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REVIEW: Tokyo Drifter

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トーキョードリフター (Tokyo Dorifuta)Released: 2011

Tetsuaki Matsue

Kenta Maeda

Running time: 72 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

“Tokyo Drifter” begins on a black screen with the briefest of announcements. “Latest news on the tsunami situation…” An ad jingle comes up alternating with street noise. A murky shot of a Japanese flag in the darkness gives way to an empty office building with all the lights on. A quick cut to black. A building with a sign – Olympus goes out of focus. Cut to black A long shot of a dark building flashing a couple lights. A train station’s light illuminates many commuters who once they exit find the exterior plunged into darkness. A darkened Toyota sign foregrounds a ribbon of red car taillights snaking away into the night.

The camera zooms in on a traffic island, a handful of folks bustling by, cars zipping by. The auto focus makes the image snap in and out of focus. The camera shakes as singer songwriter, Kenta Maeno, far away unpacks his guitar and begins singing.

The offhand editing is anything but. The shaky and soft images specifically reference the iconic images of the earthquake and tsunami of 3.11 – those awesome and horrifying lo-fi images taken from ketais and digital cameras. These are the aesthetic tools and motifs that make up Tetsue Matsuaki’s off-kilter love letter to Tokyo and the darkness it was thrust into after the great Tohoku earthquake. For months after the earthquake, businesses and public offices turned off neon lights and signs. Streetlights were turned off. Tokyo, famous for its illuminated nightscape was an eerily changed city.

A couple of years ago, Matsuaki and Maeno made the indie sensation, “Live Tape” – a single shot feature that followed Maeno singing and improvising on a long walk through Kichijoji, a hip neighborhood in western Tokyo. He revisits a similar trope in “Tokyo Drifter” with Maeno singing an album’s worth of material over one rainy night, this time in different neighborhoods around Tokyo. The new film, however, finds the director and his singing muse much more focused, even as Maeno drifts around different sites on his motorcycle a couple months after the disaster.

Maeno’s first song, sung on a dimly lit traffic island with passersby consciously ignoring him builds images of people traveling via a night bus – young lovers and old men, rain and snow and lonely stations. The bittersweet ideas of drifting travelers filled with hopes and broken dreams set the stage for Maeno’s own seemingly aimless travels through the darkened quarters of the city he both loves, but has a fair share of criticism for.

Next we see him in Ginza, in a dark alley, a Louis Vuitton store’s sign casting a ghostly glow in the background. He signs a questioning love song…

A woman’s friendship’s an enigma
A woman’s friendship’s what I need

… followed up with another song – a slacker’s remembrance of a sticky past summer. He hits the road singing:

Blue sky and the sun are calling
… these days of youth
Off we go staying young and fearless
Off we go on a journey
through these days of youth
When in tears of in joy
We’ll stay friends as we journey on

We next find him sitting in front of a closed hair salon in Meidaimae, another hip area on the west side of town, singing a sad and beautiful song suggesting that the words love and loneliness are words that he longs to be gone. Maeno is a romantic at heart. He gets up and wanders down a dark shotnegai, again singing a reminiscence of a hot summer. Next we see him in front an anonymous apartment, still in darkness, where he sings another bittersweet love song. Through these songs he speaks of hot unbearable days, cockroaches and generally nasty stuff with a longing and appreciation for what life in Tokyo is really about.

Next we find him in Shibuya where he delivers a wickedly funny song of pure self-revulsion, “Fuck Me.” He wanders toward the famous crossing singing a set of songs loosely built around wistful impressions and celebrations of rainy nights and days, 120-yen coffee and the crass consumption that’s the essential metaphor for life in Tokyo. When he reaches the crossing the huge video monitors, neon lights and signs that usually keep the place in constant daylight are off. The Shibuya crossing is rarely seen like this.

He hits the road as the rain grows stronger singing the AKB 48 hit of last spring, “Heavy Rotation.”

I want you
I need you
I love you
My mind…
Love’s on heavy rotation
Heavy rotation

Next he’s in front of a convenience store, its sign off. He’s silhouetted only by the interior neon. The rain pours down as he sings a couple more songs – one about the impossibility of knowing others’ lives and the other a tortured love song to Tokyo itself.

This worn down magnificent city
Dreams, hope and passion
Pathetic, but it’s
Breaking up with your
First meeting you
I realized that I loved this city
This worn down city of youth
The lights go down
The young move out

The final scene finds Maeno at dawn on a dike by a river, the city in the background. He sings a rather heroic song binding ideas of the past and future, looking to “the new morning sunrise.” He tosses his pick away as the camera goes into a close up of his dirty fingers playing a circle of fifths. A blackout as the music continues and a studio mixed band fills in the final “Tokyo Drifter’ song (not the Hajime Kaburagi version). Shots of Maeno on his motorcycle continuing his journey give way to the credits.

“Tokyo Drifter,” Tetsuaki and Maeno’s paean to the darkness, to Tokyo as physical presence – in all it’s filth and glory – and a state of mind, boldly takes the defining national tragedy of 2011 and turns it on its head, finding a bit of light and hope from it all. As he told me, “The Tokyo now and the Tokyo then is different. In May everyone was on edge. They didn’t know what was happening. I prefer Tokyo then in May, rather than the Tokyo we’re in now.”

Originally published on J-Film Pow-Wow, Monday, January 16, 2012


Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 22, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Nicholas Vroman’s Top Five Favorite Films of 2011

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Nicholas Vroman, our man in Tokyo, is in the enviable position of getting a look at theatrical releases and festival premieres that us other Pow-Wow contributors only dream of. Here are his top theatrical picks from Japan from 2011.

1. Saya Zamurai (dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto)
If you had any doubt, “Saya Zamurai” puts Hitoshi Matsumoto up there with the great comedic auteurs of all time. We’re talking Keaton, Chaplin, Tati and maybe Jerry Lewis. From his first film, “Dainipponjin” to “Symbol” to this one, he’s deconstructed comedy brilliant, if somewhat intellectually. The laughs were more in the mind than the belly. Here he lays the whole idea of comedy and its commerce bare with his hapless hero’s attempts to save his own life through an increasing spectacle of bad jokes – and brings it all around to a moving denouement. In “Saya Zamurai” Matsumoto digs deep into his finely honed comic mind and finds his heart.

2. I Wish (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s joyful “Kiseki” (I Wish) was the perfect antidote to the downbeat mood that has gripped the nation after the great Touhoku earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis. It’s a family movie, and thus didn’t register so highly on most critics’ radars, but what a family movie it is. Kore-eda’s exploration of dreams and hopes isn’t filled with sugar-coated platitudes. The broken dreams and concessions of adults exist side by side with the impossible (and some possible) dreams of the kids who are the engines that drive the film. Maeda Maeda, the pint-sized manzai team who front the film are a joy to watch as they shake up themselves and those around them to at very least make them (and the viewers) recognize that it’s the doing that’s most important.

3. Household X (dir. Koki Yoshida)

“Household X,” Koki Yoshida’s austere an uncompromising exploration of a disintegrating family seems to tread on old ground, with its images of extreme urban alienation and stripped down drama – if one can call long passages of silence and non-communication “drama.” But looking at the motifs and images that bind the story – and the family – together shows a very assured director working with rigor and not a single unnecessary shot. Yoshida knows how to make the most mundane shot significant. “Tokyo Sonata” covered similar ground, but seems downright melodramatic and clichéd compared to “Household X.”

4. My Back Page (dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita)

Nobuhiro Yamashita brings out the best from stars Kenichi Matsuyama as a psychopathic charismatic radical leader and Satoshi Tsumabuki as a young reporter. The smartly directed duo get the rare opportunity to dig into the crazy times of social and political change with a cinematic chemistry that makes a beautiful emotional sense of the relationship between two complex men. “My Back Page” is a welcome addition to a recent spate of films dealing with the radical turmoil of 30 or so years ago. Coupling a bittersweet nostalgia with an unromantic looks at motivation, actions and consequences, it reveals and revels in an emotional honesty that says more than most history books.

5. Tokyo Drifter (dir. Tetsuaki Matsue)

As in “Live Tape,” Matsue Tetsuaki follows singer Kenta Maeno, this time over one rainy night in Tokyo. Maeno’s love/hate songs to Tokyo work like a concept album. Countered with the ugly, shaky and increasingly degraded look of the visuals (shot by “My Back Page” and “Saya Zamurai” cinematographer, Ryuto Kondo), Tetsuaki perversely explores images, sounds and expectations. As an analog and reference to the handheld ketai images that documented 3.11, the images of “Tokyo Drifter” counterpunch with a celebration of the darkness that engulfed Tokyo for a few months, daring to say, “these are the better times.” Tokyo Drifter’s an audacious and uneven film that brings up a wealth of questions in search of resolutions.

Originally published in J-Film Pow-Wow January 5, 2012.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 15, 2012 at 2:03 am

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Suzuki Seijun Revival

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As Seijun Suzuki nears his 89th year and news of a new film by him is in the works, a revival of his Taisho Roman Trilogy is hitting the big screen again. After being unceremoniously dumped by Nikkatsu in the late 60s, Suzuki made only one film in the 70s. But in 1980, Zigeunerwiesen, the first of his famous trilogy, appeared.  Producer Genjiro Arato screened the film in a tent he set up near the Tokyo Dome. The film became an indie hit that year, winning several Japanese Academy Awards and topping most critics’ best lists. Thirty-one years later, it still stands up as one of Suzuki’s many masterpieces. Unfettered by the studios’ demands, Suzuki let his imagination and his incredible visual style fly. Zigeunerwiesen creates a dreamscape of a story involving Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a professor, his errant colleague Nakasago (the late, great Yoshio Harada), Aochi’s wife Shuko (Michiyo Okusa), a geisha, Koini and Nakasago’s wife Sono (both played by Naoko Otani) in a love pentangle. Zigeunerwiesen takes a strain of Bunuelian surrealism to new extremes, juxtaposing dream imagery, creating impossible and hermetic logical constructions and mostly, exploring the possibilities of mad love – all with a subversive sense of humor, leavened with perverseness and bawdiness. The end result is still eye-popping and thrilling after all these years. Suzuki followed up quickly with Kageroza the next year. Here many of the themes that Suzuki would expand with his later masterpieces, Pistol Opera and Princess Raccoon, seem to get a dress rehearsal. Again, a deliciously perverse story obliquely unfolds. It may all be a dream in the mind of its central character, playwright Shungo Matsuzaki (Yusaku Matsuda). The story is built around a certain object of his desire, who gives him her soul in the form of what’s translated to bladder cherry (actually a ground cherry).  With thematic and visual motifs referencing Zigeunerweisen – two male characters involved with various permutations and doppelgangers of wives and lovers, a juxtaposition of the changing fashions and mores as Japan adopted Western ideas and a fervid interior logic – Kageroza expands on and abstracts it all. Suzuki throughout his career tended toward theatricality, but in Kageroza, the façade of filmic realism is overtly deconstructed. The final scene of the film finds our hero watching a kabuki play performed by kids. It’s as if Suzuki is going into the id-theatre of his mind and putting it on screen. The final part of the trilogy, Yumeji, almost seems conventional against the other films. The story is (very) loosely based on the life of decadent illustrator, Takahisa Yumeji. Played by Kenji Sawada, he’s portrayed in all his pretense and moral failings. The plot twists around a mad killer, a dead (or not) husband, the artist and the women/objects in their lives juxtaposing humor and gravity. A new look at these masterpieces confirms Suzuki’s place in the pantheon.

Originally published in EL Magazine, January 2012

Bakumatsu taiyoden / The Sun Legend of the End of the Tokugawa Era / 幕末太陽傳

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Director Yuzo Kawashima was the subject of a small retrospective at the 2011 Tokyo Filmex. His acknowledged masterwork – often on ten best ever Japanese film lists and a favorite of Kurosawa – is Bakumatsu taiyoden. For the 100 year anniversary of Nikkatsu brand new print of this overlooked masterpiece has been struck. The Shohei Imamura penned film chronicles the times (the 1860s) and the adventures of Saheji (Frankie Sakai), a good-time hustler who runs up his bill at a brothel and is forced to work there to pay it off. His run-ins with crooks, johns, prostitutes and panoply of characters, shown through an almost Altman-esque tapestry, highlight a certain Tokyoite archetype that goes against the usual Japanese stereotype. Sakai, who’s always brilliant, celebrates the brash, conniving and generous spirit that Imamura made central to his oeuvre throughout his career as a director. Kawashima’s spot on direction keeps the action comic, lively and moving. The sometimes impenetrable slang and accents add to the mayhem, though they may be a bit difficult for non-natives (and natives too!).

Originally published in EL Magazine, January 2012

Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 5, 2012 at 3:07 am

10 Best Japanese Films 2011

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2011 in Japan was marked by the disaster of 3.11. The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown decisively changed the conversation of the future of Japan. By the end of the year, a number of documentary filmmakers presented an array of either heartfelt, pandering, exploitive and/or amateurish films attempting to grapple with the issues. The commercial cinema by and large ignored the the most important, game changing event of the last half century beyond announcing a few films, the worst of which, The Woodsman and the Rain, as escapist placebos to the genuine national tragedy of 3.11.

I only included one film on my ten best, questionable as a documentary (it’s something beyond that rubric), dealing with 3.11. Sitting on my desk, unseen as of yet, is a DVD of Yoju Matsubayashi’s Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape, one film that everyone I know recommends highly. Toshi Fujiwara’s No Man’s Zone, which premiered at Tokyo Filmex this year, is an intriguing and flawed film, that didn’t quite make it to my top 10 list. Nonetheless, as we rapidly approach the first anniversary of the disaster, I’m interested in how the commercial industry and the indie world will tackle the defining national issue of the early 21st century.

In my capacity as a writer for a local magazine, I’ve  have the distinct pleasure of viewing a mess of really bad films – many from filmmakers who can and should do better. This year’s releases by Sono Sion (Guilty of Romance), Ryuichi Hiroyuki (River) and Shinji Aoyama (Tokyo Park) come to mind.

Between the banality of commercial Japanese product, a disparate and unfocused indie community and the monumental effects of 3.11 – culturally, monetarily and emotionally – it seemed a particularly weak year for Japanese film. But amongst the dross, there was some genuine gold.

Herewith are my favorite Japanese films of the year.

Saya Zamurai / Scabbard Samurai

Funnyman Hitoshi Matsumoto, in his third big screen outing, brought massive heart to his natural inclination toward heady intellectual comedy. The story of Nomi, a sadsack samurai who has 30 days to make the disconsolate son of the local shogun laugh or face death, sets up the situation for an exploration of the art and commerce of comedy. Small stupid jokes turn into spectacle as Nomi-san goes to his inevitable end. The laughter and the tears are well earned. Matsumoto is one of the best comedy directors to come down the pike in quite a while. Saya Zamurai puts him in the leagues with all-time greats. We’re talkin’ Chaplin, Keaton and Tati here.

Website (Japanese)


Kiseki / I Wish

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish, was met with some reduced expectations and bit of downputting. Coming on the heels of his outre fable, Air Doll, some critics wanted something a little more sexy than the story of a couple of brothers, waiting for a new train line to be completed. They were totally wrong. I Wish delivered a moving tale about dreams and wishes – fulfilled and unfulfilled – with deep honesty, bittersweet humor and some purely magical moments of cinema. The ensemble of actors, fronted by the child manzai team, brothers Koki and Oshiro Maeda were impeccable. I Wish was the perfect antidote to the gloom that hit the nation after 3.11. It stands among Kore-eda’s best films, which is saying a lot.

Website (Japanese)


Kazoku X / Household X

Household X, the second film by Koki Yoshida, was one of the most thrilling discoveries of the year. Simple and unsentimental, a story unfolds of a family falling apart. Following in a tradition of tales of urban alienation, Yoshida uses a shaky Dogma-esqe style to show the details, faces and places that’s part Chantal Akerman, part John Cassavetes. There’s not a thrown away shot in the film. Each image holds on it’s own while developing leitmotifs and associations that ultimately build to seeming soft, but emotionally purging climax. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata covered similar territory a couple of years ago, but seems sentimental and cliched compared to Yoshida’s timely masterpiece.

Website (Japanese)


My Back Page

Nobuhiro Yamashita, best known for Linda Linda Linda, took two of Japan’s most popular actors, Kenichi Matsuyama and Satoshi Tsumabaki, giving them roles they could finally sink their teeth into. For someone born in 1976, Yamashita gets the 60s and 70s much better than most people who lived through those heady years. My Back Page’s exploration of the idealism curdled by madness and ideology – and how it was enabled – manages both to celebrate and criticize the time and characters. Contemporary filmmakers have been looking back at those years. Last year’s  Norwegian Wood comes to mind. But all pale in emotional depth and capturing the zeitgeist of the times as well as My Back Page.

Website (Japanese)



Film and installation artist Yuichiro Tamura’s ever changing experimental short (he re-edits it whenever screens it) NIGHTLESS is made solely of still images from Google Earth animated. Going down roads, past houses in the USA and Japan, NIGHTLESS show a world of mystery, timelessness and foreboding. The soundtrack bounces from an entirely absurd yarn (by Tamura) about growing up in Omaha to random police radio recordings. Tamura’s brilliant collage of seemingly arbitrary stuff shows him to be a master at pulling hidden and profound meanings out of the things of this world.

Yuichiro Tamura’s Blog (Japanese and English)


Soreiyu no kodomotachi / Children of Soleil

Children of Soleil is a documentary following the life of Yasuo Takashima (AKA Ojichan), a bit of human flotsam, who has found himself living living on a boat on a canal in southern Tokyo with his dogs and a growing collection of junk boats and garbage. He’s a nutty character, who somewhere between his own obsessions, temperament, mental illness and alcoholism brings a profundity  to his yarns about his life and living on the canal. Director Yoichiro Okutani spent 2 years embedding with and befriending Ojichan to bring his story to the screen. Okutani’s eye, compassion and smart directoral decisions make Children of Soleil the best documentary of year.

Tokyo Drifter

Matsue Tetsuaki returns to the screen with his singing songwriting buddy Kenta Maeno for an album’s worth of songs shot over one rainy night in May on the darkened streets of Tokyo. That’s all there is. Maeno singing and the rather dull backdrop of convenience stores, shuttered storefronts, rain – Tokyo in all its ugliness. After 3.11, the otherwise neon-lit metropolis became darkened shadow of it’s usual neon-lit glory. Tetsuaki and Maeno amazingly turn the bad times of early 2011 into a celebration of the place, of the darkness itself and of the potential of this changed city. Tokyo Drifter has the audacity to suggest that the post-3.11 world is the better times. The darkness turns to a sort of bassackwards optimism and I, for one, believe it.

Website (Japanese)


Monsters Club

After Toshiaki Toyoda’s abysmal stoner slog of a couple of years ago, The Blood of Rebirth, expectations were a little low for Monsters Club, but damn, what return to form it turned out to be. Starring big eared heartthrob Eita, Monsters Club is a parable about a Ted Kaczynski-like hermit, living in a snowy Hallmark beautiful woods, sending letter bombs to the powerful. It’s a film that’s not perfect, but walks the high wire, bringing a mix of elements – the poetry of Kenji Miyazawa, performance artist Pyuupiru and a whole lot more – and pulling it off terrifying and beautiful brilliance.

Website (Japanese)



I’ve been following Amir Naderi’s CUT over the last couple of years through production to its premiere. It’s a singular work, by one of the guys who invented contemporary Iranian cinema. CUT follows the travails of a young cineaste/filmmaker who becomes a human punching bag for a bunch of yakuza thugs in order to pay off his late brother’s debts. It’s a grueling watch as he is endlessly beaten. He survives by evoking… movies! The great ones that sustain the world. CUT is a cinephile’s movie. It’s big, passionate, referential and ultimately rewarding.

Website (Japanese)

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Henji wa iranai / No Reply

At the age of 24, Satoru Hirohara seems to be embarked on “documenting” his generation with his second film, No Reply. It’s a slacker dramadey, following a couple on the verge of a breakup – a bit of a staple for young filmmakers. What makes No Reply work, is the layers of allusions, the details and ultimately a sort of reconciliation of the characters and a squaring up of their seemingly random trajectories into a fulfillment of their creative desires. No Reply works not just as a fascinating cultural window, but a celebration of being twenty-something.


Originally published in Hot Splice, January 3, 2011