Pure Japanese (2022) by Daishi Matsunaga

Daisuke Tateishi (Dean Fujioka) works on the ninja show at an Edo-themed amusement park. Although he is a skilled martial artist, he is relegated to doing the sound effects as it is believed he is traumatised following an incident at a previous job. When one of the cast members leaves, he is elevated to a performing position but his genuine swordfighting ability ruffles feathers with his co-workers. Meanwhile, elderly farmer Ryuzo Takada (Tetsu Watanabe) is being pressured to sell his land to greedy developers at the behest of politician Kurosaki (Tetsuya Bessho). Daisuke meets Ryuzo’s daughter Ayumi (Aju Makita) and agrees to help protect her from this unscrupulous gang, drawing himself into conflict with them.

“Pure Japanese” is directed by Daishi Matsunaga (Pieta in the Toilet) with a screenplay by Tatsuo Kobayashi. The plot of the film is straightforward, with greedy developers pressuring an unwilling elderly local into giving up their land. Daisuke’s story also is a familiar one of a young man overcoming past trauma. However, these story elements largely serve as hooks on which to hang the film’s main themes. Many plot elements remain unresolved and there is certainly no happy ending. Instead the film uses its characters and situations to challenge traditional notions of Japanese identity. The cinematography is exceptional, with stunning shots of mountains and rivers offering a timeless counterpoint to the human drama. The staging and lighting is also a joy, with carefully constructed shots that reflect both the real world and the fictional drama of the ninja performances, with the line between the two becoming blurred as the story progresses. The action sequence that takes place later in the film, playing on the hyper-stylised portrayals of samurai films is well shot and choreographed. This latter half of the film seems to diverge from the first half, but the two work well together in the context of the film by exemplifying some of the themes visually in the contrast of a more violent, fantastical ending following the human drama. The music echoes this theatrical style, with loud discordant chords playing over scenes of heightened emotion, and the drumbeats and percussion underscoring the fight sequence reminiscent of traditional stage performances.

The film uses its simple plot to explore the notion of national identity. Early in the film Daisuke is given a “Pure Japanese” kit that promises through a nose swab to tell and individual what percentage of their genetic makeup is Japanese. While most of his colleagues recieve around 60 to 80 percent, Daisuke performs the test by himself and claims to recieve 100 percent. Later in the film it is revealed that this kit is pseudo-scientific nonsense, and a discussion ensues as to what it means to be Japanese, whether in fact there is any genetic basis at all. We see Daisuke being bullied for singing English songs as a child; references to Yukio Mishima (a well known nationalist); the idea of globalisation versus traditional communities; and constant reference to the idea of a “Japanese” identity. Daisuke’s work at an Edo-themed park gives us an insight into the connection between the past and present and there is a sense in which Japan is unable to move on from its violent past; and perhaps even doomed to repeat it. In the character of Daisuke, a stand-in for the ‘true’ Japanese identity, we are given a conflicted character, capable of care and protecting the less fortunate, but also of violence and destruction.

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.