Tokyo Story: a study of social and economic change in Japan during the 1950s

Yasujiro Ozu, “Tokyo Story / Tokyo monogatari” (1953)

Under the precise and careful direction of Yasujiro Ozu, this family soap opera becomes a character study of Tokyo and Japan during reconstruction in the wake of the devastation and poverty left behind by World War II, and the impact the reconstruction had on social and cultural values at both the individual and the immediate collective (family) level. An elderly couple travel from their home in a rural fishing village to Tokyo to visit their children and their families. The couple (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) are perturbed to be met with a range of quite negative emotions and reactions from exasperation, indifference, rudeness and selfish cruelty from their GP doctor son’s family and their daughter, a businesswoman running a hair salon. The couple are shunted from one family to another and at one point during their visit are dumped in a holiday spa where guests have all-night parties that disturb the older folks’ sleep. The only person who is glad to see them and who helps them become accustomed to the fast and glitzy pace of Tokyo is their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara). The grandparents decide to go home through Osaka where they plan to meet their youngest son but the grandmother’s health begins to fail rapidly and the couple narrowly arrive back home before the woman falls into a fatal coma.

The plot is not remarkable but what holds the story together is the dialogue which does all the work of advancing the plot, portraying character and underlining the process of change and the inevitability of death. Through the interactions of three generations of the one family, Ozu examines the effects of Westernisation and technological and economic changes and progress have on Japanese culture and traditions. Respect for the elderly and a sense of mutual obligation and help are disappearing, to be replaced by the pursuit of self-interest and immediate material gratification. The couple’s sons put work ahead of their own needs and those of their families. Daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) thinks only of herself, her business and pursuing wealth. Interestingly though, the children and their families have not achieved the success they had hoped for – the doctor and his family live in a suburb of Tokyo, not in the centre of the city as the grandparents expected – and there is a sense of disappointment among the children that they have not done as well as they had hoped for.

Ozu’s technique of filming scenes at the level at which people sit on tatami mats in houses or on verandahs imparts an almost voyeuristic intimacy to the drama and helps to bring out the underlying tensions in the film as the grandparents come to realise that their children might consider them a burden. The grandparents also get no relief in trying to connect with their grandchildren who angrily spurn them; in one significant scene, the grandmother muses about her younger grandson and what he might become as an adult, as the child ignores her completely. This scene takes on added sadness as events in the film roll out to the grandmother’s disadvantage. Important events tend to happen off-screen to the extent that the only time we become aware of most things is when actors talk and discuss these occurrences. This has the effect of not only pushing the narrative on but also revealing the character and morality of the people discussing the issues.

The climactic moment comes after the grandmother’s funeral when Noriko and her young sister-in-law nearly come to blows over the behaviour of the older children at their mother’s funeral and wake. Noriko persuades her sister to accept that the children have their own lives to lead and that the separation of older parents and adult children is inevitable; while this explanation appears to calm down the younger woman, Noriko’s own life as a lonely widow dedicating herself to caring for her parents-in-law would appear to suggest that Noriko might not necessarily believe in what she says. Noriko’s obliging manner and constant smile seem to mask a very real pain born from a life of suffering under her alcoholic husband and perhaps previously from a family background in which daughters were brought up to be strictly subservient to husbands, no matter how well or how badly the husbands treated them. One senses there may be some desperation on Noriko’s part to try to help her parents-in-law because they may represent the family she never really had.

The film appropriately ends on a dark note when the grandfather, left all alone by his children and daughter-in-law who must resume their normal working lives, must ponder living alone without his beloved wife. Hints in earlier parts of the film suggest he will turn to drink again to soothe his sorrows. What this seems to imply is that the changes and progress coming to Japan might not be all shiny and good for the Japanese people: the changes are likely to lead to isolation, loneliness and dependency on drugs like alcohol for millions of Japanese just to get through the day. While everyone accepts change and that nothing will last forever, at the same time no-one seems to think that with rapid change, opportunities to improve people’s lives will appear and should be seized upon. To allow an elderly man to live on his own with only drink for company is certainly cruel and would not have been tolerated in Japan before the war. At this point Ozu may be questioning the traditional attitude of accepting change with grace and detachment, when the change that comes affects not only individuals, families and groups in adverse ways but affects society to the extent that its very identity and fabric change, and what people value changes as well. What Japan becomes and will value, will not be a continuation from what made the country in the first place.

Slow and leisurely as it is, and though the characters tend to be stereotypical, the film certainly bears watching a few times for Ozu’s messages about change, the inevitability of death and the fragility of life to be absorbed, and for landscape scenes of a past Japan that themselves illustrate rapid technological, economic and social change. That the film is ambivalent about the kind of change that is occurring in Japan, and whether the accepted Japanese attitude towards change is necessarily ideal for individuals, families or even society as a whole, thus forcing audiences to question what sort of change they can or should accept, makes it relevant to audiences even today, within and outside Japan.

The Truth: where lies and deception are as important as truth in keeping families together

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “The Truth” (2019)

Ironically truth is the one thing going missing in this gentle French comedy about a family whose members use lies and deception to get and hold onto what they want and to smooth their relationships with one another. Lumir (Juliette Binoche), her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) fly to Paris from New York when her mother, legendary French acting icon Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) publishes her memoirs. The threesome end up staying with Fabienne when the actress’s private secretary quits his job, apparently miffed that his employer hasn’t mentioned him in her book. During their stay, Lumir and her family accompany Fabienne to her latest movie shoot, a sci-fi number in which Fabienne is one of three actresses to play a character who is visited by her mother every seven years from outer space: the mother had originally gone into space as part of a treatment for an unspecified disease, and the treatment has the side effect of slowing down the ageing process so she remains youthful and young while the daughter ages back on Earth. The mother is played by Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel) who greatly resembles Fabienne’s old acting rival Sarah Mondavan, whom Fabienne once cheated out of a coveted role in a film by sleeping with the film’s director.

There are many sub-plots in this film, each of them revolving around some form of deception which ends up (or nearly does) unravelling. Hank, a struggling actor, deceives Charlotte by telling her he is working on a film whenever he goes to rehab for his drinking problem. Fabienne tells Charlotte that the turtle in her garden is Charlotte’s dead grandfather: this story nearly falls apart when the grandfather unexpectedly turns up alive at Fabienne’s mansion. Lumir has long believed that her mother always put her acting career ahead of their relationship and Fabienne, at least in the early half of the film, seems to confirm this single-minded focus by suggesting that actors must always keep their eyes on the straight and narrow path of advancing their careers at the expense of everything else. Fabienne herself seems to envy Lenoir in much the same way she envied Mondavan to the extent of killing the latter’s acting career; a tension develops in the film as viewers are encouraged to look for signs of Fabienne trying to upstage Lenoir – and signs there are aplenty.

Surprisingly these sub-plots turn out quite harmless as the various characters resolve their issues or conflicts, several of which apparently turn out to exist only in their respective characters’ heads. Director Kore-eda is quite the master to invert these sub-plots and show them as little more than characters’ own self-deceptions and rationalising as a way of overcoming their inadequacies. It is easier to blame someone else for problems one should be overcoming. In the process of dissecting various characters’ issues and conflicts, Kore-eda does a fine job detailing how one particular family’s inter-generational dynamics operate and serve to define family members and put them in their niches within the family hierarchy. Lies and deceptions play an important role in preserving hierarchy and reputation.

The film can be seen as a character study and a vehicle for Deneuve to comment on aspects of her own career as an acting legend and of her personal life and relationships. It seems significant that the role of Lumir was given to Binoche and not to Deneuve’s real-life actress daughter Chiara Mastroianni: the two have been in a fair few films together as a mother-daughter pair acting out similar scenarios. Both Deneuve and Binoche dominate the film: Deneuve plays a queenly role, seemingly unperturbed by what trouble she creates and given to sudden petty actions when the occasion suits, yet capable of regret (which may or may not be genuine; the character is an actress after all) when others remind her of the mess she leaves behind. Binoche plays Lumir as a perfectionist and idealist shocked at her mother’s deliberate manipulation of what she, Lumir, believes to be true. Hawke is happy to play the laid-back subordinate complement to Binoche’s rather domineering wife. The rest of the adult cast does capable if not very outstanding work.

Viewers may find “The Truth” rather confusing in the way the various sub-plots are turned on their head. Memory proves unreliable and lies and deception turn out to be just as important as one’s memories in forming individual, family and other collective identities. Even the film itself may be very one-sided; for one thing, we are only aware of the sci-fi film within the film when we visit the set along with Fabienne and Family, and the sci-fi film may actually be about more than just a mother being blessed with apparent immortality while her daughter misses out. A lesson might be taken from “The Truth” in considering just how much people, organisations and societies depend on truth and on lies, deceit and manipulation in defining themselves. In this, “The Truth” is very much of a piece with Kore-eda’s more notable work “Shoplifters”.

The Lost Breakfast: amusing animation on how chaos invades and disrupts order and control through daily rituals

Q-rais, “The Lost Breakfast” (2015)

Where some cartoonists treat the weekday early morning ritual of getting up and getting ready to go to work, including the full ritual of cooking and eating breakfast, as a dreary dull and robotic exercise that robs people of their will and humanity, Japanese cartoonist Q-rais sees in it an opportunity to have fun and explore what happens when that ritual and the autopilot mind it requires are disrupted. A man rises at 7 am when his alarm clock rings; throwing open the bed covers, he examines his foot and finds a mysterious puncture wound in the sole with blood on it. He looks outside his bedroom window and sees a black crow perched on a tree branch, looking as if it might know who made that wound but pretending innocence. The man goes off, shaves and deposits his shavings into a tissue which he then neatly folds, does his ablutions and takes his tissue into the kitchen. There, he cooks himself sausages and an egg omelette, makes his toast and tea, and deposits the tea-bag onto the folded tissue. He eats his breakfast while watching the morning weather forecast and news on TV. Having done all that, he gets dressed for work and leaves his home. So far, so good.

The next day, bang on 7 am, the alarm clock rings again, and our man prepares for the day. Again, he finds the mysterious puncture wound on the sole of his foot; again he looks outside his bedroom window but the crow is not waiting on the tree branch. No matter, the man goes about his routine as usual; but once he puts the tea bag on the tissue, suddenly the crow flies through the bedroom window and attacks him on the neck with its beak. The man drops his cup of tea, forcing him to get another cup with another tea bag; but on seeing the first tea bag sitting on the tissue, the man goes into a frenzy repeating parts of his morning ritual over and over, and out of order, until (in a surreal burst of animation) reality fragments and rearranges itself, and the man goes cataleptic.

The animation may be rather crude and simple, and figures and objects are more fluid than they perhaps ought to be, but a playful energy is at work and the very nature of the morning ritual down to its details seems to invite questioning of what it’s all for and why. It appears to be an attack on complacency and on society’s insistence on shutting down people’s individuality and creativity, and on controlling people through their daily rituals. The crow may represent an intrusion of Nature, of the chaos and the freedom (and maybe the fear of the unknown that freedom brings) within that chaos that threaten orderly but mechanised lives. Q-rais obviously had a lot of fun creating this short cartoon and while it might not stand repeated viewings, it certainly is fun to watch the first time round.

A society fragmenting in “Dying Alone: Kodokushi, Japan’s epidemic of isolation through the eyes of a ‘lonely death’ cleaner”

Artyom Somov, “Dying Alone: Kodokushi, Japan’s epidemic of isolation through the eyes of a ‘lonely death’ cleaner” (RT.com, March 2019)

Since 1945, the increasing Westernisation of Japanese society – and with it, longer life expectancies, smaller families, increased urbanisation and housing shortages, combined with labour mobility (often involving long commuter journeys) – has encouraged a weakening of family ties with the result that more and more elderly people are living alone. Of course, conservative social attitudes toward the role of women in caring for the elderly and government policies (often governed by such attitudes – because the dominant political parties in power have been socially conservative) with regard to caring for the aged can also be blamed for the rise in the number of aged people living alone. Another phenomenon, mentioned briefly in the documentary about to be reviewed, is the massive infrastructure works undertaken by the Japanese government in the 1950s and 1960s which employed thousands of young men from the countryside to help repair cities devastated by war; now, after 50 or more years later, these men have reached retirement age but have nowhere to go. They long ago lost contact with their families, their wives or partners are long gone and their children have gone as well. With more aged people living on their own, more aged people are dying alone: the phenomenon has come to be known as kodokushi (lonely death).

Somov’s documentary follows a man who runs his own cleaning company specialising in cleaning the homes of kodokushi people. The majority of kodokushi people seem to be elderly men living on their own. The manager admits he used to be a musician but social and family pressure – and the decline and death of his grandmother – directed him to running a specialist kodokushi cleaning company that cleans the homes of kodokushi people and removes their possessions. While the bodies have already been taken away, the excretions (and often the maggots and maggot shells) from rotting bodies have to be cleaned up. The company manager and employees do a thorough job clearing away possessions and storing them in the company warehouse, and cleaning the home. The possessions – especially any dolls, which in Japanese tradition may be inhabited by the souls of the dead – are later prayed for and blessed by a Buddhist monk, so that they are free to be resold to recycling companies or sold secondhand. (The kodokushi company earns its money from recycling or selling the items it collects from the homes of kodokushi people.)

The film crew also visits a restaurant owner whose patrons are mainly elderly people living on their own. The owner also runs a cottage for lonely elderly men. The film crew visit a hospital where medical workers show elderly people how to keep their joints flexible. A woman volunteer – we do not know who she works for – goes on one of her weekly trips to see an aged gentleman to make sure he is using his foot ointment and is eating and drinking healthily. Apart from these examples, we do not know how Japanese society generally and government institutions in particular are dealing with the issue of elderly people who have no families to rely on and are living on their own.

The sad isolation that afflicts Japanese society in so many different ways – the phenomenon of hikikomori (young people who shut themselves away from society from months or years on end) is well known – is present throughout the documentary. The pressures of a socially conformist and hierarchical society, overlaid by Westernisation / Americanisation and the utilitarian values adopted by past governments that view people as little more than robots, have resulted in a highly atomised society where social links not related to work have become very fragile. It seems that the current government under Shinzo Abe (whose grandfather Nobosuke Nishi was once also prime minister and had a controversial war criminal past) is ideologically at a loss as to how to resolve such social and political issues that its political conservative predecessors had a major hand in creating.

Shoplifters: an intelligent low-key film that examines the nature of family and connection in a fragmented society

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Shoplifters / Manbiki Kazoku” (2018)

In this slow realist drama about an impoverished family in Tokyo, surviving by its wits through a combination of low-paying jobs, living on an aged pensioner’s social security income and shoplifting, director Kore-eda explores a number of themes: the nature of family in modern Japanese society; the loss of connection between individuals and between individuals and community in an urban, technological society; and how people living on the margins of a society that spurns and ignores them come together to survive and find purpose and connection. Osamu Shibata (Franky Lily) and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) live in a tiny shack in a Tokyo neighbourhood; Osamu is a labourer on construction sites and Nobuyo is a low-paid laundry employee. Grandma Hatsue Shibata (Kirin Kiki) lives with them too: she relies on her old age pension and a regular stipend from a couple, the husband of which is the son of her ex-husband and his second wife. Hatsue’s granddaughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a peepshow parlour worker, and 10-year old Shota (Kairi Jo) make up the family unit. When we first meet the family, Osamu and Shota sneak groceries into Shota’s backpack without paying for them and are on their way home when they come across a tiny 4-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), shivering outside her family home … in the middle of winter. Father and son take Yuri home where the women feed her and discover evidence of physical abuse on her scarred arms. In spite of their strained finances, the family accept Yuri as one of their own.

Over the next twelve months, Osamu is injured at work and is laid off; the laundry that employs Nobuyo falls on hard times and she is retrenched. Finances are further strained when Grandma dies. While all this is happening, Shota becomes jealous of the attention Yuri, renamed Rin, receives from the women. At the same time he is teaching Rin to shoplift food items and while she is an eager and ready learner, he is beginning to feel guilty about teaching the child how to break the law. Caught in a dilemma, he finds a way to resolve it but his action leads to dire consequences for Osamu, Nobuyo, Yuri / Rin and himself.

During the course of the film, viewers discover that the Shibata family has been cobbled together in much the same way that Osamu and Shota found Yuri / Rin: Shota himself is a foundling and even Grandma was originally a foundling, albeit at the other end of the age range from those usually abandoned and found by others. The make-up of the Shibata family unit and the way in which it came together says something about the fragmentation of Japanese society in which elderly people end up being shunted into nursing homes or aged care places where they may face bullying and abuse. Yuri / Rin finds unconditional love and affection among supposed “kidnappers” but in her original birth family she receives only cold indifference and neglect. Nobuyo has a dark past that involves the murder of a previous husband.

The film’s minimal and understated style, suggestive of a documentary, combined with the laid-back pace and the actors’ naturalistic performances, especially those of the child actors who carry much of the film on their slim shoulders, reveals subtle nuances and social realist criticism in the story that gently unfolds. Through the Shibatas’ interactions, we come to see how cold, unyielding and bureaucratic Japanese society has become. Children are pulled away from people who love and care for them and parked in orphanages or returned to situations where their lives are put in danger – simply because in the eyes of society or the law, this is the “right” thing to do. Director Kore-eda questions the ethics and values upheld by Japanese society and exposes them as hollow shells through a family of morally dubious characters who may have sound reasons for doing what they do to survive.

The issues raised in “Shoplifters” are dealt with intelligently with a minimum of fuss and sentiment but leave a huge impression on viewers. This film is essential viewing.

Tokyo Godfathers: a heart-warming if fussy Christmas movie on the importance of family in assuring survival and resilience

Satoshi Kon, “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003)

No, this ain’t no cult yakuza film – though yakuza types do appear for a short while – but instead this is a heart-warming Christmas anime flick about the importance of family, however unconventionally it’s constituted, in assuring survival and helping to bond people and maintaining hope in that bonding no matter what misfortune life throws at us. Three homeless people – middle-aged alcoholic Gin (Toru Emori), former drag queen performer Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and young teenage runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) are rummaging through garbage bins on Christmas Eve in Tokyo when they spot an abandoned newborn girl. They determine to return the baby, whom they call Kiyoko, to her parents after finding a photograph of her parents and crumpled papers with addresses attached to the little one’s blankets. This idea drives the trio through the streets, often late in the evening when the snow is falling heavily, and into the Tokyo metropolitan subway system. They will nearly come a-cropper at a wedding reception attended by gangsters, Gin will almost lose his life after being beaten by teenage thugs, Hana will briefly be reunited with the transvestites at the club where she used to sing and perform, and Miyuki will reconsider the argument with her father that led to her leaving home; whatever trials the threesome experience individually and collectively in trying to return the baby to her family will strengthen their bonds with one another and, paradoxically, lead them back to their own families. Gin is reunited with own his long-lost daughter and Miyuki unexpectedly meets her police inspector father again after two years while visiting Gin and Hana in hospital at the end of the film. Each of the three characters confronts his or her past demons and by doing so gains new purpose in life and has new respect for his or her travelling companions.

The background animation is beautifully rendered; the snowy cityscapes suggest isolation and alienation yet can be surprisingly calming and not at all threatening. Tokyo is at once a gritty, cold city in which the most surprising things can happen, most of all, a tiny baby who appears in a garbage bin on Christmas Eve and through whom three individuals learn to face their fears and gain redemption. While the city has its narrow lanes, noisty traffic and slums filled with immigrants and homeless who try to survive the best they can, Tokyo is also possessed of a quiet serenity.

The film can be viewed as a character study of three people who through their trials come to appreciate one another deeply and form a real family of people who look out for one another. Gin’s stoic, gruff nature hides a guilt-ridden conscience at having abandoned a wife and small baby girl. Hana deeply yearns to be a mum and to hold his own baby, though he’s somewhat at a loss when his turn to change Kiyoko’s nappy comes all too quickly. Miyuki is haunted by the argument with her father, during which she seized a knife and inflicted damage with it.

For the first half-hour, the film cruises along briskly but as coincidence starts to build upon coincidence, the plot becomes much less plausible than it already is. It becomes very strained and contrived, and plot twist upon plot twist strings out the film for longer than it should. A couple who have lost their own baby girl and whose lives as a result go askew become involved with the baby Kiyoko in a sinister way, yet the resolution of their troubles – depression, suicidal tendencies – is treated superficially. We never learn if the woman in the couple receives proper counselling and treatment.

For a film that pleads compassion for the marginalised in modern society and in which the main characters find real family with one another, and discover their resilience and compassion, the ending in which two characters are reunited with their original families seems unsatisfactory: it suggests that the only “real” families are the traditional nuclear families consisting of a father, mother and children, as dictated by a society that for one reason or another spurns its homeless and others who do not conform to its dictates.

A stale and confusing plot and dreary characters in “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars”

Shinji Aramaki, “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” (2017)

Multiplying not quite as fast as the enemy Arachnids did in the original Paul Verhoeven “Starship Troopers” film are the sequels, of which “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” is the fifth in the series and the second to be mostly computer-animated. Two actors who appeared in the Paul Verhoeven original, Caspar van Dien and Dina Meyer, return to take up their parts voicing Johnny Rico and his high school friend Dizzy Flores. In this fifth installment, Rico has been demoted to the rank of colonel and ordered to train a unit of rookie troopers on a Martian satellite. The human citizens of Mars are tired of the never-ending war Earth wages against the “bugs” (hereafter known as Bugs) and want out of it. Sky Marshal Amy Snapp, desiring political support to destroy Mars, concocts a plan to use an underground Bug nest on Mars as an excuse to destroy Mars and lay the blame on General Carl Jenkins, whom she arrests and holds prisoner.

A confused narrative follows during which the Bugs launch attacks on the trainee unit (who fail two missions), Rico is lost on Mars (where he meets a hologram of Dizzy broadcast to him telepathically by Jenkins) and is later rescued by the trainee troopers, and together Rico and his squad defuse Snapp’s Q-Bomb and publicly reveal Snapp’s scheme to destroy Mars. In defusing the Q-Bomb, the troopers overload a weather control tower and turn it into a huge bomb that explodes and wipes out the entire Bug infestation on Mars. Meanwhile Jenkins escapes from his captors with the help of pilot Carmen Ibanez and has Snapp arrested and imprisoned. For his efforts, Rico is promoted to general and he and his young team are tasked with the unenviable job of keeping Mars free of Bugs.

As might be expected of a sequel following other sequels in a series of which the original satire and political commentary have either evaporated or been overwhelmed by an emphasis on action, violence and explosions, the plot with its two parallel strands dominates, and everything else such as character development, dialogue and even (to some extent) design and computer-animated performance is treated superficially. Of course the dialogue and the characters are expected to be stereotyped in nature, given that the “Starship Troopers” films are set in a futuristic society dominated by rigid and highly conformist militaristic values that permits no individuality. Indeed, the reason Amy Snapp wants to get rid of Mars is that its human settlers prize their freedom and democratic values, and desire their independence from Earth. The Bugs are drained of any redeeming qualities and act like a vast unthinking horde of scuttling giant insects.

Aside from the intriguing politics, in which a character attempts to seize power as if she was starring in a game show and news reports are treated as advertisements (with that hoary line from the first “Starship Troopers” film: “Would you like to know more?”), this sequel adds nothing new to the series or to space-opera science fiction generally. The fun, zest and glee that should be present are missing and what we have instead are boring one-dimensional characters and a tired and confusing plot. The animation may be technically advanced but characters, especially female characters, lack distinctive facial features and resemble Barbie-styled dolls.

It would seem that in this film, and in Japanese anime films generally, an invisible wall has been hit and found difficult to scale and breach: current Japanese-made films seem to feature quite limited and stereotyped characters, and their plots and themes repeat one another to the extent where they become banal and superficial. Joy and energy are in very short supply and story-lines rarely do justice to technically brilliant work.

Tales from Earthsea: a fantasy film lacking in sparkle and wonder

Goro Miyazaki, “Tales from Earthsea / Gedo senki” (2006)

Watching this film, gorgeous as it is visually, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s a classic example of “style over substance” – the original Earthsea book series is heavily squeezed and mashed into a hybrid that probably bears very little resemblance to the characters, plots and themes of the books. All the characters in this film seem cut from the same mould as so many other Studio Ghibli movie characters are: the heroes are children, one a feisty young girl on the cusp of puberty, the other a youth with a troubled past or a character flaw; the adults are either villains, of whom some are buffoons and the others genuinely malevolent but not without some degree of sympathy, or they are parental mentors playing second fiddle to the heroes. The plot usually pushes themes enjoining environmental balance and harmony, pointing out the suffering that occurs if the balance is disrupted; the dangers of using power irresponsibly; and young people discovering their purpose in life. Take away the Studio Ghibli visuals and you find a dreary film overburdened by its Studio Ghibli legacy.

The lands of Earthsea are afflicted by disasters brought about by an imbalance in the world: crops are failing, livestock are dying and people are suffering from a mysterious deadly disease. The wizard Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton in the English-language dubbing) determines to find the cause of this imbalance. In his travels he meets young Prince Arren, fleeing the kingdom of Enlad for having killed his royal father and haunted by a mysterious Shadow. Passing through Hort Town, the two separate briefly and Arren saves a young orphan girl, Therru, from slave-traders led by Hare (Cheech Marin). After various adventures, in which Arren is briefly enslaved, he and Sparrowhawk find refuge with a wise woman, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), who has been raising Therru as her own daughter after finding her abandoned by her parents who mistreated the child.

Sparrowhawk determines (in a way that the film does not make very clear) that his sorcerer rival Cob (Willem Dafoe) is responsible for creating the imbalance in the universe that is ruining Earthsea through his dangerous quest to cheat death and achieve immortality. Cob knows through his raven spy that Sparrowhawk is looking for him so he makes his rival’s job that much easier and faster by kidnapping and imprisoning Tenar. He takes Arren hostage as well and casts a spell over him using his real name Lebannen. Through various plot twists the children Arren and Therru come to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar and to defeat Cob.

For the most part, the plot is slow with a huge middle section where very little happens and most of the action (and revelations) packed into the last half hour of the film. Cob’s motive for wanting to control Arren is not very clear – but then generally the motives of all the characters for doing what they do are very vague. The characters are typical Studio Ghibli stereotypes and lack individuality and substance. Only Therru is likely to make much of an impression on viewers with her surliness, bad temper and (later) her steadfast loyalty. The dragons that should be the film’s highlight appear seldom.

While backgrounds look good, the animation is uneven – some characters look badly drawn – and the music soundtrack is pver-loud kitsch Celtic folk to the extreme. The whole film lacks freshness, spark and a sense of fun. This film is definitely not one to watch unless viewers are diehard Studio Ghibli fans.

 

Over Your Dead Body: an extreme, almost cartoon-ish horror ghost film homage where life imitates art

Takashi Miike, “Over Your Dead  Body” (2014)

From the incredibly prolific director Takashi Miike, who never met a film genre he couldn’t make an insanely extreme film for (and with the body count to prove its perversity), comes this homage of sorts to the famous Japanese ghost story “Yotsuya Kaidan”, horror films featuring vengeful or hateful female ghosts generally and the theatre. Toss in a love triangle involving three actors appearing in a drama production and we have a recipe for an almost Shakespearean work in which vengeance, the quest for happiness in a sterile world and life that imitates art revolve around each other as surely as the circular stage set on which the theatre troupe presents its interpretation of “Yotsuya Kaidan” rotates to emphasise the dark, disturbing atmosphere and the intensity of the emotions and actions of the characters in the play.

Star Miyuki Goto (Ko Shibasaki) is cast as the tragic heroine Oiwa in a new production of “Yotsuya Kaidan” and schemes to get her lover Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa XI) cast as Iemon, the unfaithful ronin husband of Oiwa. Other actors in the cast soon lust after Miyuki and Iemon, who themselves are having difficulties in their relationship, both of them emotionally remote from one another in spite of their love-making. The actors’ obsessions with one another and the love affairs that develop and which are conducted secretly lead to a situation in which the murder and mayhem rehearsed continuously on the stage spill over into the cast’s lives offstage.

The film begins ordinarily enough and the first half-hour is a character study in which we come to see how distant Miyuki and Iemon are, and how their emotional remoteness is reflected in the elegantly and minimally furnished modern apartment where Miyuki lives. Much attention is given over to the elaborate stage set-ups, the care with which the cast of actors act out their roles in the play, the costumes and hair fashions of mediaeval Japan, and their rather stylised actions. Curiously the director of the play is a very minor character indeed and one gets no sense of when rehearsals for the play started, when they will finish and when the play itself will have its opening night. Once there is a hint that a doll used as a prop is possessed by a demon, the pace quickens, the action becomes brisk and the film detours from delineating ordinary everyday scenes (albeit with some eccentricities on the part of Miyuki: she boils several saucepans of pasta all at once in one scene, for example) into a wacky direction in which nightmare dreams that afflict people spill out into their waking lives, a woman mutilates herself to find her unborn child and actors start disappearing from the production as they fall victim to the ghosts of the play.

The extreme and intense violence contrasts strongly with the minimal style of various background sets, with the suggestion that beneath the po-faced facades that people present to the outside world lurks roiling emotions that they have difficulty accepting and which they cannot name, yet which eventually must have their outlet. Shibasaki, Ichikawa and the rest of the film’s cast perform their roles capably as people more or less divorced from their emotions and feelings which erupt through the medium of the ghost play and play havoc with their lives, to say nothing of the play itself as the most significant cast member disappears. Audiences may breathe a huge sigh of relief when Kosuke gets his just desserts both in the play and outside the play but horror fans might feel a little cheated at what “horror” has actually emerged and that Kosuke’s executioner literally gets away with murder.

The film closes off in its own hermetic world and seems much smaller than it ought to have been.

 

5 Centimetres per Second: an insubstantial trilogy on the fleeting nature of youthful love, hope and desire

Makoto Shinkai, “5 Centimetres per Second” (2007)

As with his “Your Name”, Makoto Shinkai’s earlier “5 Centimetres per Second” is a teenage romance based around desire, hope and loss. The film takes the form of a trilogy of short story pieces revolving around young hero Tataki as he progresses through childhood and adolescence and becomes a young adult taking on the burdens and pressures of adulthood. The first and longest short story riffs on his childhood friendship with the girl Araki, how they meet in primary school and bond together, and their separation when, on the verge of transitioning to junior high school, she and her family relocate away from Tokyo to a more distant rural part of Japan. The second story focuses on another girl, Kanae, who is in Tataki’s class at high school and who has a crush on him which he fails to notice and she fails to admit to him. In the third and shortest installment, Tataki has already graduated from high school and college and with a job and a girlfriend seems well on the way to middle class career and family contentment. However the young man still pines for Araki so he chucks in his job and breaks up with his current love to travel to that part of Japan where Araki lives in the hope of meeting her and reigniting their relationship.

In themselves the characters are not all that remarkable and seem very one-dimensional in their melancholy and constant preoccupation with their thoughts; likewise the threadbare plot proceeds to a conclusion many viewers may find unsatisfactory if predictable. Kanae’s unrequited crush on Tataki – and his attitude towards the girl – may come across as rather callous on Shinkai’s part, and point to an insensitive and immature self-absorption on Tataki’s part that explains his inability to hold down a job and maintain a relationship with any female other than Araki. Perhaps it’s just as well that the original relationship between him and Araki peters out from the pressure of distance and time because if they were ever to meet again, he would find her literally another person.

The use of first-person voice-over story-telling is an original touch and coaxes the thin narrative forward steadily. The fragmented and not altogether reliable monologues have to be pieced together by viewers to form a clear narrative that holds all three stories together. The film proceeds rather as a series of beautifully detailed tableaux reflecting on the passage of time through the changes of day into night and day again, and of the seasons. The emphasis on trains and train travel serves as much to heighten the sense of separation through time and space between Tataki and Araki.

The background animation is gorgeous as it always is in Shinkai’s films but the characters and story fall far short of the beautiful and rich settings. Tataki and the girls he is involved with seem far too stereotyped as lovey-dovey young teenagers and the plot is equally generic. The film’s unusual title is a reference to the speed at which cherry blossoms, symbolic of the fleeting and fragile nature of youth, giving way all too soon to age and ultimately death, fall to the ground from the tree. It would be most ironic if this film becomes as minor in Shinkai’s body of work in the years to come as cherry blossoms are transient.