Tag Archives: Japanese films

Nature Boy

Evil Does Not Exist

by George Wolf

Two years ago, the magnificent Drive My Car became the first Japanese film to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and earned Ryûsuke Hamaguchi well-earned noms for writing and directing.

Now, writer/director Hamaguchi rewards his wider audience with Evil Does Not Exist (Aku wa sonzai shinai), another thoughtful, gracefully intellectual tale that finds him in an even more enigmatic mood.

Takumi and his young daughter live in Mizubiki, a Japanese village near Tokyo. Father teaches daughter about the wonders of nature, and about her place in the village’s careful balance of give and take.

That balance is threatened when a big firm plans to build a ”glamping” (glamorous camping) site very close to Takumi’s own house. Two P.R. reps come to convince the villagers that the company will also be careful, but these townsfolk know manure when they smell it.

The reps try to curry favor by offering Takumi a job as caretaker of the glamping site, but the more time they spend with this pillar of the simple life, the more they start to see wisdom in his ways.

Hamaguchi delivers some salient points on ecology while showcasing his skill with probing character purpose, motivation and the different ways they interact.

At a town meeting, an older villager gently reminds the P.R. reps about the responsibilities that come with “living upstream,” and the speech becomes an eloquent metaphor that the film begins dissecting with sometimes abstract detail.

And though the one hundred six-minute running time might seem rushed for a filmmaker that has favored three, four, and even five-hour films, Hamaguchi’s storytelling here is more patient than ever. Yoshio Kitagawa’s exquisite cinematography often showcases nature’s beauty in wordless wonder, always buoyed by an Eiko Ishibashi score that is evocative and moving.

What Evil Does Not Exist doesn’t do is provide any easy answers for the dramatic choices Takumi makes once his daughter goes missing. The film ends as it begins, staring into the natural world and asking us to ponder how we best fit in.

Life Is a Highway

Drive My Car

by George Wolf

Adapting a short story into the three-hour class on storytelling that is Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ), writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffeur from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.

The key word here is seemingly, because there is nothing simple about the way Hamaguchi structures a screenplay.

Yasuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a Japanese stage actor and director who shares an unusual method of creative inspiration with his playwright wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). But just when you think this is a film about their complex relationship, it’s not.

Jumping ahead two years after a sudden tragedy, Kafuku travels to a Hiroshima theater festival to direct an adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. Though he cherishes thinking through his projects alone in the car during long commutes, Kafuku is forced to accept a chauffeur during his time in Hiroshima.

Casting and rehearsals get underway, and Kafuku’s art begins to imitate his life, and vice-versa. Just as one of his star actors gradually reveals long held feelings for Oto, Kafuku slowly learn to trust his driver Misaki (Tôko Miura), a stoic young woman with a complex past of her own.

Hamaguchi’s resume includes both four hour and five-hour films, and he has become a master at layering long form narratives so skillfully that there isn’t one minute that seems self-indulgent, or the slightest of human interaction that doesn’t weigh heavy with meaning.

The performances from Nishijima and Miura are equally understated and affecting. They peel away their characters’ defenses with a deep sense of purpose, cementing Hamaguchi’s use of those long drives as a metaphorical journey.

As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring treatise on grief and trauma, of forgiveness and moving on.

Not to mention the unending lure of a fine automobile.

Dropping a Bombshell

Wife of a Spy

By Christie Robb

Wife of a Spy really tested the limits of my historical knowledge, which is lamentably focused on Western Civ. I probably studied the American Revolution five separate times and know quite a bit about the British Empire and what we erroneously call the “Age of Exploration,” but as for what was going on in Asia in the 20th century? Shoot.

My knowledge is pretty limited to some communist revolutions and America dropping bombs.

In order to get Wife of a Spy, it’s useful to understand:

  1. Japan invaded northeast China and Inner Mongolia in the 30s and set up a puppet state (the State/Empire of Manchuria), which they more or less controlled until the end of WWII.
  2. The Japanese army in Manchuria conscripted millions of people as slave laborers and subjected them to medicalized torture, including vivisection without anesthesia.
  3. They also spread fleas carrying the bubonic plague from low-flying airplanes over villages and cities and dropped typhoid germs into wells to test out biological weapons.

Wife of a Spy starts in 1940 as Japan becomes increasingly nationalistic. The wealthy and cosmopolitan businessman Yusaku Fukuhara faces scrutiny as to his loyalty from childhood friends who are now in the military. Yusaku and his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi) wear Western dress and conduct business with American and British citizens. They draw criticism for drinking foreign whiskey and forgoing kimonos.

On a trip to Manchuria to search for trade goods and cheap medicine, Yusaku discovers evidence of the atrocities being conducted there. He is determined to blow the whistle internationally. He says his allegiance is to “universal justice” rather than to his country.

Satoko senses her husband’s distress and growing alienation and uncovers the evidence that Yusaku has been hiding in his office safe. But is she willing to risk her blissful domestic life and creature comforts to become the wife of a spy/traitor? Or will she turn Yusaku over to the authorities?

Wife of a Spy doesn’t waste a lot of time explaining the historical context of the film (thus the exposition dump above), but it does a beautiful job of visually immersing us in the historical period. Director/co-writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film focuses on the ripple effect that these atrocities have on the lives of the everyman/woman.

For the most part, the reactions of the characters seem realistic. They are haunted or traumatized or incredulous. Satoko’s reaction is a little harder for me to accept. I’m with her until she makes her biggest decision. What follows seems entirely too sunny and chipper.

Regardless, the quiet menace present in the air at the beginning of the movie grows throughout and, as in any good spy film, we’re left wondering if we put our trust in the right people and if we truly understood what just happened.

A Not So Simple Plan

The Third Murder

by Matt Weiner

“He changes his story every time.”

This early warning might be the only straightforward point made in The Third Murder, a new film from Hirokazu Kore-eda that goes from courtroom procedural to riveting thriller to heady exploration of truth and objectivity in rapid succession.

Defense lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) takes the lead in re-investigating a murder committed by Takashi Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), with an eye toward helping his client avoid the death penalty. A few small tugs at loose ends cause the official description of the case to unravel, presenting an entirely new take on the crime—and Misumi’s motivations in particular.

Kore-eda’s austere settings and still, unflinching direction for the legal proceedings suggest an air of impartiality at first. But the deeper Shigemori delves into what happened, and the more everyone’s stories start to come into conflict, it becomes clear that Kore-eda’s setup has been as misleading as the characters within it.

Balancing Shigemori’s dogged pursuit for the truth are his fellow lawyers, including his world-weary older boss and a bright-eyed new lawyer. The team reaches out to the family of Misumi’s victims, while also trying to learn more about their unhelpful client.

As with a typical legal thriller, the ideals of truth and justice are on trial along with the crime itself. Unlike lesser genre entries, however, Kore-eda’s characters are cursed with a hyperawareness that the parts they are playing are bigger than the justice system.

For all the lofty discussions of capital-T truth, the actors all keep their monologues from drifting into melodrama. As Misumi, Yakusho is especially compelling as a cipher for much of the movie (or “vessel,” as his lawyers might say). The inconsistent narratives only work if they’re believable, and frustration is rarely as delightful as watching everyone try to get a straight answer out of Misumi.

Learning that the legal system isn’t there to get people to tell the truth is punishing enough for even the most jaded lawyers in The Third Murder. Kore-eda’s methodical prodding offers a glimmer of hope that while easy resolutions might forever escape us, there’s a moral victory to be had in the examination, however pyrrhic.



Scar Tissue

Blade of the Immortal

by Hope Madden

One hundred films in, you might expect director Takashi Miike to start repeating himself.

He does, in a way, with this big screen adaptation of the manga Blade of the Immortal, the tale of a samurai cursed with immortality.

Though Miike sticks mostly to genre work (horror, samurai, yakuza), his style veers wildly from one project to the next. Still, a thematic thread can be found in a lot of his films that questions the relevance of societal conventions. Though this theme was explored with a far more subversive touch in his 2001 gem Ichi the Killer, Blade of the Immortal shares a lot in common.

Manji (Takuya Kimura) is an insider on the outs. A samurai who’s killed his masters, he’s already doomed as the film’s prologue unwinds in gorgeous black and white. As Manji butchers his way through dozens of reprobates looking for the bounty on his head, Miike invites us into the hyperbolically brutal world of his imagination.

But it’s here, on the ground bleeding out surrounded by carnage of his own making, that Manji is gifted with immortality—a gift he takes to quite begrudgingly. Forever an outsider wanting to get farther out, he eventually takes up with an orphan bent on revenge.

Rin (Hana Sugisaki) lost her parents to outlaw bladesman Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) and his gang. Anotsu is an outsider who longs to be accepted. He’s skilled and serene where Manji is brutish and disheveled. They are opposite sides of the same coin, and for Rin’s sake, they become mortal enemies.

It’s not such an unusual plot, honestly. Though screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi complicates things with one side plot about Anotsu’s quest for acceptance and another about a rogue band of bounty hunters, the film basically boils down to one guy taking remarkable injury as he dispatches others due to sworn vengeance.

For two and a half hours.

Miike populates the corpse-strewn landscape with intriguing characters. Sure, they mainly exist to be dispatched by Manji, but each brings enough fresh personality and style to keep battle fatigue from setting in.

As is the case with his best efforts, Miike’s flair for fight staging, action choreography and bloodspatter—all of it in abundance—is on display. The result is a gorgeous, bloody mess that treads familiar ground but never wears out its welcome.