The Shaman Sorceress (무녀도, Ahn Jae-hun, 2018)

Inspired by a well known short story first published in 1936, Ahn Jae-hun’s painterly animation The Shaman Sorceress (무녀도, munyeodo) situates itself in a Korea at a moment of acute crisis, presented with images of “modernity” which are inevitably bound with those of Westernisation though the conflicts we are presented with are largely ideological and spiritual rather social or political. Nevertheless, there is an unavoidable lament for a lost Koreanness and infinite sadness for those undone by their own inability to find accommodation with changing times. 

Like many similar tales from Korea, Shaman Sorceress opens with a framing sequence which is never closed in which the narrator reflects on what is technically the film’s present from some point in the future. He reveals that he is from a noble family and that his grandfather was once known as a connoisseur of art and antiques, but the world is changing and the age of the aristocracy is coming to a close. Faced with declining fortunes, the family has sold off most of its collection and so they rarely receive so many visitors as they once did but are keen to receive those they do which is why his grandfather gives temporary lodging to a prodigious young painter, Nang-Yi, the 17-year-old orphaned daughter of a shamaness who lost her hearing in childhood illness. 

The narrator then goes on to relate Nang-Yi’s story which was related to him by his grandfather who heard it from the man with whom Nang-Yi was travelling. This is not actually about Nang-Yi, who becomes something like the protector of traditional Korean culture through her survival and her art, but her mother, an usual woman of the Joseon era who found herself surviving alone on the margins of society. Mohwa (So Nya) never marries but has two children by different men and resolves to raise both of them alone. Aware that her bright son Wook-Yi (Kim Da-hyun) lacks male influence, she decides to send him to the temple at 9 years old to further his education and increase his future prospects. His younger sister Nang-Yi, however, falls into such a depression in his absence that she becomes ill and loses her hearing further adding to Mohwa’s sense of maternal guilt. When she too falls ill and begins having visions, Mohwa awakens as a shamaness ministering to the townspeople who account her a powerful interceder with the supernatural able to cure the most serious of ills. 

The crisis occurs when 15-year-old Wook-Yi leaves the temple for the city where he is “corrupted” by modernity in the form of Western Christianity as preached by American missionaries. Disillusioned with Buddhism, he is converted by the idea of a single loving God and hopes to save the souls of those around him but is insensitive to his mother’s beliefs as a shamaness while she in turn is intolerant of his new faith, believing he has been possessed by “that Jesus ghost”. What transpires between them as perhaps any parent and child is a tussle over the future, but their tragedy is that their ideology is so mutually exclusive that they can find no way to co-exist while Nang-Yi is trapped between them as a representative of the chaotic present neither allied with past or future. 

The film, however, leans heavily towards a defence of Christianity even as it criticises both mother and son for their rigid dogmatism, neither able to accept that their way is not the only way. Mohwa faces existential threat as a shamaness who is no longer feared or respected, her noisy rituals seen as backward while the townspeople increasingly flock towards the subdued power of prayer while edging towards a moral austerity which condemns her for living outside of socially conservative patriarchal social codes as an unmarried mother of two allowed greater freedom in her spiritual authority. “Life’s supposed to be lonely” she explains to a departed soul she’s trying to convince to move on, but might as well be talking to herself as she tries to accommodate her grief and maternal guilt but finds herself prevented from moving on into a new modernity of which Christianity is only a part. 

The overriding sentiment is one of futility in an acceptance that progress will always win in the end, as reflected in the narrator’s wistful lament of his noble family’s gradual decline. Seemingly aimed at a wide audience not exclusively adult, Ahn tackles some difficult themes from alcoholism to incestuous desire not to mention the more complex meditation on the loss of the feudal past and the costs of modernity while continuing to express the conflict musically in his use of traditional singing styles in Mohwa’s rituals and a more conventional broadway register in Wook-Yi’s passionate defences of his faith. While the frequent flights into song may seem incongruous, they are perhaps more common in Korean animation of this kind than they might be in that from other cultures, particularly in films not expressly aimed at younger children who are unlikely to engage with the weighty themes despite the simplistic yet often beautiful aesthetics which present a less complicated view of the feudal past as one of idyllic pastoralism. 


Festival trailer (dialogue free)

Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2009)

“Music saves the world” according to a hold out record store owner keeping the doors open in the wake of coming disaster. In one way or another and most particularly at the present time, perhaps it always feels as if the world is ending but somehow we seem to carry on. Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー) is, as it says, a story of how music saves the world, but also of how personal acts of quiet integrity echo through time while art finds its audience and its purpose in the proper moment even if the message is not immediately understood. 

The film opens in the “future” of 2012 during which a fiery comet is headed directly for the Earth resulting in a deadly tsunami set to engulf Mount Fuji, drowning humanity rendered unexpectedly powerless in the face of cosmic destiny. A man in a wheelchair dressed oddly like a cult leader trundles along empty arcades strewn with rubbish, pausing to poke at some trolleys with his walking stick. Eventually he stops outside a record store which is to his surprise open for business despite the coming apocalypse and jumps up, apparently able to walk after all, and heads inside where he takes the boss (Nao Omori) to task for his strange decision to go to work on this day of all days. The shopkeeper however calmly engages in conversation with a customer, sure that “music saves the world”, “this song will save the day”, introducing him to the music of little-known ‘70s punk band Gekirin whose music was too far ahead of its time for the conservative post-war society. 

Their forgotten song, Fish Story, however as we will see does indeed change the world if in small and unexpected ways not least because it’s remembered for an unexpected pause in the middle of a guitar solo, a temporary suspension of living time in which small miracles could occur. “It has a meaning” the shopkeeper insists, though refusing to elaborate. As we discover, it does and it doesn’t, but stays true to the spirit of song, a “fish story” of its own embellished in the telling as curious listeners attempt to explain its existence. For three college students in 1982 who enjoy listening to paranormal tapes, it’s something of a let down seeing as they’d been told that the missing section contained a woman’s scream which is apparently still audible to those with a sixth sense but predictably not to them. Nevertheless, a moment of silence and a woman’s scream eventually result in a timid young man (Gaku Hamada) assuming his destiny, learning to stand up to bullies even if in eventual need of rescue himself. 

Like the young man of 1982, the shopkeeper and his customer are largely passive, sure that someone is coming to save them, idly talking of superheroes in teams of five like classic tokusatsu serial Go-rangers or else Bruce Willis saving the day by heroically sacrificing himself to blow up the asteroid. But the Americans’ “Armageddon” plan soon proves a bust, hinting perhaps at the fallacies of the disaster movie model in which the nation of production saves the world all on its own. The only possible hope now lies in cross-cultural cooperation. “Just as music knows no border, we’ve come together in this emergency” says the team of international experts boarding an Indian rocket as they pursue the only option left for the salvation of humanity no matter that there’s only a one in a million chance it works, because that’s what you do at the end of world, only what you can. 

The old man scoffs at the shopkeeper and his customer, sure the world is going to end even though he previously predicted it would do so 13 years previously in line with Nostradamus. Others concluded it would end in 2009 and took action accordingly, action which almost assures the present destruction in accidentally destroying the mind capable of preventing it. It is all connected, in a cosmic sense, but it’s also all small coincidences that lead to a greater whole. In the post-war chaos of 1953, a struggling father lies about his English skills to get a job as a “translator” only to engage in an avant-garde act of language violence bludgeoning one text into another with the aid of a dictionary. The incomprehensible novel which results is pulped, but survives as a curiosity and eventually finds its way home, inspiring another work of art and becoming a kind of fish story of its own. Gekirin chose to disband rather than compromise their artistic integrity, knowing that no one was going to hear their song. “Does that make everything we’ve done meaningless?” dejected bassist Shigeki (Atsushi Ito) asks, and perhaps it seems that way, but the word is heard in the end. It all matters, we all matter, no matter how insignificant it seems in the moment. 

Adapted from the novel by Kotaro Isaka, Nakamura’s anarchic voyage through a comfortable and nostalgic post-war Japan albeit one in the shadow of coming disaster is imbued with a quiet sense of hope even as it leaves its protagonists passive participants in a history they are unaware of making. Two teams of five do in their way save the world, and all because of a song that no one heard which was inspired by a book that no one read. Life, it’s all a big fish story, but it makes sense in the end so long as you stick around long enough. 


Fish Story is released on blu-ray & VOD in the UK on 10th August courtesy of Third Window Films. On disc extras are presented in standard definition and include: making of featurette, Gekirin live performances, Gekirin talk show, director and cast Q&A, and deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fantasia International Film Festival Confirms Complete 2020 Programme

Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival returns for 2020 in an online edition bringing the latest genre hits from around the world to homes across Canada 20th August to 2nd September. As usual the programme features another fantastic selection of movies from East Asia both new and old.

China

  • Sheep Without a Shepherd – blockbuster Chinese remake of Indian thriller Drishyam in which a movie buff’s daughter accidentally kills a schoolmate who has powerful parents.

Hong Kong

  • Baby: Secret Diary of a mom to be – a high-flying PR executive wrestles with the idea of having it all when she suddenly becomes pregnant.
  • Chasing Dream – stylish romance from Johnnie To in which a boxer and singer fight for their respective dreams. Review.
  • A Hero Never Dies – Johnnie To classic from 1998 in which two noble hitmen find themselves at the mercy of the nihilistic underworld
  • Legally Declared Dead – HK adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel The Black House in which an insurance broker descends into paranoia after suspecting a client has faked his son’s suicide to collect on a policy.
  • SPL Kill Zone – first in Wilson Yip’s SPL series starring Donnie Yen as a cop clashing with Sammo Hung’s gang boss.
  • Witness Out of the Blue – Louis Koo is a criminal mastermind on the run after a botched robbery while an eccentric cop tries to crack the case with the help of its only surviving witness – a parrot!

Japan

  • Air Doll – Kore-eda classic starring Bae Doona as a sex doll come to life.
  • Crazy Samurai Musashi – samurai action drama featuring the long-awaited return of Tak Sakaguchi.
  • Fly Me to the Saitama – absurdist comedy in which the residents of Saitama have become an oppressed minority. Review.
  • Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats – quirky comedy from Yosuke Fujita about a cheerful man whose fear of women is challenged when an old friend returns.
  • HK: Forbidden Superhero – 2013 low-budget comedy from Yuichi Fukuda in which a nervous young man turns into a superhero after putting ladies knickers on his face.
  • HK2: The Abnormal Crisis – 2016 sequel in which the hero’s girlfriend is getting fed up with his underwear shenanigans.
  • Kakegurui – adaptation of the popular manga set in a school where heirarchy is determined by skill at gambling. Review.
  • Labyrinth of Cinema – final film from Nobuhiko Obayashi in which three youngsters find themselves lost in the movies. Review.
  • Life: Untitled – Kana Yamada adapts her own stage play set in the office of a Tokyo escort service. Review.
  • Milocroze: A Love Story – cult quirky comedy from 2011 starring Takayuki Yamada.
  • Monster Seafood Wars – comedic tokusatsu in which the son of a sushi shop’s experiments to solve world hunger through making foodstuffs giant has unexpected results.
  • No Longer Human – Mika Ninagawa’s dramatisation of the final days of Osamu Dazai along with the three women who inspired him: his wife, his mistress, and the woman he finally died with.
  • Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar – employees at an engineering firm attempt to draft the hangar from the legendary mecha anime.
  • Special Actors – meta-narrative from One Cut of the Dead‘s Shinichiro Ueda in which a shy aspiring actor joins an unusual agency where he’s asked to play a part in other people’s “real life”. Review.
  • Tezuka’s Barbara – Macoto Tezka adapts the manga by his famous father in which a novelist (Goro Inagaki) becomes obsessed with a woman he picks up off the street (Fumi Nikaido). Review.
  • Travelling Cat Chronicles – tearjerking drama in which a young man goes on a road trip looking for someone to take care of his cat.
  • Woman of the Photographs – An isolated photographer’s life of stillness is interrupted by the arrival of a beautiful dancer in Takeshi Kushida’s gentle meditation on desire and reality. Review.
  • Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku – Yuichi Fukuda musical comedy adapted from the popular manga.

Korea

  • Beauty Water – animation in which a woman who believes herself ugly tries an experimental treatment to make herself beautiful.
  • Bring Me Home – a nurse’s tireless search for her missing son takes her to a fishing village with a dark secret.
  • Jesters: The Game Changers – Joseon-era street entertainers get into trouble for spreading fake news in a period drama from The Grand Heist’s Kim Joo-ho.
  • Me and Me – directorial debut from actor Jung Jin-young in which a policeman wakes up one day to discover he’s someone else.
  • My Punch-Drunk Boxer – a former boxer picks up the rhythms of pansori.
  • Vertigo – a young office worker is rescued from her sense of existential vertigo by the gentle presence of a chivalrous window washer. Review.

Taiwan

  • Detention – horror-inflected video game adaptation dramatising the trauma of the “White Terror” martial law era. Review
  • I WeirDo – madcap OCD rom-com shot on an iPhone.

Vietnam

  • Rom – a 14-year-old boy hopes to earn enough money to reunite with his parents through running lottery numbers while living a precarious existence in a rundown tenement.

The films will be available to stream in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September. “Tickets” for each film are limited in number comparable to the size of a physical auditorium and while much of the programme is available on demand selected films will stream live only. Full details for all the films are available via the the official website, and you can also keep up with all the latest news via the festival’s official Facebook pageTwitter account,  Instagram, and Vimeo channels.

Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Yoji Yamada, 2019)

From 1969 to 1996, travelling salesman Tora-san appeared in 48 films, a 49th movie special appearing after star Kiyoshi Atsumi’s death brought an unavoidable end to the series. Tora-san, Wish You Were Here (男はつらいよ50 – お帰り 寅さん, Otoko wa Ysurai yo 50: Okaeri Tora-san) arrives to mark the 50th anniversary of the first film’s release, and as the series had done in its later stages, revolves around Tora’s neurotic nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), who is now a middle-aged widower and father to a teenage daughter. Feeling somewhat wistful, Mitsuo’s thoughts turn to his now absent uncle, wishing he were still around to offer some of his trademark advice along with the gentle warmth and empathy which proved in such stark contrast with his otherwise anarchic and unpredictable personality.  

Yamada, who directed all but two of the series in its entirety, opens with another dream sequence this time of Mitsuo as he finds himself overcome with memories of his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who is now married with children and living abroad working for the UNCHR. Mitsuo’s wife passed away from an illness six years previously and he’s so far resisted prompts from his relatives to consider remarriage though it seems fairly obvious that his editor, Setsuko (Chizuru Ikewaki), has a bit of a crush on him. Having taken a gamble giving up the secure life of a salaryman to become a novelist, Mitsuo’s first book is about to be published and it’s at a signing that he serendipitously re-encounters Izumi who just happened to be in the store that day on a rare trip to Japan and spotted the poster. 

Like many Tora-san films, Wish You Were Here is about the bittersweet qualities of life, the roads not taken, the misdirections and misconnections, and the romanticisation of a past which can no longer be present. At a crossroads, Mitsuo ponders what might have been recalling the shattered dreams of his first love which seems to have ended without resolution because of the unfairness of life. He wishes that his crazy uncle was still around to make everything better, offering more of his often poetic advice but most of all a shoulder to cry on as he’d been for so many women throughout the series. But Mitsuo himself has always been more like Tora than he’d care to admit, if tempered by his father Hiroshi’s shyness. He too is a kind man whose bighearted gestures could sometimes cause unexpected trouble. What he’s learning is in a sense to find his inner Tora, embracing his free spirit through his art if not the road, but also coming to a poetic understanding that sometimes the moment passes and there’s nothing you can do to take it back, only treasure the memory as you continue moving forward. 

That’s a sentiment echoed by Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), one of Tora’s old flames, who now runs a stylish bar in Tokyo. The beauty of the Tora-san series was that it aged in real time. The actor playing Mitsuo played him as a child and we saw him grow up on screen just as we saw Shibamata change from post-war scrappiness to bubble-era prosperity and beyond. The family’s dango-shop has had an upscale refit and there is now a modern apartment complex behind it where the print shop once stood. Seamlessly splicing in clips from previous instalments as Mitsuo remembers another anecdote about his uncle, Yamada shows us how past and present co-exist in the way memory hangs over a landscape. Once or twice, the ghost of Tora even reappears hovering gently behind Mitsuo only to fade when he turns around to look while there’s an unavoidable sadness as we notice the Suwas’ living room is now much less full than it once was. 

Aside from his uncle, it’s the warm family atmosphere that Mitsuo recalls from his childhood, something which, like Tora, he might not have always fully appreciated. Driving Izumi to a potentially difficult reunion with her terminally ill estranged father (Isao Hashizume), he refers to his own parents as “annoying” in the “pushy” quality of their kindness, something which irritates Izumi who points out that she’d have loved to have such a warm and supportive family and if she had she might never have gone to Europe, implying perhaps that their fated romance would been fulfilled. The Shibamata house was Tora’s port, he could wander freely because he had somewhere to go back to where they’d always let him in no matter what kind of trouble he caused.

A fitting tribute to the Tora-san legacy, Wish You Were Here is also a joyful celebration of the Shitamachi spirit. Tora might be gone, but the anarchic kindness and empathy he embodied lives on, not least in the mild-mannered Mitsuo and his cheerful daughter who seems to be continuing the family tradition of meddling in her loved ones’ love lives as her lovelorn father prepares to move on in memory of Tora, the free spirited fool.


Tora-san, Wish You Were Here streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Yoji Yamada, 1989)

“My uncle was born a kind man, but his kindness is intrusive. He’s short tempered too, so often his kindness ends up causing a fight” according to the introduction given by Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), nephew of the titular Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) in the 42nd instalment in the long running series, Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Boku no Ojisan). People may say he’s “an oddball”, but just recently, Mitsuo claims, he’s learned to appreciate his uncle’s peculiar charms. Up to this point, the series had followed a familiar pattern in which Tora-san has an encounter on the road and returns home to visit his family in Shibamata falling in love with an unattainable woman along the way. My Uncle, as the title perhaps implies, shifts the focus away from Tora directly towards his wayward nephew Mitsuo now a moody teenager studying to retake his university entrance exams. 

The problem is, Mitsuo is having trouble concentrating because he’s fallen in love. Izumi (Kumiko Goto) was a year below him in high school but after her parents got divorced she moved away and is currently living with her mother (Mari Natsuki) who runs a hostess bar in Nagoya. Mitsuo has been wanting to go and visit but his father, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), has banned travel until after his exams and his authoritarian ruling has placed a strain on their relationship while Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Mitsuo’s mother and Tora’s younger sister, is getting fed up with his moodiness. That might be why she asks Tora to have a word with him on one of his rare visits, hoping Mitsuo will be able to talk frankly to his uncle about things he might not want to discuss with his parents. Only when Tora’s uncle (Masami Shimojo) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) point out the dangers does she realise her mistake. Perhaps you might not want your son to receive the kind of advice a man like Tora might give. Their misgivings are borne out when Tora brings him home a little the worse for wear after teaching him how to drink sake (and flirt with waitresses). 

Rather than Tora it’s Mitsuo we follow as he ignores his parents and goes off to find Izumi on his own. Mitsuo is not Tora, however, and he’s still fairly naive, unaware of the dangers inherent in a life on the road which is how he gets himself into a sticky situation with a man who helped him (Takashi Sasano) after he had a bike accident but turned out to have ulterior motives. After discovering that Izumi has gone to live with her aunt (Fumi Dan) in the country and finally arriving, Mitsuo begins to have his doubts. She wrote to him that she was lonely so he jumped on his bike and came, but now he wonders if that was really an OK thing to do or if she might find it a little excessive, even creepy. Her neighbours may gossip after seeing a (slightly) older boy from Tokyo suddenly turn up on a motorbike, maybe like Tora he’s acted on impulse out of kindness but has accidentally made trouble for her?

Meanwhile, Sakura and Hiroshi are at home worried sick, aware their son has grown up and evidently has some important rite of passage stuff to do, but it would have been nice if he’d called. Everyone’s used to Tora breezing in and out of their lives and it’s not as if they don’t worry, but it’s different with Mitsuo. Luckily and through staggering coincidence Mitsuo ends up running into Tora who, perhaps ironically, gets him to phone home and then starts helping him out with his youthful romantic dilemma. Though some of the advice he gives is a little problematic, there’s a fine line when it comes to being “persistent” in love, he is nevertheless supportive and proves popular with Izumi’s mild-mannered aunt and lonely grandfather-in-law (Masao Imafuku) who subjects him to a day-long lecture about traditional ceramics which he listens to patiently because as he says, old people are happy when someone listens to them. The problems are entirely with Izumi’s extremely conservative school teacher uncle (Isao Bito) who appears to terrorise his wife and objects strongly to Mitsuo’s impulsive gesture of love, bearing out Mitsuo’s concerns in implying that he’s endangering Izumi’s reputation, though apparently more worried about how it looks for him as a school teacher if she’s caught hanging out with a motorcycle-riding “delinquent”. The final straw is his telling Mitsuo off for neglecting his studies, insisting no one so “stupid” could ever hope to go to uni.

Left behind, Tora tries to defend Mitsuo to the snooty uncle, telling him that he’s proud of his nephew for doing something kind even if others don’t see it that way, but the uncle simply replies that they obviously disagree and abruptly walks off. Perhaps there’s no talking to some people, but Tora does what he can anyway. Mitsuo gains a new appreciation for his kindhearted family, not to mention his eccentric uncle. “Trips make everyone wise”, Tora tells Hiroshi, well except for some people, he later adds before once again getting literally cut off from everyone waiting for him back in Shibamata. The signs of bubble-era prosperity are everywhere from Mitsuo’s motorbike and comparatively spacious family home to the increased mobility and the upscale interior of Izumi’s mother’s “snack” bar, but Tora is still a post-war wanderer bound for the road, drifting whichever way the wind blows him.


Tora-san, My Uncle streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Yoji Yamada, 1975)

Spanning 48 films and almost 30 years from the middle of the economic miracle to the post-Bubble depression, the Tora-san series provided a certain kind of comforting stability with its well established formula that saw the titular travelling salesman alternately hit the road and return home to his wholesome family waiting and worrying in Shibamata, always glad to see him but also anxious as to what kind of trouble he’ll be causing this time around. Among the most melancholy of the series, Tora-san #15, Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro Aiaigasa, AKA Tora-san’s Rise and Fall) sees him flirt with the idea of settling down while others wrestle with the costs of the salaryman dream and the contradictions of the post-war era. 

Yamada opens, however, with an exciting dream sequence in which Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi) re-imagines himself as a heroic pirate saving his family members, and all the residents of Shibamata, from enslavement by some kind of evil capitalist villain. He wakes up and leaves the cinema, but Shibamata is perhaps on his thoughts once again acting as it does as a kind of “port” in his life of perpetual wandering. For the moment he’s travelling with a depressed salaryman, Hyodo (Eiji Funakoshi), whom he rescued at a train station fearing he may have been about to take his own life. Meanwhile, back in Shibamata, Tora’s old friend Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) has come looking for him at the dango shop apparently now divorced, tearfully explaining to Tora’s sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) that she wasn’t well suited to being a housewife after all and is planning to head back out on the road as an itinerant singer. 

Perhaps ironically, Tora is angry with Hyodo for causing worry to his family by disappearing without notice, eventually ringing Sakura to tell her to ring Hyodo’s wife and let her know he’s alright (why he doesn’t just ring himself is a mystery, and in any case he only has the one coin for the payphone so runs out of time to explain). What we can infer is that Hyodo has in a sense achieved the “salaryman dream” but it’s left him feeling empty and unfulfilled. Mrs. Hyodo appears to be very prim and proper, their home spacious and tastefully decorated. When Sakura calls two men from her husband’s company are with her trying to figure out where Hyodo could have gone. She explains that her husband is a timid man and earnest, it’s unlikely he’s gone off with another woman and it’s out of character for him go AWOL from work so she’s at least very relieved to learn he’s alive even if Tora ran out of time to say where they were. Hyodo isn’t really sure anyone’s missing him, and as we later discover his flight is part mid-life crisis in that he’s heading to the hometown of his first love. He assumes she also will have married and has no illusions of a romantic reunion but simply wants to make sure she’s happy (as he, presumably, is not). Discovering she’s a widow gives him pause for thought, but on seeing her he realises the futility of his situation and resolves to return home to his dull and conventional salaryman life. 

It’s a huge source of irony to Tora that anyone might envy him. Indeed, Mrs. Hyodo quite snobbishly insists on asking Sakura about Tora’s company joking that “he can’t just be a pedlar” much to Sakura’s embarrassment. But that sense of freedom and the open road appears to be something Hyodo is looking for, childishly romanticising hardship, finding sleeping on park benches and helping Tora pull salesman’s scams in the street exciting rather than worrying (he could after all always just go home). Yet he also envies Tora for having such a loving and forgiving family, explaining that his now look down on him because he’s been demoted at work, as if they only value him for what he represents an embodiment of the salaryman dream. Lily too is as much in love with Tora’s family as anything else, though the complex relationship between the pair begins to scandalise the conservative local community. Sakura frames it as a joke but puts it to Lily that it would be nice if she and Tora could marry so she’d be a part of their family. Lily unexpectedly agrees, overcome with emotion, but Tora is his old insensitive, if perhaps perceptive self, declaring that they’re too alike. Like him she’s a bird meant to wander. She’d only stay until she felt ready to fly. 

Tora-san and Lily are wandering souls cast adrift in the post-war era, unable to find firm footing while Hyodo’s existential angst suggests the salaryman dream is not the answer either. Only Sakura and the Kurumas seem to be doing well enough, living their ordinary, wholesome lives in Shibamata. “She probably has problems we don’t know about” Tora’s aunt remarks watching Queen Elizabeth II waving gracefully on the television, lamenting that it must be tiring to have to stand around so long. Everyone has problems but they carry on. In Shibamata they try to be kind and especially to big-hearted men like Tora no matter what kind of trouble they may cause.


Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 1969)

“It’s tough being a man” according to the Japanese title of the long running series affectionately known as “Tora-san” to its many fans. Tora-san began as a TV drama broadcast in 1968-9 in which the hero died of a snakebite in the very last episode much to viewers’ disappointment. Director Yoji Yamada then resurrected the loveable travelling salesman and made him the star of a reboot movie which proved so popular that it spawned a 48-film series which lasted until the death of star Kiyoshi Atsumi at the age of 68 in 1996. 

Yamada directed all but two instalments in the series each of which broadly follow a similar pattern to that introduced in the first film following the eponymous Tora as he gets himself mixed up in some kind of trouble, returns home to visit his family in Shibamata, and falls in love with a beautiful but unobtainable woman known as the “Madonna” in the series’ “mythology”, if you can call it that. At the beginning of Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp (男はつらいよ, Otoko wa Tsurai yo), Torajiro Kuruma (Kiyoshi Atsumi) or “Tora-san”, explains that he’s been in a wistful mood thinking about his hometown while viewing the cherry blossoms and has decided to go back to Shibamata for the first time in 20 years having left swearing never to return after arguing with his father who has since passed away as has his brother. Tora-san’s only remaining family members are his younger sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho), a small child when he left but now a grown woman in her mid-20s, and an uncle (Shin Morikawa) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) who’ve been looking after her and run a small dango shop. 

Being away for 20 years necessarily means that Tora has been on the road since he was a young teenager back in 1949 when Japan was still very much in the throws of post-war chaos, in contrast to the increasingly prosperous nation it has since become. On his return to town he is relieved to discover that the local priest (Chishu Ryu), as well as his aunt, still remember and recognise him but shocks them all with an incongruous, and frankly over the top, show of politeness as he expresses gratitude and filial piety towards his uncle and aunt for having raised his sister but then immediately afterwards tries to sell them some of his tacky sales goods including some kind of electronic bracelet with supposed health benefits. Nevertheless, the family, including his sister Sakura who works as a typist at an electrical goods company, are very glad to seem him after all these years. 

Hardly in the house five minutes before peeing in the garden instead of using the bathroom like a regular person, Tora is already undercutting the image he first presented and causing trouble with the neighbours. The major drama occurs when he ends up accompanying Sakura to an omiai arranged marriage meeting set up by her boss in a fancy hotel. Sakura hadn’t been keen to go to the omiai, her uncle and aunt assume because arranged marriages are already outdated, but as we later discover she’s developed a fondness for factory worker Hiroshi (Gin Maeda) who lives in the house directly behind theirs. The uncle and aunt encourage the match because it’s an opportunity to marry up, viewing it as better than Sakura could otherwise hope for as an orphan with no dowry. Tora agrees with them, encouraging his sister not to write off tradition, but he has little understanding of the etiquette for these kinds of situations and quickly scandalises the refined, upper-class family by drinking far too much, making bawdy jokes about the composition of Chinese characters, and using vulgar language. As expected the suitors decide not to take things further, though luckily Sakura’s boss does not seem to mind or hold Tora’s behaviour against her.

On the road since he was little more than a child, perhaps it’s no wonder that Tora struggles when trying (or not) to adapt to the rules of civilised society though as he later tells us, he also had a traumatic childhood beaten by his father who resented him for being illegitimate, conceived during a drunken indiscretion with a geisha (Sakura is a half-sister born to his father’s legal wife). At one point he loses his temper completely and finds himself slapping Sakura, accidentally starting a mass brawl in their courtyard, though it’s obvious afterwards that he deeply regrets his behaviour and despite being forgiven by his ever patient sister feels as if it might be better to leave again before he makes even more trouble for his family. 

Tora is, however, perhaps good trouble in that his heart is (broadly) in the right place even if he makes a lot of mistakes. He meddles in Sakura’s love life and almost destroys her chance of romantic happiness, but it all works out in the end and he might have a point in implying that without his mistaken intervention she and Hiroshi would have just gone on in silent longing. Nevertheless, he remains a romantically naive figure, falling for the elegant daughter of the local priest (Sachiko Mitsumoto) who surprises him by expressing a fondness for low entertainment but in real terms is never going to marry a man like Tora. “Mine’s a hard world” he explains to a boatman, sadly making his way back towards the road filled with a deep sense of despair but pressing on all the same, trying his luck wherever he goes just another plucky, though no longer so young, guy, left behind by the rapid pace of the post-war economic miracle.  


Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Identity (神様のいるところ, Sae Suzuki, 2019)

“You’re not the only one suffering because of language barriers” the heroine of Sae Suzuki’s My Identity calmly explains to her mother after spending a few days away perfecting her language skills. My Identity (神様のいるところ, Kamisama no Iru Tokoro) is perhaps less about identity in itself than the difficulty of communication but nevertheless finds a young woman displaced, quite literally pushed out both by her frustrated mother and by a society which continues to be fiercely intolerant of difference. What she realises however, is that she’s not the only one feeling lost, discovering an alternate maternal figure in an orphaned adult herself at the mercy of an unforgiving and judgemental patriarchal society. 

As we first meet her, high schooler Rei (Hinata Arakawa) is physically pushed out of her family home, the door closed behind her as her mother lays in to her father with accusations of fiscally irresponsible infidelity in her native language. As we later discover Rei is half-Taiwanese and in fact lived on the island until she was five but now feels under-confident in both a perhaps more familiar Mandarin and the Hokkien between which her mother switches freely. At school meanwhile she is taunted by two horrible boys who bully her for being “Chinese”, calling her “creepy” and “ugly” while questioning her ability to speak Japanese. When they tear up a thank you card she’d written in Chinese claiming not to understand it she finally loses her temper and fights back, hitting one of the boys on the head with her backpack. Ironically, she is the one that gets into trouble. Her mother takes a cane to her legs, angry most of all it seems that people will think that foreign mothers raise badly behaved children and will continue to look down on her. Rei just wants to connect with her mother, but her mother isn’t listening. 

That might be why she makes unwise decision to look into dodgy compensated dating after hearing about a forum where “gods” congregate looking to pick up teenage girls. She thinks better of it at the last minute only to be chased by a weird old man claiming to be worried about her which is how she bumps into Aoi (Kaho Seto) who cooperates by pretending to be her responsible adult. A youngish office worker, Aoi has problems of her own and has apparently been out on a night of heavy drinking with a colleague, something which becomes a source of gossip among the other women at work who seem to universally dislike her. She’s coming up for a transfer, but is aggressively harassed by her boss who tells her that he’s going to wait for her when she gets off, causing her to alter her schedule in order to avoid him. 

After a traumatic incident, the two women find themselves on the run, breaking into a disused inn which they end up operating in a temporary illusion of domesticity. Rei practices her Mandarin, looking to Aoi for guidance, but discovering that her worries are fairly universal. What if you can’t communicate your feelings she asks, but Aoi has no answer for her, and Rei can only lament that people start hurting each other when communication fails. Her Taiwanese heritage, however, becomes an unexpected, two-fold threat to her new familial connection when the pair visit a local Taiwanese temple which is also home to a Japanese researcher who speaks perfect Mandarin and has identified the two women as the fugitives from the news, but has also developed a quite obvious attraction to Aoi. 

Rei came here to face herself, but is consciously working towards a resolution, determined to make a connection while asserting her own agency. Aoi meanwhile worries she’s doing the opposite, “playing house”, “running away”, “refusing to face reality”. The researcher tells her, perhaps not altogether altruistically, that she’s being irresponsible, and that her indulgence of Rei may in the long run be harmful. She too feels lost and alone, confessing that she found herself subject to unwanted male attention she couldn’t directly deflect and feigned an ignorance that put her at odds with other women who came to resent her for it. Preoccupied, she too fails to understand Rei’s feelings, trying to be kind but nevertheless causing pain along the way. 

Through visiting the temple and reconnecting with her Taiwanese heritage, Rei finds the words she needs in order to communicate what it is she really feels and hopes that, finally, someone is going to listen. Contending with miscommunication, prejudice, ignorance, and a fundamental “language barrier” in the difficulty of translating feelings accurately and being fully understood, Rei does her best to become her most authentic self, integrating her identity and defiantly embracing it but doing so with openness as she strives for communication as a weapon against hate and violence.


My Identity streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sacrifice (サクリファイス, Taku Tsuboi, 2019)

Taku Tsuboi meditates on coming disaster in his evocative debut feature, Sacrifice (サクリファイス). Post-earthquake anxiety meets its opposite number in doomsday cult as an Aum-esque sect rejects and then embraces a contrary prophecy of the end of the world ushered in by a giant worm already burrowing menacingly under our feet. Putative apocalypses however pale in comparison to the incurable threat of other people and it may not be an earthquake or a war or a terrorist attack that puts an end to us so much as our inability or perhaps refusal to overcome our fear. 

“Forgiveness transcends revenge” a young man claims during a debate about the death penalty, “the cycle of hate must be broken”, only he later confesses that he didn’t quite mean what he was saying. He opposed the death penalty but less for humanitarian reasons than curiosity. Okita (Yuzu Aoki) wants to know the why, what the killer was feeling when they did what they did. Fellow student Toko (Miki Handa) has been patiently watching Okita, suspicious of him because when he thinks no-one’s watching, he drops his mask. She’s convinced that he is responsible for a notorious series of ritualised cat killings, as well as the death of fellow student Sora (Hana Shimomura) who was apparently investigating them and had presumably gotten too close to the truth. Toko’s suspicions are confirmed when she raids Okita’s backpack and discovers an incriminating file, essentially blackmailing him to become her friend in the hope that, unlike her boyfriend the straight-laced job hunter Masaya (Kosuke Fujita), he can buy her a ticket out of her maddeningly “normal” life. Meanwhile, Okita also becomes an unexpected protector for another student, Midori (Michiko Gomi), who finds herself targeted by a young man in camouflage (Yasuyuki Sakurai), apparently a member of a cult, Shinwa, successor to the defunct Sacred Tide and the first private army in Japan. 

Midori was once a cult member herself, unwillingly inducted by her mother, and is plagued by strange visions after having foreseen the devastating March 2011 earthquake in a dream and subsequently targeted for elimination by those who feared her power. The cat murders are numbered and apparently counting down from 311 leading some to conclude they have something to do with the earthquake, some kind of “sacrifice” in the face of coming disaster. “The world needs sacrifices” a true believer later affirms, but has no reason why it should, only insisting that they are following the teachings of Mr. Sazanami, the mercenary turned cult leader. Some become soldiers, others kill cats in Japan without knowing why. 

“Seeking reason makes you weak” Sazanami conveniently claims, “view the world without the blindfold of humanity, then you can understand my vision”. Toko is drawn to Okita precisely because of his lack of human feeling, “You see people only as objects”, she tells him with admiration not caring if he killed or not only hoping that his difference will help her escape a life of crushing mundanity. She thought the earthquake would change something. Everyone was talking of new beginnings and great renewals but in the end nothing really happened and her adolescence has been one of disappointment coloured with anxiety. She resents being “the only normal one” trapped in “a world of normality” and longs to throw herself into this strange world of conspiracy and ritual in order to give her life the greater meaning she craves. 

Midori, however, craves that kind of normality. Her mother ironically lost faith in the idea of salvation after facing death in the wake of disaster, while she struggles to escape from an unfair sense of responsibility for the fate of the world seeing too much and not enough at the same time. Yet in a strange way it is faith that sustains her. “All I can do is run” she affirms, hoping that she will one day re-encounter the person who claims his life found meaning only when he found her. She refuses to discard her “blindfold of humanity”, living in the shadow of future catastrophe but living all the same. An accomplished feature debut, Tsuboi’s broody drama wrings all the dread out of its eerie settings from churches disused and not to abandoned buildings and the bleakness of a somehow comforting dreamscape while offering his beleaguered youngsters a tentative sense of hope if only in the ability to normalise a sense of existential anxiety.


Sacrifice streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Beyond the Night (夜のそと, Natsuki Nakagawa, 2019)

“I’m leaving this place” a traumatised woman declares, trying to free herself from an oppressive environment but discovering that escape is not necessarily synonymous with freedom. Completed at Tokyo University of the Arts’ Graduate School of Film and New Media, Department of Film Production, Natsuki Nakagawa’s Beyond the Night (夜のそと, Yoru no Soto) locates itself somewhere between Wuthering Heights and The Postman Always Rings Twice as its traumatised heroine struggles to assert herself, trapped in the black hole of incestuous small-town life while yearning for a return to a more wholesome existence.

When we first meet Sotoko (Saki Tanaka), she is trying to run away only to stumble in the forest and be dragged back by her husband, Atsuya (Yasuhiro Isobe), whom she was presumably trying to escape. At work the next day, she’s wearing a large bandage on her cheek, but her colleague, Yuki (Haruka Konishi), has little sympathy for her. It’s at that point that she encounters mysterious drifter Mikiro (Kenta Yamagishi) on a delivery job to the office. Taken by her melancholy, Mikiro begins watching over her, concerned that no one else in the town seems to care that Sotoko is a victim of domestic violence. He learns from an old man that Atsuya is from the village’s most powerful family and therefore can do whatever he likes, while Sotoko, according to Yuki, is a “worthless” woman, an orphan who lost her family in a mysterious car accident. In addition to beating her, Atsuya has been pimping Sotoko out for money and influence, forcing her to sleep with a dirty old man, Tokyo-based politician Ishikawa (Hiroaki Kono), who later turns up dead in extremely suspicious circumstances. 

Atsuya claims that he treats Sotoko the way he does because he’s responding to her desires, pointing out that she’s tried to leave many times but has never been able to move beyond the forest. She lives surrounded by memories of the family she has lost, pictures drawn by her little brother Shota tacked on the wall, hugging his fluffy teddy for emotional support. Atsuya however wants to be her only family, destroying his totemic rivals in order to dominate her more completely while also taking from her the hope of forming a more complete family of her own. We learn that Atsuya has been shielding her from the consequences of involvement with a previous crime which is one reason she can’t leave him, but another is her battered psyche as she tries and fails to convince herself that she has the right to a better life or to her freedom. 

Mikiro, meanwhile, seems like an unlikely saviour, carrying a dark secret of his own as he plays the benevolent stalker wandering around Sotoko’s home when no one’s around and leaving little calling cards to remind her of his presence. Where Sotoko wants freedom, Mikiro wants love and is willing to go to great lengths to get it. “If I kill him will you love me?” he asks, while Sotoko explains to Yuki that she cannot simply leave Atsuya because their souls are entwined and someone needs to cut her free. “You can’t go anywhere, I’m the only one who can protect you” Atsuya counters, “She’ll never love you” he adds to Mikiro, “You’ll end up like me, you’re my replacement”. 

“We can’t change anything” a friend of Mikiro’s insists deepening the sense of fatalism, “one rotten person dies and nothing changes” echoing his own assertion that “there are bad people everywhere”. Sotoko declares her love for Mikiro as a symbol of the freedom she now desires, but at the same time reveals that there is nowhere she wants to go. To her Mikiro seems like a visitor from another world come to take her away from all this, but her salvation is not another perhaps equally problematic man but an awakening to her own agency, finally choosing a clear destination in the fullness of her “freedom”.

Nakagawa shoots her noirish tale with deadpan realism and a healthy respect for the ancient borders of the natural world, amping up the Lynchian sense of dread with ominous musical cues as Sotoko attempts to navigate her life in this strange little town where misogyny rules that seems to stand in for the prison of her trauma. Literally named “child of beyond”, she looks for the new world somewhere on the outside but struggles to extricate herself from an internalised sense of shame and worthlessness in order to find it. “Wherever you go you won’t be satisfied” a threatening policeman (Tomoki Kimura) had told her, but if you never leave the village then how would you ever know?


Beyond the Night streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Trailer (English subtitles)