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.

Prophecy (2015)

The film begins with an intimidating and mysterious message broadcast from an internet cafe. The unknown man, whose face is obscured by a makeshift newspaper mask, reveals a “prophecy” that ill fortune is about to befall the boss of a company who were responsible for producing poisoned food, but who escaped justice by the police. In subsequent videos he threatens revenge on a company employee who humiliated a man in a job interview, and others. His brand of vigilantism soon gains a following and he becomes an online celebrity. Meanwhile the detectives assigned to the case race to follow the clues to uncover the identity of the figure, or figures, known as the “Paperboy”. The film begins with an intriguing and simple set-up, but the audience is soon introduced to the character of Gates (Tomo Ikuta) and his friends, the young men responsible for the “Paperboy” incidents, and given a details examination of their circumstances.

Director Yoshihiro Nakamura does a great job with the film. In particular keeping the narrative fresh throughout. Not only with the twists and turns of the central police investigation, but by turning the genre on its head and showing us events from the perspective of the perpetrators. Far from undermining the mystery, it instead turns the film into a battle of ideals. On the one hand Gates and his companions are justified, popular among a downtrodden citizenry, champions of justice, respect, and many noble ideals. However, Erika Toda’s detective is also a sympathetic character, fighting sexism, and clinging to her own idea of what constitutes right and just actions. In fact it becomes clear that the central villain of the film is perhaps society itself. The way that humans cluster together for both positive and negative reasons. We see staff at a company bullying a temporary worker, and how the same instinct causes people to rally to the “Paperboy” cause. The script sets up a number of fantastic scenes that demonstrate these concepts and build on them, while never losing sight of the main plot. The acting is superb, especially Erika Toda as the detective, and Toma Ikuta as “Gates”. The supporting cast of Gate’s friends, Kohei Fukuyama, Ryohei Suzuki, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa and Gaku Hamada, are also fantastic and help to create a believable sense of cameraderie and emotion during their scenes together.

A fantastic film that is packed with ideas about justice, memetic culture, the power of internet movements, vigilantism, the structure of Japanese society, and in particular how this relates to the treatment of immigrants or outsiders. A far more thought-provoking film than the plot might at first suggest. The film-makers have used a common crime drama to explore many different themes and issues in society.

Based on the manga by Tetsuya Tsutsui