9 Souls (2003) by Toshiaki Toyoda

A rag-tag band of prison escapees set out to help each other realise their final wishes before they are re-captured or killed. After murdering his father, shut-in Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda), finds himself locked up with a group of violent offenders. A short time into his sentence they manage a miraculous escape, deciding to stay together, travelling around in a campervan as they re-visit important places and people from their pasts. The film features an all star cast including Jun Kunimura, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Yoshio Harada.

Writer and director Toshiaki Toyoda had long wanted to make a prison break film, beliving them to be one of the most exciting genres. Partly based on a true news story of escaped convicts travelling around together, “9 Souls”, brings together an incredible cast and motley collective of criminals who act almost as a surrogate family to each other. Toyoda clearly put a lot of work into the characters, each of whose crimes are briefly written on screen, and the outstanding cast manage to portray these disparate individuals without going into unnecessary exposition or flashbacks of their lives. In fact we only see one crime comitted by the group pre-arrest (even then it is off-screen), the murder of Michiru’s father, with the others only referencing their offences. This helps us empathise with the group, whose murderous pasts would make them quite irredeemable. Instead we are treated to a comic road-trip as the group attempt to evade capture, dressing as women or having to avoid old acquaintances. The direction is first-rate, with the characters framed to show their physical and emotional proximity and several incredible shots of the surrounding scenery as they travel. The ruddy sunlight of the film suggests a melancholic realisation that these men may be on their final journey. The soft-rock score, slowly ramping while going nowhere captures the sense of frustrated ambition.

“9 Souls” leans into a metaphysical reading with moments that seem particularly unreal. Director Toyoda has stated that films allow us to blend reality and imagination, and that is evidenced here. The group’s escape is one egregious example of a miraculous occurence that defies belief (they see a mouse, realise it must have a hole somewhere, and the next moment they are running free of the prison). Another example is in one escapee’s discovery of a peep-show that appears like a mirage, which sees him complete his own journey. Each of the men seems to be searching for something to bring themselves peace and it could be said that in some sense they are already dead, simply lost souls attempting to justify themselves before they pass on (either to incarceration or the long sleep of death). Whether they are seeking redepmtion for their crimes, attempting to right the wrongs of the past, or prove to themselves that there is some good in their hearts, they are brought together by the hope that this is true. The final moments of the film, which again rely on this blurring of reality, drives home this point that it is hope that keeps people alive. A fantastic prison break film that touches on the ideas of what is truly lost when people commit crime and questions the notion that humans can be entirely bad.

The Naked Director Series 2 (2021)

Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) is on top of the world, with Sapphire Productions making money hand over fist, his staff and stars, including Rugby (Takenori Goto), Junko (Sairi Ito), Naoko (Ami Tomite), and manager Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama), are all happy with how things are going. But Muranishi is dreaming bigger; after finding out about the new technology of satellite television he dreams of having his videos distributed to every home, seeing a vision of porn ‘raining down from the sky’. Meanwhile, Detective Takei (Lily Franky) is still playing both sides of the yakuza while unfortunate Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) acts as a lackey under boss Furuya (Jun Kunimura). Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita) is coming to terms with her fame as Japan’s premier adult actress and the company is taking on a slew of new talent.

“The Naked Director Series 2” has the same energy and outrageous comedy moments as the first series, but also delves more into the darker side of the industry. We see Muranishi’s arrogant, overbearing persona both in a positive and negative light as it wins him contracts, but alienates those around him. Most poignant are the stories of Kaoru Kuroki, and to a lesser extent Naoko, who are figuring out what it means to be a porn actress and whether they can ever leave the industry. New characters include Yuri Tsunematsu’s Miyuki, whose wide-eyed innocence hides a determination to succeed, but also finds that being a porn actress may not be as glamourous as it seems. The large and impressive ensemble cast, most returning from the first series, fully embody their characters, their quirks and personalities shining through even when they are only briefly on screen. While the series again mostly sticks with Muranishi’s story, there are plenty of moments for the rest of the cast to shine.

Series 2 is directed by Masaharu Take, lead director on the first series, and Kotaro Goto. The show is stylish from start to finish with the camera becoming a part of the action and constant creativity on display. The series also features a couple of fantasy sequences which add a little comedy to things, with Muranishi floating in space to the strains of The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The soundtrack throughout the series features some great tracks, often used ironically. The score is not always limited to songs of the 1990’s, but the songs are generally well-selected and give the series a youthful energy. The recreation of the time period through costumes and set-design is impressive, recreating the 1990’s with as much gusto as series one did the 1980’s, a nostalgic look back at a lost era of fashion.

Much of the series is about regret and making mistakes. Gone is the naivety of their early careers; the characters now fully enmeshed in the ‘business’ side of the porn industry. This sense of being jaded is highlighted perfectly by having the pornography often playing as background noise. Things which are there to excite the general public are mere wallpaper to the protagonists. As money worries, relationship issues, business deals, and more consume Muranishi and the other characters, the shimmer of the glamourous image of their business is peeled away to reveal a world as soul-crushing and difficult as any other. An incredible second act to the first series, this time around revealing many of the failings of the characters and the difficulties they go through to maintain their sense of self.

Two Portraits of Miyagino (2010) by Tatsuji Yamazaki

A tale of love and betrayal in Edo-era Japan, touching on the relationship between art and life. The film opens with an introduction to Toshusai Sharaku, a historical ukiyo-e artist, whose prolific output over a short period and unknown identity have led many to speculate about who he was, and the details of his life. Miyagino (Tomoko Mariya), a prostitute, explains in a monologue to police officers that she was responsible for his death, although the details of what has happened are unclear. The story returns us to 1794 where we find the artist Yataro (Ainosuke Kataoka), working under his master Sharaku (Jun Kunimura), on portraits of various kabuki actors and actresses. Yataro begins a relationship with Okayo (Aimi Satsukawa), Sharaku’s grand-daughter. He is constantly reminded of his relationship with Miyagino, which began some time before, as he works on a portrait of a female impersonator playing the role of Miyagino.

“Two Portraits of Miyagino”, directed by Tatsuji Yamazaki, from a screenplay by Masaaki Sakai, is a film that plays with theatrical alienation techniques, wrongfooting the audience at times and blurring the line between reality and performance, or history and artistic representation. Many of the outdoor sets have stage-like painted backgrounds; shots of city streets have miniature character models being moved around a small set by a puppeteer; and we see black-clad ‘invisible’ figures in the background providing the musical accompaniment to scenes. The careful use of light and staging all increase the sense of watching a drama unfold that has the distinct sense of artifice. This is also evidenced in the script. From Miyagino’s opening soliloquy, the film will often break into dialogues or monologues that could easily be direct from a stage production, taking pains to distance us from the drama, while capturing the emotional power of each scene. This is helped by amazing performances from all the leads and a small cast of extras, including Kirin Kiki. They show a depth of emotion, with purposeful movements and expressions again reminiscent of theatre.

The beautiful cinematography and direction make this film joy to watch. Each shot is carefully staged as if the actors were a living painting. There is a moment when the film slips into highly stylised kabuki performance, and it is clear to see the threads of inspiration in the way this film is constructed. There is a focus on minutiae, such as a single falling leaf, or technical effects such as wind blowing across the set, that give the impression that everything has significance. The soundtrack includes both traditional instruments, the clack of woodblocks breaking up a scene, or the strains of koto providing background music, along with a more modern score of strings and piano. Again giving the sense that we are immersed in a theatre production, standing on-stage beside the actors, or stepping into the portraits they are creating.

The story is told achronologically, building mystery around the relationship between Yataro and Miyagino. As the title may suggest the film’s central focus is on Miyagino, as much or more so than Yataro. Her opening scene shows us a woman who society has cast aside, a pitiable figure whose job makes her an outcast. We learn that she has been abandoned by her family and everyone around her, including Yataro. It gives an insight into the status of women in society at that time with modern parallels. The film also asks us to question the relationship between art and reality, with the prints Yataro creates never capturing the fullness of Miyagino’s life. It draws out a tension between the ‘performance’ of this story and the genuine emotions that are expressed by the actors. This is compounded by the fact that Yataro is creating prints of actors portraying characters, who are in turn played by actors in this film. While it may sound confusing, the film’s meta-elements rarely detract from the narrative, which is compelling.

Perhaps the most difficult idea the film poses is in the constant criticism Yataro receives from his master. Namely that he is lacking a soul. The suggestion perhaps that Yataro, while skilled, is still lacking something vital for the creation of great art. That he is never quite breaking through the superficial to find some deeper significance to his work. It is never quite clear what Sharaku wants from him, or Miyagino, or what Yataro wants for himself. As with much of the film we are left to question this and many more of the character’s peculiar behaviours, left to wonder what their true nature is, much as the people who look at Sharaku’s drawings.