Shari (シャリ, Nao Yoshigai, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

From a distance, conflict and harmony can appear as the same thing or at least that’s how it was for the director of Shari (シャリ) seeing a mountain obscured by the weight of clouds seemingly in a constant battle of resistance with the wind. Later she comes to realise that what she was seeing wasn’t discord but two forces acting in concert with one another maintaining a kind of balance in the natural world. 

Balance may be something in danger of getting lost in the contemporary society as director Nao Yoshigai’s gentle voiceover explains. A documentary/fiction hybrid, Yoshigai wanders around Hokkaido in the winter talking to some of the residents of small-town Japan before shifting into a more environmental message as her interview subjects reflect on the effects of pollution and global warming. The seas are full of plastic while the absence of drift ice has led to a decline in fish populations. Bears have been observed coming down from the mountain but locals were less afraid than sorry hoping the bear would choose to return to its natural habitat and feeling just the littlest bit guilty on hearing it had been killed wondering if their presence is an incursion on its rightful home. Then again, two of the locals that Yoshigai talks to are newcomers from Tokyo who procured licenses to hunt deer and admit that essential life in this land of cold and snow is often difficult. Ironically enough, the woman suggests that they themselves have recovered a sense of being wild in their return to a more primitive way of life. 

In a way it’s that wildness, an ambivalence with an atavistic impulse that seems to captivate Yoshigai as a kind of spirit of the place. She recalls the first time she ate deer meat and that it caused her a sleepless night broken by strange dreams of being in a forest with bloodstained snow and encountering a little girl. Yet as the conclusion admits, we live taking heat from others as the woolly red creature often seen wandering through the town offers up its living blood. In another echo of the opening, two forces which ought to be at war turn out to be allies. The townspeople are fearful at the lack of falling snow explaining that in a roundabout way snow blankets the soil preventing it from freezing and preserving what lies below for the upcoming spring. 

It’s the weather that frightens some most in this age of sleepless bears who no longer have the urge to hibernate given the increasing temperatures. Yoshigai begins to feel responsible, as if her filmmaking has somehow confused the seasons, a feeling perhaps compounded when she returns to Tokyo in late January and finds it unseasonably warm while heavy snowfall is finally forecast for Shari. As another resident puts it, people in places like these had little choice but to learn to live with nature but nature is changing. Some had wanted to shift into hotels but others later won out arguing that nature was their greatest asset and must be protected though few seem to know how when the world is out of kilter and unlikely to stop its course towards self-destruction any time soon. 

In the end, however, Yoshigai’s prognosis is more hopeful recalling the battle between clouds and winds which was really a dance and certain that this perpetual motion has its own direction which can never be stopped. What we discover is nature red in tooth and claw as the Red Thing trudges through snow and smears its blood wherever it goes threatening in jest to consume the local children. Yet through her travels in Shari in summer sunshine and winter snow, Yoshigai comes to understand the pull of the place in its sheer elementality along with the sometimes eccentric residents such as former nomad who chose to settle down rearing sheep for wool and baking bread for sale, both things which are in their own way about warmth and comfort in a cold and unforgiving place. Sleepless bears are all we are, eyes strained by oncoming catastrophe stumbling around a world in the midst of melting until someone puts us out of our misery but continuing to hope for a blanketing of snow as a sign of possible salvation. 


Shari screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The Magical Craftsmanship of Suzhou (天工苏作, Sun Zengtian, 2022)

Suzhou was once such a bustling hub of traditional arts that the guild had to institute a quota system forbidding artisans from taking on too many apprentices lest they generate a monopoly. Times are now very different and such businesses often have trouble recruiting young people willing to learn traditional crafts or are even in a sense reluctant to do so knowing that their industry is in decline and those entering it now may never be able to support themselves fully on an artisan’s earnings alone. 

Sun Zengtian’s documentary The Magical Craftsmanship of Suzhou (天工苏作, tiān gōng sū zuō) is however a little more hopeful than some of its subjects examining the still thriving local culture along with some of the efforts and perhaps compromises of those trying to ensure the traditional arts survive. A lantern maker laments that his industry has become so straitened that his small team often have to work to incredibly tight schedules with little time for rest yet he refuses to compromise on quality and is determined not to damage his hard-won reputation as a master of the art. The demand may be more limited than it might have been in the past but is still very much there as the crowds of visitors at a local festival marvel at the spectacle of light illuminating the darkness through the beautiful lantern designs. In any case, he takes pride in showing his daughter some of his work safely installed in a local museum while giving talks in local schools to ensure the next generation is at least familiar with the art of lantern making.

Meanwhile, another man’s business carving intricate designs into olive stones continues to grow while he takes on pupils to pass on his knowledge. Others meticulously craft traditional furniture and aim to reintroduce an element of serenity through simplicity in an increasingly chaotic modern society. A chair can be whipped up in as little as eight minutes by a skilled carpenter, but the wood requires two years of seasoning and a seasoned craftsman to understand the process. Many believe that only a handmade piece can perfectly match the spirituality of the natural materials rather than the soulless mass produced furniture of a similar design. 

For the carpenters, their craft is almost a ritual and for that reason largely unchangeable save for the use of modern sandpaper in place of the leaves their ancestors may have used with a kind of tenderness to protect the wood. Yet for the craft itself may be less important that the end result such as it is for a local architect who sometimes butts heads with his father trying to explain that things cannot always be done like the old days given modern building and employment regulations. Their problem is that many of the craftsmen are now elderly and few are keen to learn their skills while the veterans often find it difficult to follow the plans constructed by young and inexperienced architects sometimes choosing to disregard them in favour of their well honed professional judgement. Yet the young architect feels compromise is the way to go, building traditionally but with the assistance of modern technology while preserving the aesthetic charm of traditional buildings. 

Others look to the international market drawing inspiration from global fashion trends and making innovations of their own such as an embroidery master who has patented her own style and firmly believes her craft to be an art rather than a simple means to support oneself as it had been for her mother and grandmother. She worries about taking on apprentices knowing that there is little scope for them to earn a decent living through handmade embroidery, but there is a poignant moment as she discusses options with a young woman wanting to learn as she sews the needle and the potential apprentice pulls it through. Meanwhile, a pair of female visitors from overseas ask how they might be able to learn traditional weaving. The woman running the store just laughs while the narrator explains that it’s easy to learn but difficult to master and many give up halfway. She is trying to modernise by building an online platform for practitioners in her field but finds it difficult to get the older artists on board. In any case, it seems that the traditional arts are very much alive in Suzhou, not fossilised or stuck in the past but constantly evolving as they fight for their survival along with the pleasures of a simpler existence in a fast moving culture. 


The Magical Craftsmanship of Suzhou screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Soup and Ideology (수프와 이데올로기, Yang Yonghi, 2021)

In her 2006 documentary Dear Pyongyang, documentarian Yang Yonghi explored her sometimes strained relationship with her parents whose devotion to the North Korean state she struggled to understand. Her father having passed away in 2009, Yang returns to the subject of her family with Soup and Ideology (수프와 이데올로기) which is as much about division and how to overcome it as it is about her complicated relationship with her mother along with the buried traumas of mother’s youth as a teenage girl fleeing massacre and political oppression for a life in Japan marked by poverty and discrimination. 

In animated sequence towards the film’s conclusion, Yang outlines the political history which led to the Jeju Uprising of 1948. Her mother Kang Junghi was born and raised in Osaka but when the city was all but destroyed in the aerial bombing of 1945, her parents decided to return to their hometown in Jeju. After the war, Korea was occupied by America and Russia and in 1948 an election was due to be held to ratify the upcoming divide. Ironically enough, the Jeju Uprising was a protest against division but brutally crushed by South Korean government forces resulting in a massacre in which over 14,000 people were killed. Then 18, Junghi lost her fiancé, a local doctor who went to fight in the mountains, and barely escaped herself walking 35km with her younger siblings in tow towards a boat which brought her back to Japan. 

There are a series of ironic parallels in the lives of Yonghi and her mother, Yonghi forced to undergo a North Korean education with which she became increasingly disillusioned while her mother was educated in Japanese and obliged to take a Japanese name while living in a Zainichi community in Osaka. Near the film’s conclusion after Junghi has begun to succumb to dementia, she struggles to write her name in hangul on a visa needed to travel to South Korea but is able to recall it in Chinese characters, which also hang outside her home, perfectly. Meanwhile, Junghi was also parted from her family in tragic circumstances and left with a continual sense of absence and displacement. There is something incredibly poignant in seeing her at the end of her life surrounded by the ghosts family members who had long been absent, continually looking for her brother who moved to North Korea where he passed away, and asking for her late husband and eldest son who took his own life unable to adjust to the isolated Communist state where he was denied access to the classical music he loved. 

Resolutely honest, Yonghi admits that she had little patience with her mother and saw her as a burden she cared for more out of obligation than love consumed with frustration and resentment towards Junghi’s devotion to North Korea and decision to send her three sons away leaving Yonghi a lonely child at home. An early scene sees her trying to confront her mother over her financial recklessness, pointing out that she is now retired and living on a pension. She can no longer afford to send the expansive care packages she prepared in Dear Pyeongyang which supported not only her sons and their families but whole communities in North Korea, while as Yonghi points out no one is going to be sending them after she passes away. Denied contact and company, these care packages were perhaps the best and only demonstration of maternal love available to her and the inability to send them is in its own way crushing. 

Sending her brothers away, as she emphasises against their will, was the source of Yonghi’s resentment towards her mother yet on discovering the depth of her traumatic history as a survivor of the Uprising, Yonghi begins to understand, even if she does not condone, the various decisions her mother made throughout her life. Distrustful of the South Korean government having witnessed their treatment of ordinary citizens in Jeju while experiencing a hostile environment in Japan and forced to pick a side in the politicised environment of the Zainichi community, she sent her sons to North Korea ironically believing they would be safe from the kinds of horrors she encountered as a young woman. It is the literal, geographical and psychological division of Korea that lies at the heart of the divisions in Yonghi’s family dividing her ideologically from her parents and physically from her brothers while leaving Junghi orphaned in Japan

Banned from travelling to North Korea because of her previous films, Yonghi wonders how she will one day manage to deliver her mother’s ashes to their resting place next to her father in Pyongyang, but otherwise suggests that bridging the divide is possible not least in her marriage to a Japanese man, Kaoru, who adopts her mother almost as his own patiently taking care of her and learning the recipe for the traditional chicken soup she often makes stuffed with garlic from Aomori and generous quantities of ginseng. Touched by the sight of Junghi surrounded by photos of relatives she is unable to see, Kaoru tells Yonghi that even if they disagree politically they should make time to eat together peacefully as a family. A touching portrait of a difficult mother daughter relationship, Yang’s poignant documentary suggests there’s room for both soup and ideology and that divisions can be healed but only through a process of compassion and mutual understanding. 


Soup and Ideology screens at the Korean Cultural Centre, London on 11th August as part of Korean Film Nights 2022: Living Memories.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Halmoni (Daniel Kim, 2017)

A Korean grandmother creates a paradise amid the arid lands of Argentina in Daniel Kim’s personal documentary, Halmoni. Underneath the film’s title, the Spanish translation, Abuela, appears hinting at the duality of cultures which the director contemplates while examining the longterm effects of the migration on his family who seem to console themselves with the notion that home is a place where you “live with a fully belly” while his grandmother finds a reason to live in the cultivation of land, planting flowers that will bloom long after she is gone. 

Kim’s grandparents married during the chaos of the Korean War and migrated to Argentina after a fire claimed the school where his grandfather had been working as a teacher. Travelling firstly to Brazil, the family then came to Argentina and received land from the government with a plan of growing lettuce which was otherwise thought unsuited to the terrain though grandfather was confident he could make it work after seeing fields of chicory growing in the same area. Though there have apparently been some problems with money and ownership, the farm now appears large and successful with the family still working it, the grandmother explaining that work keeps her alive and gives her life both rhythm and meaning. 

Yet it’s obvious that life there has not been easy. The land and farmhouse are very remote and when the family first arrived, there was not even a road that led to it. The grandfather and his son made one themselves while the son was later forced to give up on his education in Buenos Aires to help his family run the farm. As we later discover both men later took to drink in disappointment with their lives and eventually died of it. The women of the family who have largely kept the farm going also complain about the extreme cold and heavy snow which further isolate it and trap them in a liminal place that is both Korea and Argentina and simultaneously neither. 

The daughter suggests she’d rather be in Buenos Aires, but when she’s in Buenos Aires all she thinks about is the farm. Later in the film, the grandmother travels to Korea for the first time in 23 years and is moved on realising that she no longer recognises her now middle-aged nephew. Many of her friends and remaining family members encourage her to return to Korea, but she points out that her children and grandchildren are all settled in Argentina while the cultures have become so blurred for her that she lives moment to moment not always sure of what is Korea and what is Argentina. Another woman later says something similar but in Spanish, that if she were to go to Korea she doesn’t think she would feel Korean but neither does she feel Argentinian in Argentina and does not know where she is from. 

Yet the grandmother’s friends also worry for her when she tells them that despite her long years of hard work she has no savings while those who migrated to America or stayed in Korea were often able to find financial stability that will accompany them into old age. Kim briefly includes a scene from home video in which one of the children angrily challenges the grandfather and accuses him of misusing money while also raising some kind of religious dispute which receives no further explanation but hints at a buried resentment and discord within the family which is otherwise absent from the cheerful footage of them celebrating a wedding and coming together with other members of the Korean community. Meanwhile the government is said to have taken back half of their land when the farm experienced financial difficulty and that it was the inability to finish what his father had started that later drove the son to drink. Even so another of the women hurriedly finishes her tea worried that people watching the film will assume they are lazy while a man behind her counters that they should show them that they rest too. The grandmother tells her granddaughter about planting seeds and that some flowers must disappear so that new ones can grow as she patiently tends to her orchards, a hard-won paradise forged in arid land by little more than love and perseverance. 


Halmoni screens at the Korean Cultural Centre, London on 4th August as part of Korean Film Nights 2022: Living Memories.

Paper City (Adrian Francis, 2021)

In March 1945, the firebombing of Tokyo killed 100,000 civilians and devastated 16 square miles of the city yet 70 years later those who survived have yet to be acknowledged by their government which has made no investigation or attempt to assist those who lost everything to the fires. Adrian Francis’ documentary Paper City follows a series of now elderly men and women who experienced the tragedy first hand and worry that the lessons of the past are being lost especially with the increasingly nationalistic mindset of the current government which seems hellbent on remilitarisation and the end of the pacifist constitution. 

One of the chief concerns of the survivors is that there is no dedicated memorial to those died in the bombing. The remains of some victims are housed behind the memorial to the victims of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, hidden away and out of sight. Survivors cite the example of other nations such as Germany in which the government has acknowledged its role in the harm caused to civilians through warfare and has acted to protect those who lost their homes, livelihoods, and families because of it. In Japan they feel ignored and forgotten, particularly aggrieved because government policy at the time exacerbated the problem in that they were instructed to stay and fight the fires rather than to evacuate the city. Many had been lulled into a false sense of security believing that as the areas they lived in were residential and had no military facilities they would not be targeted little knowing that the bombing would be indiscriminate with no intention to spare civilian life. 

As one elderly man puts it, they lost everything. Only a child himself as many of these now elderly people were, he lost not only his closest family members but his home and community along with any means they may have had to support themselves economically leaving them little more than destitute beggars in the ashes of a ruined city yet the government did nothing to help them. The Morishita district is one of few that made an attempt to record the names of the victims, those who were confirmed dead and those who were assumed so whose bodies were never found, holding a memorial service for them every year. Meanwhile another man only 14 at the time recalls being drafted to help clear up bodies using firemen’s hooks to pull them from the local river and now all these years later still unable to forget the face of a young mother with a child on her back whose hands still held tight to her hair. Another recalls seeing bodies piled up in a local park and disposed of en masse without dignity or identity as if they had never existed at all. 

What they fear most is being forgotten, that with the city entirely rebuilt no one even remembers anymore that it was once burnt to the ground. They petition the government for official recognition while protesting the injustice of war and the Abe administration’s determination to abandon the pacifist constitution. Protesting outside the Diet, they are ironically heckled by a nationalist counter protest who insist that the Japanese state is not at fault and the protestors should be taking their concerns to the American embassy instead. A kind of hopelessness sometimes falls over them, believing that the prospect of change is slim while the current iteration of the LDP remains in government while knowing that a change of government is also itself all but impossible. 

In any case, they know that their time is running short and they will need new voices to carry their message to the next generation to ensure that the firebombing of Tokyo is never forgotten. They share their harrowing stories of rivers on fire and blood red skies as a warning to the living while honouring the souls of the dead pausing for a moment to admire the figure of a wounded tree still standing tall reaching for the sky, in its way also a monument to endurance. Mainly observational in style with some direct interviews, Francis’ documentary captures the sense of desperation in the older generation that their suffering must not be in vain hoping that their message will get through and that one day there will be no more cities of ash or lonely children left behind to mourn them. 


Paper City streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Salaryman (サラリーマン, Allegra Pacheco, 2021)

The concept of the salaryman is deeply associated with Japan and with a particular way of working but is also in its own way troubling in its implications about the relationships between the employed and the employer in the contemporary society. Allegra Pacheco’s documentary Salaryman (サラリーマン) explores this culturally specific phenomenon along with its radiating effects on the wider society and the attitudes of younger workers who are beginning to turn their backs on the duplicities of the salaryman dream.

Originally from Latin America, Pacheco was first struck by the ubiquitous sight of drunk men in suits asleep on the streets of the nighttime city. The phenomenon has become so commonplace that few would remark on it or even really notice, yet to an outsider such as Pacheco it appeared strange. After all in few other cities would it be possible to fall asleep in a public place and wake up unharmed in full possession of one’s belongings. What she discovers through talking to several salarymen is a story of continual erasure in which the “corporate cattle” as one brands himself are left with no other acceptable outlets to relieve workplace stress born of an oppressive and bullying culture than excessive drinking often as part of the semi-compulsory nomikai afterwork drinking sessions. Having missed the last train, these men often have no other option than to simply wait until the morning when rather than returning home they replace their shirt at a convenience store and head straight back into the office.

These excessive working practices of course take a toll on the family when men rarely arrive home before 10pm if at all and leave early for the morning commute with little opportunity to interact with their wives and children. Pacheco then follows one working mother who is more or less left to handle the entirety of childrearing alone in her husband’s continual absence having to work taking her son to daycare and picking him up into her own working day along with the housework and cooking her own dinner. Meanwhile Pacheco also turns her attention to the phenomenon of the Office Lady or “OL” which is not exactly a salarywoman but separate category of worker treated almost like corporate domestic staff. Such women are often looked down on by the society around them which views the job solely as a stopgap for those looking to leave the workforce on marriage to become a traditional housewife. 

The presence of the OL may reinforce the idea of the corporate entity as a patriarchal authority in which the female executive or salarywoman is not regarded as an equal in what is often regarded as a homosocial society. One commentator describes the self-image of the salaryman as a contemporary samurai who owes ultimate loyalty to his company prioritising his corporate family over the social. Another reason salarymen can be found scattered over the city another expert argues is that they simply fear going home to a less certain environment in which familial bonds may have begun to fray under the strain of their workplace stress. Though Japan actually has well placed labour law designed to protect employees from exploitation it is not well enforced partly because of the nature of the relationship between workers and employers that prevents employees from speaking up about workplace bullying or injustice. 

These bonds between the employed and the employer are largely founded on the post-war promises of the era of rising prosperity in which companies offered jobs for life along with a tacit agreement to look after employees and their families which encouraged the already collectivist mindset that allowed workers to believe they were working towards a common goal of rebuilding the nation and ensuring economic prosperity for all. Such bargains however largely fell apart after the collapse of the Bubble Economy leaving the present generation with all of the stress and few of the rewards their parents may have enjoyed. Pacheco interviews the mother of Matsuri Takahashi who sadly took her own life in exhaustion born of the exploitative working environment at a top advertising firm with a reputation as a “black company” regularly ignoring standard employment law in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be challenged for breaking it. Other young people similarly cite burnout and the fear of karoshi or death from overwork as reasons they decided to leave the corporate world but even they do not necessarily find fault with the system only point out that it suits some better than others and was no good for them.

Then again according to a man who organises the extreme commute as an ironic sporting contest, the pandemic may have issued a wakeup call to the ranks of salarymen realising how nice it is not to have to cram themselves into a rush hour train or miss their kids’ bedtimes because they can’t get out of a nomikai. According to him the salarymen and women of tomorrow will demand the right to work when and where they want less likely to conform to outdated ways of doing business or wilfully participate in a system of widespread exploitation when offered no guarantees of future employment by a company who may try to silence them if they speak up and is just as likely to casually discard them at the first sign of trouble. His belief that this working revolution may usher in a new age of mutual compassion may seem naive or idealistic but it seems there’s hope for the salaryman yet that he may finally discover the means to free himself from an oppressive and exploitative working culture. 


Salaryman streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。~おかえりお母さん~, Naoko Nobutomo, 2022)

Naoko Nobutomo’s documentary feature debut I Go Gaga, My Dear proved an unexpected hit on its 2018 release striking a chord with many middle-aged and younger people facing similar issues to the director while preoccupied about how best to care for their ageing relatives. Her 2022 followup I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。~おかえりお母さん~, Bokemasukara Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu -Okaeri Okasan-) once again follows her parents though this time witnessing her mother’s gradual decline and eventual hospitalisation along with her equally ageing father left alone at home. 

Nobutomo does retread some of the same ground reusing footage from the previous documentary to fill in gaps in her mother’s story giving a brief overview of life and marriage before the first signs of the Alzheimer’s with which she would later be diagnosed would appear. It is however also rawer, including several scenes of Fumiko in extreme distress calling out for a knife in order to end her life in a moment of frightening lucidity or walking around the house asking “what’s wrong with me?” 

The couple had hoped to stay in their home taking care of each other but as Fumiko’s condition declines that becomes increasingly impossible until she finally suffers a stroke and is hospitalised. Naoko frequently talks to her father Yoshinori about returning home to help him care for her but her offer is always refused. They tell her not to worry about them and to do the things she wants to do while she can but Naoko continues to worry. Explaining that her parents had married at a late age by the standards of the time and never expected to have any children, she recounts that she was raised in an extremely loving home and that sense of love and devotion is still very much evident between the elderly couple who continue to love and care for each other deeply. 

But then Yoshinori is also ageing, approaching his 100th birthday, and taking care of his wife takes an obvious physical toll. After Fumiko is hospitalised, he walks for an hour everyday to visit her while even carrying the shopping home from the local store is far from easy. Meanwhile he too undergoes physical therapy hoping to build up his strength for when Fumiko eventually returns home. Though in generally good health, at times he too struggles suffering a nasty fall during heavy rain on his way home from the dentist and later hospitalised with a hernia. His daily visits to Fumiko seem to keep him going, but even these come to an end during the COVID-19 pandemic during which hospital visits are restricted leaving Fumiko, bedridden having suffered a second stroke, all alone with nothing to do. 

The presence of COVD-19 is also reflected in the funeral, an incredibly small affair populated by people wearing masks. Fumiko’s condition caused her to worry about her quality of life while a poignant visit to her home reduces her to tears before she’s transferred to hospital for longterm care. In her voice over Naoko explains that she’s been spending more time in Kure with her father, but evidently does not wish to intrude on his independence as far as she can help it while he becomes an accidental local celebrity given the documentary’s success. Fumiko too had been looking forward to seeing it, a treasured pamphlet lying next to her bed, but was ultimately unable to because of her ill health. 

Like its predecessor, I Go Gaga: Welcome Home, Mom tells a heartwarming study of an elderly couple doing their best to care for each other though later turns in a poignant direction as Naoko and her father begin to process the possibility that Fumiko will not return home something very painful for Yoshinori who is evidently suffering himself extremely worried about the thought of losing his wife. Yet life in a sense goes on, Yoshinori edging his way to his 100th birthday and pledging to live until 120 before heading to a diner for the hamburger steak he’d been craving. He even gets an award from the local mayor in celebration of his centenary. Ending on a poignant note, Nobutomo switches back to older footage of happier days in which her parents go about their ordinary lives filled with precious memories never to return. 


I Go Gaga, Welcome Home Mom streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Target (標的, Shinji Nishijima, 2021)

In the early 1980s, the well respected left-leaning national newspaper the Asahi Shimbun ran a series of articles based on accounts by author Seiji Yoshida of his involvement in wartime atrocities which brought the “comfort woman” issue into the mainstream consciousness for the first time. Unfortunately, however, Yoshida’s reputation was tarnished when it was revealed that much of his “autobiographical” writing had been heavily embellished or simply made up. The discrediting of Yoshida’s testimony handed an easy win to the resurgent right that allowed them to cast doubt on Japan’s history of wartime sex slavery.

In 1991, the truth became much harder to deny when former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun came forward to tell her story publicly. Asahi Shimbun journalist Takashi Uemura wrote an article based on a taped recording of her testimony shortly before her own press conference but soon found himself the prime target for nationalist trolls who harassed not only the Asahi Shimbun but Uemura himself along with members of his family. In 2014 more than 20 years since the article was published, they once again swarmed when it was revealed that Uemura had accepted a part-time teaching position at woman’s university which was later rescinded because of the continued “bashing” both he and the institution received which included several death threats. 

Shinji Nishijima’s sometimes unfocussed documentary Target (標的, Hyoteki) is concerned less with the comfort woman issue itself than the scandal’s place in an ongoing culture war which has been quietly intensifying since the late 90s with the foundation of ultra-nationalist lobby group Nippon Kaigi in 1997 which is coincidentally the year that Kim Hak-sun passed away without seeing justice. Many other papers had run similar articles based on Kim’s taped testimony using the same terminology which reflects that used by Kim, yet only the Asahi Shimbun and Uemura himself were singled out as “traitors” to Japan and in the view of some more extreme commenters deserving of the death penalty. The article was branded a “fabrication” which is a serious accusation to make of a journalist at a major newspaper though in actuality the charges that are levelled at him concern only potential “inaccuracies” in his writing regarding use of terminology and the omission that Kim had trained as a kisaeng (the Korean equivalent of the geisha) which was revealed during her press conference but not included in the taped testimony while the journalist who later attacks Uemura relies on the same tired arguments insisting that there was no forced recruitment and the women at the comfort stations were established sex workers employed locally or trafficked by family members and middlemen. 

The argument put forward by the documentary suggests that Uemura was a convenient target because his wife was Korean and his mother-in-law was the head of the Association for the Pacific War Victims though the true target was the Asahi Shimbun which had long been a bugbear for nationalists because of its liberal democratic outlook. Part way through the documentary, Uemura visits the grave of a journalist who was murdered after penning an expose of police mistreatment of the Korean community in Osaka who had begun resisting fingerprinting on the grounds that it was discriminatory. The implication is that this is a campaign to silence the press and one which has proved increasingly effective with outlets largely choosing to self censor unwilling to upset the government and lose their access by addressing topics that might be thought taboo such as Japan’s wartime past. Meanwhile under the Abe administration there was a concerted campaign to revise school history textbooks to erase the concept of comfort women altogether along with other mentions of wartime atrocity. 

Suing the journalist who branded him a “fabricator” for defamation Uemura explains that his aim is not so much to vindicate himself and the story but challenge encroachments on free speech in an increasingly authoritarian society. Though the courts agree he has been “defamed” they find no “illegality” while upholding the conservative view that denies the existence of comfort women. As it later transpires the journalist who had attacked him in the press had previously written a similar article herself and had largely based her current views on those of a prominent conservative university professor without bothering to interview either Uemura or any of the surviving Korean comfort women in person ironically including several “inaccuracies” in her own writing owing to some fairly shoddy journalism and lack of familiarity with the source material. In any case, as someone puts it the most important thing is to record an accurate version of the truth so that nothing like this happens again while halting the erosion of democratic freedoms through creeping authoritarianism.


Target streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ (遊撃 -「多十郎殉愛記」外伝-,Tatsuya Matsubara, 2021)

At the age of 83 and not having made a narrative film in over 20 years, Sadao Nakajima decided to step back into the director’s chair in 2019 with a classic chambara in Love’s Twisting Path, an old-fashioned samurai drama taking place in the turbulent years of the Bakumatsu at the end of the Edo era. More than just a behind the scenes documentary, Tatsuya Matsubara’s YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ (遊撃 -「多十郎殉愛記」外伝-, Yu-Geki -Tajuro Junai-ki Gaiden-) explores the film’s production but also reflects on the director’s long career and the changing trends of the Japanese film industry. 

Changing times do seem to be Nakajima’s primary motivation, wanting to pay tribute to Toei’s Kyoto studios once home to its mainline of period pieces produced for the big and small screens. These days, however, such productions are few and far between. Of course, Japan continues to produce historical dramas in large numbers but they tend to be just that with swordplay a secondary concern. Nakajima had wanted to resurrect this dying sector of the industry in part because he felt sorry for the specialist performers who can no longer support themselves with samurai movies alone.

Paradoxically this becomes a secondary problem for the production team as the pool of actors with training in stage combat becomes ever smaller, Nakajima forced to hire early career trainees while star Kengo Kora puts in overtime vigorously training to master the sword skills needed to seem convincing as a jidaigeki lead. Along with the decline of classic chambara, itself perhaps an expression of studio system as it existed before the 1970s, goes all the skills that accompany it from swordsmen to costumiers and makeup artists who know how to work on period features giving rise to the worry that the expert techniques honed over lifetimes will eventually be lost. 

Aside from the problems securing their creative team, Nakajima also runs into funding difficulties with backers unwilling to invest given the director’s age and poor health worrying that he may not be able to complete the project. Ironically this places further pressure on the production as Nakajima is forced to shorten the script and shooting time packing in as much as humanly possible per day. A young production assistant is beginning to feel bad about having to explain to him that so many things just aren’t possible while he too grows frustrated wandering around the mountains looking for a particular temple he remembers from his time at the studio but unable to remember exactly where it was or how to find it. Meanwhile he’s ably assisted by his former pupils including Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Mukoku, Antenna, Sketches of Kaitan City) who acts as his AD along with Nobuhiro Yamashita (Linda Linda Linda, Over the Fence, Hard Core) who also visits the set

It’s the presence of these pupils that Nakajima eventually hints makes his life worth living others suggesting that so many people wanting to learn from him gives him a sense of purpose and validation. Love’s Twisting Path was intended to be his final film, but asked if he’d have an idea for any more he likens himself to an elderly Musashi Miyamoto, the legendary swordsman, who became withered with age but faced a constant stream of young challengers each excited to fight him while he too saw it as a way to prove to the world that he still existed. 

Despite the tremendous effort put into its production, Love’s Twisting Path did not do as well as Nakajima had hoped at the box office leading him to blame himself wondering if he was too focussed on his own interests and understandably deflated having invested so much into the project hoping to kickstart a revival of classic jidaigeki that would revitalise the old Toei lot. Then again this feeling of not quite having lived up to his aspirations might contribute to a sense of wanting to try again with another film if only it had not been for the advent of the global pandemic. Journeying through his career history, Matsubara finds Nakajima a contrary figure, rebellious and frustrated even then in the barriers erected between himself and his art ,the films he wanted to make shot down by studio execs while he tries his best to inject a characteristic sense of reality into a series of programme pictures, contemporary yakuza films, action dramas, and finally chambara which he claims never to have liked in the first place. In the end it’s all about love, Nakajima’s son insists seeing something of his father’s romanticism in his films but also his deep love of cinema and of the riches to be found in the artistic legacy of the Kyoto studios. 


YU-GEKI~side story of “Love’s Twisting Path”~ screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Ark (方舟, Wei Dan, 2020)

Something that often gets forgotten in the midst of the pandemic is that people continued to suffer from other illnesses and ailments some they may have been ultimately unable to receive treatment for. Wei Dan’s sometimes harrowing documentary The Ark (方舟, fāngzhōu) revolves around an elderly woman, Xihua, who is hospitalised with a wasting disease in spring 2020 just as the pandemic takes hold and is cared for largely by her children and grandchildren as they try to figure out what’s best for her while coming to terms with the idea that their mother and grandmother may not be able to overcome this final illness. 

Shot in a dispassionate black and white and a claustrophobic 1:1 frame, Wei captures Xihua’s obvious sense of confusion and distress. A brain haemorrhage some years previously apparently left her unable to speak meaning that she is unable to communicate her pain to her caregivers while her family try to explain to the medical staff what her condition is showing them her legs almost entirely wasted away. While the family do their best to care for her themselves, patiently emptying her bedpan and analysing its contents, they also express suspicion and frustration with the medical establishment repeatedly stating that they worry their mother is not getting proper care because the doctors are after bribes all the time with other patients bringing in expensive gifts to curry favour. 

Meanwhile, money in particular begins to press on the mind of Xihua’s oldest son who is obviously in a degree of mental distress unable to bear the thought that his mother might die because he cannot get the money together to pay for her treatment while simultaneously worrying that maybe all he’s doing is selfishly prolonging her suffering. When it’s suggested that an operation may alleviate Xihua’s symptoms, he finds himself ringing people he hasn’t spoken to in years most of them perhaps understandably sympathetic but unwilling or unable to help. The directness of this approach places an additional strain on his marriage as his wife feels embarrassed to see him begging around for money and thereby exposing the fact they don’t have any. Meanwhile she also worries about the financial stability of their own family, at one point snapping at him that they should pull the kids out of school and tell them their futures are ruined. In a heated moment, she even mentions leaving him reopening old wounds in complaining that she feels as if nothing she does is ever good enough and her husband is no good to her. 

When Xihua passes away after having had an operation to remove a sizeable gallstone that had been causing an obstruction in her bowel, the sense of discord only increases as it becomes apparent that some members of the family, which is largely Christian, are extremely religious and offended by the idea of any kind of traditional rites being performed believing it would upset God. Briefly expanding to 16:9, Wei cuts away from the heated arguments to find Xihua’s grieving son weeping over the body feeling as if all his efforts were in vain while trying to comfort himself that at least she is no longer suffering. 

The family’s distress runs parallel with the expansion of the pandemic though the hospital itself seems to be running more or less as normal save for the odd man in a hazmat suit disinfecting the waiting room even as the family describe a quarantine centre on the television in Xihua’s room as an “ark”. Compounding the worries of Xihua’s son, he’s about to lose his job while one of the grandchildren also complains that his clothing business is struggling and he’s thinking about opening a dry cleaner’s instead. Someone unironically advises him to think about investing in elder care which he suggests is about to become a growth industry thanks to China’s ageing population and the adverse effects of the One Child Policy which has left a generation unable to care for all their elderly relatives, not to mention their own children, at once. Though quietly harrowing, Wei’s film nevertheless finds a degree of serenity in its final stretches as the children return to their family home and its myriad memories throwing this private tragedy in stark relief amid so many other losses in age of fear and suffering. 


The Ark streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)