Nov 29

“TokyoTribe” – Film Review from the 18th Japanese Film Festival (Australia and New Zealand)


Rafael Villadiego (Nagasaki-ken 2010-2013) writes for Green Tea Grafitti and reviews Tokyo Tribe.

Tokyo Tribe

Rap battles with actual battle

In a dystopian, not-so-distant-future Tokyo that has fallen into urban decay, young thugs rule the streets and the disparate districts have been divided between the various gangs that hold sway over their respective neighbourhoods. There is an uneasy alliance between these tribes as long as each adheres to the unspoken truce of keeping out of each others’ allocated territory.

But none of the tribes are entirely satisfied with maintaining the status quo and are chomping at the bit to prove their superiority and expand their sphere of influence.

All this teetering tinder box needs is a spark to push it completely off the edge and set the entire thing on fire.

Enter Mera (Suzuki Ryohei), leader of the ‘Bukuro Wu-Ronz, who is seeking to finally settle an old score with the Musashino Saru’s, Kai (rapper Young Dais). Mix in the insane Yakuza boss Big Buppa (Takeuchi Riki) and the kung-fu kicking virginal daughter of an international crime lord, Sunmi (Seino Nana), and you have all the ingredients for one unforgettable night through the myriad maze of this doomed metropolis, where all the simmering tribal rivalries are finally set to boil over.

Who will win the war for the streets of Tokyo? Plug in the speakers, pump up the volume and strap in for one epic ride.

The inimitable Sono Sion is back with a hybrid hip-hop, musical, gangster battle epic that defies easy categorisation or description. Over-the-top to the point of parody, this film will either provide an entertainingly rollicking departure from standard cinema fare, or turn viewers off entirely. Replete with a mish-mash of genre cliches and tongue-in-cheek references to classic Hollywood and Japanese cinema. In short, it is exactly what the seemingly ludicrous blurb of the film promised. Yet some people still had the audacity to get-up and leave – obviously not realising just what they had signed up for.

Our guide to the evening’s festivities is MC SHOW (embodied by Sion Sono alum Sometani Shota) who sets the stage for this sprawling rap narrative in what is shapes up to be one heck of a ride through an alternate Tokyo where gangs rule the streets and anything goes. The only rule is that you don’t cross into another gang’s turf. But this turns out to be the night when rules are meant to be broken, which just might ignite an all-out war that will set the streets of Tokyo alight.

The storyline is paper-thin, but the narrative is carried forward on sheer energy, lyrical verve and musical drive. With references to old-school yakuza gangster flicks, Broadway musicals and underground “pinku” cinema, the film offers a veritable smorgasbord of z-grade schlock and kitschy action extravagance. Populated by a veritable who’s-who of old-school Japanese hip-hop and rap royalty, led by Young Dais, the majority of roles are filled by street-level, non-actors ranging from tattoo artists to stunt performers. Despite lacking requisite thespian credentials, they are instead fully versed in the world Sion is attempting to create, lending an air of authenticity to the work and lyrical legitimacy to the rhymes.

The lyrics themselves range from street-level swagger to the scintillatingly surreal, to the downright hilarious. Are these wannabe posers or veterans so far above the game they are willing to poke fun at their own expense? There are moments when one cannot be entirely certain. But it is clear that these indisputable artists are fully committed to the cause and believe unequivocally in the unfolding struggle.

There are some mind-boggling action sequences drenched in veritable buckets of blood all captured in sweeping single-take shots that fully immerse you in this sprawling epic. It certainly reaches a point where style and artifice well and truly rule over any form of substance. So if you are looking for a deeper statement on the human condition or an underlying message amidst all this madness, you may find yourself disappointed.

But if you are happy to check your brain at the door and fully immerse yourself in Sion Sono’s insane symphony, then plug yourself in and raise your fists high as you cheer on the love and peace of the Musashino Saru in their struggle to prevail against the all-out-mayhem declared by the warlike Waru.

At the close of the film, we eventually discover the idiosyncratically innocuous circumstance that set the entire war in motion, and you will either laugh or cry – or more than likely, both.

Watch this film if…
…you are hankering for rap infused, hip-hop action epic through the streets of Tokyo…


“Tokyo Tribe” (Tokyo Toraibu) was released August 30 2014 in Japan, starring Suzuki Ryohei, Young Dais, Seino Nana, Sato Ryuta, Kubozuka Yousuke, Takeuchi Riki, Sometani Shota.

Nov 25

“My Little Sweet Pea” – Film Review from the 18th Japanese Film Festival (Australia and New Zealand)


Eden Law (Fukushima-ken ALT 2010-2011) reviews My Little Sweet Pea, a film of the haha-mono genre, or “mother stories”. Guaranteed to make you call your mum and if not, you’re either an orphan or dead inside.

My Little Sweet Pea

Why haven’t you called your mother yet?

“My Little Sweet Pea” is a genre film, one that is quite an old trope in Asian cinema, that of the self-sacrificing maternal figure who patiently bears all the insults and trials (usually originating from her family or ungrateful children), until finally her passing or fatal illness causes her former tormentors to repent their evil ways and express remorse in a climax of tears and self-blame. In Japan, it’s known as haha-mono or “mother stories”, and it’s an enduringly popular style of melodrama (my mother loves them to the point of identifying with the main character, and I don’t know what that says about me).

In this particular entry however, the mother character is not the main focus, but one of her children – her daughter Mugiko. Mugiko and her brother Norio have lived together since their father died, until one day their absent parental unit, Ayako, suddenly shows up, asking to move in, after having being missing for almost all of their lives. Begrudgingly, they allow her in, although Norio disgustedly moves out, leaving his sister alone with their mother. Mugiko subjects her mother to all sorts of nasty, unfilial treatment, before Ayako suddenly passes away from an unrevealed terminal cancer. As per custom, Mugiko has to travel to her mother’s home town to bury her ashes, which sparks a journey of discovery, of herself and the mother that she had never known.

Western tastes might find this kind of movie to be a tad over the top, as the mother character is by necessity, almost a caricature in how inhumanly compassionate and submissive she is – obviously she’s meant to elicit as much sympathy from the audience as possible while at the same time whipping up the accompanying feelings of indignation to such a frenzy that only an appropriately melodramatic or tear-soaked climax would suffice. But while “My Little Sweet Pea” ends the way you’d expect, it’s luckily a little more subtle in its emotional manipulation. As the audience explores Ayako’s past alongside with Mugiko, and as Mugiko gradually comes to realise and empathise with her mother, we also come to sympathise with the errant prodigal child, so that her emotional realisation and remorse is all the more touching and moving than it would have been, had we just simply hated her for being a bitch instead. Horikita Maki does very well in this regard in conveying a character that the audience could have disliked intensely, and she also does double duty in playing both the daughter and the mother (in her younger years).

“My Sweet Little Pea” still has its over the top moments, but it is also unexpectedly humourous in parts, allowing a deeper level of emotional complexity beyond “angry” and “crying”. A tear-jerker, it is nonetheless enjoyable and will make you feel the urge to call up your mum or hug her to apologise for being the brat that you most certainly were.


My Little Sweet Pea (Mugiko-san to) by Yoshida Keisuke, released December 21 2013 in Japan, starring Horikita Maki, Matsuda Ryuhei, Yo Kimiko, Nukumizu Yoichi, Asou Yumi.

Nov 20

“The Piano in the Shed” – Film Review from the 18th Japanese Film Festival (Australia and New Zealand)


Eden Law (Fukushima-ken 2010-2014) reviews one of the smaller films of the 18th Japanese Film Festival, “The Piano in the Shed”. The producer Yuto Kitsunai, made a surprise appearance at the screening of this film in Sydney. Created by the people of Kori, Fukushima, this is truly a labour of love.

The Piano in the Shed

The Piano in the Shed

“The Piano in the Shed” is a coming-of-age story, centred around Haruka, a final-year senior high school student in the town of Kori, a rural town in Fukushima, in her last summer break during the final years of her senior high school years. Quiet and withdrawn, she is happiest only when playing the family piano in the shed, her place to escape from life and its troubles, which includes the loss of a younger brother, whose death still continues to affect the family, but especially her grandfather, who blames himself for the tragedy. Into all this two further pivotal events occur: her older sister, Akiha, comes back from Tokyo to stay for the summer, stirring up Haruka’s long-held resentment of the attention-seeking, prettier and more popular sibling. The other, far more happier, is the promise of a first romance with Kosuke, recently relocated from the contaminated zone.

There will perhaps be very few other films about Fukushima post 3-11 that wears its heart on its sleeve so openly and earnestly. Like the other film related to Fukushima in this festival, “Homeland”, “The Piano in the Shed” is more focused on telling an emotional story rather than making a critique of the prevailing political and social issues. For the film’s scriptwriter, Hara Misaho, this is clearly a very personal project – both her and the director, Natanai Chiaki, hail from Kori, where the film is set. And by choosing to tell the story from young Haruka’s point of view, they show how the youth can be emotionally affected, just like their elders, forced to cope with the ever present feelings of anxiety and worry that are now an unfortunate part of everyday life. Haruka’s uncertainty about her future after graduation reflects the broader, general uncertainty – for young people like herself from Fukushima, for evacuees like Kosuke and his father, constantly on the move for jobs and shelter, and for the future of farming communities that cannot sell their produce to a frightened and paranoid public, as Tokyo forgets and continues the status quo, while frustrated local councils continue to hold meetings about “reconstruction”, a sloganistic message that seems increasingly pointless and empty.

The human story here, from the aspect how the young are coping with the new reality in the wake of the disaster, is certainly a very compelling one. Other subplots such as Haruka’s family tragedy, and her rivalry with her sister, are less successful or not as well-developed by comparison, and could probably have been dropped in order to make the film feel more cohesive and less derivative. But the young actors are lovely to watch (though at the expense of the adults, who, with the exception of the grandfather, are rather less developed). Yoshine Kyoko is the same age as the character she plays, giving Haruka a level of convincing authenticity to her shyness, and her touching selflessness and unexpected strength for someone so young.

As mentioned, there is no denying the amount of emotional heart and soul poured into this film by its creators. Often included are footage of slice-of-life scenes of the town and its people, whether participating in their annual summer festivals, or going about their daily lives. The film’s ultimate positive note conveys the filmmakers’ message: Kori, and places like it, and the people who live there, should not be forgotten, and they will find a way to endure and survive.


The Piano in the Shed (Monooki no Piano) by Natanai Chiaki, released February 9 2014 in Japan, starring Yoshine Kyoko, Koshino Ena, Hirata Mitsuru, Akama Mariko, Hasegawa Hatsunori, Imai Yuto, Kanda Kaori, Orimoto Junkichi.

Nov 19

“Lady Maiko” – Film Review from the 18th Japanese Film Festival (Australia and New Zealand)


By Rafael Villadiego (Nagasaki-ken 2010-2013), also available on Green Tea Grafitti.

Lady Maiko

Maiko wa Laaaaady

A comedic, Broadway-musical reworking of Audrey Hepburn’s classic My Fair Lady, wrapped in the traditional trappings of geisha and maiko regalia. Set amidst a backdrop of a contemporary Kyoto transitioning between the golden recollections of the past and the everyday realities of the present.

Taking place in the unobtrusive little corner of Shimohachiken – that was once an illustrious geisha district in its heyday, but has since fallen on hard times – it still seeks to uphold the old tea house traditions by maintaining at least one maiko in their district. Unfortunately, that maiko, Momoharu (Tabata Tomoko) is pushing 30 and longs to be released from her unfair restrictions and graduate into a true geisha.

Enter Haruko (Kamishiraishi Mone), a naive young country girl with her head full of dreams of becoming a geisha. After discovering a photograph of her late mother dressed as a maiko in her youth and reading Momoharu’s hapless blog, she eventually decides to leave her adoptive grandparents behind and make the journey to Bansuraku Teahouse in Kyoto. But, having no formal introduction or letters of recommendation, and plagued with a backward north-south country bumpkin accent, the odds seem stacked against her.

However, she is taken under the wing of local college linguistic specialist, Professor Kyono (Hasegawa Hiroki) who makes a friendly wager with another regular tea house patron Kitano (Kishibe Ittoku) that he can transform Haruko into a top notch maiko.

What follows is a singing and dancing extravaganza as a colorful cast of characters unfold all the pomp and circumstance of a Broadway musical, with a decidedly Japanese twist.

Veteran director Suo Masayuki of Shall we dance? fame returns to the fore with this whimsical musical confection that is sure to delight fans of musical theater. It is also a fine diversion for linguists of regional Japanese dialects or scholars of traditional geisha culture. In fact, Suo is a dedicated auteur of authenticity who offers delightfully disguised lessons in language, culture and tradition. Approaching his subject matter with gusto and treating it with the utmost reverence and respect – he also shows that he is more than willing to have some fun along the way.

Offering an exuberant display of traditional Japanese dance fused with western Broadway musical sensibilities, the film feels almost like an oxymoron, with its improbable mix of genres and styles. But somehow this unique juxtaposition just seems to work, as it sweeps audiences along on sheer energy and exuberance.

There is one particular musical number which plays perfectly on the classic lines of “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”, but with a Japanese slant that more than makes it its own.

At the heart of this film is a classic underdog story, where if you are willing to try your best and weather the odds, you can overcome whatever comes your way and ultimately succeed. This is Haruko’s story, and we are invited along to share in her journey of discovery as we take a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the rarefied world of geisha and maiko culture.

In this regard, director Suo was fortunate to secure the services of newcomer Kamishiraishi Mone. Beating out 800 other applicants in the Toho Cinderella Contest, 16-year-old Kamishiraishi is quite a find and more than holds her own amongst the veteran cast in the demanding song and dance routines. We glimpse this world for the first time through her bedazzled eyes, with all the characters poised to perfection, the costumes colorfully coiffed and the sets exquisitely appointed.

But despite these elaborate production values, soaring songs and dazzling dance routines, there was just something missing that stopped the film from coming entirely together for me. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what was lacking. I am usually a sucker for a good song and dance, yet something prevented me from being swept off my feet completely. Perhaps the narrative around the musical was not as strong or believable as I would have hoped, to live up to the sheer exuberance on show. A fantastical confection, light as a feather, that possibly lacked the necessary substance to keep it grounded. The eventual low after the high.

Like a dream on waking.


Lady Maiko (Maiko wa Lady) by Suo Masayuki, released September 13 2014 in Japan, starring Kamishiraishi Mone, Hasegawa Hiroki, Fuji Sumiko, Tabata Tomoko, Kusakari Tamiyo.

Nov 16

“Homeland” – Film Review from the 18th Japanese Film Festival (Australia and New Zealand)


Eden Law (ALT 2010-2011 Fukushima-ken) reviews one of four Fukushima-related films in the 18th JFF. A fun fact: Homeland was partially filmed in the city of Iwaki, where he lived and worked as a JET. It’s good to hear the Tohoku dialect ringing in one’s ears once more!


Heck no, we won’t go!

The spectre of nuclear contamination from the 2011 catastrophe in Fukushima casts a dark and long shadow in “Homeland”, as a rice farmer (Soichi), his wife (Misa) and child, and his mother (Tomiko), struggles to cope after being forced to evacuate from their farm. Meanwhile, his estranged younger brother (Jiro) secretly returns to the forbidden zone and begins to tend to the ancestral home and lands, preparing the fields to plant traditional crops. It’s a quiet, meditative, at times slow film, though tensions simmer below the surface, and while the film’s focus is mainly on the human drama, much of the cause of that drama comes from the worries and issues that evacuees still face, three years on after the worst natural (and arguably man-made) disaster in Japanese post-war history.

Director Kubota’s first feature film (he had been a maker of documentaries before this) is also one of the first released for the Japanese domestic market that focuses on the lives of evacuees. Considering that the credits list special support from acclaimed directors Koreeda Hirokazu and Suwa Nobuhiro, this is probably a problematic topic for a movie in Japan right now, and therefore needed all the help it can get to be made. And it’s certainly not a pleasant reality that’s being depicted: the living conditions in temporary housing are cramped and impersonal; jobs, for people with no other career than farming, are scarce, living them with endless days and stupefying boredom (though Misa resumes her pre-marriage career as an escort), and the Soichi worries about the discrimination their daughter might face when she grows up. The refugees experience a sense of restlessness and hopelessness, feeling abandoned by the government. Some reviews of the film have criticised it for not taking a harder, clearer stance on social and political issues, but considering the depiction of hardships these characters face, it would be unfair to accuse it of whitewashing or ignoring the problems that people like Soichi and his family face.

The performances in “Homeland” are quiet, just like the film, with most of the heavy lifting concentrated in the roles of Soichi and Jiro, though Tanaka Yuko’s performance as the increasingly addled and distracted Tomiko, is heartbreaking to watch. And though Kubota somehow was able to film some of the scenes in the movie in the main streets of actual abandoned towns in Fukushima, for the most part the movie looks pretty pedestrian and staid, and would have benefited from a director more experienced in dramatic framing.

However, what Kubota intended to show is the human emotional state and reaction to the disaster, rather than exploring anything ideological, and in this he is largely successful. There is a yearning by displaced souls, caught in perpetual transit, for a home, to retain their dignity and also, to assuaged a collective sense of guilt for fleeing their ancestral homes. Jiro’s actions, in persistently living and farming on contaminated land, is definitely foolhardy and ill-advised, but one can understand the resolve and resilience of his spirit, seeking to triumph regardless of the odds, to quietly rebel against the government in a way, by not abandoning a place that so many others have. A film like “Homeland” is still important, if it means keeping alive in the nation’s consciousness, the lot of the abandoned and the lost of Fukushima.


Homeland (Ieji) by Kubota Nao, released March 1 2014 in Japan, starring Matsuyama Kenichi, Uchino Masaaki, Tanaka Yuko, Ando Sakura and Yamanaka Takashi.

Nov 15

“Short Peace” – Film Review from the 18th Japanese Film Festival (Australia and New Zealand)

From the biggest Japanese film festival in the world, Eden Law (Fukushima-ken ALT 2010-2011) reviews an anthology from the most exciting names in Japanese anime at the moment.

Short Peace

Short and sweet.

Four short films (short pieces?) make up this anthology, an unashamed and exuberant exercise in creative muscle-flexing as some of the biggest names in anime take the helm: Shuhei Morita (“Possessions”), Katsuhiro Otomo (“Combustible”), Hiroaki Ando (“Gambo”) and Hajime Katoki (“A Farewell to Weapons”). In addition, a video game was released as part of this multimedia project, “Short Peace: Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day”.

“Plot” or “theme” is pretty loosely applied to Short Peace. Apart from sharing the same general vicinity, located somewhere not too far from Mt Fuji in central Japan, there is no connective narrative and each stands alone as a separate piece. They take place in different time periods of Japanese history, from ancient days to a post-apocalyptic future. The pieces are best enjoyed and experienced for their visual impact rather than for any story, for there is very minimal setup or backstory, and the term “style over substance” is vigorously embraced. Some backstory however, would have been useful, in order to make sense and provide context for the setting and events of some of the shorts.

Each director are wildly different in how they chose to tell their tales. The first chapter, “Possession”, is about an itinerant craftsman of sorts who, seeking shelter in a derelict and forgotten shrine from bad weather, finds himself assailed on all sides by tsukumogami, an endearing type of mischievous spirits or monsters formed from unwanted household objects. The use of CG is more overtly apparent, in the blocky design of the main character, and the technology’s usefulness in animating gorgeous detail is fully utilised, resulting in richly designed origami and textiles patterns filling the screen. This short was nominated this year for Best Animated Short category at the Academy Awards, and it’s not hard to see why: apart from its animation, the short has a fable-like quality in its story-telling, as the tsukumogami bemoan their lot, of being callously discarded after years of faithful service and so take out their frustrations on the lone mortal who have strayed into their world.

“Combustible”, the second chapter, is a love story between two young people whose families are neighbours. Forced apart by duty and social convention, they are reunited by the threat of a blaze that rages out of control in their block, a common and deadly hazard in the days of largely wooden cities. This piece draws more heavily on Japanese cultural heritage than the first, as it opens, quite literally, like a fine scroll painting, and simply looks stunning, departing radically from the usual anime style. Another fascinating aspect is the depiction of Japanese firefighting, which looks like a faithful recreation of real historical accounts and techniques. “Combustible” won several awards, like the Grand Prize at the 16th Japan Media Arts Festival and was also nominated for the Academy Awards for animation short last year.

In “Gambo”, the third chapter, a white bear comes to the rescue of a young girl against a giant demon that has been killing the men and kidnapping the girls. Incorporating several elements – the demon’s off-world origin is hinted at, and an injured samurai wears a crucifix – this is a dark and brutish short. The gore and violence is depicted graphically and copiously, and the animation style is coarse and thick, all in contrast to the elegance of the second chapter and the playfulness of the first. With its slightly cheesy dialogue delivered earnestly, and one-word-title film, It feels like a 70’s slasher-exploitation one-word-title film, as if children’s anime like the concept behind “Kimba” was given a radical adult makeover.

In the last, “A Farewell to Weapons”, what looks to be a mobile scavenging unit scours the ruins of a city looking for weapon supplies, and finds itself battling a superweapon, a leftover relic from some unknown war. It starts off a little bit “Top Gun” as the opening montage establishes the stereotypical character types common to every war film (the grizzled leader, the nerd, the lazy rebel, the guy who has dreams of a normal life after the army and who you just know would be the first to die, etc etc), but once into the action, Hajime Katoki’s experience from working on a lot of mecha-based anime (like “Patlabor” and “Gundam”) comes to the fore, creating some of the most exciting man-vs-machine combat sequences I’ve seen in a long while. The thought and attention put into thinking up possible methods of modern warfare and weaponry gives it an unexpected sense of realism, like some sort of futuristic “Hurt Locker”. The ending however, is rather anti-climatic, and while comical, seems a bit unsatisfying and slightly misjudged, given the tone that had been established.

“Short Peace”, despite some flaws, is a hugely enjoyable demonstration of animation and creative style. A welcome change from the usual uniformity of technical execution that dominates a lo of anime fare these days, and a strong powerhouse performance from Japan’s best.


“Possessions” by Shuhei Morita, “Combustible” by Katsuhiro Otomo, “Gambo” by Hiroaki Ando and “A Farewell to Weapons” by Hajime Katoki.

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