by Joshua Polanski Featured Festival Coverage Film

Japan Cuts 2023 — MONDAYS, The Legend & Butterfly, Wandering

August 3, 2023


Anyone who has ever worked a 9-5 office job has likely felt stuck performing the same meaningless tasks day after day. The only possibility to break the cycle, one imagines, is a new job — preferably, doing something different and for better wages, too. There’s something quite pitiful in this dreadful repetition; the social connections that bind coworkers, friends, and lovers are consistently drowned by the anti-social routines of capitalism. Director Ryo Takebayashi’s Mondays takes these mollified routines and creates a Groundhog Day-esque time-loop movie out of them: one advertising office is literally living the same week over and over.

Through its 70-plus iterations of that week, Takebayashi’s film never loses sight of the economic commentary. “We can work on the project until it’s perfect,” one character voices. Since the cycle could hypothetically end at any moment, a prevailing philosophy in the office is to perform their job nonetheless in order to avoid the ruthless corporate repercussions if or when they return to real-time. Of course, the workers eventually realize that their path to ending the cycle depends on their collective decision to prioritize friendships and human connections over their ultimately inane routines. 

Mondays is by no means a subgenre re-defining movie. Formally, it does its part to deliver a competent production and takes few risks along the way. That’s all by design. The routine of advertisement/marketing is boring after all. (Trust me, I know!) It’s also quite vapid when the product for sale, a “miso soup soda tablet,” is even more meaningless and absurd than the job. Aside from a fisheye shot or two, the filmmaking remains conventional for the time loop subgenre, inclusive of fast-paced editing and easily readable images. And that’s precisely the point. Mondays didn’t need to reinvent the wheel — it just found the perfect place to put one, a wonderful vehicle for this specific and blissfully simple social critique. In the words of NBA champion Nikola Jokic, “Nobody likes his job, or maybe they do. They’re lying.”

Credit: Fantasia Fest

The Legend & Butterfly

Repentance is good. At least, it is under certain conditions: it must be clear, sincere, and selfless. Most importantly, while it is always good for the morally at fault to repent, their victims can never be made to forgive their assailant. The Legend & Butterfly, the new film from director Keishi Otomo (Rurouni Kenshin), apparently didn’t get the memo that it’s ineffective artistry to rhetorically force forgiveness without first meriting it.

The film tells the life story of Oda Nobunaga (Takuya Kimura), a man often credited as one of the great unifiers of Japan — and a man in desperate need of repentance. This is no historical epic, though: it’s a historical romance, even if there is never a minute of convincing passion in the entire film. Oda’s wife, Nohime (Haruka Ayase), works from a storytelling perspective as a paragon for Oda’s countless victims of war, and she endures a good deal of his ruthlessness and perpetual misogyny before deciding to ask for a divorce decades into their marriage.

“I’ll kill until no one can oppose me,” Oda claims without a shred of dignity at one point. And kill he does — as daimyō, he defends, conquers, defends, and conquers land in cycles, though the action is trivial in the face of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime. His bloodlust quells any passion between him and Nohime, which is a problem when the story is framed through the guise of a romance, and she is not compelling enough to carry it on her own. Haruka is excellent in the role, always giving just the right amount of emotion for each scene and never over- or under-selling the part; but her abilities are limited by the domestically-oriented script and distinct lack of chemistry with Keishi.

Nohime is only ever defined against masculinity — The Legend and Butterfly; her father, then her husband; she’s a good military tactician despite being a woman — and that inevitably dries out. It’s also never really clear what she saw in the abusive and chauvinist Oda in the first place. Apparently she saw something though: after one run of countryside violence (which she aids her husband in), the two share the longest kiss of the film, with the blood of their victims painted on their cheeks, mixing together as they lock lips. Nothing really turns one on like murdering some villagers, the film would seem to say.

It comes with great irony that the most beautiful scene in the entire film — a loveless romance with an iniquitous man at its center — is of the couple’s end. As dozens of candles surround Oda against the dark night sky while Christian hymns play, Nohime finally asks for a divorce. A brief moment of silence passes with both parties caught in a candle glow, one of the rare noticeable sources of diegetic light in the entire film, before a contemplative Oda grants her request. It’s a scene of pained performance from both leads, and arguably The Legend & Butterfly’s most visually interesting composition. Of course, their separation doesn’t last a lifetime, and the two eventually end up back together. Regardless of whether Nohime ends up forgiving the “legend,” Otomo and screenwriter Ryōta Kosawa can’t force their audience to make the same choice.

The Legend & Butterfly isn’t a film shorn of merit. The production quality is outstanding, and the makeup and costumes are both exceptional… even if (as these things go) only the man seems to age as the 30-odd years pass. At the end of the day, however, one wonders if this would have been better off without the guise and structure of a romance. The legendary Oda ends up being too unbelievable as a loveable and desirable romantic partner, which makes his narrative a tough sell, while also having the effect of brushing away weightier problems like, say, how he earned the nickname “Demon King.” The romance trivializes the violence, and the violence bores the romance; and unlike something more ambitious, like Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, The Legend & Butterfly valorizes its protagonist too much to work outside of the genre standards it all too eagerly adheres to.


Earlier in 2023, this writer vacationed in Montreal and saw Eckhart Schmidt’s The Fan (1982) at the Cinéma Moderne, going in completely blind and only later learning of its controversy: Desireé Nosbusch, who plays the film’s lead, was then only sixteen when she was forced against her will into compromising naked and sexual situations. It seems reasonable, then, to suspect that The Fan would be the most morally compromised film playing this year, but Lee Sang-il Wandering proved this assumption to be terribly wrong. Unlike The Fan, the problem of Wandering is not confined to the ancillary (though very real) issues of its production, but rather, from the crux of its attempted artistry.

Put bluntly, this is a sick film. The basic conceit speaks for itself: Fumi (Tori Matsuzaka) meets a troubled and sexually abused nine-year-old, Sarasa (Suzu Hirose), and lets her stay with him for months before he is eventually arrested for kidnapping. Fifteen years later, the paths of predator and prey cross again, and the two begin something of a courtship. Crucially, Fumi is a pedophile; even though he doesn’t act on his attractions, he puts himself in dangerously close situations. This fact is certainly a spoiler since the revelation comes quite late in the film, but it’s tough to care when such subject matter is used as a “reveal.” Some reviews have named their relationship “platonic,” but this misunderstands the philosophical etymology behind the term and mistakes it for “non-physical.” A platonic version of their relationship would require Fumi to seek help for Sarasa through legal or other systems — not through his own dishonest volition and certainly not by kidnapping her.

Based on Yu Nagira’s eponymous novel, Lee’s adaptation projects like a romance, even though there is no real consummation of that nature of relationship in the present. The most jarring decision on this front comes from the editing room: the story is not told chronologically, but in two parts — the months they spent together when Sarasa was a child, and their time in the present — and even those parts weave in and out of strict chronological events to conceal information or obscure Fumi’s disturbing background. As such, Wandering is edited such that the memories from the predatory-victim timeline play the structural role of the “good days,” in accordance with the expectations of the romantic genre. There is a shell of something more psychologically interesting and purposefully frightening lost in the juxtaposition.

In the present, Sarasa is an adult and can consent to whatever sort of relationship she would like, including — one supposes — with a former groomer. That doesn’t make it less deranged, nor does it make it a wise decision on her part. At the end of the day, though, the emotional bonds of their adult connection were formed under the auspice of predatory power dynamics. Yuck. This writer doesn’t believe in the general philosophy of film criticism that insists on the role of the critic as telling readers what they should or should not see. It’s more interesting to produce criticism that centers on the art of the film rather than the opinion of a reader. With that caveat aside, just this one time, here’s a clear (non-)recommendation: you are far better off without Wandering.

Credit: Fantasia Fest

Under the Turquoise Sky

No film festival would be complete without a road movie. For the 2023 edition of Japan Cuts, the U.S. premiere of Under the Turquoise Sky checks that box. The country being traveled is Mongolia, and the stated purpose is for Takeshi (Yuya Yagir) to find a woman at his grandfather’s request. It’s a film replete with beautiful images, but it’s not quite a beautiful film. There isn’t a single persuasive or winsome character in it; it falls into the same trap of Western films and the romanticized “going East” trope; and, quite frankly, there just isn’t all that much going on in between the appropriately simple images to make it worth watching.

Of course, the real purpose is the journey itself, filled with gorgeous landscape shots of the Mongolian countryside, often featuring the green of its natural backdrop rendered opaque by a layer of mist. This effect engenders a sense of serene peace in a place that, under the hand of cinematographer Ivan Kovac, somehow holds the perpetual look of early morning. This impression of hazy, break-of-day hours is only interrupted by the ugly white van carrying Takeshi and his Mongolian guide (Amra Baljinnyam), whom Kovac and director Kentaro depict (with fascination) urinating in several different locations.

There are a few flashes of boldness hidden in the caverns of this low-momentum film. Most notably, the scenes depicting Takeshi’s father (Akaji Maro) are quite striking in their abstract artistic choices; these sequences drench his office in blistering white lights — not unlike a movie set — with an ambitious production design to accompany it: nothingness. Apart from his desk and assistant, only the bright white holds sway in the frame. Even though this creative decision was likely born of low-budget restrictions, the viewers’ first glimpse of the office seems to carry a sublime weight, as if Takeshi’s father was a being from somewhere decidedly not here — a Japanese man from another time with a previous life, somehow involving the rural Mongolian woman Takeshi is sent to find, and entirely alien to the life of his son. Takeshi, like many of us, must confront the perspective-changing reality of his father’s life before he became his father. Unfortunately, these moments are too few to influence the overall impression left by Under the Turquoise Sky. Kentaro’s film is an ironically meandering movie about an unconvincing wanderer, and it left this viewer longing for something more substantial to pair with its beautiful images.

Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film runs from July 26—August 6, 2023, in New York City. Click here for the schedule and ticket info.