Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Nippon Reviews: My Blood and Bones in a Flowing Galaxy

My Blood and Bones in a Flowing Galaxy (2021): Written and directed by Sabu. Starring: Anna Ishii, Taishi Nakagawa, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Kai Inowaki, and Kaya Kiyohara. Running Time: 126 minutes.

Rating: 3/4

               The more of his stuff I see, the more I like Sabu. He always finds unique ways to take whatever elements he's throwing together in his latest film in directions that make it impossible to predict where it's going. I can't say that his newest film hits quite the same heights of Mr. Long or Dancing Mary, but it still has a great, big beating heart and plenty of tricks up its sleeve that kept me guessing.

               Kiyosumi has spent his life idolizing his father, who died on the day of his birth rescuing people from a sinking bus. He, too, dreams of being a "hero," though I suspect that at the start of the film he wouldn't be able to tell you what, exactly, that means. His mother seems to have encouraged this instinct in him by regularly speaking of the "Three Rules of Being a Hero." He starts to notice that a girl in one of the junior classes at his high school is regularly (and pretty viciously) bullied by most of her class, with a few exceptions. He starts to stick up for her in ways big and small, which immediately catch the attention of the rest of the class and earn him the moniker "Senior Time."

               At first, it seems to work, and Hari starts to open up in ways no one thought possible. The film is only halfway over at this point, though, so obviously there's more to this than meets the eye. When Hari starts to regress again, Kiyosumi begins to notice signs that she might be facing abuse at home of a sort far worse than the pranks inflicted on her at school. Being, as we've established, a "hero," he takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of Hari's family and what, exactly, she doesn't seem to want to tell anyone.

               As to be expected, this is where things start to go off the rails, though I won't dare spoil the specifics. What I will say is that the movie seems to bend into itself and play with concepts of time and living memory and experience that I truly wasn't anticipating. The emotional climax it builds to is genuinely affecting, the sort of change in perspective that can alter how you remember everything that came before it.

               For all the space-related grandeur the title seems to imply, this is a very emotionally-focused film, to it's strength. There is, however, a running theme about using UFOs as a metaphor for the dark or ugly or threatening things in our lives that we try to hold at bay. It does make sense, from a certain point of view, but it isn't used to much end. No matter. This is an excellent and surprising film that continues the high quality I've come to expect from a Sabu film.

-Noah Franc

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Nippon Reviews: Along the Sea

Along The Sea (2021): Written and directed by Akio Fujimoto. Starring: Phuong Hoang, Anh Hunynh Tuyet, Nhu Quynh, Do Dinh, and Aya Utsuno. Running Time: 88 minutes.

Rating: 4/4

               Akio Fujimoto came out of the gate swinging with his 2017 debut film, Passage of Life, which largely focused on the trials and perils of illegal migration as viewed through the eyes of children. With his second film, Along the Sea, he uses the same basic filmmaking style to examine the same topics, but this time through the eyes of women. Given that women, like children, are often forced to bear the brunt of the costs of the decisions of the "adult" men running most of the world, this makes Fujimoto's first two films essential companion pieces to each other.

               The three main characters of the story are young Vietnamese women, traveling together, who arrive at a coastal town for seasonal work cleaning, sorting, and packaging freshly-caught fish for sale at nearby markets. It's never clear exactly how old they are and how often they've done this, but it seems to be fairly regular for them, possibly something they do every year. Their contact finds them the most basic and barebones of accomodations (and it's the middle of winter, so that means hardship), and outside of food and other basics, it seems nearly everything they earn is sent back home to their families, whom they call often to reassure that they're ok, and yes, more money is coming.

               One of them, however, quickly starts to seem quite ill, which immediately hammers home the degree to which every moment of their lives exists on a razor-thin knife's edge. They're not supposed to be there, so any usual paaths to doctors, medicine, or anything else are closed to them. They are there to work, period, and if they don't work, no money, period, so the very idea of even a little head cold taking someone out for a day is a crushing inconvenience.

               They are friends and in this together, though, so even though it is stressful and pulls at their bonds somewhat, the other two do what they can to help their friend pull through, even offering to cover for her at work for a little while. As it turns out, though, it's not that simple- their friend isn't ill, she's pregnant, which in all practical terms is about the worst thing that could happen to her right then and there. The choice she now faces is literally life or death in several different ways, and even her friends can't help her as she tries to figure out what in the hell she's supposed to do now.

               One of the biggest strengths of Passage of Life was how Fujimoto used minimalism and a mostly handheld filming style to lend a natural realism to the film. This was further enhanced by the easy repertoire between its cast, many of whom I gathered were not professional actors. The same style is at play here and it makes Along the Sea equally affecting. Most of the scenes in the middle and end involve us simply sitting with or walking alongside a woman, alone and terrified and at the mercy of a world ready to chew her up and spit her out, and she damn well knows it. Right up to the end, there is no clear sign where things will go, where they can go, just like with our own lives.

               Fujimoto has proven that Passage of Life was no fluke and that he has the talent and storytelling courage to have staying power, and I very much hope he continues to use it to such important effect. This is simple, barebones filmmaking, but it works so damn well it reminds us why film as an art form is still so essential, whether or not theaters are open. I don't know when or how this film will be made widely available, but I hope it will be, and soon.


Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Nippon Reviews: Seven Days War

Seven Days War (2021): Written by Ichiro Okouchi, directed by Takumi Kitamura. Starring: Takumi Kitamura, Kyoko Yoshine, Rie Miyazawa, Megumi Han, and Tatsuhisa Suzuki. Running Time: 88 minutes.

Rating: 2.5/4

               I don't know when, exactly, it seemingly became law for anime movies to feature opening faux-credit montages set to a random Japanese pop song, but I can't say I'm a fan. It's part of an unfortunate trend I've noticed where anime movies seem to be trying to look and feel more and more like anime series. The insistance on some generic pop song about wind and waves and the yearnings of youth is a particular sore point for me, in no small part because they all sound exactly the same; for all his incredible talent, Makoto Shinkai falls into this trap a LOT, and it is often one of the few flaws in his films, even Your Name, which is otherwise pretty much perfect. Sadly, Seven Days War is another of these films that looks and feels like way too many other anime I've already seen, right down to the two pop-song-plus-wacky-antics montages that make it extremely confusing to grasp how, exactly, time is supposed to work within the context of the story.

               Said story revolves around Mamoru, a teenage kid secretly in love with his lifelong neighbor, Aya, and utterly baffled as to why his classmates aren't as turned on as he is by fun facts about the Franco-Prussian War (to which I can VERY much relate). When he finds out that Aya is leaving and he is about to lose his shot with her forever, he very spontaneously suggests that they run away from home for a week to celebrate her birthday. To his pleasant surprise, she agrees. To his unpleasant surprise, she promptly asks her best friend to join them, who then proceeds to pull three other people into the plan as well.

               What is the plan? To gather supplies and occupy a large, empty former mining facility up in the mountains, with a whole host of rusty, creaky machines and lifts and elevator shafts lying around that somehow still have electricity and are guaranteed definitely play a big role in how the second half of the film plays out. It's all fun and games for the first day (at least, I think it's a day; again, the montage makes this very unclear), until they discover they aren't the first ones there. There is a stowaway, of sorts, a Thai child named Mallet whose family had emigrated illegaly to Japan to find work but were recently separated.

               And that's when the plot starts to really kick into high gear. Officials from...some department or other who are after the child appear. They are soon joined by the father of one of the schoolgirls in the factory, since he's apparently some sort of high-placed political personage terrified of a family scandal derailing his career. Who exactly he is and what sort of career he's obsessed with is unclear, but the film assures us that he is very, very important, so please be scared of him! They (read, the adults) surround the facility and try to figure out a way inside to remove the kids, while our leads try to come up with improvised ways of using the facility and its various bits of old-school machinery to keep them at bay. Yes, at this point the film fully enters Home Alone territory, but with even more potential for gruesome murder.

               Soon, the events surrounding the factory become something of a media sensation, and a major plot device soon arises where internet chat boards begin combing the footage of the kids shown on the news to find out who they are. Predictably, all of the kids have some form of dirty laundry, in some cases directly concerning their relationships with each other, and these secrets are soon being trotted out online for all to see.

               Aside from the fact that, once again, this is very much the sort of coming-of-age story we've gotten many times before, it's at this precise moment of emotional revelation where the film can't seem to get out of its own way. Some of the stuff that comes out is really heartbreaking and, for a moment, offer some real emotional catharsis that could have made us really get some depth out of characters whose presences up to that point were rather perfunctory. But, like with the pop song, there is such a rush to get to the next predictable set pieces that this part of the movie isn't allowed to breathe enough to leave an impact.

               All that being said, even if some of the character developments and scenes of revelation towards the end are very predictable, the film's heart is in the right place, and the most important scene does hit when it needs to. Sadly, if anything ends up lost in the shuffle, it's the otherwise fairly original character of Mallet. An anime tackling migrant issues within Japan is extremely unusual, so this is where the film had the most potential to break away from the pack. However, the way in which this aspect of the story is resolved, plus the fact that Mallet remains, to the end, secondary to the rather boilerplate character of Mamoru, makes it feel less relevant to the movie than I wished it had been.

               There are Easter eggs that connect the film to other adaptations of its source material, and there is nothing actively bad in the film; if you like this sort of anime, you will enjoy the film just fine. But it's not the sort of film that will convert anyone not already sold on anime, so sadly I can't say that I broadly recommend it. It's a fine watch on its own merits, but there are other, more original works out there that I would give your attention to first.


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Nippon Reviews: Our Sound

Our Sound (2021): Written and directed by Kenji Iwaisawa. Starring: Shintaro Sakamoto, Ren Komai, Tomoya Maeno, Tateto Serizawa, and Kami Hiraiwa. Running Time: 71 minutes.

Rating: 2.5/4

               Our Sound is a unique oddity, an animated film produced by an extremely small crew and minimal budget. The almost-childish aesthetic that results limits somewhat what story it can tell, but it also kinda fits the bonkers tone that makes it such a unique viewing experience.

               The main characters are a trio of male schoolfriends, though their voices sound shockingly adult whenver they speak. They seem to be something of a tough-guy bunch, always heading off for fights even when they don't actually know where their targets are, but for some reason they very spontaneously decide to form a band. With absolutely no musical training, they simply grab two bass guitars and two drums and....just wail. Really, that's about all they produce. Yet they find something profound in the very basic sound and decide to seek out other bands and a potential playing spot in a festival. In a very amusing twist, they try to join up with a band of long-haired and bespectacled classmates who are TERRIFIED of the main character, apparently because he used to be beat them up.

               The main character himself is a bit of a paradox, in many ways representative of the film as a whole. Not only does he sound far older than a high school student ever should, he also looks way too old for the uniform, with his noticeable moustache and bald head. His animation is so basic that he effectively has the same, wholly monotone facial experession throughout, matching his voice. It's unsettling, and it feels unfinished, but maybe that's the point? At any rate, his one-tone thought process and the way in which he picks something up, drops it almost immediately, then takes it back up again at the oddest moments is strangely compelling.

               It's during the songs that the animation does pick up a bit, going on these visual flights of fancy to match the tone of whatever song is being performed at a given time. At times it feels like the movie is a trial run for a series of experimental music videos, which, hey, they are worse ideas for an animated picture. An additional plot point comes up later on where a rival gang, one of the people the main character used to fight, hears about the band and is convinced it is simply a trick to mess with him. It is this confusion which inspires the climax, such as it is.

               In the end, this is a barebones film that will likely be far too out there for most to enjoy, but I most certainly had my fun watching it. Maybe you will too! And maybe you'll be inspired to pick up an instrument yourself. Maybe.

-Noah Franc

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Nippon Review: Ushiku

Ushiku (2021): Directed and produced by Thomas Ash. Running Time: 87 minutes.

Rating: 4/4

               The last decade has seen huge spikes in refugees and migrants all around the world seeking safe haven from wars, natural disasters, or other depravations. As a result, many wealthy nations, particularly the US and Europe, have had to confront a host of challenging and difficult questions regarding their own complicity in refugee issues and their ethical responsibilities to human rights. Japan has so far not been one of these countries forced to make a public moral reckoning with this issue. This is in large part due to the fact that, while there most certainly ARE refugees and migrants who go to Japan and apply for asylum, there has never been one major crisis, one unavoidable focusing event, that has turned the attention of both the Japanese and international public to this issue. That has allowed the details of where and how migrants and refugees are currently treated within Japan itself to stay more or less under wraps. Ushiku, the latest film by Thomas Ash and named after one of the main sites where migrants and asylum applicants are held, seeks to provide this much-needed catalyst.

               The Ushiku complex- which, let us not mince words, is a de facto prison- operates under the strictest secrecy, with absolutely no pictures or videos allowed out and any written correspondence with its inmates subject to extensive censorship. As such, the film's director, Thomas Ash, had to resort to creative use of hidden cameras to record his visits to inmates there. It's important to note that he does this with the full permission and support of the inmates themselves, who are desperate for their names and stories to not simply be swept under the rug and ignored. Ash is no stranger to tackling sensitive subject matter or having to think outside the box to make his films. His whole filmography deals with either sensitive or controversial topics, especially surrounding Japanese health systems, and another recent film he worked on, Boys for Sale, also required considerable secrecy to obtain interviews with its subjects.

               The need for such extreme measures so as to ensure that the video testimonies he collects were able to see the light of day lends itself to a very basic structure for the film. Recordings of phone calls with the inmates are set to an entirely black screen (except for subtitles), and video conversations are mostly in the same room; dimly-lit, with a dirty glass barrier separating both parties, with the focus solely on the individuals relating their stories as much as they can in the visitation time allotted. Despite the difficulties, and even a few setbacks (Ash was briefly barred from the prison over suspician that he was, in fact, recording things), he and his crew are able to enlist the help of other activists and politicians, including a member of the Japanese Parlaiment who later lays into the ministers in charge of the prison in a hearing sequence that is easily the film's most gripping moment. It quickly becomes very clear that no one in charge expected to ever have to answer actual questions about the inhumane conditions that the roughly one thousand plus inmates of these types of facilities suffer under.

               And make no mistake, they are truly inhumane conditions. Denied both asylum within Japan and safe passage to a different country, these people are subjected to passive and active racism and a constant litany of abuses from the officers who run the facility, ranging from casual neglect to direct physical and sexual abuse. One trans woman interviewed is callously kept in the facility for men, despite officials being fully aware of her identity. Inmates regularly report suicidal tendencies and even attempt suicide, yet are denied care even when doctors try to insist that they be allowed to see patients. One video, made by the guards themselves and eventually released via court order, shows an agonizingly drawn-out scene where one inmate is dragged around and very nearly choked into unconsciousness, simply because he had the gall to complain when an officer started to hit him and then tried to cover up the fact. As an American grappling with years of video after video out of the US showing just how thoroughly cops are willing to brutalize the people they are supposed to "protect" when they are convinced that they will never face any consequences whatsoever, I found this scene especially hard to stomach.

               Even when small victories like short-term releases are to be had- and in fact, the Coronavirus pandemic provided something of a silver lining here, where more inmates than ever before were able to win longer and longer releases- are deliberately made as bitter and as dehumanizing as possible. Even when out of this jail, these people are cut off from health care, work, and support of any kind other than what friends and family are willing to donate as private citizens. They are literally given nothing to do except wait to be shuttled back behind locked doors. It is a recipe for despair, disillusionment, and destructive rage.

               At the end of the day, the questions raised by this film center around the basic, fundamental human right to live in decency and security. Facilities like Ushiku and the latent racism in much of Japanese society regarding foreigners of any sort are in direct violation of the spirit of human rights that are supposed to undergird the international order, never mind violating the democratic spirit that "modern" nations like the US and Japan are supposed to champion. Just because Ushiku is not on the same scale as concentration camps for children in the United States or as blatant as the rising political xenophobia infecting much of Europe does not make it any less egregious a sin. This film is a much-needed and far-overdo revelation of one of Japan's dirtiest secrets, and should serve as a call to action for anyone, Japanese or otherwise, who truly wishes to see us birth a better tomorrow.