My Friend ‘A’ (2018)

Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and Suzuki (Eita) are new recruits at a factory in Saitama. Masuda is a former journalist who has given up his vocation for unknown reasons to take on this manual work. Suzuki is an inscrutable figure, attracting the ire and suspicions of his co-workers. The two are friends through circumstance and learn more about one another as the film goes on. When a brutal murder of a junior high-schooler happens nearby, Masuda is led to believe by a former colleague that Suzuki may be responsible. We soon discover that both men are running away from their pasts. In a parallel story we follow cab driver Yamauchi, whose son was responsible for a terrible tragedy and who is struggling to come to terms with the guilt and the ensuing break up of his family.

“My Friend ‘A’” is based on a novel by Gaku Yakumaru and both the pacing and number of characters reflect these literary origins. Not only do we have Masuda, Suzuki and Yamauchi, around whom the majority of the film revolves; but abundant side characters who are rendered in varying levels of details. Yamauchi’s family, his son and new partner; a parole officer (Yasuko Tomita) and her relationship with her own daughter; Suzuki and Masuda’s co-workers, Masuda’s ex-girlfriend and colleague at the newspaper; and Suzuki’s girlfriend. It is an almost overwhelming amount of subplots and details to take in. Director Takahisa Zeze does a good job, helped by an amazing cast, of making all of these rounded characters, though at times it feels a little overcrowded with so many stories to follow. The film takes its time to build up the audience relationships with the characters and the thematic threads connect everyone in a satisfactory way. It is a film very much about ideas and will linger on a shot to allow the audience time to think about the significance of certain moments. This is an uncomfortable watch with child murder, self-harm, suicide, rape, and bullying being major plot points. For the most part these things are mentioned only obliquely, though there are a couple of shocking moments. The overwhelming emotion of the film is sadness that these things occur and a sense of powerlessness in the face of such events.

The film explores notions of guilt and redemption through its main characters, both of whom have deep regrets about their actions as younger men. Now they are adults, they question whether they can ever leave behind these things, or whether they are doomed to be haunted by their mistakes forever. It is a dark and difficult debate, one which many people are unwilling or unable to have due to the depth of feeling associated with the types of crimes and events detailed in the film. Forgiveness for crimes is an impossibility for many though the film does a sterling job of addressing the issue and evoking a level of compassion and understanding for its protagonists. The past is something that all the characters are dragging around with them, held back by its weight, unable to forget it. The film also poses the question of whether a person can and should be defined by a certain action. The moral ambiguity makes this a much more difficult watch that many crime features, in that it is asking the audience troubling questions about their own feelings on these issues. On a deeper level the film considers the notion of evil and the sanctity of life. The importance of continuing to live in a world that is so wicked and corrupt is expressed by several characters and becomes the single point of hope in this bleak world.

I am Ichihashi (2013)

The murder of an English teacher living in Japan, by Tatsuya Ichihashi shocked both the UK and Japanese public. Shortly after the murder, Ichihashi went on the run and evaded the police for around 2 years. Following his arrest he wrote a book titled “Until I was Captured”. This film recreates those years from the book. It is largely not focussed on the crime itself, but on the impact that it had on Ichihashi. In the beginning of the film, we see Ichihashi in a train station being approached by the police. The film then shows through flashbacks and what appears to be an interrogation by an officer the events leading up to his capture. We see partial details of his crime, in which the body was buried in a bath of sand, and how he fled from police who came to his door, though the film assumes that its viewers will be familiar with the basics of the case. He moves from place to place, changing his identity, even going as far as having plastic surgery to change his appearance, and finding work in construction.

Dean Fujioka directs and stars in the film which is based on the book by Ichihashi. The film is controversial precisely for the reason that it is based on the memoirs of a real murderer. While other films have been made in the genre, they are generally another person’s take on true crime cases. The film essentially follows Ichihashi around as he moves from place to place, with cuts to him being interviewed. It is surprisingly uneventful in certain ways, but this adds to its power, as it highlights the terrifying emptiness at the heart of humanity. There is little dramatic that happens after the murder, and in fact it is almost the boredom of his experience that is the most surprising element. It becomes an existential drama about the purpose of going on with life, particularly a life that has lost value to the rest of society due to his crime. The direction is solid and does keep you engaged in the film. For those unfamiliar with what happened there will of course be interest in finding out how the case progressed. While it lacks the common cutaways of the police investigation, trial details, or any other point of view, it does what many films fail to by allowing the audience themselves to take on the role of moral arbiter. By simply presenting exactly what happened and allowing you to spend time with this person, you go through a range of emotions as you try to understand how something so terrible can happen yet the world continue as before.

The film has received some backlash as viewers feel it is sympathising with the criminal and largely forgetting the victim. Text at the beginning and the end attempts to counter these claims. “I am Ichihashi” is a fascinating look at a killer. It is not the first, and not the last film that will deal with this subject. The film’s focus being on the serial killer creates a disturbing atmosphere. The use of the camera in the interrogation scene speaks both to Ichihashi’s paranoia, and to the idea that the audience has a morbid fascination with murderers. Perhaps the most pertinent question in most people’s mind, and the reason why films about murder are so popular, is what causes people to do these things. This is something that the film never explains. It is a crime that seemingly came with no motive. The sexual assault and violence are left purposefully vague and serve primarily as the inciting incident. Rather than unravelling what led to these crimes, the film takes the alternative route of only focussing on the aftermath. In the end Ichihashi comes to the realisation that he can never change what he has done, he can never escape his guilt. It forces the viewer to confront themselves, and understand the devastating consequences of their actions and the responsibilities inherent on citizens.

Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992)

The staff at a high-class hotel have a problem. The Yakuza are causing trouble, being abusive to staff, refusing to pay their bills, and other antisocial behaviour. With the manager (Akira Takarada) at a loss he recruits an accountant, Suzuki (Yasuo Daichi) to lead operations to rid the hotel of these people, along with his assistant Wakasugi (Takehiro Murata). The two prove to be incompetent, lacking the strength and wit to out-fox the gangsters. They decide to bring in criminal lawyer, Mahiru Inoue (Nobuko Miyamoto), who specialises in Yakuza-civilian relations. The film is essentially a farce with some great scenes showing the various tricks of the Yakuza swindling people out of their money. Later in the film things take a dark turn when the manager of the hotel is framed for a sexual assault on a minor. Having finally gone too far, the hotel double down on their efforts to get rid of the Yakuza once and for all.

Director Juzo Itami faced a backlash from the Yakuza following the release of the film, being assaulted by gangs who disliked their portrayal in the movie. There are also those who believe Itami’s death to be suspicious and linked to these groups. The film is a fantastic crime-comedy film that has surprisingly dark undercurrents. Not only are the Yakuza shown to be ridiculous, but also violent thugs that should not be respected in Japanese society. The direction is solid and Itami clearly has a good sense of comic timing and framing set-pieces. The script also moves at a great pace and is well-structured into various acts, becoming acquainted with the problematic Yakuza and our hapless heroes, then the secondary plot involving the manager, and finally their showdown with the gangsters. The comic soundtrack by Toshiyuki Honda is very much of its time, but in keeping with the film’s light-hearted tone. The great achievement of the film is that it manages to discuss a serious societal problem with humour without shying away from the darker elements.

The Yakuza are a staple of Japanese cinema, from Kinji Fukasaku’s “Yakuza Papers” series, to Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” and Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage”. This film’s intention was to puncture the mystique around these groups and show them as bullies and criminals. There is nothing honourable about the characters in the film and they lack the aura of cool that has been established by many films. Instead they are loud, lazy and obnoxious, making their money by taking advantage of the good nature of those around them. A great film with some hilarious moments and a serious message underpinning the comedy.

Street of Joy (1974)

Just before a change in the law is due to prohibit legal prostitution in Japan we follow a group of women working at a brothel. Kimiko (Meika Seri) is recently married and moving on from her life as a prostitute, though she later begins to have second thoughts about her decision. Shimako (Junko Miyashita) is besotted by one of her customers, a gangster to whom she gives all her earnings and who is abusive towards her. Naoko (Naomi Oka) is trying hard to beat the record of seeing 24 customers in a single day. As the film moves between the women and their co-workers, clients and others, we get an insight into their characters and a look at the sex industry in Japan.

The film is directed by Tatsumi Kumashiro, based on a novel by Ikko Shimizu, and shows a reverence for the characters, who are all portrayed sympathetically even if their motivations may be incomprehensible. The film is told in a somewhat erratic fashion, cutting between the various characters, with comic picture-book illustrations and title cards, snatches of exposition and enka songs inserted sporadically. Early in the film this can prove to be a barrier in getting any sense of a cohesive narrative, though later things do become clearer as the characters come into focus. This is partly down to the fantastic performances of the actresses, who embody their characters fully and give a sense of rounded individuals. Though the film does deal with sex it is rarely sordid, and in fact shows it to be as dull and commonplace as it must be for those in these professions. The women sell themselves in the same way that they would sell goods in any other shop and see little correlation between their self-worth and their product. This is a refreshing look at prostitution as it shows the world from their perspective. There is plenty of humour in the movie, with inebriated clients unable to perform and the peculiar trick of squatting over a stove to warm up for a customer. Though it does show certain dangers of the profession in Shimako’s abusive relationship, the film shies away from becoming overly serious. It might be more accurate to say it avoids sensationalism or exploitation, giving an even-handed appreciation of the issues involved.

Street of Joy is a peculiar film in a lot of ways. The storytelling and editing are more akin to a soap-opera than a cohesive film narrative. The various characters seem thrown together and it is hard to grasp any overarching theme or message for the film. However, it does offer a great insight into the operation of such establishments before prohibition. It casts an equivocal eye over prostitution and focusses on the women rather than the customers or those opposed to what they are doing. Too often sex workers are side-lined or used as titillation in films, particularly crime dramas, but here it is their stories that are being told. Kimiko’s dissatisfaction with her husband shows the importance of sex for women, while other characters express the equally important emotional needs. Sex is something that is of vital importance, while at the same time being as innocuous as any other function of life such as eating or sleeping. This nuanced approach makes the film an interesting watch and perhaps a good counterbalance to more extreme portrayals of sex work on screen.

Greatful Dead (2013)

Nami is a young girl who lives at home with her elder sister and her parents. Her mother is obsessed with giving money to overseas charities and one day decides to leave the family and travel to help these suffering children in person. This leads to Nami’s father taking up with a mistress, who eventually leaves and her father commits suicide. Nami’s sister also leaves home to go and live with a boyfriend. Nami’s only companion seems to be the television, and in particular a sales channel from which she purchases various items. Years later, living off her inheritance from her father, Nami has taken up watching other lonely individuals. From her vantage point on the roof she spies with binoculars or telescope these people who seem set on a path of solitude. She also follows them around the city, noting down their activities in a diary and is excited to discover a new “solitarian”. Her behaviour is charmingly eccentric, but takes a dark turn when she enters a man’s home and is delighted to find him dead, taking a photo with the corpse. She then discovers another lonely man, whom she begins stalking, camping out nearby his house. When this man begins to reconnect with the world, first with Christian community volunteers, and then with his own family, Nami takes matters into her own hands to ensure that he remains alone.

Directed by Eiji Uchida, “Greatful Dead” with a screenplay by Uchida and Estuo Hiratani is a film of two quite distinct halves, that seem stitched together down the middle. The early part of the film where we see the young Nami ignored and eventually abandoned by her parents, is a tragic portrayal of a neglected child. This segment also gives us a hint at later developments when she unexpectedly cracks a mop around a classmates head. The film then moves into a lighthearted comedy, complete with bouncy music, and a joyful Nami cataloguing all the lonely people she sees around the city. The second half of the film moves into dark horror and doesn’t hold back on the violence and gory sequences. However, both parts bleed into one another. There are elements of dark humour in the first half, and slapstick in the second. Kumi Takeuchi manages both parts exceptionally, being likeable and fun and shifting gear into creepy and terrifying later. Even when it is clear she is beyond helping, she still manages to evoke a degree of sympathy and is a joy to watch. Takashi Sasano, who plays her elderly stalking victim, likewise goes through a transformation, from irritable old man to a kindly grandpa and later to a victimised person who has had enough.

The film explores loneliness and isolation in a tongue-in-cheek way. Nami’s story is a sorrowful tale of neglect leading to later inability to function in society. Even as her sister constantly tells her “normal is best”, Nami is set on a path of abnormality, seeking out similarly lonely individuals who have given up on society. She is lacking attention and emotional support from those around her. Loneliness is a huge social issue and this film does a great job of showing the reasons for it, but also offering hope that this is not a path that people are tied to. The finale of the film seems to be a rejection of the mindset that isolating yourself is the best option. It entertains as comedy and horror-comedy and leaves much of the thinking to the audience. For example themes of religion, in particular Christianity, consumer and media culture, and the rigid social norms of marriage and family are all there for viewers to unpick. However, you choose to enjoy it, as an off-beat black comedy, or social satire, it is definitely unique in both style and outlook.