Welcome back to the Katsuhito Ishii boxset, Part 2, covering Promise of August (1995), Sorasoi (2008), Hello! Junichi (2014) and Norioka Workshop (2022).
To be screamingly original, I thought I’d start with Ishii’s first film, the 50-minute short Promise of August.
Three friends, Mizuno (Sanae Ueki), Mochitsuki (Tomo Taniguchi) and Morita (Tomoko Suzuki) set off into the country, following a map stolen by Mizuno from her boyfriend. The marijuana map. Lost, without much of an idea of what the map says, they wave down the awkward Okai (Dankan), to follow a couple of bikers they think might be going in the direction of the treasure.
Promise of August feels like it has a lot in common with Ishii’s later The Taste of Tea, in how it tends to be a lightly surreal drama. Narratively not much happens per se and so it's often about the details, such as the stuffed boar in the restaurant the women first visit, or the real reason the bikers are going off into the woods. Like The Taste of Tea, tonally they are consistent and manage to thematically link together, especially the bikers' and Okai’s story.
Visually, going out into the woods, Ishii allows the natural beauty to speak for itself, often allowing the camera to linger, so none of the occasional kineticisms of Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl, which work in the films favour because though it’s superficially a story about treasure, it’s really about the characters.
The three women feel distinct, Mizuno being the more thoughtful, the boss Morita being forthright, whereas Mochitsuki is very much the goofy one, often called stupid. They feel right as three slightly oddball friends and often shine when they are curiously menacing. When Okai first stops his car, the way they act, either outrageous or openly staring at him, give a curious sense of threat, providing a nice edge. Often, they are in your face to Okai, scrutinising him, again such that their forthrightness can feel almost disturbing and you can imagine him perhaps wanting to drive off. Until you understand his story and why he would not just want to ditch the three friends at the first opportunity. That said I did find that Mochitsuki, played by Tomo Taniguchi, a bit irritating at times. Her goofy, off the wall performance was likely as the character was intended, but it was hard to feel that friends would put up with her for too long, as she leans towards the childish. Considering there is no real backstory here, no obvious motivation, Sanae Ueki as Mizuno and Tomoko Suzuki as Morita fare the best, especially Mizuno with her sensitivity matched with that occasional air of menace.
The ending weaves together thematic strands quite nicely but arguably Ishii lets it go on too long, some aspects of the humour become a bit laboured, so that I wished he’d cut off two to three minutes.
Musically, the score is simple but fits well within the film, containing aspects of playfulness, always adding to the mood without ever taking over.
As a start for the director, you can see here aspects of the future and it’s quietly confident - if a little flawed at times - yet at its best flows nicely and is quietly enticing visually.
Then onto Sorasoi, which I kept misreading as Sasori, leaving me in mind of Meiko Kaji in the Female Prisoner 701 Scorpion films.
A mostly incompetent university dance club practice during their summer holidays. They stay at a small off-the-grid hostel and spend their days bitching about each other and failing to practice on the beach for an upcoming dance competition. A wanderer from the city, Yuri, checks into the same hostel, and one of the dancers Ryu takes an interest in her.
Defining Sorasoi is hard, because honestly I found the film hard going. Part comedy, slight drama, a bit of... actually the film to me just felt slight all round. Co-directed by Ishii with Shunichiro Miki (Funky Forest, The Warped Forest) and Yuuuka Ooosumi (spelling per the credits), Sorasoi, sadly, went nowhere. Visually it lacks any of the energy of Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, gone is the gentle engaging surrealness of The Taste of Tea, or the characters in that film that draw you in. I found that for the first 30-minutes I gave it the benefit of the doubt and then the film really just didn’t seem able to find out what it wanted to be or where to go. For a 90-minute film the latter half felt dragged down by the lack of characterisation and story.
I struggled to find anything to invest in, which is a shame because when Yuri’s reason for being there is revealed there’s some interesting reversals and there is genuinely some potential chemistry between Ryu and Yuri, but the filmmakers don’t seem interested in it. Frankly they don’t seem interested in much, considering the greater part of the film is a series of poorly delineated characters dancing badly on the beach, or else in the bath bitching about each other or imagining how attractive they might be to the opposite sex if they could dance well.
If it had been a short film it might have worked, but for a full feature there’s nothing in here. Yes it’s light-hearted but sadly the film lacked any substance. There’s some nice use of sound, mainly for odd moments of comedy, but an odd moment a film does not make; equally there were some genuinely engaging aspects, such as the newlywed wife to one of the university staff, how she is initially bored then sucked into the dance. Equally, when Yuri’s boyfriend turns up there’s some pleasing character legerdemain.
When the credits roll you realise the characters names are almost identical to those of the actors, so it's likely a "friends together" film and it shows. Looking like it was shot on digital and probably using only the natural light in any location, visually it’s not as exciting as you might except from Ishii. Yet there is at least one lovely moment early on where Yuri is shown some miniature devices used for shaving fish skin. It’s a small cutaway but it's engaging, unlike some other cutaway moments such as the two shirtless characters that turn up occasionally to chant and flap their arms. Are we meant to find this amusing or charming? Honestly, this felt like a home movie in which those involved may well have had a great time, but it contains little for an audience to identify with.
As I say it’s s shame because if the film had stopped trying to be twee and actually engaged in its two leads there might have been something really interesting to work with. The dance coach, for instance, actually transforms as a character and the actor has some heft to him when given the chance, but the film just never puts the work in. Yes, we do get an ending and in another film it might have had emotional resonance, but because we have no real characters to commit to that resonance is mainly lost, even if the final image is a nicely judged and emotionally meaningful one. But it’s too little, too late. Interestingly, afterwards I discovered that the actors were from Ishii’s studio and it felt like knowing that many things fell into place.
Get dancing... badlly
Hello! Junichi had something very much in its favour, the presence of Hikari Mitsushima, who though having disappeared from our screens a bit in the last few years was always a favourite of mine. So could Hello! Junichi rescue Ishii from Sorasoi?
Nine-year-old Junichi fancies Maeda in his class, only he’s much too shy to admit it. Luckily student teacher Anna (Mitsushima) arrives, to help bring him out of his shell.
I liked the concept of the opening, Junichi and his friends, all of whom are different: the rich kid, the child actor, the overbearing delinquent, etc. each of whom is dressed as they might as an adult: Junichi is dorkish, another is clad in a baseball shirt, one ripped leather trousers, and so forth, are really teenagers in younger children’s clothes. Nevertheless, the introduction of their student teacher Anna alongside their middle-aged, tooth-deacyed and heartbroken regular teacher (Yoshiyuki Morishita), brings change, as well as some much-appreciated heft courtesy of Mitshushima. At first, she is a student teacher going through the motions in an almost cruel manner, but becomes more rounded as she gets involved with the lives of her students.
The film takes a while to get going and to be fair the first half could have been been cut to make it more effective, because it threatens to drag its feet. Thankfully Hello! Junichi instead gives us hints that are fulfilled of the humanity to come. Junichi’s short sequences with his grandfather for instance, while they fit snugly into Ishii’s quirkiness they matter in terms of character. It develops a relationship between child and grandfather, and most importantly allows Junichi to become more interesting as he is able to speak to his grandfather, whereas before this he threatens to become a tedious trope of "The Child Unable to Communicate". Anna, also brings out another side of him. Most importantly, as the film progresses, so the teen/child tropes generally start to fall to the wayside and Junichi and his friends start to feel more like actual friends not just a fractious group; meanwhile we also get to see behind the surface of other characters, such as Kurokawa and what his homelife must be like, and also how he represses his emotions. Essentially, Ishii allows the film’s heart to emerge.
What struck me watching the film is that as the latter half of the film emerges so does its soul and it has heart. The counterpoint to Sorasoi really becomes apparent in the denouement to Hello! Junichi, because as they play out their narrative similarities are legion, but Hello! Junichi has emotional impact because it invests in its characters rather than simply meandering.
Even the performances of the children in Hello! Junichi seem immeasurably superior to most of those in Sorasoi. They are not always perfect - Kabe Amo as Junichi is sometimes over the top - but like the rest when asked to not go into broad comedy mode (usually those moments where the film does drag) evinces something more relatable as the child as teen. Though perhaps Rio Sasak as Tanaka, of all the child actors, gets the highest acolade, if only for the moment when she calls out three older teenagers who have taped her to a pillar. Unafraid and unrepentant, they have no words to refute her. Though of course the best is Mitsushima even if she disappears for parts of the film; she effortlessly moves from disinterested, sometimes angry to engaged in her students and it has a "realness" to it because her young students become far more like real people as the film progresses.
Admittedly some aspects of the character arcs you can see coming a mile off but that never matters too much when you appreciate that they feel right, and we can be emotionally invested in both the cast and the story presented to us. Yes, the film is a bit too long, even if just a few minutes over ninety, nevertheless there is also a renewed vigour to Ishii visually. It's not always apparent as its still a bit overly static, but there’s more focus here, a return to clarity and creativity because - I have to be honest - the more I thought about Sorasoi, the more deeply disappointing it felt to me, like ishii and his collaborators had utterly lost the plot to self-indulgence. That said again, this film like the previous via Ishii’s company Nice Rainbow, is a collaboration with Kanoko Kawaguchi and Atsushi Yoshioka.
So with that we move to the last film in this collection, another short: Norioka Workshop.
An actor, Norioka (Ryu Morioka), is in the frame for a new role as a conman, meanwhile he’s also running an actor's workshop. Enter Nami (Yuka Harada) and Mari (Saki Taniuchi), to whom he starts to teach the craft of acting, though Mari especially seems curiously aggressive and nothing we see may be quite as it seems.
In some ways Norioka Workshop may be the best film in the set. Though a shorty thirty-minutes, and with only four actors, one of whom barely even enters into the film, it is nevertheless a film that has Ishii as sole writer and director and is all the better for it. Right from the off, as these two attractive young women enter Norioka’s rather modernist home (which I did wonder if it might be Ishii’s own), something is definitely off. Mari has unusual bite, yet both seem interested in how Norioka describes the nuances between theatre, screen and television acting, and how one might express themselves as a yakuza or a detective. Ishii uses some nice split screen to show both Norioka’s performance and the women’s reactions. Also, his framing differs, the theatre moments being wider, the cinematic closer to the face, the televisual more medium shot. It’s really well composed and performed.
The story then takes on a number of turns, none of our protagonists being quite what we might initially believe them to be, for different reasons, but like Hello! Junichi, there’s a sense heart here, as well as an ending that leaves you questioning what’ll occur after the film ends. Thematically it pulls together well but to explain why would be to give away the film. Plus, there’s just enough social bite to it to give the film a bit of an extra edge. I’m not normally much of a fan of short films but in this one Ishii gives the film just long enough, anymore and it could have nudged over into becoming self-indulgent.
So what of this second series of films in the boxset? You’ll have read my individual observations. Clearly, it would be hard to beat the "Big Guns" in the first part of the review, but if I I seem harsh on Sorasoi it’s because I hate to see talent wasted after the potential of even Promise of August and then shown In Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, let alone The Taste of Tea. But that film really dragged me down, bizarrely so. One thing I try and do when reviewing is be as fair as possible and what I think as the Alex Cox Introduction Method. People of a certain age (and I only just touch that) may remember his introductions to The Moviedrome, a series of films on BBC 2, often cult ones, where he gave his thoughts. He admits some of these films he hated, but in his intros he always tried to pull out things that were interesting, to describe moments that were effective or performances that maybe transcended those elements he disliked. I tried to do that with Sorasoi as best I could, because there was potential there and some really effective short individual moments, but if anything it would have been better as a thirty-minute film. That said for all it was a children’s film, Hello! Junichi had real heart and despite a slow start and finish that was a bit obvious, it didn’t matter because the sentiment was spot-on. And the right sentiment allows you as a viewer to accept a lot. Promise of August does a lot right and sets out Ishii’s cinematic agenda, even if arguably it does go overboard at times in the laboured humour, its quirkiness is individual and the film sometimes wrongfoots you nicely.
And though a part 2 review, I have to consider the boxset as a whole. The score below will be for part 2. While this set doesn’t have the strength of the recent Obayashi at Kadokawa quartet - and that was a surprisingly thrilling series of cinematic surprises - it still has an awful lot to entertain you with, and I think you have to consider that some of the films may appeal to some more than others. For instance those more overtly comedic moments may not hit the spot with some, especially as comedy does not always travel well and certainly what I perceive as Ishii collaborator Miki’s comic style frankly rubs me the wrong way at times. So, in that I recognise some films are pitched more at me than others. Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl was always going to be hard to beat, and The Taste of Tea, though not in this set, will for many be the high watermark.
So while this may not be my favourite Third Window release, when you consider for £45 - and bear in mind Criterion flog some blu-rays for barely a tenner less than this – what you are getting may be a mixed bag but there’s some great films in here, some average ones and some which, let’s face it, may float the boat of some more than others. I think most people would get a kick of out Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, will enjoy Party 7 and then enjoy the rest to varying degrees dependant on individual tastes.
Regardless of whatever score I have to give, the fact remains we should celebrate that Third Window and Adam Torrel keeps the energy going to release these collections to the wider market. It really is a work of cultural sharing that ought to be admired.
Finally, here’s my signed copy of the boxset from the night (once they’d got the card machine to start working again).