Once Upon A Time In Japan

by Spank the Monkey

Once Upon A Time In Japan

This year’s Japan Foundation film season – entitled Once Upon A Time In Japan, and touring the UK’s arthouse cinemas from today – has a historical flavour to it. All of the films are period pieces of one type or another, showing how Japanese filmmakers use stories of the past to say things about the present day.

Much of the programme hasn’t been seen in the UK before, unlike last year, so I can’t give you quite as comprehensive a preview as I did in 2012. We can’t discuss Hula Girls, the latest example of the Japanese genre in which young people bond during unfashionable physical activity. (See also: Waterboys, Swing Girls, Tits Volleyball.) We have to pass over Kaidan Horror Classics, a portmanteau film featuring big name directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda and Shinya Tsukamoto. Most regrettably, screeners were not available for Bubble Fiction: Boom Or Bust, in which Hiroshi Abe tries to solve Japan’s economic crisis with a time-travelling washing machine. How can the other seven films in the programme stand up against a synopsis like that? Well, let’s find out.

The Blossoming Of Etsuko Kamiya
The Blossoming Of Etsuko Kamiya

If Japanese cinema is looking to examine its past, then World War 2 is going to loom fairly large in that analysis. The Blossoming Of Etsuko Kamiya  is set during the conflict itself, specifically a couple of weeks in the spring of 1945. It centres on the wooing of Etsuko (Tomoyo Harada) by two young soldiers: family friend Akashi (Shunsuke Matsuoka) and his mate Nagayo (Masatoshi Nagase). That’s pretty much all there is to the plot, except for the slow revelation of how the location and period of the film impacts the love story. Blossoming is adapted from a stage play, and no real attempt has been made to disguise that: long stretches of it involve two or three people just sitting and talking. But it’s beautifully acted, a delicately performed comedy of very slight embarrassment (which of course everyone here treats as a matter of life and death).

Two more films in the season are set in post-war Japan, and show how the turmoil of the war still had its effects a decade later. Zero Focus opens with newsreel footage of young soldiers leaving for battle, and then leaps ahead to 1957 where we meet one of those soldiers – Kenichi (Hidetoshi Nishijima), now in advertising. When he disappears on a business trip shortly after getting married, his new bride Teiko (Ryoko Hirosue) has to investigate the past that Kenichi rarely liked to talk about. Based on a popular novel that’s been filmed once before, this adaptation is stylishly assembled as classic film noir, but the structure of its plot works against it: the big revelation of what really happened is so convoluted that it literally takes up half the film. Part of the fun should be the sustaining of the mystery, and Zero Focus puts its cards on the table too soon.

Mai Mai Miracle – a rare anime in these Japan Foundation programmes – is also set in the mid-fifties, coasting on the rural nostalgia that we tend to associate with Studio Ghibli (former employers of director Sunao Katabuchi). Shinko is a young girl with a hyperactive imagination, which she uses to conjure up a fantasy world based on what her village looked like 1000 years ago. When a new girl Kiiko arrives in her school, she starts assembling a small group of friends who join her in her imaginary adventures. The switching between Shinko’s fantasy world and the real one is done with a level of attention I’ve not really seen before – depicting the fantasy as realistic without ever trying to pretend that it’s real. But the story stumbles a bit in the last half hour, with a sudden tragedy that you imagine is there to extend the contrast between the two worlds, but just feels forced.

Castle Under Fiery Skies
Castle Under Fiery Skies

Away from WW2, viewers of Japanese cinema would probably expect at least one or two tales from the samurai era in a programme like this, and they’d be right. The best straight costume drama in this collection is Castle Under Fiery Skies,  set five centuries ago. Lord Nobunaga is a man of much learning and fierce ambition, and wants to build a gigantic five-storey castle to match. He entrusts the job to master carpenter Motaemon (Toshiyuki Nishida), who nobody else believes is up to the job: if they did, we wouldn’t have much of a story, would we? Featuring a cast of hugely familiar Japanese actors (Nishida’s internationally famous for playing Pigsy in the classic Monkey TV series), it’s handsomely mounted and gives a real sense of the sheer effort involved in castle construction. However, there are a couple of unfortunate glitches in the narrative flow to distract you: a gratuitous action sequence that comes out of precisely nowhere, balanced by a bit of foreshadowing that stubbornly refuses to pay off at the end of the movie.

The exclamation marks in the title of Ninja Kids!!! are your first clue that this is a less historically rigorous study of the period: the second is the presence of our old chum Takashi Miike as director. But don’t worry, this adaptation of an old cartoon about a ninja training academy for children has Miike in more-or-less family friendly mode. This is the modern definition of family friendly, though, which means slapstick violence and jokes about bogies and dog poo. The film works best at its beginning and end, when it’s in the straightforward ‘Ninja Hogwarts’ style promised by the programme notes. It loses its way a bit in the middle, though, as an impossible number of rival ninja squads are introduced in rapid succession, presumably to ensure that everyone’s favourites from the cartoon get at least some screen time. Still, I won’t begrudge them the appearances from one ninja who takes breaking the fourth wall to a new level, as he explains ninja lore directly to the audience.


Moving closer to the present day, Rebirth could be said to be more about memory than history. At some unspecified period in the past, Kiwako (Hiromi Nagasaku) reacts poorly to the end of her affair with a married man: she tracks him down to his house, kidnaps his baby daughter Erina (Mao Inoue), and goes on the run with her for four years. The film opens with Kiwako’s trial, and by the end of the pre-credit sequence you think you know exactly how you feel about all this. The achievement of director Izuru Narushima is to oscillate backwards and forwards in time, and show that things aren’t quite as cut and dried as they seem: in particular, that the abuse of Erina didn’t end with the return to her family. The moral dilemma is beautifully handled, your sympathies veering from one character to another throughout. It’s a shame that the finale has to topple into tearful sentimentality to provide some sort of resolution, as up until then it’s been a dry-eyed and clear-headed study of what family means to us all.

The best film in this programme also covers the recent past. United Red Army was a Japanese radical student group in the late sixties, like the ones they had all over the rest of the world. To help prepare for the upcoming revolution, leaders Mori (Go Jibiki) and Nagata (Akie Namiki) take their troops out to a mountain base for a training session. Over the next three months, the URA will completely self-destruct in an orgy of bickering, self-critiquing and violence. Directed by veteran provocateur Koji Wakamatsu (who died last year), the film works brilliantly as an ultra-black farce, showing how a reliance on blind dogma ultimately tears the whole group apart. The lengthy and claustrophobic middle section of the movie plays like the Judean Popular Front/People’s Front Of Judea scenes in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, except that people are dying as a result of their petty rivalry. And the self-delusion of radicals trying to justify their basest actions in a political framework comes across hilariously: notably the leader who sleeps with another member’s wife, and gives a self-critique of his adultery which goes “I regret not having married the sort of wife I could bring to the mountains.”

United Red Army is the one undeniable classic in Once Upon A Time In Japan – it’s criminal that it hasn’t played in London since its 2008 LFF screening, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again. But the other films in the programme are well worth your time: they may have their flaws, but each one has its own unique perspective on Japanese history. Even, I suspect, the one about the time-travelling washing machine.

Once Upon A Time In Japan is visiting the following cinemas during February and March: check venue websites for full details.
ICA, London, 1-7 February
Showroom Workstation, Sheffield, 8-17 February
mac birmingham, 18 February-27 March
Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, 22-28 February
Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 1-7 March
Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, 3-24 March
Watershed, Bristol, 9-16 March
Broadway, Nottingham, 22-27 March

 Spank The Monkey hopes that you’ve read enough of his writing about Japanese cinema by now to realise he isn’t making it up about Tits Volleyball.

About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

3 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time In Japan

  1. Okay, I’ve seen the other three now.

    Hula Girls is probably the weakest film in this programme, if I’m honest. Unlike similar entries in its genre, this one has some basis in fact: in the mid-sixties, a coal mine in Northern Japan was closed down, and the company involved decided to replace it with a Hawaiian theme village. Hula Girls tells the story of the coalminers’ daughters who did their bit to promote the village across Japan, despite the pig-headed objections of their fathers. The script has to make all the men utter scumbags to generate any sort of dramatic tension: this is a community where a man can punch his daughter repeatedly in the face for a non-existent slight, and nobody bats an eyelid. When the manipulation’s as blatant as that, even the inevitable cheery finale doesn’t have much of an impact.

  2. Kaidan Horror Classics isn’t quite as advertised: it’s not so much a portmanteau film, more three episodes of a four-episode anthology series made for NHK TV. (The trailer I linked to in the article starts with footage from the fourth episode, directed by Masayuki Ochiai and not included here.) The results are more or less as you’d expect from the directors involved. The Whistler is the story of a woman coming apart with the strain of coping with her dying sister, her tyrannical father and her doomed soldier boyfriend: Shinya Tsukamoto depicts her emotional disintegration with all the wobbly camerawork, disruptive editing and industrial noise we’ve come to know and love from him. Hirokazu Kore-eda similarly makes The Days After his own, telling a tragic tale of loss with a deceptively slow style and a subtle use of ellipsis. The episode that doesn’t really work is The Nose, despite the best efforts of director Sang-il Lee (also responsible for Hula Girls). The idea of a monk being ostracised from society because of his huge deformed proboscis is all well and good, but falls apart as soon as the nose has to appear on screen. Particularly when, as here, the design choice has been made to make it look like a gigantic facial schlong.

  3. And finally, of course, there’s the one about the time-travelling washing machine. Bubble Fiction: Boom Or Bust might be based on the flimsiest pun in cinema history – the washing machine is used to travel back to 1990 in an attempt to prevent the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy – but it’s a much smarter affair than that might suggest. Sure, there are plenty of opportunities to laugh at the fashions and music of the period, but they’re rooted in an analysis of how Japan blissfully entered a period of conspicuous consumption without considering the long-term consequences. Lead actor Hiroshi Abe is, as ever, terrific: his character – present in both the 1990 and 2007 strands of the story – has a mindbuggering double helix of an emotional arc to traverse, and he pulls it off perfectly.

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