I only flown on two long haul flights last year but the last vacation I had this January meant a third flight abroad allowing me to catch up on recent Japanese films, especially those from 2019. I have seen a few on these flights but I thought of describing a select few of those films I think are worth mentioning.

今夜、ロマンス劇場で / Konya, Romansu Gekijo de
(Color Me True / lit. Tonight at the Romance Theatre)

I have seen a number of films and dramas that starred Ayase Haruka over the years. From these works of hers, she strikes me as a somewhat versatile actor despite an initial impression of her probably more suitable of playing demure types as she does appear prim/proper. She’s pretty good in comedy (the two seasons of NTV’s Hotaru no Hikari comes to mind, as the himono onna) and was surprising in action – she played the female version of Zatoichi in Ichi, and was an ex-spy turned housewife in Okusama wa, Tori Atsukai Chui. Relatively ubiquitous in films, I wasn’t surprised that I got to watch one of her films on the plane. The premise of the story is probably not new – simply put, this is a nostalgic story of a hapless assistant director named Kenji (Sakaguchi Kentaro) who’s smitten with Miyuki (Ayase), the character of a princess in a B&W film, so much so that in the times that he goes to this small cinema to watch the film after work, he feels that sometimes Miyuki would cast a furtive glance at him. Came that fateful night just before the day the elderly cinema owner warned Kenji that the reel of film has been sold to a collector, Miyuki came to the real world from the silver screen. The trouble though, she was in B&W. As a princess, Miyuki has an air about her, looking down at Kenji despite his attempts to help her keep safe. Using make up, Miyuki then looked cosmetically normal and Kenji began to introduce her to the world outside – both of his workplace and the colourful countryside. Kenji began falling for Miyuki but there is something that stops both of them having a meaningful relationship. I can see references that I feel can be derived from unlikely films like John McTiernan’s The Last Action Hero (celluloid characters coming to life in the real world) and the ending scene (minor spoiler) that reeks of the final after-death sequence in Titanic, but on the whole the story was pretty engaging.

As for the story’s background, Kenji’s workplace is typical of Japanese film studios of old (like the one in Ukyo-ku in Kyōto) complete with backlots, which is also reminiscent of the film Uzumasa Limelight. The scenes from the old cinema remind us how the cinema used to be the centre of the surrounding townsfolk’s attention for entertainment, but slowly andsadly, dwindling into obscurity as the years go on. Defo deserves a natsukashii, na expression after watching this.

マスカレード・ホテル / Masukarēdo Hoteru
(Masquerade Hotel)

Another relatively ubiquitous face in Japanese mainstream cinema is Kimura Takuya. Like Ayase Haruka, Kimura has versatility in the types of characters. However, in the many works of his that I have seen, Kimura’s delivery can sometimes still be same-ish – the stoic man that doesn’t say much but is otherwise in the central component of the shot, looking good all the time. Okay, prolly not when he was playing Manji in Mugen no Junin I guess. The film also stars Nagasawa Masami as Naomi, who works at the front desk of the (fictitious) Hotel Cortesia Tōkyō which has been identified by the police that this will be the location of the next murder that will be committed by the clues left behind by a serial killer. A team of police detectives, including the scruffy Nitta Kosuke (Kimura), are transformed into hotel staff so as to allow them to work undercover. Nitta is assigned to the front desk, much to Naomi’s annoyance, especially with his unkempt look and abruptness in his dealing with people. And what did Nitta have to do? Get a haircut, and look sleek throughout the film. Bladi hel – I think it is in his contract perhaps. As usual, a number of guests that turns up in the subsequent days will make the viewer giving second guesses who the culprit will be. A bit draggy at first but I thought things began to pick up better by the beginning of the third act, although in hindsight the scenario was such I (think) I began to have an inkling who the murderer actually is.

One thing I find when I watch enough mainstream Japanese films is the supporting cast which can be a bit same-ish. Like how this film has Kohinata Fumiyo as one of Kimura’s police colleague. Speaking of whom, I wanna try watch The Confidence Man JP which also stars both Kohinata and Nagasawa – but I just realised that this title is based on a Fuji TV drama series of the same title. Will need to watch that first, then.

翔んで埼玉 / Tonde Saitama
Fly Me To The Saitama

Now this film is a gem. Nothing award-winning in this but one of the funniest Japanese film I have seen in a long while, bearing in mind this is from subtitles. I wonder what the jokes will sound like to the native Japanese speaker. The story is set in alternate reality where Tōkyō looks down on her two neighbouring prefectures of Saitama and Chiba in many sense of the word. A Saitama person is seen as highly inferior to a Tōkyō-ite. Anyone from Saitama requires a passport to enter Tōkyō, can only go to school in Tōkyō only if their parents work there and even then, are treated really badly. There’s even a special security force that sniffs out illegal Saitama-ites. The way a Saitama person is badly treated here is so OTT, hence, the laughs. And all these stem from an in-joke of how Tokyo people make fun of their Saitama counterparts. You may then wonder why the title of the story does not include Chiba – this is due to how Chiba has a lot of its infrastructure is named “Tōkyō” (for example Tokyo’s Narita airport is in Chiba-ken, to name one claim) which explains the smugness of the Chiba people over those from Saitama. The story then tells of a secret plan to free Saitama from Tōkyō’s grip on them, by infiltrating Tōkyō’s high society, in the form of a dashing and rich exchange student from NY (who is actually a Saitama-ite) named Asami Rei (played by GACKT). Rei then arrives in Tōkyō to start at a posh high school where the student president is Momomi, the son (played by an actress – Nikaido Fumi) of the Tōkyō governor. I know, weird at first but I wonder if this merely downplaying the BL aspect of the story in its live action form. There are jibes galore aimed at Saitama in this film, but Tōkyō gets a lot back as well.

I showed this film to a friend who is an expat from Yokohama (the governors of Yokohama and Tōkyō are in cahoots in this story) who says there is indeed friendly rivalry and people from Tōkyō and Saitama do make fun of each other using regional stereotypes. If you think Saitama is shown to be a wasteland of sorts, wait till you see how they portray Gunma (I’ve been there lol). If you get to watch this silly film, do watch it.

記憶にございません!/Kioku ni gozaimasen!
Hit Me Anyone One More Time!

And last but not least, another Mitani Koki film is out. Some people aren’t too keen on his stuff, but I find them down-to-earth kind of funny. Nakai Kiichi was in one of Mitani’s previous films (Sutekina kanashibari) and this time he plays Kuroda Keisuke, who is the PM of Japan with a very low popularity rating no thanks to his unpopular methods and policies. Until one day, he got hit on the head from something thrown by an angry crowd following which he doesn’t remember his own self. This fact is known by only three people in his administration, who obviously want to keep a lid on it. Nevertheless, with his new viewpoint in life, the PM began to slowly change things for the better, despite some resistance from certain quarters in his cabinet. Reminds me a bit of Ivan Reitman’s Dave starring Kevin Kline. Typical of politics, another Mitani topic (think Kiyosu kaigi). Similar to his past films, a high number of recognisable actors are in the cast – watch out for Koike Eiko (Legal High, G’more Evian!) as one of the PM’s admin staff who knows of the PM’s amnesia, Satō Koichi (Hana Ikusa) as the maverick newspaper journo and the delectable Yoshida Yō (Baba Reiko from HERO) who plays the leader of the opposition, and mistress to PM as well!

The film will be available to buy at the end of this month, and will be a nice addition to my small Mitani collection.