Maison Ikkoku: Apartment Fantasy (めぞん一刻, Shinichiro Sawai, 1986)

Maison IkkouIf you’ve always fancied a stay at that inn the Katakuris run but aren’t really into zombies and murder etc, you could think about spending some time at Maison Ikkoku (めぞん一刻). Based on the classic 1980s manga by Rumiko Takahashi, the 1986 live action adaptation is every bit as zany as you’d hope. Eccentric tenants, women pulled from ponds, bank robbers, and an all star dog. It’s a pretty full house, but if anything’s for certain it’s the more the merrier over at Maison Ikkoku.

Godai (Ken Ishiguro), a would-be student retaking his university entrance exams, has finally had enough and vowed to move out of Maison Ikkoku for good but just as he’s made his decision, an elegant woman arrives with a big white dog. The beautiful lady, Kyoko (Mariko Ishihara), is their new building manager. Godai falls instantly in love with her and decides to stay, but Kyoko has her own reasons for coming to Maison Ikkoku and isn’t quite ready to engage in a romance with a feckless student.

Kyoko also makes the mistake of reminding the collection of eccentric tenants that they’re behind on their rent. There are currently four residents occupying the apartment building including Godai. He’s joined by the mysterious Yotsuya (Masato Ibu) who seems to have several different jobs and speaks in an overly formal manner, Ichinose (Yumiko Fujita) – a gossipy middle aged housewife, and Akemi (Yoshiko Miyazaki) who works at a nearby bar and is almost always in her underwear. They don’t want to pay so they start coming up with plans to stop Kyoko coming after them for the money – the first one being to drug and assault her so she’ll be too embarrassed to talk to them again! Went dark quickly, didn’t it?

Despite the quirky goings on, the presence of death is constant. Kyoko is an extremely young widow sill mourning the death of her husband and has even named her dog after him. Shinichiro keeps making his ghostly presence known to her by ringing the nearby shrine bells or stealing her umbrella, making it impossible for Kyoko to move on. A non-resident but frequent visitor (played by Kunie Tanaka) recounts that his wife left him and took part in a double suicide with another man, whilst the gang also picks up another member in the form of a woman that Yotsuya claims to have fished out of the lake after she “got caught on his pole” and is now a little obsessed with him thinking that he’s the boyfriend she tried to commit suicide over.

If that all sounds a little heavy, Sawai makes sure to pile on the absurdism to keep things light and even includes a few visual gags such as a floating geisha doll during Yotsuya’s “I regret preventing a woman’s suicide because it turns out she’s quite annoying” speech. About half way through the film the entire gang suddenly decides they’re going to perform an “Ikkoku speciality” in celebration of Godai’s success which turns out to be a full scale song and dance number with everyone dressed in outfits that reflect their personality from Yotsuya in his temple singer garb, Ichinose in her wedding dress, Akemi in a nurses outfit, and Godai and Kyoto both in a school uniform, to the mysterious man dressed as a hardboiled detective the failed suicide woman for some reason dressed as a nun. Just when a big “The End” sign pops up we get yet another song accompanied by glow sticks waving in the background.

The main “drama” revolves around Godai’s attempts to pass his university entrance exams and win the heart of Kyoko though there are also various subplots concerning the odd rivalry between Yotsuya and the mysterious man over a bank robbery as well as their attempts to evade the police. Maison Ikkoku becomes a kind of sanctuary where those with wounded hearts can find a place to heal themselves. Occasionally bleak, such as in the frequent references to death and suicide, Maison Ikkoku is an absurd place filled with larger than life characters acting out their surreal existence in this shared paradise of a rundown boarding house in a quiet backwater. The film ends on another ironic note as the party goes on but the Gilbert O’Sullivan track Alone Again, Naturally plays over the end credits which is, of course, about the singer’s intention to commit suicide after being jilted at the altar. A strange if well crafted film, Maison Ikkoku is in someways ahead of its time in the quirky humour stakes but also makes use of a typically ‘80s kind of absurdism which fuses black humour with innocent, youthful charm.


Original Trailer(s) (No subtitles)

Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Joji Matsuoka, 1992)

TwinkleThe end of the Bubble Economy created a profound sense of national confusion in Japan, leading to what become known as a “lost generation” left behind in the difficult ‘90s. Yet for all of the cultural trauma it also presented an opportunity and a willingness to investigate hitherto taboo subject matters. In the early ‘90s homosexuality finally began to become mainstream as the “gay boom” saw media embracing homosexual storylines with even ultra independent movies such as A Touch of Fever becoming unexpected box office hits. Based on the book by Kaori Ekuni, Joji Matsuoka’s Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Kira Kira Hikaru) tackles this subject head on in examining the changing nature of the modern family as personal freedom and greater social liberalism conflict with familial duty and centuries old tradition.

We first meet Shoko (Hiroko Yakushimaru) in the office of a doctor who assures her that her “problems” are nothing to worry about and the best thing to do is find “a nice man” and get married after which she’s sure to feel much better. On the taxi ride home, her mother suddenly pulls out an omiai photo she’s apparently been carrying in her bag the whole time and proposes Shoko try meeting this particular prospect just as the doctor suggested.

Her “date” is Mitsuki (Etsushi Toyokawa) – an unmarried middled aged doctor who doesn’t seem very interested in the omiai business either. After a brief period of bickering, Shoko and Mitsuki get some time to themselves at which point Mitsuki reveals that the reason he isn’t married is because he has a boyfriend. Despite this, the pair come to an understanding and decide to get married to finally get their relatives off their backs. However, if they thought the pressure would go away after the wedding, they were mistaken. Though both sets of parents know about their children’s reasons for originally avoiding marriage, they don’t know about those of the spouses and when they find out it’s just going to get even more complicated.

We don’t find out exactly what “problems” Shoko may have had in the past. On the morning of the omiai her family dog dies meaning she has an obvious reason to appear visibly upset, yet she also displays symptoms of ongoing depression right the way through the film, flitting between upbeat cheerfulness to impulsive behaviour and crying fits. She also has a long standing drink problem which can result in dangerous accidents such as an incident where Mitsuki returns home to find her passed out on the floor with the iron in one hand and an empty glass of whiskey apparently fallen out of the other.

Mitsuki is in a relationship with a much younger college student and, though they don’t seem to go out of their way to hide their relationship, they can’t exactly be open about it either. Kon did not approve of Mitsuki’s decision to get married and has been avoiding him but Shoko is keen for the two men’s relationship to continue, eventually befriending the young man and bringing him home as fully fledged member of their family. Mitsuki finds this arrangement quite confusing, trapped between two spouses and feeling a responsibility to both of them. In one notable exchange he’s asked to make the relatively simple choice between strawberry and vanilla ice-cream, but the question has taken on a much wider implication than just tonight’s dessert.

The arrangement starts out well enough, except that the growing affection between the married couple eventually begins to place a wedge between them, each knowing that they can never truly satisfy the demands of the other. Not satisfied with a marriage, the parents also expect children which is going to require medical assistance given the circumstances, but Mitsuki is still unsure about taking this next step. Shoko, though experiencing a intensification of her emotional volatility, now suggests a truly radical solution for the early ‘90s – that she undergo artificial insemination using the mixed sperm of both Mitsuki and Kon to essentially have “their” baby.

Shoko and Mitsuki are both trapped, in a sense, by their societal obligations – particularly that of producing children. Mitsuki’s parents know he’s gay, though they tolerate more than accept, yet they still pressure him into fathering a child for appearance’s sake alone. His father had come to terms with his son’s sexuality, even if Mitsuki refers to himself as a son who has “betrayed” his father, but he was against the marriage viewing it as cruel and irresponsible. Once Shoko’s parents discover the real reasoning they try to take over, ignoring Shoko’s views (and even her first clear stating of her problems with alcohol), acting as if they were the injured party.

Though slightly older, Shoko and Mitsuki have found themselves at the centre of a generational conflict as they fight to free themselves from parental control even in adulthood. The future they propose for themselves is an unusual one and unlikely to be accepted by society, yet it is finally their own decision and only by unshackling themselves from the same social pressures which brought them together can they learn to forge a new future. Ten years later, Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s Hush! would suggest a similar scenario which, though still not universally accepted, is greeted with much less resistance than the entirely radical arrangement of Shoko, Mitsuki, and Kon. An interesting look at the changing nature of  social bonds in the immediate post-bubble era, Twinkle is a melancholic though ultimately hopeful tale of three individuals who might be able to provide the stability each needs if only they can learn to withstand the overwhelming external pressures.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Behemoth (悲兮魔兽, Zhao Liang, 2015)

behemothEvil, so a wise man said, begins when you start treating people as things. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showed us a city that literally was its people – nothing but a vast yet perfectly functional machine with the workers little more than cogs to be replaced and discarded once worn out. Zhao’s Behemoth (悲兮魔兽, Bēixī Móshòu) is no fantasy but a very real journey through our own world and so we follow our narrator, a poetic, naked stand in for Dante’s Virgil, through hell and purgatory on a path to paradise only to find ourselves staring into a void filled with our unfulfilled desires and forlorn hopes.

On the fifth day God created Behemoth, and the mountain brings him forth food. Where once there was a paradise of verdant green fields and pastoral hills, now there are only quarries and the sounds of men at toil have replaced those of birds and other kinds of beasts. Our journey into hell takes us into a coal mine filled with noise and fires as the mountain is asset stripped right before our very eyes. We are witnessing a murder – the brutal slaughter of natural beauty for human gain, perpetrated by exploited workers who live in penury while their bosses rake off the profits from a safe distance.

Zhao’s workers labour at all hours under the searing heat of a midday sun or the bright glow of moonlight. He lingers on their faces, some old before their time but each tired, wrinkled. The workers are not provided with much in terms of infrastructure or facilities. They have no showers as Western coal miners might, they return home to scrape themselves with towels in an attempt to remove the stain of coal dust from their skin. Coal dust is a penetrative parasite, it sinks deep, falling into the creases each worker has developed through their strenuous efforts to earn the money to survive.

The dust does not stop at the skin. It runs deeper still, into the lungs where it stifles breath even once the unbreathable air of the furnace has been left behind. In what amounts to the naked dreamer’s path through purgatory, we see former workers lying listlessly on hospital beds as the black fluid is drained from their lungs. They cough, wheeze and struggle to breathe but they receive scant care or regard for their years or backbreaking toil. Some of them have formed a pressure group, hoping to get the government involved in their struggle to improve pay and conditions in the powerhouse of the nation but, as is expected, they receive little attention – after all, there are plenty more workers out there and leverage is small when jobs are in demand.

So what of Paradise? Paradise is empty, all the righteous are trapped in hell. Vast cities of high rise buildings lie vacant – a symptom of economic hubris as supply outstrips demand by an inconceivable margin. All this progress, and no one left to enjoy it. At the beginning our naked dreamer evokes Dante to tell us that there is no greater pain than desire without hope. It is unclear if Zhao’s Inner Mongolian workers would prefer this kind of paradise to their green rolling hills, but the decision has been made for them and even so, this is a workers’ paradise that is intended for a different kind of worker, there is no space here for any of Zhao’s coal smeared faces.

Our naked dreamer was guided here by a fellow plains dweller who does not know how to write poetry, but the eloquence of his heart is equal to Dante himself. The guide claims to show us a picture of the dead but the weight he carries on his back is a mirror – it shows us death wearing our own faces. Zhao shows us who we are – the faceless monster, Behemoth, is us or a manifestation of our relentless greed. We were born in paradise, and created ourselves a hell because we wanted more than the Earth could give us. This is our never-ending tragedy, overwhelmed by desire we destroy each other in an endless quest for an unattainable paradise that only exists in dreams.

Zhao’s background in photography comes to the fore as he captures these hellish scenes with an odd kind of beauty, mixing the bucolic with the brutal. Cattle grazes on the distant fields as fires burn in the background, and a baby boy plays innocently by madly digging at the ground as if mimicking the behaviour he sees all around him. At one moment the entire screen floods with red as the hellish glow of the smelting process momentarily blinds us, as does a dust cloud of white later on. For the most part, Zhao is content to show us the faces of these men and women, weathered by years of backbreaking labour yet he also tells us that he sees past their fatigue and their resignation to the people they once were that this environment has also destroyed. This is no social realist propaganda film, Zhao respects the sacrifice of these hard working people but it’s as far from glorification as it’s possible to be.

It’s tempting to say this is a China specific issue, brought about by the country’s unique political situation and rapid industrialisation but Zhao’s canvas is wider. This is a human problem that is not bound by national borders or cultural norms. We each live complicit with this system, so desperate to keep the lights on that we’ve become afraid to ask how it’s done. We can continue feed the monster that will one day devour us, or we can try to starve it out but that would require us to acknowledge the greed and selfishness that underline human nature. History is not on our side.


UK release trailer (ICA exclusive screening):

Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Shinichiro Sawai, 1988)

Memories of youIf you thought idol movies were all cute and quirky stories of eccentric high school girls with pretty, poppy voices then think again because Memories of You is coming for you and your faith in idols to make everything better. Directed by W’s Tragedy‘s Shinichiro Sawai, Memories of You (ラブ・ストーリーを君に, Love Story wo Kimi Ni) stars one of the biggest idols of them all – Kumiko Goto, only 14 years old at the time of filming. Seemingly inspired by classic Hollywood melodramas of the ‘50s, Sawai’s film finds its innocent protagonist attempting to live an entire lifetime in only six months as she succumbs to a cruel and relentless disease.

Giving no clue as to its eventual destination, Memories of You begins with two young men returning from a hiking trip. You can tell the pair are committed alpinists because of their distinctly alpine attire and by the way they look at a glockenspiel. In this early comic scene, Araki (Shingo Yanagisawa) is heading straight to an important job interview that he hopes will help him get his girl back if he’s hired so he’s talking a mile a minute whilst awkwardly changing into a business suit inside a photo booth.

The other young man, Akira (Toru Nakamura), runs into the star of film, Yumi (Kumiko Goto), on her way back from the hospital. Akira used to be Yumi’s tutor and it’s obvious she has kind of a crush on him. Unbeknownst to Yumi, the results of her tests are much more serious than might be assumed from her cheerful persona. Yumi has leukaemia and the doctors do not expect her to survive for more than six months at most.

Yumi’s devasted mother shifts her grief away from the pain of losing her only child, to that of her stolen future – no high school, no romance, no love, marriage, or children. Accordingly she asks teacher in training Akira for a considerable sacrifice – essentially, pretend to date Yumi and give her the kind of love story that she will never now be able to experience.

Needless to say, this is a little creepy given that Akira is in in his mid-twenties and Yumi is only fourteen. Of course, it’s all very chaste and innocent like something out of a shoujo manga but still even in 1988 the scenario rings alarm bells. Akira is conflicted about his new role as a fake boyfriend for a dying teenager but it would be heartless to refuse, though one may wonder about what effect all of this may have on his future chosen career.

The world of 1988 is noticeably sexist in that Yumi’s mother works as a cookery teacher, reminding her pupil’s that this is the most important course because they’ll all be competing with their future mother-in-laws in the great culinary battle to win their husband’s hearts. These girls are raised to be housewives and nothing more, although, Yumi’s mother is divorced and now has a career, is taking care of Yumi alone and is not particularly looking to remarry. So, swings and roundabouts in terms of social progress.

The film flits between the viewpoints of Yumi and Akira as they both try to adapt to this unusual situation. As is common in these kinds of films, Yumi is not quite as in the dark as everyone had assumed and is readying herself to say her final goodbyes. This also brings about a reunion with her long absent father who has emigrated to Canada where he has a new wife and younger daughter. Yumi’s family status is an uncommon one for 1988, yet there is relatively little stigma surrounding it. Perhaps her father’s return after three years is one factor in Yumi’s realisation of the seriousness of her condition (as her mother feared it might be) but the final reconciliation does at least bring her a little more calmness and stability.

Yumi’s illness is a mountain which cannot be conquered. The beauty of the natural world and the desire to overcome it, in a sense, through physical exertion are the chief motifs of the film as Yumi dreams of travelling to Switzerland – the spiritual home of alpinism (it would seem). The loving looks at the glockenspiel in the opening scenes develop into an underlying musical theme as they also recur during the lengthy cabaret sequence close to the film’s climax. Of course, Yumi finally attempts to climb her mountain with Akira as her guide but there is only so far she can proceed.

Despite its melodramatic touches and desire to be a grand tearjerker, Memories of You is too restrained to make the full force of its tragedy achieve the kind of emotional effect that it aims for. Filled with syrupy, orchestral music very much like that employed by classic Hollywood examples of the genre, Memories of You really wants the viewer to experience the intense sadness of such a young life taken by a cruel and indiscriminating disease but often overplays its hand. This isn’t helped by the unsettling nature of the “romance” between Akira and Yumi or the (entirely understandable) lack of chemistry between the leads who each give independently high quality performances. An interesting example of an “idol movie” which steps outside the genre norms, Memories of You doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions but is another nicely photographed effort from Sawai.


End credits and title song (not sung by Kumiko Goto)

Young Girls in Love (恋する女たち, Kazuki Omori, 1986)

young women in loveThe friends you make in high school are the friends you’ll have the rest of your life, says Takako – the heroine of Kazuki Omori’s Young Girls in Love (恋する女たち, Koisuru Onnatachi). Only she doesn’t quite want hers – they’re weird and cause her nothing but trouble. Also one of them is too pretty so she soaks up all of the attention – where’s the fun in that? Takako is not altogether happy in her adolescence but at least she has her friends there beside her, right?

Takako’s two best friends have both recently fallen in love leaving her feeling a little left out. Midoriko (Mamiko Takai), the most “unusual” girl in her group (but also thought to be the prettiest), had fallen in love with a teacher and even struck up something of a friendship with him as evidenced by her collection of cute photos of them together. However, he’s recently got married leaving her heartbroken so Midoriko is having another one of her trademark “funerals” in which she buries painful memories from her past. Previously she’s had funerals for an unfortunate PE related incident in which she ripped her shorts during gymnastics, and another for when her grades got so bad that the teachers told her she probably wouldn’t graduate from high school.

Teiko has a difficult homelife as her literature professor father has left the family for unspecified reasons and her mother is still mourning the end of the marriage. However, she has found herself and older poet who formerly wrote lyrics for cheesy teen idol pop songs (though he’s a serious poet now so that’s all beneath and behind him). Teiko knows that this relationship is doomed to failure but is pursuing it in any case.

Takako is so wound up by her friend’s series of love stories that she finds herself visiting “raunchy” movies like 9 1/2 weeks. This is where she encounters possible crush and high school baseball star Kutsukake (Toshiro Yanagiba), but does she really like him or is she just lovesick and jealous of her friends? A new complication also arises in the form of fellow student Kanzake (Yusuke Kawazu) who previously had a crush on older sister Hiroko (Kiwako Harada) but seems to have shifted his attentions on to Takako.

Young Girls in Love is a little broader than the average idol drama though it maintains an overall quirky tone with a few swings towards melodrama. Takako continues with her romantic dilemma although in contrast to what she says towards the opening of the film she mostly does so alone. Rather than her similarly romantically troubled friends, Takako confides in a painter friend, Kinuko (Satomi Kobayashi) who has some rather more grown up advice for her than other friends (or sister) are willing or able to offer.

During her troubles Takako also goes to visit another girl who is kind of involved with low level bosozoku motorcycle gangs, and finds out that her morbid friend Midoriko has gone seriously off the rails. Leading some kind of double life, Midoriko is a disco queen in another town, dancing her troubles away and enchanting all the boys in the club (including the other girl’s biker boyfriend). Distressed, yet a little envious of Midoriko’s ability to soak up all the attention for herself, Takako is the only one to try and intervene during a drag race duel though little heed is given to her desperate plea for sanity and she is only one that gets hurt during the proceedings.

It’s all fairly innocent stuff even though biker gangs, older boyfriends, and boyfriend stealing, all fall into the mix. Omori keeps things simple and brings his idols to the fore to do what they do best though he does overly rely on TV style reaction shots for some of his gags. According to the anecdote Takako offers at the end, none of the various love stories have worked out they way the girls hoped (at least for now) but everything carries on more or less as normal. The three girls have another of their traditional extreme tea ceremonies dressed in kimono and sitting on the edge of a cliff, but they’re all still together despite their recent romantic adventures. The real love story is between three childhood friends who may have temporarily drifted apart over teenage drama, but their bonds are strong enough to withstand the storm and, as Takako stated in the beginning of the film, they’ll be together for the rest of their lives.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Miss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985)

Miss LonelyMiss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Sabishinbou, AKA Lonelyheart) is the final film in Obayashi’s Onomichi Trilogy all of which are set in his own hometown of Onomichi. This time Obayashi casts up and coming idol of the time, Yasuko Tomita, in a dual role of a reserved high school student and a mysterious spirit known as Miss Lonely. In typical idol film fashion, Tomita also sings the theme tune though this is a much more male lead effort than many an idol themed teen movie.

Obayashi begins with an intertitle-like tribute to a “brusied, brilliant boyhood” before giving way to a wistful voiceover from the film’s protagonist Hiroki Inoue (played by frequent Obayashi collaborator, Toshinori Omi). His life is a fairly ordinary one of high school days spent with his two good friends, getting up to energetic mischief as teenage boys are want to do. The only thing that’s a little different about Hiroki is that his father is a Buddhist priest so he lives in the temple with his feisty mother who is always urging him to study more, and he’ll one day be expected to start training to take over the temple from his father (he has no particular aversion to this idea).

Hiroki’s big hobby is photography and he’s recently splashed out on a zoom lens but rarely has money for film to put in the camera so he’s mostly just playing around, accidentally spying on people. The main object of his interest is a sad looking high school girl who spends her days playing the piano. Hiroki, as an observer of human nature, has decided that she must be just as lonely as he is and has given her the name of “Miss Lonely”. It comes as a shock to him then that a very similar looking sprite appears, also called “Miss Lonely” and proceeds to cause havoc in his very ordinary life.

Although the film is filled with Obayashi’s trademark melancholy nostalgia, there is also ample room for quirky teen comedy as the central trio of boys amuse them selves with practical jokes. The best of these involves a lengthly sequence with the headmaster’s prized parrot which he has painstakingly taught to recite poetry. On being sent to clean up the headmaster’s office after misbehaving in class, the boys quickly set about teaching it a bawdy song instead causing the poor bird to hopelessly mangle both speeches into one very strange recitation. This comes to light when the headmaster attempts to show off his prowess with the parrot to an important visitor but when the mothers of the three boys are called in to account for their sons’ behaviour, they cannot control their laughter. That’s in addition to a repeated motif of the boys’ teacher’s loose skirt always falling off at impromptu moments, and a tendency to head off into surreal set pieces such as the anarchic musical number which erupts at the stall where one of the boys works part time.

Miss Lonely herself appears in a classic mime inspired clown outfit, dressed as if she’d just walked out of an audition for a Fellini film. To begin with, Hiroki can only see Miss Lonely through his camera lens, but she quickly incarnates and eventually even becomes visible to others as well as Hiroki himself. Past and present overlap as Miss Lonely takes on a ghostly quality, perhaps reliving a former romance of memory which may be easily destroyed by water and is sure to be short lived. Love makes you lonely, Hiroki tells us, revelling in the failure to launch of his first love story. Though, if the epilogue he offers us is to be believed, perhaps he is over romanticising his teenage heartbreak and is heading for a happy ending after all.

Chopin also becomes a repeated motif in the film, bringing our trio of lovesick teens together with his music and adding to their romantic malaise with his own history of a difficult yet intense relationship with French novelist George Sand. There’s a necessarily sad quality to Hiroki’s tale, an acceptance of lost love and lost opportunities leaving their scars across otherwise not unhappy lifetimes. Set in Obayashi’s own hometown Miss Lonely takes on a very heartfelt quality, marking a final farewell to youth whilst also acknowledging the traces of sadness left behind when it’s time to say goodbye.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s idol star Yasuko Tomita singing the title song on a variety show from way back in 1985

Four Sisters (姉妹坂, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985)

Four SistersNobuhiko Obayashi takes another trip into the idol movie world only this time for Toho with an adaptation of a popular shojo manga. That is to say, he employs a number of idols within the film led by Toho’s own Yasuko Sawaguchi, though the film does not fit the usual idol movie mould in that neither Sawaguchi or the other girls is linked with the title song. Following something of a sisterly trope which is not uncommon in Japanese film or literature, Four Sisters (姉妹坂, Shimaizaka) centres around four orphaned children who discover their pasts, and indeed futures, are not necessarily those they would have assumed them to be.

Yasuko Sawaguchi plays the third oldest sister and more or less protagonist of the story, Anzu, who is facing a very common teenage dilemma in that there are two boys (best friends) both interested in her and she can’t decide if she likes both, one, or either of them. Eventually, Yuzuki (Ichirota Miyakawa) wins out leaving his friend Oba (Toshinori Omi) depressed and on the sidelines. However, Yuzuki is from a wealthy family and it was intended he marry a cousin so his mother does some digging and discovers more about Anzu than Anzu knew about herself.

As it turns out, the four sisters are not actually related by blood as only one was the biological child of the goodhearted couple who raised them. Unfortunately, the children’s adoptive parents died in a car accident leaving their birth daughter, Aya (Misako Konno), as a kind of maternal figure to Akane (Atsuko Asano), Anzu, and Ai (Yasuko Tomita) though Akane was the only one old enough to remember their lives before coming to live with Aya and her family. The rediscovery of the truth knocks both younger girls for six, especially as Anzu’s birth mother has reappeared and presents an existential threat to their insular family of four.

Set once again set in a peaceful, countryside town, Four Sisters revisits many of Obayashi’s constant concerns in its evocation of memory, mislaid truth, and the need to come to terms with the past in order to go on living in the present. The four young women are each very different, but bound tightly together by their shared experience, including the recent loss of their parents. Anzu’s discovery threatens to destroy the family firstly through the exposure of a lie (or, what is really an omission of truth), and secondly to speed up the inevitable fracturing as she begins to seek a new life and eventually family of her own. Though Akane has been able to forge a career for herself (less pleasant part-time work aside), she rightly points out that in becoming their maternal figure, Aya has in a sense lost or rejected the opportunity to pursue her own happiness. The sisters’ bond is tight and near unbreakable, but it’s also, in a sense, constraining.

Obayashi begins the picture with in a polaroid-like frame in which the two boys declare their intentions to duel for Anzu’s affections. As the film moves on, Obayshi returns to these intertitle-like captions particularly in bookending the various seasons throughout which the film turns. Though not as radically as in some of his other work, Obayashi once again uses colour filtering as a highlighting tool which is most obvious towards the end as the edges of the screen start to blur, greying out everything other than our central heroines. However, other sequences take place in a noticeably expressionist environment with extreme colour contrasted backgrounds and unreal, star filled skies and Obayashi also allows the real world weather with its storms and raging rivers to dictate the mood.

Four Sisters is, at heart, a family drama though one seen through a slightly distorted mirror. The four girls are indeed a unit which would inevitably have to split or stagnate in the normal order of things but the bonds are strong enough to withstand the unusual amount of pressure placed on them, enabling the sisters to move on with their individual lives whilst remaining close. Obayashi keeps things relatively low key (by his own standards) but gently builds a melancholy, nostalgic tone filled with loss and regret yet also with hope for the future. Beautifully shot, with Obayashi’s characteristically unusual use of imagery and wistful, ethereal atmosphere Four Sisters may not be among the director’s most experimental efforts but does provide a warm tale of love lost and gained in the lives of four ordinary women.