The Kodai Family (高台家の人々, Masato Hijikata, 2016)

kodai family posterFear of “broadcasting” is a classic symptom of psychosis, but supposing there really was someone who could hear all your thoughts as clearly as if you’d spoken them aloud, how would that make you feel? The shy daydreamer at the centre of The Kodai Family (高台家の人々, Kodaike no Hitobito) is about to find out as she becomes embroiled in a very real fairytale with a handsome prince whose lifelong ability to read minds has made him wary of trying to form genuine connections with ordinary people. Walls come down only to jump back up again when the full implications become apparent but there are taller walls to climb than that of discomfort with intimacy including snobby mothers and class based insecurities.

29-year-old Kie (Haruka Ayase) has a dull job as a regular OL in the successful Kodai company. A self-confessed shy person who finds it difficult to talk, Kei spends most of her time alone though she does have a few friends at work. Though Kei’s exterior life may appear dull she has a rich, even overactive imagination which she uses to entertain herself by heading off into wild flights of fancy guided only by a friendly (?) gnome.

Kei’s life begins to change when the oldest son of the Kodai family returns to the office after studying abroad. Mitsumasa (Takumi Saito) is a handsome, if sad-looking man who quickly has all of the office in a flurry of excitement thanks to his dashing good looks and confident stride. Mitsumasa, however, has a secret – the ability to read other people’s thoughts inherited from his British grandmother, Anne. Whilst walking down the corridor and trying to ignore the lewd and avaricious thoughts of some of the ladies (and the worried ones of some of the men now fearing more than one kind of competition), Mitsumasa is treated to one of Kei’s amusing fantasies and is quickly smitten.

For Kei who finds voicing her true feelings difficult, Mitsumasa’s ability seems like the perfect solution. Finally, someone who will just understand her without the need for conversation. However, what Kei hasn’t considered is that a deeper level of intimacy is being asked of her than she’d previously anticipated. From the merely embarrassing to the tactless and tasteless, it is no longer possible to withhold any part of herself other than by an exhausting process of trying to close her mind down completely. Mitsumasa is used to this particular phenomenon in which his enhanced powers of communication only result in additional barriers to connection. Somewhat closed off himself, resigned to the fact he’s going to “overhear” things he’d rather not know, Mitsumasa has made a point of keeping himself aloof from ordinary people who, once they know about his abilities, find him suspicious and threatening.

Yet Mitsumasa’s telepathic powers are not the only obstruction in this fairytale love story. Kei already can’t quite believe what’s happening is real and struggles with the idea someone like Mitsumasa might seriously be interested in her. Though Mitsumasa’s brother (Shotaro Mamiya) and sister (Kiko Mizuhara), who share his ability, are broadly supportive (and equally entertained by Kei’s innocent and quirky flights of fancy), his mother (Mao Daichi) is anything but. Kei’s prospective mother-in-law starts as she means to go on by mistaking Kei for a new maid and then proceeding to further erode her confidence by pointing out that she knows nothing about this upper class world of balls and tennis and horse riding.

When it all becomes too much, Kei does what she always does – retreats to safer ground. Papering over her cowardice with the weak justification that she thinks she’ll only make Mitsumasa miserable, Kei backs away from the idea of baring her whole, unfiltered soul even if she knows it will cost her the man she loves and the ending to her real life fairytale.

Though charming enough and filled with interesting manga-inspired effects, Kodai Family never makes the most of its interesting premise, falling back on standard romantic comedy tropes from parental disapproval to predictable misunderstandings. The irony is that Mitsumasa and his siblings are so busy listening to the thoughts of others that they often can’t hear their own and are so deep in denial that they need a third-party (telepathic or not) to push them into realising how it is they really feel. This is a world of double insulation, in which the walls are both thick and thin, but there is a way a through for those brave enough to kick them down by baring all for love, snobby mothers be damned.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Doberman Cop (ドーベルマン刑事, Kinji Fukasaku, 1977)

Doberman cop J DVD coverAll things considered, a live pig is a rather insensitive gift to present to your local police station, though any gift at all might be considered in appropriate even if offered by a well meaning colleague keen to help out when a horrific murder may be connected to his missing person case. By 1977 Kinji Fukasaku had made a name for himself through the wildly successful “jitsuroku” or “true record” genre of yakuza movies kickstarted by his own Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Doberman Cop (ドーベルマン刑事, Doberman Deka) is then quite an odd move as its brings him back to the looser, exploitation leaning B-movie action which featured heavily in the earlier part of his career and which the “jitsuroku” movement was set on displacing. Fittingly enough, Doberman Cop also sees Fukasaku reuniting with the frequent star of those early films – Sonny Chiba, now considerably older but still an impressive action star willing to put himself in danger to achieve the heart stopping stunts his fans had come to expect.

Chiba plays Okinawan “crazy cop” Kano, the stranger in town currently on a mission to find a childhood friend at the request of her sickly priestess mother. A body has been discovered, so horribly charred that visual identification is not possible but based on the clues found in the room the police are convinced the woman is Kano’s missing person, Yuna, who had been living as a prostitute under another name. Kano is not convinced, the priestess has conducted rituals which suggest her daughter is alive and there’s something not quite right about this case which the police have attributed to a spate of serial killings targeting prostitutes in the Tokyo area. An encounter with a shady yakuza turned music promoter brings Kano into contact with Miki (Janet Hatta) – an aspiring singer who bears a striking resemblance to the missing Yuna.

Doberman Cop is, loosely, based on the manga by Buronson. Part of the “gekiga” movement which prided itself on gritty, adult stories, Doberman Cop owed much to Dirty Harry with its sarcastic, tough as nails policeman armed with a .44 Magnum and a rock hard desire for justice. Fukasaku’s Kano is reimagined as a genial country bumpkin, a toughened farm boy in a straw hat displaced in the Tokyo jungle. Turning up like a strange relative, Kano has brought along a local delicacy in the form of a live pig he offers to the Tokyo police precinct with the promise that all they need to do is snap its neck and light the barbecue. Unsurprisingly, the city policemen decline his polite offer leaving him trailing the squealing piggy around with him like a burdensome sidekick.

Kano’s Yuna is not the only young woman of Okinawa fetching up in the mainland capital in search of a “better” life, but finding only failure and despair. The country detective alienates the city police with his arcane divinatory ritual which involves tipping out a large bag of small seashells and counting them to ascertain the answer to a binary question, but his methods convince him than Yuna is still alive while another Okinawan woman is dead. That a woman from his island has met such a grim end is of no small regret to Kano, be she Yuna or not, and his quest is one of vengeance for both women ruined by the false promise of city life, tempted from simple village existence by bright lights and urban sophistication.

Miki’s path has followed this pattern to the letter. City life turned her into a prostitute and drug addict, eventually running all the way to New York but failing to escape her ongoing despair. Running into a similarly depressed former yakuza, Hidemori (Hiroki Matsukata), who falls in love with her, reawakens her desire for life, and becomes determined to rescue both of their futures by turning her into a singing star, Miki is at a turning point as she prepares for TV stardom as the winner of a signing competition while Hidemori backtracks to his gangster days to make it happen.

Kano begins to piece things together and comes to realise his worst fears are true. Nevertheless, if he could he’d take Yuna home with him to the village to forget her city ordeal rather than hand her over to the Tokyo police to face justice whatever she might have done. Though the tone is largely a comic one, laced with Fukasaku’s characteristically bleak sense of humour, the conclusion is just as melancholy as any of his other sad stories of broken men as Kano is forced to conclude that whatever the facts, the Yuna who left the village is no longer in this world. Putting a lead on his piggy friend, he resigns himself to leaving the city to take care of itself while he returns home, his mission a failure.

Necessarily less serious than Fukasaku’s other work of the ‘70s, Doberman Cop is a return to the nonsensical B-movie action fests of the past which leaves ample room for Chiba to show off his still potent skills including the famous scene of him abseiling down a tall building to bust into a hotel room where Miki is being held captive by a crazed yakuza. The country bumpkin adapts to this part of city life well enough, karate kicking bad guys and loudly disapproving of drug peddling misogynists (not to mention “righteous” serial killers hellbent on “cleansing” the city of sleaziness). Bonding with the “salt of the earth” residents of the lower class neighbourhoods, including a stripper who takes a fancy to the pig during her routine, and a member a biker gang unfairly hauled in as a suspect, Kano concludes that city life is not all it’s cracked up to be much as he comes to admire these basically “good” people who have gone out of their way to help him for mostly altruistic reasons. Still, the world is a darker place for Kano following his city adventure, and all he can do in the end is return to the relative safety of a sunny Okinawan village, pig in tow.


Available now from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Affair in the Snow (樹氷のよろめき, Kiju Yoshida, 1968)

affair in the snow posterKiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, along with his wife – the actress Mariko Okada, was responsible for some of the most arresting films of the late ’60s avant-garde art scene. So called “anti-melodramas”, many of Yoshida’s films from this era took what could have been a typical melodrama narrative and filmed it in an alienated, almost emotionless manner somehow reaching a deeper level of an often superficial and overwrought genre. Affair in the Snow (樹氷のよろめき, Juhyo no Yoromeki) is, in essence, the familiar story of an unreasonable love triangle but in Yoshida’s hands it becomes a melancholy yet penetrating examination of love, sex, and transience as the central trio attempt to resolve their ongoing romantic difficulties.

Yuriko (Mariko Okada) works in an upscale beauty salon in Sapporo and is in a relationship with a moody professor, Akira (Yukio Ninagawa), which seems to have run its course. The couple decide to take a trip to figure things out but it all goes wrong when the car breaks down and they’re marooned together in an unfamiliar environment. Akira’s mood swings and jealousy seem to be the main motivators for Yuriko’s dissatisfaction along with his desire for rough and ready sex over genial romance. Fearing she may be pregnant, Yuriko is not sure what to do – especially given that Akira is not particularly supportive.

Running from Akira, Yuriko gets back in touch with an old friend and former lover, Kazuo (Isao Kimura), who she feels can be relied upon to help her whatever she decides to do in this admittedly difficult situation. Yuriko and Kazuo were together for a short while and still share a deep emotional connection but their relationship was eventually frustrated due to Kazuo’s physical impotence. Eventually Akira catches up with the pair and tries to win Yuriko back as the three work through their various problems in the snow covered mountains of Hokkaido.

For Yuriko the two men represent very different pulls – towards the spiritual and the physical. Her relationship with Akira has obviously long gone sour, the two aren’t suited or happy in each other’s company. All they have is the physical though, it seems, this is not enough for Yuriko. Yuriko and Kazuo, by contrast, work well together, complement each other and only exert positive energy but their inability to enjoy a full relationship (which it seems they would both like) is the reason their previous affair failed.

Yuriko needs, in a sense, both men though for the present time her desire is to be rid of Akira with his emotional volatility, cruelty, and possessiveness. Though the relationship may be been on its way out, Akira’s jealousy is inflamed by the deep connection Kazuo shares with Yuriko – bringing home the the fact that his relationship with her is firmly based in the physical. As Yuriko and Kazuo grow closer, Akira becomes increasingly unhinged as it’s he who’s now rendered “impotent” in the quest to win back his former love. Cavorting with the young hippies at the ski lodge, Akira tries to make Yuriko jealous and Kazuo irritated but only succeeds in making himself look ridiculous. Eventually, Yuriko is goaded into admitting that all Akira has ever known of her is superficial, whereas Kazuo has known her soul. Yet even so the love she shares with Kazuo seems doomed to fail, tinged with death as she finds herself blinded and obscured by snow filled fog, screaming into a void.

For Yoshida all love fails, as Kazuo says – no love can last. The central trio are lost and purposeless yet seeking a connection they never seem to find. Yoshida’s beautiful cinematography captures their emotional blankness through the freezing cold snow-covered landscape and infinite expanses of emptiness in which no one can reconcile everything that they want with everything that they are. Death lurks everywhere as skiers pulls bodies past romantic walks and would-be-lovers collapse in exhaustion as if trying to cross the artic plains in search of a lost friend.

Shooting through mirrors Yoshida shows us a collection of people unwilling to look directly either at themselves or at others, missing the final climactic event in their fierce determination not to engage. Lost in a fog, nothing is clear as the lovelorn and lonely seek direction only to remain locked inside themselves unable to find the true and complete connection they each seek.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Affair (情炎, Kiju Yoshida, 1967)

the affair 1967After leaving Shochiku and forming an independent production company with his actress wife Mariko Okada, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida continued in the Shochiku vein, after a fashion, through crafting what came to be known as “anti-melodramas”. Taking the familiar melodrama a studio like Shochiku was well known for, Yoshida transformed the material through radical cinematography designed to alienate and drain the overwrought drama of its empty emotion in order to drive to something deeper. The Affair (情炎, Jouen), released in 1967, is just such an experiment as it paints the cold and repressed world of its heroine in steely black and white, imprisoning her within its widescreen frame, and setting her at odds with the younger, more liberated generation who get their kicks through groovy beatnik jazz and an eternal party.

Oriko (Mariko Okada) is a married, middle-aged woman who has never been able to find fulfilment with her successful executive husband Takashi (Tadahiko Sugano). The marriage has long been cold and Oriko has discovered that her husband has a younger mistress leading her to seek a divorce but Takashi will not give her one. Her one confidant is a poet and sculptor whom she first met as her mother’s lover – something she tried to put a stop to. Oriko’s mother died a year ago in a traffic accident though she’d long been a heavy drinker and Oriko is convinced her mother was probably drunk at the time of her death. Aside from a drink and poetry habit, Oriko’s mother also had a taste for love – Mitsuharu (Isao Kimura), now an odd kind of friend, was merely one of her many lovers. Oriko’s intense disgust of her mother’s “decadent” lifestyle has left her with a deep seated repression, unable to allow herself to experience any kind of pleasure in case she too succumbs to a life of base desire.

Yoshida imbues Oriko’s life with a kind of dread and stillness, defined by its emptiness and sterility. At odds with her mother while she was alive, Oriko cannot let her go even in death. Yet she is not ready to break through to the new post-war world inhabited by her hippyish sister-in-law Yuko (Shigako Shimegi) and her well to do friends. Oriko dresses in western style for her office job but sticks to kimono at home and on the move, hers is an old fashioned world of propriety and elegance but the gesture is less conformist than rebellious – she is in revolt against herself as she represses and refuses her desires.

Despite her inability to adapt to married life with her husband, Oriko is eventually awakened by witnessing her sister-in-law’s quasi-rape by a local labourer. Originally reluctant, Yuko eventually gives in and allows the labourer to have his wicked way with her while, unbeknownst to her, Oriko watches through a frosted window. Later she finds herself setting off through the dark and mysterious night to the shack where the labourer takes refuge to warn him off trying anything with Yuko again only to find herself succumbing to his “charms”.

The encounter is a shocking one which ultimately destabilises Oriko’s entire personality. Having spent so long repressing herself, Oriko is not sure what to do – only that she still doesn’t want her husband and may be in love with an equally problematic suitor in the man who had been a lover of the very woman she was so desperate not to become. Yet Oriko must finally accept that she is not so different from the mother she despised, feeling the same desire and the same need even if her deepening self loathing makes pleasure a knife which wounds.

Mitsuharu has long been in love with Oriko but unable to express himself firstly through the taboo of having been intimate with her mother and then because of her marriage. The two have become awkward friends as Mitsuharu tries to help Oriko navigate her marital problems only daring to hint at his true feelings as Oriko details her frustrations with her husband. A sculptor by trade and a poet in soul, Mitsuharu chips away at Oriko’s reserve like one of his sculptures, literally opening her up and exposing her true form to the air. Eventually crushed by his own desire, Mitsuharu may be robbed of a direct connection to the very force which has come to define this recent stage of Oriko’s life but this only reinforces her devotion to him. Leaving a final poem for her unpoetical husband, Oriko writes the words “this flower, still vital, resigns herself to her fate” as she acknowledges her desires but subsumes them into her love for Mitsuharu rather than repressing them into herself.

Yoshida’s camerawork is once again astounding, marooning his disparate cast inside their own individual space, unable to connect with each other or the outside world. Framed in mirrors and windows, caught alone among a crowd of indifferent passengers on a bus, separated by shoji, Yoshida’s characters are endlessly divided but the prisons are all of their own making.


Original trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Radio Star (라디오 스타, Lee Joon-ik, 2006)

radio star posterWhat do you do if you’ve just directed a box office smashing, taboo busting, giant mega hit? Well, you could direct Star Wars, but if you’re Lee Joon-ik you go back to basics with a low budget, heartwarming tale of friendship and failure. Radio Star (라디오 스타) reunites frequent costars Ahn Sung-ki and Park Joong-hoon whose shared history runs all the way back to ‘80s movies Chilsu and Mansu, Two Cops, and Nowhere to Hide. ‘80s nostalgia plays not a small part in Lee’s film as it takes a washed up one hit wonder from 20 years back and gives him a new opportunity to shine…if only he can get over himself first.

1988 was something of a banner year for Korea, a newly minted democracy the country put itself on the international map with that year’s Olympic Games taking place in Seoul. It was also a big year for rock star Choi Gon (Joong-hoon) who scored a chart topping mega hit with his song The Rain and You which won him a prestigious musical prize. However, it all went to his head and despite the best efforts of his best friend and manager Park Min-soo (Ahn Sung-ki), 18 years later in 2006 Gon is a cafe singer with a habit of getting into fights which land him in jail. After yet another “incident”, Min-soo is having trouble finding the money to bail his friend out, until, that is he hits on the opportunity of selling Gon’s name as a radio host in an isolated rural town.

Of course, this doesn’t go down well with Gon who’s still every inch the edgy rockstar despite his reduced circumstances. Eventually Min-soo talks him into taking the gig but he’s anything but enthusiastic about his new life as a disembodied voice talking to a handful of country bumpkins who still have transistor radios. Gradually, through learning to appreciate his surroundings Gon begins to understand exactly what it is that’s important in his life.

Playing off its central dynamic, Radio Star undoubtedly brings a lot with it in the casting of Ahn and Park whose similar trajectories add to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative. Min-soo appears to have only the one client to whom he remains completely devoted (even neglecting his wife and daughter in the process) though it’s true Gon’s career has not gone in the hoped for direction. Still dressing like an ‘80s rock god with sunglasses, torn jeans and a leather jacket, Gon is his own worst enemy as he plays the rockstar game all the way into a jail cell he fully expects Min-soo will get him out of. His new assignment as a local radio DJ is one he finds beneath his dignity and only takes because he thinks it’s a favour to a friend (rather than a friend doing a favour for him), but when it brings him unexpected success he finds that it’s all worth nothing if Min-soo isn’t there to enjoy it with him.

Though many in the small town barely remember Choi Gon or his iconic, prize winning song, he still has a few fans in the form of local garage band East River (played by real life punk band No Brain) who become devoted supporters of the show even helping to spread the word and putting on a special celebratory tribute concert. Ironically enough, the show starts to take off with Gon’s nonchalant approach to hosting which often sees him abandoning the mike to a random local either by phone or getting a guest into the studio. Sliding into talk radio territory, Gon begins taking calls and offering (to begin with) flippant advice on such topics as jobs for the unemployed and the proper rules for card games but he’s soon involved in a campaign to help a shy florist declare his love to a bank cashier and eventually makes a heartfelt personal appeal in support of a little boy who’s father has run off, encouraging him to come back home if only to apologise for making the kid think it’s all his fault that his dad went away.

It’s undoubtably small scale stuff, which of course means that it’s infinite in scope as Gon’s growing sense of interconnectedness takes the show out of the local area and eventually all the way to Seoul after the East River boys’ internet fan site gives him a potentially global (well, to anyone who can speak Korean) reach. As Min-soo points out, stars don’t shine alone – they reflect the light they’re given, and therefore Gon’s only rises because of his friendship with Min-soo and the support he begins to win from the local people once he drops the aloof rockstar persona and begins to engage. Necessarily sentimental and drenched in the dust of broken dreams, Radio Star is a sometimes melancholic though warm tribute to the power of friendship and redemptive possibilities offered by unlikely second chances.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gon’s prizewinning song – Rain and You as sung by Park Joong-hoon

And sung by Korean punk band No Brain

 

The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-, Shun Nakahara, 2008)

The Cherry Orchard- Blossoming poster In 1990, Shun Nakahara adapted Akimi Yoshida’s manga Sakura no Sono and created a perfectly observed capsule of late ‘80s teenage life at an elite girls school where the encroaching future is both terrifying and oddly exciting. Revisiting the same material 28 years later, one can’t help feeling that the times have rolled back rather than forwards. Starring a collection of appropriately aged teenage starlets The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその- Sakura no Sono), dispenses with the arty overtones for a far more straightforward tale of melancholy schoolgirls finding release in art but, crucially, only to a point.

Less an attempt to remake the original, Blossoming acts as an odd kind of sequel in which the leading lady, Momo (Saki Fukuda), becomes fed up with her rigid life at a music conservatoire and rebelliously storms out. Already in her last year of high school, Momo is lucky enough to get a transfer to Oka Academy solely because her mother and (much) older sister are old girls. However, transfer students are rare at Oka and the other girls aren’t exactly happy to see her – they worked hard to get here but she’s just waltzed straight in without any kind of effort at all.

Gradually the situation improves. Wandering around the old school building (a European style country house) which was the setting for the first film and has now been replaced with a modern, purpose built high school complex, Momo finds the script for The Cherry Orchard and becomes fixated on the idea of putting the play on with some of the other students. However, though The Cherry Orchard used to be an annual fixture it hasn’t been performed in 11 years after being abruptly cancelled when one of the stars disgraced the school by falling pregnant.

Whereas Nakahara’s 1990 Cherry Orchard was a tightly controlled affair, penning the girls inside the school and staying with them through several crises across the two hours before their big performance, Blossoming has no such conceits and adopts a formula much more like the classic sports movie as the underdog girls fight to put the play on and then undergo physical training (complete with montages) rather than rehearsals.

Momo’s rebellion is (in a sense) a positive one as she abandons something she was beginning to find no longer worked for her to look for something else and also gains a need to see things through rather than give up when times get hard. The drama of the 1990 version is kickstarted when a student is caught smoking in a cafe with delinquents from another school, aside from being told that students are expected to go straight home, Momo feels little danger in hanging out in an underground bar where her music school friend plays in a avant-garde pop band.

Though this reflects a change in eras it also points to a slight sanitisation of the source material. Gone are the illicit boyfriends (though there is one we don’t see) and barely repressed crushes, these teens are still in the land of shojo – dreaming of romance but innocently. Teenage pregnancy becomes a recurrent theme but lost opportunities hover in the background as the girls are seen from their own perspective rather than the wistful melancholy of those looking back on their youth.

Such commentary is left to the “old girls” represented by Momo’s soon to be married sister and the girls’ teacher, each of whom is still left hanging thanks to the cancellation of the play during their high school years. Despite her impending marriage, Momo’s sister does not seem to be able to put the past behind her and may be nursing a long term unrequited crush on a high school classmate. Blossoming echoes some of the concerns of Cherry Orchard, notably in its central pairing as lanky high jumper Aoi (Anne Watanabe) worries over a perceived lack of femininity while the more refined Mayuko (Saki Terashima) silently pines for her, unable to make her feelings plain. The 1990 version presented a painful triangle of possibly unrequited loves and general romantic confusion but it did at least allow a space for overt discussion rather than the half hearted subtly of a mainstream idol film in a supposedly more progressive era.

Nevertheless, Nakahara’s second pass at teenage drama does fulfil on the plucky high school girls promise as the gang get together to put the show on right here. Much less nuanced than the earlier version, Blossoming’s teens are just as real even if somehow more naive than their ‘80s counterparts. Team building, friendship, and perseverance are the name of the day as the passing of time takes a back seat, relegated to Momo’s sad smile as she alone witnesses the painful love drama of her melancholy friend.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Shun Nakahara, 1990)

Cherry Orchard 1990 posterChekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is more about the passing of an era and the fates of those who fail to swim the tides of history than it is about transience and the ever-present tragedy of the death of every moment, but still there is a commonality in the symbolism. Shun Nakahara’s The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Sakura no Sono) is not an adaptation of Chekhov’s play but of Akimi Yoshida’s popular 1980s shojo manga which centres on a drama group at an all girls high school. Alarm bells may be ringing, but Nakahara sidesteps the usual teen angst drama for a sensitively done coming of age tale as the girls face up to their liminal status and prepare to step forward into their own new era.

The annual production of The Cherry Orchard has become a firm fixture at Oka Academy – even more so this year as it marks an important anniversary for the school. Stage manager Kaori (Miho Miyazawa) has come in extra early to prep for the performance, but also because she’s enjoying a covert assignation with her boyfriend whom she is keen to get rid of before anyone else turns up and catches them at it. Hearing the door, Kaori bundles him out the back way before the show’s director, Yuko (Hiroko Nakajima), who is also playing a maid arrives looking a little different – she’s had a giant perm.

Yuko’s hair is very much against school regulations but she figures they’ll get over it. Fortunately or unfortunately, Yuko’s hairdo is the least of their problems. Another girl who is supposed to be playing a leading role, Noriko (Miho Tsumiki), has been caught smoking and hanging out with delinquents from another school. She and her parents are currently in the headmaster’s office, and everyone is suddenly worried. The girls’ teacher, Ms. Satomi (Mai Okamoto), is going in to bat for them but it sounds like the play might be cancelled at the last-minute just because the strict school board don’t think it appropriate to associate themselves with such a disappointing student.

The drama club acts as a kind of safe space for the girls. Oka Academy is, to judge by the decor and uniforms, a fairly high-class place with strict rules and ideas about the way each of the young ladies should look, feel, and act. Their ages differ, but they’re all getting towards the age when they know whether or not those ideas are necessarily ones they wish to follow. As if to bring out the rigid nature of their school life, The Cherry Orchard is preformed every single year (classic plays get funded more easily than modern drama) but at least, as one commentator puts it, Ms. Satomi’s production is one of the most “refreshing” the school has ever seen, perhaps echoing the new-found freedoms these young women are beginning to explore.

Free they are and free they aren’t as the girls find themselves experiencing the usual teenage confusions but also finding the courage to face them. Yuko’s hair was less about self-expression than it was about catching the attention of a crush – not a boy, but a fellow student, Chiyoko (Yasuyo Shirashima). Chiyoko, by contrast is pre-occupied with her leading role in the play. Last year, in a male role, she excelled but Ranevskaya is out of her comfort zone. Tall and slim, Chiyoko has extreme hangups around her own femininity and would rather have taken any other male role than the female lead.

Yuko keeps her crush to herself but unexpectedly bonds with delinquent student Noriko who has correctly guessed the direction of Yuko’s desires. Sensitively probing the issue, using and then retreating from the “lesbian” label, Noriko draws a partial confession from her classmate but it proves a bittersweet experience. Predictably enough, Noriko’s “delinquency” is foregrounded by her own more certain sexuality. Noriko’s crush on the oblivious Yuko looks set to end in heartbreak, though Nakahara is less interested in the salaciousness of a teenage love triangle than the painfulness of unrequited, unspoken love which leaves Noriko hovering on the sidelines – wiser than the other girls, but paying heavily for it.

Chekhov’s play famously ends with the sound of falling trees, heralding the toppling of an era but with a kind of sadness for the destruction of something beautiful which could not be saved. Nakahara’s film ends with cherry blossoms blowing in through an open window in an empty room. The spectre of endings hangs heavily, neatly echoed by Ms. Satomi’s argument to the promise that the play will go ahead next year with the cry that next year these girls will be gone. This is a precious time filled with fun and friendship in which the drama club affords the opportunity to figure things out away from the otherwise strict and conformist school environment. Nakahara films with sympathetic naturalism, staying mainly within the rehearsal room with brief trips to the roof or empty school corridors capturing these late ‘80s teens for all of their natural exuberance and private sorrows.


Original trailer (no subtitles)