Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.

Instant Swamp (2009)

In a frenetic opening monologue, Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso) introduces us to her life and philosophies. She goes through her daily routine as a chore, enjoys a sludge of ten spoons of coffee in milk each morning, and lives with her mother (Keiko Matsuzaka), her father has left for a more wealthy woman. Haname loses her job at failing women’s magazine publication and her mother takes ill resulting in a coma. They manage to fish a letter out of a sunken post-box that tells Haname that her real father is not who she thought, but is instead a bohemian figure called Light Bulb (Morio Kazama), who is now running a bric-a-brac store. The eternally upbeat Haname sets out to meet him, hoping that her discovery of her mother’s former partner might return her to consciousness.

“Instant Swamp” has a bizarre and convoluted plot that is perfectly in keeping with its protagonist and her eccentric behaviour. The film is an off-beat comedy that relies heavily on slapstick humour and unusual scenarios. It often delights in subverting expectations with ridiculous reveals. Much of the dialogue is clearly designed more for laughs than realism and it plays like a series of sketches that happen to involve the same characters. Not all of the jokes work, but there are enough of them that this does not matter. In the same way, the plot moves along at such a pace that there is always something else to be invested in, albeit temporarily, like a wild treasure hunt that is constantly throwing up more hints to follow. The jokes are helped, even when the material is weak, by some great comedic performances. Kumiko Aso is very charismatic in the lead role and really sells every gag. Morio Kazama as Light Bulb gives a good performance as the humorous yet untrustworthy shop owner. The supporting actors, Eri Fuse as Haname’s co-worker Ichinose, and Ryo Kase as a punk electrician named Gas, are also excellent in their roles. The film is written and directed by Satoshi Miki, whose fertile imagination shows in every scene.

“Instant Swamp” is a peculiar film about the magic of everyday life. In an early scene, Haname’s mother tells her there is a kappa in the garden. Haname refuses to be drawn in, believing this to be a silly delusion. Similarly, when she is tasked with writing an article on ghosts for her magazine she is highly sceptical, despite her co-workers’ belief in the supernatural. However, by the end of the scene Haname has experienced her own transcendental moment of magic, finally converted to the idea that the world is a wide and wonderful place where anything can happen. The film is not attempting to suggest scepticism is wrong, but that most people spend their lives in narrow channels and often miss out on the opportunities that may be surrounding them for experiencing “magic”. This idea is also emphasised in the use of antiques dealing as a central plot point. Haname’s meeting with Light Bulb proves to be important as she learns that the value of an object is not necessarily in its price, but in its emotional weight. She learns to value things based not solely on their use. Again, this is shown in her own attachment to a bent nail, the importance of which is lost on almost everyone she shows it to. The theme of luck plays throughout the film in parallel with this idea. Haname believes that throwing away a lucky black cat statue in her youth has led to her streak of misfortune. However, when she is tricked into buying something that is seemingly useless at the end of the film, she has grown enough to appreciate the potential in even the lowliest of things. Life, she realises, is not based on luck, but instead on making the most of what you have and in seeing opportunity in every new day.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Set in Tokyo, in the lead up to New Year, the film follows three unlikely companions, Gin (Toru Emori), an alcoholic who has lost his wife and daughter, Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), a transvestite, and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a young girl who has run-away from her parents. These three homeless individuals become part of a bizarre tale when they find a baby left in a pile of rubbish. Full of unlikely coincidences, hilarity and tragedy, the film follows the trio as they attempt, by following clues left with the baby, to locate her parents.

Satoshi Kon’s third film and a departure from his other work in that this film has very few mind-bending sequences (there are a couple of surreal moments, reserved for flashbacks or dreams). The story could be described as straightforward, however the film is far from boring. Each character has their own demons to fight, or salvation to seek, and the film manages to perfectly weave the central plot through these various private stories, concluding them all satisfactorily. The animation is good throughout, but truly stunning in places with scenes of Tokyo at night, the snowfall that is present throughout, and an almost transcendental moment towards the end of the film of a sunrise. This blend of the everyday and the sublime, is replicated in the short haiku performed by Hana at times. It seems as though the film is asking you to take a look at the world, and see the beauty that is often missed when you are focused on your own life, or street level concerns; also to appreciate fortuitous occurrences rather that focus on misfortune.

This is at heart a feel-good New Year’s movie, centring on a common theme of family (and family reunions), with plenty of tear-jerking moments and lots of laughs throughout. However, the film also deals with some difficult societal problems, such as homelessness, the breakdown of family units, gambling, alcoholism, featuring characters such as transvestites, yakuza and gangs of unruly children. I found that the film had a cumulative effect. The opening scene shows the three protagonists at a Christian ceremony, which Gin seems particularly unmoved by, while Hana is willing to believe in ‘Christmas Miracles’. Throughout the film hope is always a faint glimmer in the distance (the hope that they’ll find the baby’s parents, and the hope they’ll find forgiveness, redemption or salvation). Each unbelievable lucky break might make you shake your head, but you find yourself slowly becoming more involved with these characters, and really willing them to succeed. When the film reaches its finale you are completely prepared to believe in some kind of divine providence.

Garden of Words (2013)

Takao Akizuki skips school each morning to go to Shinjuku Park. Here he meets a Yukari Yukino, an woman who is also shirking her job to sit alone drinking beer and eating chocolate. Takao dreams of becoming a shoemaker while Yukari has her own problems. As rainy season begins  the two sit together in a park shelter, discussing their lives and learning more about one another, forming an intimate friendship.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has an instantly recognizable style, with incredibly well-rendered locales and emphasis on the minute details that many would ignore, but which are of paramount importance in creating a sense of place and time. “Garden of Words” is no different in this regard and his depiction of Shinjuku and the park in the middle of the sprawling city is a joy to behold. It is a space that you could spend an eternity in, picking out each droplet of rain and marvelling at the reflections. The art, animation, sound design, and direction all work to build a tangible, living environment. The film is short but this works in its favour considering the story. Where many films would stretch the run time with unnecessary subplots, each scene in “Garden of Words” is poignant and essential in understanding the characters. There is a poetry in the script that compliments the beauty of the imagery.

Given the premise of the film, it would be understandable to expect a romantic drama. However, the film is far more subtle, painting a believable and touching vignette of these two characters who simply share time together, influencing each other in a quiet yet important way. In a world grown increasingly cold and isolating, this simple act of sharing a quiet moment becomes almost transcendent. The sublime visuals, and the mesmeric piano score by Daisuke Kashiwa that drifts effortlessly between melancholic and uplifting, create a space in which to contemplate your own thoughts along with the characters. “Garden of Words” is beyond film, it is a truly special piece of art, confident in its message and delicate in its delivery.

Kotoko (2011)

Kotoko is a woman suffering from a peculiar condition that makes her see two versions of people and is often attacked or threatened by the mysterious doppelgangers that appear. The only way she is able to stop these visions is by singing. She also self-harms, not to kill herself, as she explains, but to test if she is still allowed to live. Kotoko lives alone with her infant son, Daigoro, who is the only thing she cares for in the world, wearing a ring only to keep men away from her. Following a series of anxiety attacks and breakdowns, Kotoko’s son is taken from her to live with her sister in Okinawa. A man who catches sight of Kotoko singing on the bus decides to try and help her. He turns out to be a famous novelist Tanaka, and soon he is dragged into her inexplicable and destructive world.

Shinya Tsukamoto uses his creative directorial style to bring us inside the mind of a woman who is unhinged. From the opening scenes of duplicate people, the use of hand-held camera, off-kilter angles and constant movement gives an authentic sense of a disordered mind that few films covering mental illness manage to achieve. Tsukamoto is one of the few directors who makes the camera an integral part of his filmmaking. His belief in the power of the moving image itself to tell a story is also on display. The film opens with a girl dancing on a beach, the tumult of the waves behind, before being broken by a piercing scream. This is only one example of the vague, artistic way that much of the story is presented and lends itself to numerous interpretations of meaning. The film is straightforward in a narrative sense and largely does away with any semblance of plot or structure. Various things happen to Kotoko, but the heart of the film is an experiential collage of her instability. Her family, the author Tanaka, and Daigoro, are static points with which to contrast Kotoko’s own behaviour. The central performance by Cocco is mesmerising as she lets herself become fully immersed in the role. She is sympathetic if not relatable and as the film progresses we see a number of sides to her. Shinya Tsukamoto plays Tanaka as a somewhat naïve martyr to Kotoko’s darker impulses. His kindness in allowing Kotoko to vent her rage on him make for some of the most powerful scenes of the film.

The film hints at a childhood trauma that led Kotoko to her current mental state. The lack of an explicit cause helps the audience relate to Kotoko as we feel the same sense of alienation from that inciting incident. It is clear that she does not understand why she should be suffering this condition, and that unease and anxiety is presented to the viewer as fragmented memories and subtle references. Likewise, her seeing double can be seen as a metaphor for a psyche that has been split asunder by some unspeakable suffering. The film is not an easy watch, its difficult subject matter and experimental style may be off-putting for some. Without a conventional plot structure it can also feel stretched as it is never quite clear where everything is leading. However, fans of Shinya Tsukamoto’s other films will enjoy this as it is the director at his most creative with an incredible performance from the lead actress. The downbeat finale of the film gives an uneasy resolution to the story and almost prompts you to go back to look for clues in the drama to what happened, challenging you as the viewer to engage with the subject matter.