Mukoku (2017)

Kengo Yatabe (Go Ayano) is a young man battling several demons. His father, strict to the point of psychologically abusive, trained him in the art of kendo. After an incident in which Kengo struck him across the head with a bokuto, his father is now comatose and Kengo feels the guilt of his actions, knowing that he has as good as killed his own father. He has retreated into the bottle, given up kendo, and now works as a security guard. His days consist of routine punctuated by heavy drinking, a far cry from the young focussed athlete he once was. Tooru (Nijiro Murakami) is a teenager who likewise seems frustrated and alienated from the world. His passion is rap and specifically writing lyrics which help him express his pent up rage and emotions. After a run-in with a group of kendo players, he is dragged along to their training session. Showing himself to be full of aggression, though untrained, the tutor takes an interest in him. The teacher is also trying to bring Kengo round from his stupor and arranges for the two men to cross paths. This fateful meeting puts both on a collision course, with Tooru now dedicated to the sport that Kengo is attempting to run from.

From the opening scenes of the film it is clear that this is something special. We see a young Kengo and his father training, while the mother calls them for dinner. The transition to the inciting incident of Kengo injuring his father is perfect in putting the audience off-guard. It is not immediately clear what has happened, as the early scenes could be straight from a samurai film, suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a university student. This perfectly captures one of the film’s themes as we see the ancient traditions coming right down to the present. This confusion also puts us in a similar position to Kengo himself as he is unable to fully come to terms or understand what happened, whether it was an accident or purposeful attack. Throughout he is haunted by visions and recriminations of that event, and it is not at first clear exactly what happened. Likewise, the way the film shows Tooru’s sense of isolation with an opening shot with him out of frame and imagery of an underwater crowd at his concert, shows the skill and confidence of the director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri to tell this story in an interesting visual way. The script is written by Ryo Takada, based on the book by Shu Fujisawa. Both Go Ayano and Nijiro Murakami give exceptional performances. The director is not afraid of long takes and even in lengthy scenes both are entirely believable in their roles. The supporting cast, most notably Akira Emoto as the kendo instructor help to bring this world to life. There is a small part for Atsuko Maeda as Kengo’s girlfriend. The story is well paced and the occasional flashbacks and lapses into Kengo’s traumatic recollections keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen. It is not a typical sports story, though there are occasional training montages, but everything is tied more particularly into the psychology of Kengo, and to a lesser extend Tooru. The cinematography is beautiful, including some standout moments, such as the fight in the rain.

Mukoku is nominally a sports story, with a great insight into the art of kendo and scenes of practice and combat. This only acts as a support for the emotional drama of the main characters. It would not have worked with another sport. The traditionalism and values of kendo are of special significance in this story. In an early scene we see a giant statue of Kannon, a buddhist deity, on a hillside behind Kengo as he shares a beer with a homeless drunk. Themes of religion and tradition become more apparent as the film goes along. The film stresses the importance of having a strong moral code and more importantly something to focus on to prevent becoming wayward. The will to survive in the battle-practice of kendo can be seen as a basis for a healthy life and averting a descent into melancholy and despair. It is clear that Kengo is directionless, drifting through a life of alcohol and regret, with his former master attempting to set him back on the right path. Tooru is by contrast inspired by the strict training regime and dedication required for Kendo. The philosophy of kendo plays a central role in the story, with many of the lessons of this art becoming guiding principles for the characters. The ideas of sin and righteousness, displayed by Kengo’s straying from the path and Tooru’s adherence to it, is characterised well. A highly entertaining film dealing with several issues and coming at them from a peculiarly Japanese angle. Definitely recommended for those with an interest in kendo, its practice and philosophy.

Destruction Babies (2016)

destruction babies film

Destruction Babies begins in a port town where Shota (Nijiro Murakami) sees his brother Taira (Yuya Yagira) involved in a fight with a large gang. Needless to say the outnumbered Taira is being badly beaten before the gang are forced to run by the arrival of another villager. Shortly after, Taira leaves town and begins a journey of violence, attacking random passers-by in the street on a seemingly pointless personal quest to disrupt his environment. His antics soon attract the attention of another youth Yuya Kitahara (Masaki Suda) who joins him on this mission to violently assault strangers. They also kidnap a hostess named Nana (Nana Komatsu) who also becomes involved in their activities.

Directed by Tetsuya Mariko and written by him together with Kohei Kiyasu, the film is clearly designed to shock. Occasionally you will be subjected to musical accompaniment that sounds like someone threw a drum kit and an electric guitar into an industrial shredder. Hidenori Mukai’s score is purposefully offensive, and in keeping with the tone of the film. The film constantly pricks your conscience by letting you inside the life of this disturbed individual. The camera follows Taira around the streets, searching for victims, making it clear that you cannot escape him, while at the same time making no attempt to explain him. While the story of Taira is fascinating, the tale of his brother is less so and there is an uneasy sense that there was a message there that never quite became clear. Despite its plot and reputation (described as “extreme”), the film is actually a surprisingly polished drama. With beautiful cinematography and a score that is perfectly chaotic, though veers just to the right side of listenable. The acting is good throughout. Yuya Yagira gives a quite disturbing performance as Taira. You are never quite sure if he’s suffering some sort of mental health issue, or just enjoys scrapping and being badly injured. Masaki Suda is extremely unlikeable as an outrageous stereotypical teenage boy, obsessed with sex and violence. Nana Komatsu also gives a heartfelt performance as the shoplifting hostess who gets swept up in their world.

The marketing for the film describes it as extreme, but I feel as though this may have been an in-joke. The fight sequences are undoubtedly brutal as we hear the wet clatter of fists on increasingly bloodied physiognomies, but to see this simply as another violent film would be to miss the point. It is actually a commentary on violence and societies reaction to it. It is a difficult watch, not because of the various scenes of people being pulverised, but because of the apparent pointlessness of it all. It’s hard to describe the plot of Destruction Babies as there seems very little purpose to anything that is going on. But on reflection this is exactly the point. One character later on comes to this realisation, a little too late for him, that what they are doing is meaningless, and that perhaps people should take a step back and consider their actions. The violence gives them some form of escape, of self-expression, but in the end he can’t see what he is trying to do. Not an easy watch, but there are some enjoyable moments. It is a film that will perhaps be unfairly dismissed as another purposelessly bloody film about teenage tearaways. It may also be criticised for not going far enough in its punk sensibilities and being more disturbing or outrageous. Personally, I found it a difficult watch, a little overlong, but one that certainly demands consideration. It won’t be for everyone, but if you like violent films with a satirical edge, this is just the ticket.