forest of Love (2019) by Sion Sono

Sion Sono is well-known for his subversive genre work, with gruesome body horror, nihilistic punk philosophy and black humour. “The Forest of Love” is a prime example of his oevre. In the same vein as “Cold Fish”, which took for inspiration a series of horrific murders, “The Forest of Love” also begins with an note that this is “Based on a True Story”, though as things progress that statement becomes harder and harder to believe. The case on which it is based is one of depraved sadism, abuse, and torture. Sono’s film manages to capture the despicable nature of the crimes, but also throws in many elements of his own creation in a bizarre blend of satire and bloody crime drama. The film begins with a young man, Shin (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), recently arrived in Tokyo meeting up with two film fanatics, Jay (Young Dais) and Fukami (Dai Hasegawa), who dream of entering the Pia Film Festival and becoming great directors. The three soon begin working together and meet up with Taeko (Kyoko Hinami), who introduces them to Mitsuko (Eri Kamataki). Taeko and Mitsuko are erstwhile high-school friends who drifted apart after one of their classmates died in tragic circumstances. Mitsuko is approached by a man, Joe Murata (Kippei Shiina), who claims to want to return a 50 yen coin to her, but it soon becomes obvious that he is a dangerous conman. Everyone Murata comes into contact with seems to get drawn into his orbit, despite being a completely despicable human being. The three young men decide he would make an excellent subject for their film, believing him to be responsible for several murders that have occurred recently. The truth is far more shocking as he subjects them and the women to a series of sadistic games, fleeces them of their money, and drags them into a hellish world of torture and killing, seemingly with little reason.

Kippei Shiina plays Murata with a sickening relish as a completely amoral human who cares for nobody but himself. His charisma is skin deep and his egocentric sadism is hard to stomach. His psychopathy is succinctly summarised by him in the opening scene when he describes the act of killing as akin to losing your virginity, something that once it is done it provokes no great change, it is simply a meaningless transition to becoming a murderer. Kyoko Hinami is perhaps the standout performance and the character of Taeko is the emotional heart of the drama. Her behaviour is often incomprehensible, but she seems self-aware enough to finally realise the horror of her situation. “The Forest of Love” is a film that seems determined to provoke a reaction, whether that is laughter or revulsion, which it does numerous times. Sono knows how to play the audience, confounding them with sudden shifts in tone and style that play alongside the warped characters to create a disorienting experience. The scene where Murata breaks out a mini piano to serenade his girlfriend’s parents is one such scene that is completely ridiculous and seems to come straight from a musical comedy, not something you would expect in a film that also features sado-masochistic electrocution and dismembered corpses. Another prime example is when two characters are frolicking with a hose as they wash down a room that has just been used to cut up a murder victim.

“The Forest of Love” may be a little overlong, a bizarre work that shows a creative mind throwing everything he has at it and hoping some of it works. For the most part it does, although many moments will be familiar to those who have seen “Cold Fish”, “Strange Circus”, “Love/ Exposure”, “Suicide Club” and other examples of Sono’s more extreme filmography.

The characters of Shin, Fukami and Jay, creations of Sono’s who almost feels like they have stumbled into this crime story from another film, are a clear reminder that the film should be seen as a commentary on events and society rather than a straightforward retelling of a true crime drama. They are fascinated by the crimes of Murata, going so far as to become directly involved in them. In what is perhaps a self-referential moment, Jay explains that he loves film because you can do anything you want, including travelling the world having sex and killing people. Jay can be seen as Sono inserting himself into the film to comment on the fascination people have with abhorrent behaviour. As for the crimes, the film offers very little in the way of an explanation, outside of Murata being a manipulative person who is able to convince others to join him. It does however create a visceral sense of dread and revulsion for the crimes and the way people are treated by him.

This is definitely worth a watch if you are a fan of Sion Sono’s extreme films. There are many moments that will make you squirm, laugh or want to turn away in disgust. Sono may be re-treading familiar themes and ideas but the quality and shock value are no less than in those earlier works.

Hot Gimmick: Girl Meets Boy (2019) by Yuki Yamato

Based on the manga “Hot Gimmick” by Miki Aihara, this film about teenage romance is a tough watch for all the wrong reasons. Hatsumi (Miona Hori) is a shy teenager, romantically and sexually inexperienced, who seems to be easily manipulated by those around her. Early in the film she is asked by her more worldly-wise younger sister Akane to buy a pregnancy kit, drawing the distinction between the two girls. When her neighbour Ryoki (Hiroya Shimizu) finds the kit, he blackmails Hatsumi into being his slave. This is where things take a turn for the perverse and logic flies out the window. Ryoki is clearly interested in Hatsumi romantically, using this as a way to get close to her, however his behaviour is so inexplicable for someone who also appears to be socially awkward that it is hard to believe. It also creates an uncomfortable dynamic as Hatsumi is forced to obey him and we are left wondering why she doesn’t completely reject this or report him. Things don’t get much better when another of Hatsumi’s neighbours, Azusa (Mizuki Itagaki) turns his attention to her. Azusa is an old friend recently shot to stardom as an idol, and seems very interested in Azusa. However, after taking her to a party where he drugs her drink, we realise his intentions are not entirely pure. Azusa is rescued from the horrors of what could have followed by Shinogu (Shotaro Mamiya), her older brother. We later learn Shinogu is not biologically related and that he also has romantic intentions towards her. Later in the film Hatsumi is tricked into sending a nude video to Azusa, which he then proceeds to blackmail her with.

While ostensibly a romantic drama, the film contains so many uncomfortable moments, blackmail, revenge porn, suggestions of date rape, the quasi-incestuous nature of her relationship with Shinogu, it is hard to be charmed by any of the characters. Throughout, there is the sense that Hatsumi should choose one of these men, but they all behave so reprehensibly the sanest thing would be for her to get as far away as possible. The issues the film raises are all interesting starting points for a film about teenage life and worries, but it feels as though the filmmakers are unaware of the seriousness of what is happening. Incidents that would be the major plot point of any other film are passed over as though they were minor annoyances, or something that is a regular occurrence for teenagers. The ease with which Hatsumi forgets transgressions against her leaves a sour taste suggesting that women are essentially mindless pawns in a game played by despicable men. She is lacking in agency for the most part, either unaware or unconcerned by what happens to her.

Sadly the plot is far from the worst part of this movie. The editing is nauseating from the beginning. In the opening sequence we see fast cuts to still images of several characters, some we are yet to be introduced to. Throughout the camera will suddenly cut to random elements in a scene. There are some great shots, but again they are rushed, appearing for a second at a time before the camera gets distracted by something else. It is as if you are looking through the eyes of someone with a very short attention span, and little understanding of what is important at any moment. It is a shame, because without the rapid pace the cinematography would have been given time to shine, with Shibuya providing an excellent backdrop for the chaotic lives of the protagonists. In the second half the editing does calm down a little and we get some of the better scenes. The standout moments are in the dialogues between Hatsumi, Azusa and Ryoki. Miona Hori does a good job with the more emotional scenes when she finally confronts them. Hori is an idol singer and her performance is strong, but undermined by the script and characterisation of her as something of an airhead (but without the charm to compensate). Hiyori Sakurada who plays Akane is very good and has some of the most poignant moments in a side-story about her own relationship. The scene between Hatsumi and Ryoki seems as though there is too much dialogue crammed into one scene. It may be an adaptation issue, in attempting to condense the story for a short runtime, but the film is far from short, coming in at just under two hours. They could have largely cut Akane’s story and focussed on the rivalry between Azusa and Ryoki, which seems to be at the film’s heart.

Essentially the film is a coming-of-age story, with Hatsumi learning that she has the power to choose who she dates. What should have been an uplifting message is undercut by the subtext that she should allow herself to become whatever her partner wants. She is mocked as being stupid throughout and it doesn’t seem to bother her; the idea of being blackmailed and treated as a slave is almost shrugged off; likewise the attempted date-rape that she either forgets or forgives, and her older brother’s deceit. As well as being a terrible role-model for young women, the film also depicts its male characters as universally awful, aggressive, lustful and disingenuous. This poorly conceived film is severely lacking, distracting from any high-points with confused editing and worrying subtext.

Red Snow (2019) by Sayaka Kai

Shogo Kodachi (Arata Iura) is a reporter who travels to a remote town to investigate the circumstances of a disappearance of a young boy over thirty years ago. Although the police believe they know what happened to the boy, the woman who was arrested never admitted to his kidnapping and murder. The reporter meets with Kazuki (Masatoshi Nagase), the brother of the murdered child, whose memories of his brother’s disappearance seem to be partial and distorted. Shogo also meets with Sayuri (Nahana), the daughter of the woman accused of the kidnap and murder thirty years before.

“Red Snow” is a unique crime drama, less concerned with the details of the case than the subsequent impact such an event has on the relations of the victims and the murderer. The crime is in fact solved early on, it is clear that the boy was kidnapped and killed, but many people either refuse to admit what happened or have misremembered details about the case and their experiences. The setting, with falling snow and an iron grey sea, create a cold atmosphere that is reflected in the stony silence of those the reporter interviews. The cinematography by Futa Takagi gives the world a gritty, noir feel, with the chill of the wind and the darkening skies creating an oppressive atmosphere in which the drama unfolds. The soundtrack of natural sounds and breathy woodwind is likewise harsh and disturbing. This is the first film from writer/ director Sayaka Kai but it is an impressive debut and shows a prodigious talent for storytelling. The small cast make for a taut thriller that keeps you guessing at the exact details of the case. Many of the characters operated in a grey area of morality, their history and motives obscured, but their carefully constructed characters remain fascinating whether relatable or repulsive.

The film takes an unusual form for a crime drama, with the crime already solved before the film begins. The incredible central performances mean we are brought into the world and psychology of those who survived the horrific events of thirty years before. It is a story about the difficulty of memory and how people can supress traumatic moments from their past. Both Kazuki and Nahana are victims in their own ways and the film shows how people and society are often all to quick to forget things they would rather not remember.