It Comes (来る, Tetsuya Nakashima, 2018)

According to a duplicitous folklorist in Tetsuya Nakashima’s anarchic horror film It Comes (来る, Kuru), monsters aren’t real. People made them up so they wouldn’t have to face an unpleasant reality. Farmers who had more children than they could feed invented a monster who came to claim their infants rather than have to live with the reality that they left them in the in the forest to die. As it turns out this monster may actually be “real”, but undoubtedly fuelled by the loneliness of a neglected child whose parents are burdened by their own particular legacy of parental toxicity. 

The mother of soon-to-be-married Hideki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) more or less says as much when he brings his fiancée to meet the family at a memorial service for his late grandfather. “Maybe it’s her upbringing” she snidely suggests, remarking that Kana (Haru Kuroki) is “a little gloomy” (which seems like an odd criticism to make of a guest at what is effectively a reenactment of a funeral). A strangely beaming Hideki keeps reassuring his fiancée that she’s “perfect” while she continues to worry about whether she’s a good fit seeing as she never knew a “real” family having been raised by a mother she regards as neglectful. But even at the couple’s wedding it’s clear that Hideki mostly ignores her, so obsessed is he with being the centre of attention. “Is it ever not about you?” one of the fed up guests eventually heckles, but it evidently never is. After setting up his “perfect” life in a “perfect” luxury flat and having a “perfect” baby, Hideki sets up a blog about being the perfect dad and barely helps with their small daughter Chisa driving Kana slowly out of her mind with his narcissistic self-obsession and thinly veiled emotional abuse. 

When the ghosts start coming, we might wonder if they reveal the truth or effect a distorted reality that leans in to otherwise unspoken dark thoughts, but Hideki really is as someone puts it all lies. When he’s persuaded to visit an “exorcist” she simply tells him to treat his wife and daughter properly to make the monster go away sending Hideki into a small moment of rage implying that he really does know what he is rather than having “forgotten” a cruel alter ego. In his charmed life, we might even wonder if he made some kind of deal with the devil which would explain his rather vacant smile though as it turns out it’s more like he’s cursed by a forgotten childhood encounter with an ancient forest spirit which hints at a deeper, older evil going all the way back to those farmers and the children they abandoned. 

Then again, it seems as if Hideki was rather spoiled as a child leaving him craving both attention and approval, while Kana is still struggling with resentment towards the mother she mainly had to parent herself and is afraid of becoming. Hideki snaps at her that she shouldn’t lose her temper with the baby because children remember, though as it turns out neither of them can really give their full attention to Chisa because of the realities of parenthood which among other things include constant anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. The parents are effectively haunted while cursed by their own toxic parental legacies that they will inevitably pass on to their daughter whether they mean to or not. 

It’s much the same for occult writer Nozaki (Junichi Okada) brought in to help solve the case with the help of his girlfriend, Makoto (Nana Komatsu), a bar hostess with psychic abilities. He once persuaded an old girlfriend to have an abortion because he was afraid of becoming attached to something he might eventually lose, and may be in a relationship with Makoto partly because she is unable to bear children for reasons connected to her frustrated love for her icy exorcist sister Kotoko (Takako Matsu) who like Nozaki wilfully distances herself from others to protect herself from the pain of loss. But as another shaman tells him, in a land of darkness where you no longer know right from wrong pain is the only truth. 

Nakashima shoots with a thinly veiled irony, vacillating between the ridiculousness of demonic spirits wreaking havoc in a well-appointed Tokyo apartment and the concession that there are indeed monsters in the world and as another infected suggests, they are we. Once again set at Christmas much like World of Kanako, Nakashima’s familial horror juxtaposes the season of goodwill with supernatural violence even as Kotoko marshals every power at her disposal from her roots in Okinawa shamanism to Buddhism and Christianity to hold back the latent evil born of a little girl’s loneliness. Meanwhile, he draws inspiration from classic J-horror and particularly the work of Nobuo Nakagawa in his green mists and swamp-based set piece in which Nozaki finds himself mired in a lake of life and death. Kotoko’s wounded eye and fear of mirrors hark back to Yotsuya Kaidan and the betrayed ghost of Oiwa, herself a victim of a man whose self-involved quest for approval cost her her life. At heart an interrogation of the parental bond the film eventually comes down on the side of family as Nozaki reclaims his frustrated paternity while a little girl dreams of nothing more sinister than a land of omurice. 


It Comes screened as part of this year’s Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International Trailer (English subtitles)

I Live in Fear (生きものの記録, Akira Kurosawa, 1955)

Which of us is “crazy”, the man who lives in fear or the rest of us who live in its denial? By 1955, a decade had passed since the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even if the world seemed “peaceful” it was only superficial. The Korean War had “ended” in an uneasy truce only two years earlier and the world was already mired in a cold war which daily threatened to turn hot with both sides in possession of a nuclear deterrent. Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (生きものの記録, Ikimono no Kiroku) asks us if we can really say a man is “insane” if his life is ruled by a rational anxiety and if it is our refusal to accept the threat he sees which eventually drives him out of his mind. 

Our guide is gentle dentist Harada (Takashi Shimura) who has a sideline as a mediator at the family court. The case he has been called in on one particular afternoon is that of the Nakajima family which is attempting to have the ageing patriarch, Kiichi (a near unrecognisable Toshiro Mifune), declared legally incompetent on account of his increasing paranoia about nuclear attack and latent radioactivity. A wealthy self-made man and foundry owner, Kiichi has frittered away vast sums on harebrained schemes to keep himself and his family safe but after a plan to build a bunker in a remote area had to be abandoned, he’s set his heart on moving everyone to Brazil where he believes they will be safer. 

The problem is partly one of changing times as Kiichi, “despotic and selfish” as his son describes him, attempts to railroad his family into a safety they do not want or need. His two legitimate sons now operate the foundry and their lives are dependent on it, which is not to say that they are dependent on Kiichi, but if he goes through with selling the the foundry to finance his new life it will leave them all high and dry. It would be, to a certain way of thinking, the ultimate paternal betrayal but in Kiichi’s mind all he’s trying to do is “save” his family from an invisible threat. 

That family, meanwhile, is one he’s already undermined through patriarchal selfishness in fathering a series of illegitimate children he is also supporting financially but has never legally acknowledged. The parents of the illegitimate kids are worried that if the family succeeds in having Kiichi declared legally incompetent, his wife will get her hands on the purse strings and they’ll be left out in the cold. Kiichi, meanwhile, has an old-fashioned view of filial relations and never considers that the other kids might not want to come with him either even if it’s unexpectedly nice of him to include them, or that inviting your two mistresses to live in the same house as your legal wife might be awkward for all concerned. 

On the face of it, the case is open and shut. If a man causes his family to suffer through frittering money away on drink or pachinko, they would approve the motion to give another family member legal control over his finances. So why is it taking them so long to decide if Kiichi is a liability to his family or not? The problem is, his fear is entirely rational. It’s only its extent which is the problem. It’s perfectly understandable to be afraid of the ebola virus or brain-eating amoeba, but we can’t afford to spend every minute of every day consumed by fear and so they retreat into the background anxiety of our lives while we try to go on living. Yet, could it be that Kiichi has it right and we’re merely living in denial, sleepwalking into a preventable disaster while he alone has a plan for survival? 

“No place is safe” Kiichi’s son-in-law exasperatedly explains to him after he has taken drastic and somewhat ironic action, a kind of scorched earth policy designed to force his sons to follow him into a new world of safety. Pushed over the edge, Kiichi gets a rude awakening, realising that it was perhaps selfish of him only to think of salvation for his immediate family when his actions will essentially throw his workforce under the bus. Belatedly, he promises to find a way to take them to Brazil too, never realising that people have their own lives that aren’t so easily uprooted. He thinks Brazil is safer because the currents of the world seem to blow ill winds over Japan, but there are already more than enough nuclear bombs lying in warehouses to destroy the planet several times over. 

In any case, Kiichi has already destroyed his family through his various transgressions. They don’t want to go in part because they don’t particularly like him, are sick of his gruff authoritarianism, and resent his tendency to make unilateral decisions on their behalf. Strapped for cash he tries asking the illegitimate kids to return some of the money he gave them, but they too are insecure in their positions and cannot trust that they will continue to be provided for if Kiichi is deposed. Meanwhile, when Kiichi falls ill the legitimate children are only too quick to start discussing the inheritance in the absence of a will. Perhaps Kiichi isn’t much more to them than a walking wallet, all of which lends a rather poignant quality to his continual attempts to protect his family from the nuclear apocalypse in fulfilment of his fatherly duty even as he wagers their economic security to do so. 

If Kiichi is a Cassandra prophesying the end of the world, we won’t be here to be sorry we didn’t listen, but Harada and other more rational minds are shaken by the intensity of his vision. They cannot say that he is “mad” even if his anxiety has consumed his life, but nor can they allow him free rein to pursue his plans because they do not concern only himself but greatly affect the lives of others. They are forced to wonder if it isn’t we who are “insane”, quietly living our lives while all these preventable threats hover in the background, ignored. Kiichi’s mistake was perhaps that he wanted only to be “safe” in an unsafe world, not to cure it of its dangers. Few us are actively trying to eliminate ebola or brain-eating amoebas, just as few actively opposed an increasingly nuclear society, powerless as we are and were in the face of a greater threat. Perhaps Kiichi was the sanest one of all, retreating into a world of madness and infinite safety in a delusional bubble of survival in an otherwise crazy world.


I Live in Fear screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 6th & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Ikiru (生きる, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

The Japanese economy may have embarked on a path towards recovery thanks to the stimulus of the Korean War, but in the early 1950s many might have thought it too soon to ask if survival in itself was enough yet this is exactly what disillusioned civil servant Kenji Watanabe finds himself asking after receiving the devastating news that he has advanced stomach cancer and year at most to live. “To live” is apt translation of Akira Kurosawa’s intensely moving existential melodrama, Ikiru (生きる), which tackles the compromises of the salaryman dream head on along with those of the contradictions of the sometimes dehumanising post-war society. 

As the opening voice over reveals to to us, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is man who died long ago or perhaps has never truly been alive. In some senses, he is nothing more than an embodiment of the seal he uses to stamp documents day in day out, a mere piston in an ever turning machine of relentless bureaucracy. A young woman, Miss Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), working in the Public Affairs department loudly reads out a joke someone has written about their boss, Watanabe, who has taken not a single day’s holiday in 30 years suggesting that it’s less that he fears city hall will grind to a halt without him than they’ll suddenly figure out city hall has no need of him at all. The irony is city hall does indeed grind to a halt in Watanabe’s absence as he, unthinkably, fails to turn up for work for days on end as the papers pile ever higher on his desk. “Nothing moves here without his seal” one of the workers admits, bewildered by this sudden break with protocol while salivating over its implications in the possibility that Watanabe’s chair may soon be empty. 

Yet Watanabe’s crisis is that he’s realised he’s wasted his life on a pointless bureaucratic career that’s done little more than keep a roof over his head. Even the roof is a fairly modest one and it’s clear that his grown up son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) considers him to be a stingy old miser, unable to understand why he’s never spent so much as a penny on himself and lives in a kind of self-imposed austerity. Perhaps to Watanabe this is what constitutes properness. He’s done everything he was supposed to do, got a steady job at city hall and eventually became the head of department, but now he feels foolish and lonely. Mitsuo and his wife seem to resent him and talk openly about their plans to use their inheritance, along with Watanabe’s retirement bonus, for a downpayment on a “modern” home the polar opposite of the pre-war townhouse where the family continue to live. 

Mitsuo and Kazue (Kyoko Seki) are perhaps emblems of the increasingly empty consumerism of the post-war era, emotionally disconnected from Watanabe and seeking only the flashy and new. Miss Odagiri, the young woman from work, immediately says that she’d love to live in a home like Watanabe’s rather than the crowded multiple occupancy flat she currently inhabits with her family. Cheerful and outgoing, Odagiri is on the other hand a symbol of a new generation that wants something more out of life than simple material comfort and might even be willing to trade it for a small amount of happiness. Having worked at city hall for all of 18 months, she decides that she just can’t take it anymore and is quitting to get a job in a factory making toy rabbits that she says allow her to feel as if she’s making friends with all the babies in Japan. 

To that extent, Watanabe is himself also a baby craving Odagiri’s company admitting that he envies her youth and vitality in realising he squandered his own and will never get it back. How uncomfortable it must be for her, their final meeting in a restaurant sandwiched between a loving couple and teenage girl’s birthday party as Watanabe, gaunt and shrunken, claws at the air and begs her to help him live. Yet even within the grotesquery the tone is ironic, the strains of “Happy Birthday” accompanying Watanabe down the stairs as a the high school climbs up to meet her friends signalling his (re)birth as a man with purpose and determination. Just as Odagiri had found meaning in the rabbit, Watanabe finds it deciding to get a playground built over a post-war swamp in the slums filled with raw sewage and mosquitos that left the local children ill. 

Yet children’s parks aren’t particularly profitable which is presumably why the petition to build one had been kicked all round city hall in the infernal wheel of bureaucracy in which Watanabe too is trapped. “You call this democracy?” one of the women bringing the petition asks, taking the clerk to task complaining that all they do is fob them off insisting it’s someone else’s responsibility to help while determined only to guard their own turf. “You’re not supposed to do anything at city hall” someone ironically adds, “the best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all”. Watanabe did nothing at all for 30 years and it got him nowhere, his dedication to his job disrupting his relationship with his son though Watanabe is ironically one of the most emotional men and engaged fathers seen on screen in the post-war era. 

After his death, in the park he helped build for which the deputy mayor has taken credit, his colleagues put him on trial at the wake trying to work out why he did it and whether or not he even knew he was dying seeing as he told no one close him not even the son whom he felt he could no longer trust. They deny his role while both praising and condemning his passion as somehow improper, disrupting the dispassionate rhythms of the bureaucratic machine with human emotion. It was only coincidence, they say. The deputy mayor wanted an election and the yakuza wanted to turn the swamp into a red light district. “Did he think he could just build a park?” someone adds, bemused by his effrontery as a man from Public Affairs straying into the Parks Department’s territory. You have to protect your turf after all. Finally moved by Watanabe’s last ditch bid to make his life mean something, to feel alive and know he has lived, the the drunken salarymen, all but one who retreats to look at Watanabe’s photo above the altar, swear to follow his example. 

But of course the bureaucratic wheel keeps turning, another dangerous sewage problem diverted to another department continuing the literal pollution of the capitalistic post-war society. A kind of ghost story, Kurosawa lights Shimura from below, shadows cast across his gaunt face even by his “rakish” new hat while his huge eyes have a somehow haunted, grotesque quality filled with hungry desperation. Yet it’s to childhood that Watanabe eventually returns, “perfectly happy” sitting on a swing singing a song from his youth about the price age while surrounded by snow and at last painfully, absurdly alive. 


Ikiru screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 4th & 15th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Silent Duel (静かなる決闘, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Amid the labour strikes crippling Toho in the late ‘40s, Akira Kurosawa formed an association with other directors and film professionals and began working with different studios, the first being Daiei on a loose adaptation of a popular play in which an idealistic doctor struggles with his repressed desires while watching others wilfully embrace post-war selfishness and cynicism. Like many of Kurosawa’s films from this period, The Silent Duel (静かなる決闘, Shizukanaru Ketto) is essentially a meditation on post-war moral decline and what’s needed to correct it but also if somewhat accidentally the destructive effects of secret keeping and miscommunication. 

Kurosawa opens the film in 1944 with exhausted field medic Kyoji (Toshiro Mifune) operating on a badly wounded solider, Nakata (Kenjiro Uemura). Distracted by the constant dripping of a leaky roof, the adverse weather conditions outside, and the general stressfulness of the situation, Kyoji makes the fateful decision to remove his gloves to better accomplish the fiddly operation he is performing only to drop a scalpel and cut himself. He continues with the surgery, but realises that Nakata is likely infected with syphilis which he may have contracted through the wound on his finger. Kyoji tells Nakata, otherwise recovering well, that he should make sure to seek treatment but overhears him boasting that his injuries may soon save him from the battlefield. Kyoji continues to serve but is unable to treat the infection effectively with the limited resources available to him as a frontline medic allowing the disease to continue its progression largely unmitigated.

Taking a job at his father’s obstetrics clinic on his return to Japan, Kyoji breaks off his longstanding engagement to pre-war girlfriend Misao (Miki Sanjo) who has been waiting for him the last six years but refuses to explain to her why he cannot go through with their marriage. She assumes it must in some way be related to his war trauma, and in a way it is. The syphilis is an obvious metaphor for the corruptions of militarism. He declines to explain, he claims, because he is certain that Misao would vow to go on waiting for him until the disease is cured which would take at least three to five years assuming it can be cured at all. As she is already 27, he would be taking away Misao’s opportunity to make a happy marriage and have children with another man. In any case, he makes her decision for her which ironically conflicts with his later statement that she should be free to seek happiness on her own, not least because it seems she has been pressured into an arranged marriage by her financially troubled father. The act of childbirth is symbolically relevant though he does not seem to consider the idea of a platonic marriage perhaps uncertain that he could go on repressing his desires as a married man. So morally upright is he, that he also refuses to lie, saying nothing rather than allowing Misao to believe that he has fallen out of love with her, met someone else, or has another war-related issue that prevents his marrying her. Nor does he seem to consider telling her that he has syphilis and allowing her to come to the same conclusion as everyone else, that he contracted it through sleeping with sex workers during his military service which is most likely how Nakata became infected. 

The stigma associated with the disease adds a further dimension to Kyoji’s frustration given that he describes himself as having wilfully sublimated his physical desires in order to be able to return to a “peaceful marriage” with Misao whereas as Nakata who satisfied himself without a second thought returned home symptomless, married, and is soon to be a father. Re-encountering him by chance, Nakata who seems to have become wealthy doing something that is likely immoral if not illegal, tells Kyoji that his sickness is cured but does eventually bring his wife in for a free checkup to discover that he has passed the disease to her and to their unborn child. Yet even confronted with the truth, Nakata lies again and suggests that Kyoji has made all this up as revenge for something that happened in the war keeping the fact that he infected him from his wife. He blames Kyoji for destroying his family rather than accept his own responsibility and sees nothing wrong in his actions until directly confronted with the body of his stillborn child apparently so deformed and monstrous that they wouldn’t let the mother see it. 

The two men have clearly taken different paths, Kyoji certain that he must put others before himself and suppressing his own desires to ensure he cannot pass the disease on while Nakata buries his head in the sand and ignores it. It is a kind of metaphor for the post-war future, those like Kyoji acknowledging that the legacy of wartime trauma is something that must be acknowledged and actively healed before happiness is possible while those like Nakata simply plow on like nothing ever happened with no thought or consideration for those around them. Yet it is also Kyoji who lies by omission even in his selflessness just Nakata lied to his wife while the truth is only discovered by accident, firstly by reluctant nurse Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku) who walks in on him injecting the remedy for syphilis, she in turn then overheard by Kyoji’s father (Takashi Shimura) while Minegishi then overhears the explanation Kyoji gives him. She in a sense completes the cycle when she asks Misao to apologise to Kyoji on her behalf as she is too embarrassed to do so herself after realising that she got him wrong having resolved to turn her life around after learning of the depths of his selflessness. 

Minegishi had been a nightclub dancer who tried to take her own life after becoming pregnant by a man who abandoned her but was saved by Kyoji who gave her a job at the clinic and convinced her to raise the child. It’s this child, at first unwanted but later loved and embraced by all despite the stigma of his being born out of wedlock, that offers the clearest path towards a healthier future suggesting that the solution lies in accepting the past with a willingness to make something new out of it rather than in wilful denial and resentful self-interest. Yet Kyoji is also human and privately resentful. “If I’d known it would happen to me I would’ve done things differently” he sneers petulantly suggesting that his properness may be an affectation rather than deeply felt conviction but equally frustrated in feeling his fate is unjust and that he’s suffering for someone else’s sin. 

“Because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure” he complains, hinting at a metaphor for his wartime contamination dragged into a conflict by forces outside of his control. The roles he plays are ironic, firstly a healer in a place of death and destruction and then as a deliverer of life at his father’s obstetrics clinic though he fears he will never have children of his own. He is in a sense trapped by his past as shown in the repeated visual metaphor of the closed gates outside the clinic on which the flowers that represent his relationship with Misao and hope for the future gradually wither. Minegishi tells him she’s in love with him and is willing to accept the risk of his disease to alleviate his desire, but he once again chooses to say nothing, immediately returning to business. As his father points out, he has (for the most part) resolved to channel his resentment into helping those less happy than himself but if he had been happy he may have become a snob, indifferent to the suffering of others. In some ways his problem is the familiar giri/ninjo conflict as he fights a silent duel within himself between his natural desires and his better nature but it’s also a battle against the slow poison of the wartime legacy through compassion and selflessness that may, like his inescapable illness, eventually drive him into madness.


The Silent Duel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 11th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

A gruff yet well intentioned doctor does his best to cure the ills of post-war Japan in a rundown slum on the edge of a fetid swamp in Akira Kurosawa’s noir tragedy, Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi). The doctor is most obviously the drunken angel of the title though it could equally apply to the unhappy yakuza he tries so hard to redeem whom most agree is not suited to that kind of life and trapped by the feudalistic thinking of the pre-war past.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is the big man around town, but jaded physician Sanada (Takashi Shimura) sees straight through him. “He acts tough and swaggers around but I know in his heart he’s incredibly lonely,” Sanada tells his assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), a young woman he took in to help her escape the clutches of the violent yakuza ex who left her with syphilis. Miyo bemoans Sanada’s terrible bedside manner and tendency to bully his patients but praises his dedication and remarks that few doctors go as far for those under their care as he does especially ones like these who don’t often have the money to pay. This is a little ironic given Matsunaga’s original objection that he doesn’t trust doctors because it’s not in their best interests to cure you, something which Sanada jokingly acknowledges while expressing the futility he feels in the face of the mass sickness that confronts him. 

When Matsunaga first comes into his office, Sanada remarks that’s its not just his lungs that are sick, he’s sick to the core. But still he seems to think that Matsunaga can be saved, not just physically but spiritually redeemed if only he can coax him away from the yakuza underworld. Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis, a common disease of the post-war era and closely linked to the squalid conditions in which he lives which are themselves symbolised by the swamp in the centre of town onto which Sanada’s clinic backs. Sanada tries to warn the local children not to play in it because of the risk of typhus not to mention the mosquitos it attracts but the kids don’t really listen to him and shout back that he’s “just a drunk”. Yet the swamp represents a world upside-down, the neon sign for the No. 1 cabaret bar constantly reflected in its bubbling waters while as the film opens we see a trio of sex workers preparing to head into the red light district and a pair of petty thugs fighting while a young man plays Spanish guitar on the ruins of a bomb damaged building. 

It’s as if it were this world that is slowly consuming Matsunaga, an old-school yakuza who insists “we still believe in things like honour and loyalty” certain that the big boss will side with him against the returned upstart Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), Miyo’s yakuza ex, even as Sanada tells him it’s money that matters and Matsunaga no longer makes any. Everyone tells him that he already looks like a ghost, his appearance increasingly gaunt in his parallel decline as the illness takes hold and he begins to lose his status to Okada only to overhear his boss call him an “amateur” that he was only keeping around as a potential sacrifice. In the end, Matsunaga is too good for this world. Naively believing in things like honour and loyalty which no longer mean anything in the dog-eat-dog post-war society he is left with nothing other than a nihilistic bid for vengeance and a desire to repay Sanada’s faith in him if only in the most ironic of ways. 

Like Matsunaga, Sanada sometimes says the opposite of what he means claiming that he doesn’t care what happens to Matsunaga but is determined to wipe out the TB inside him to stop it spreading it to others. He’s on a mission to “sterilise this contaminated town” by eradicating the twin threats of disease and the yakuza, calling Matsunaga a coward for failing to face his fear and loneliness succumbing to the quick fixes of his hedonistic yakuza lifestyle. He’s not perfect either, a doctor who drinks his medical ethanol supplies and berates his patients when he them catches out them out drinking when he told them not to, but is also very at home with who he is and doing his best with it. His disappointment in Matsunaga is mainly in his swagger, the false bravado that masks his human frailty and unwillingness to face his fear of death which manifests itself in a hauntingly expressionistic dream sequence. Using silent cinema composition and canted angles Kurosawa conjures a world of constant uncertainty amid the vagaries of the post-war society in which the only sign of salvation is a drunken doctor and his “rational approach” to the sickness of the age.


Drunken Angel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Stray Dog (野良犬, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

“And, yes, I think the world’s not right. But it’s worse to take it out on the world” the conflicted policeman at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora Inu) explains as he struggles to reacquire his sense of authority while weighing up its limits and his own right to pass judgement on what is right or wrong or merely illegal. He must ask himself how he can enforce the law while faced with the reality that the man he chases is an echo of himself, the him that took another path amid the chaos, confusion, and despair that followed in the wake of defeat and occupation even as his well-meaning mentor insists that some people are good and others bad and he won’t be able to do his job if he gives it much more thought than that.

The policeman, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is perhaps the stray dog of the title who can only follow the straight path towards his missing gun taken from him on a sweltering bus in the middle of summer while he was distracted not only by the heat but by exhaustion having been up all night on a stakeout. As we later discover, Murakami is a rookie cop and recently demobbed soldier trying to make a life for himself in the post-war society. In this he is quite lucky. Many men returned home and struggled to find employment leaving them unable to marry or support families, a whole pack of stray dogs lost in an ever changing landscape. This must have weighed quite heavily on his mind as he made the decision to resign from the police force to take responsibility for the laxity that led to the gun possibly ending up in the wrong hands only to discover his superiors don’t regard it as seriously as he does. His boss tears up the letter and tells him to turn his defeat into something more positive by trying to do something about it, which might in its own way be a metaphor for the new post-war society. 

So closely does Murakami identify himself with his gun that on hearing it has been used in a violent robbery it’s almost as if he has committed the crime and is responsible for anything it might do. There is an essential irony in the fact that this weapon that was supposed to prevent crime is being subverted and used in its service as if mirroring the paths of the two men who both returned to a changed Japan and had their knapsacks stolen on their way back home. Murakami has chosen the law, while the thief Yusa (Isao Kimura) is thrown into nihilistic despair unable to make a life for himself. Murakami’s sense of guilt is further compounded on realising that he may have frustrated Yusa’s attempt to turn back, returning the gun to the underground pistol brokers who make their living through selling illegal weapons stolen from police or bought from occupation forces.

As he admits, Murakami could have ended up committing a robbery but realised he was at a dangerous crossroads and made a deliberate choice to join the police instead. He literally finds himself walking the other man’s path when he’s told by a pickpocket, Ogin (Noriko Sengoku), that the underworld pistol dealers will find him if he walks around downtown looking like he’s at the end of his rope. Ogin, the woman reeking of cheap perfume who stood next to him on the bus, was once known for her fancy kimonos but is now in western dress, signalling perhaps a further decline. In this age of privation, only kimonos and rice have held their value and it’s not unreasonable to assume that she’s sold all of hers and joined the modern generation. Ogin doesn’t have anything to do with the theft, but seems to take pity on Murakami seeing him as naive and essentially unable to understand the way things work on the ground. His mentor, Sato (Takashi Shimura), seems to understand too well, on one level looking down on those like Ogin as simply bad but otherwise happy in her company knowing exactly how to get what he wants through their oddly flirtatious conversation as they suck ice lollies and smoke illicit cigarettes in the interview room. 

Dressed in a ragged military uniform, Murakami wanders around the backstreets of contemporary Tokyo past street kids and sex workers and groups of men just hanging around. Kurosawa employs montage and superimposition to reflect the endless drudgery and maddening circularity his of passage under the stifling heat of summer in the city that allows him a better understanding of what it is to live in this world. Even so, the boy who eventually makes contact seems to see through him pointing out that he looks too physically robust to pass for a desperate drifter. Yusa meanwhile is wiry and hollow, a frightened man who uses Murakami’s gun to affect an authority he does not own which might explain why both of his victims are women. Sato emphasises the worthiness of their victimhood, explaining that the first was robbed of the money she’d saved over three years for her wedding meaning she might have to wait even longer at which point there would be no point getting married at all, while the second woman was killed at home alone and defenceless. We’re also told that her body was nude when discovered which raises the question of whether she might have been assaulted before she died which would cast quite a different light on Yusa’s crimes no longer an accidental killer but a crazed rapist well beyond salvation. 

Yet the accidental nature of Yusa’s fall does seem to be key. The trigger seems to have been a childhood friend he’d fallen in love with gazing at a dress he could never afford to buy for her, pushed into a corner by his wounded masculinity and taking drastic action to reclaim it in much the same way Murakami later does in searching for his missing gun. In their final confrontation they grapple violently in existential struggle in a small grove behind some posh houses where a woman plays a charming parlour tune on the piano pausing only for a few moments to peer out of the window on hearing gunshots. Murakami retrieves his gun and the pair fall to the ground side by side to be met by the sound of children singing, provoking a wail of absolute despair from a defeated Yusa suddenly hit by the full weight of his transgressions. He too was a stray dog heading straight in one direction driven out of mainstream society by the unfairness of the post-war world. Sato tells Murakami that he’ll eventually forget all about Yusa, that he’ll become “less sentimental” and accept the world is full of bad guys and those who fall victim to them, but Murakami doesn’t seem too convinced, for the moment at least unable to forget that Yusa was man much like himself only less lucky or perhaps simply less naive.


Stray Dog screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 1st & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Hero (世间有她, Li Shaohong, Joan Chen, Sylvia Chang, 2022)

The latest addition to the growing sub-genre of Chinese pandemic movies, tripartite anthology film Hero (世间有她, Shìjiān Yǒu Tā, AKA Her Story) is the first to root itself in the lives of contemporary women just as they are disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19. As might be expected, the themes are largely those of love and endurance which draw additional poignancy from a Lunar New Year setting that prioritises family reunion but may also be in their way reactionary in reinforcing patriarchal social codes while implying that it might be the women who need  to give a little and reassess their notion of what’s really important. 

Directed by Li Shaohong, the opening sequence pits 30-something mother Yue (Zhou Xun) against her domineering mother-in-law, Ju (Xu Di), whose love and care for her son and grandson borders on the destructively possessive. Yue is the first to contract the mysterious new form of pneumonia then taking hold in Wuhan, prompting Ju to immediately try and kick her out of her own flat while insisting her son, Kai, and grandson, Dongdong, come back with her to another city further north. When lockdown is declared in Wuhan, the grandmother is trapped with the family but her acrimonious relationship with Yue adds to an already stressful situation. After Ju comes down with COVID too, Kai and Dongdong take refuge in the empty flat of a friend leaving the two women alone but mainly phoning Kai to complain about each other. 

A phone call from Yue’s parents eventually forces Ju into a reconsideration of her corrupted filiality as she remembers that Yue is also someone’s daughter and a mother herself. She accepts that Yue’s criticism of her as overly invested in her son’s life is fair and mostly born of her loneliness rather than an attack on her otherwise conservative values that imply she exists only in service of the men of the family, while realising that by failing to take proper care of herself she accidentally increases the burden on those around her and should instead agree to care and be cared for as a part of a harmonious community. 

This question of interdependence also raises its head in the third chapter directed by Sylvia Chang set in Hong Kong and filmed in Cantonese. Chang’s segment is not really much about the pandemic save for the additional strain it places on the relationship between press photographer Chelsea (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) and her husband Daren (Stephen Fung Tak-lun) with whom she is in the process of separating. When their son develops a fever, they end up in a blazing row discussing the reasons their marriage is falling apart which relate mostly to differing views of contemporary gender roles with Daren apparently reluctant to do his fair share at home while lowkey resentful that Chelsea has not only continued to work but is professionally ambitious especially as, it’s implied, his salary is not really enough to support a family of four on its own. The family also have a Filipina helper who in a rather poignant moment is heard singing happy birthday to her own child back in the Philippines whom she cannot see because she’s earning money taking care of Chelsea’s. Like Yue, Chelsea is also prompted to consider what’s most important, but the implication seems to be that she’s the one in the wrong and should learn to prioritise her family while her husband is more or less vindicated rather than encouraged to change. 

Only the middle section, directed by Joan Chen, attempts to deal with the gaping losses of the pandemic era as a young woman, Xiaolu (Huang Miyi), tries to gather the courage to tell her parents, who are still hoping she’s going to hook up with a now successful childhood friend, that she’s going to marry her uni boyfriend, Zhaohua (Jackson Yee), who’s stayed behind in Wuhan to look after their cat while she returns to Beijing for Lunar New Year. Xiaolu keeps in regular contact by phone but soon discovers that Zhaohua has become ill with a mysterious illness. She immediately decides to return to Wuhan but he warns her not to because it isn’t safe and shortly thereafter the city is locked down while she and her family are placed under quarantine in Beijing. Shot in a washed out black and white only the various FaceTime conversations between the young couple are in colour hinting at the greyness that now surrounds Xiaolu’s existence and the distance between herself and the happy life in Wuhan which has now been taken away from her. 

The film’s Chinese title more literally means “the world has her” or maybe more simply implies that she is in the world, more of an everywoman contending with the extraordinary than the “hero” of the title though the survival of the three women is in its own way also of course “heroic”. This concept of heroism may however be somewhat problematic in its emphasis on patriarchal social codes which insist that their first and only duty is to the family even if the message of holding your friends and relatives closer in the wake of disaster is universally understandable. Nevertheless, it does perhaps pay tribute to the women’s perseverance and determination to seek kindness and love even in the most difficult of times. 


Hero streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, Bo Ren, 2021)

A small boy tries to work out what to do with a seemingly endless and infinitely boring summer in early ‘90s rural China in Bo Ren’s nostalgic childhood dramedy, So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, shǔqī hé mànmàn). Told largely from the boy’s point of view, the film meditates on a China in the midst of transition along with the effects of the pre-reform work system on the family, the One Child Policy, sexism and conservatism all while the hero watches and learns.

All Xiaojin (Tian Siyuan) really wants for this summer is to learn to swim in the river, but his parents have banned him from going near it for the understandable reason that it’s dangerous. Usually, his father’s (Sun Bin) parents would be around to look after him, but they’ve decided to spend the summer with their other son while his father objects to his mother’s (Ding Ji Ling) idea of sending him to stay with his maternal grandma further out into the country because he thinks she’s too indulgent and last time he got into trouble for digging up the neighbours’ radishes. As Xiaojin is already 12 years old, they decide to let him stay home alone, but they also lock the front gate and tell him to spend his time studying though there’s not much else to do and he’s evidently bored and lonely as a child of the One Child Policy stuck in the house all day on his own. 

His problem is compounded by the fact that most of his friends have also gone away for the summer, the boy from next-door despatched to Shenzhen to spend time with his absent father. But while Weidong is away, Xiaojin begins to understand the hidden sadness of his mother, auntie Fengying (Mei Eryue), who has taken to having presents sent to herself to pick up at the local post office pretending that they are from the husband who otherwise seems to have abandoned her. As she tells Xiaojin, aside from the office job that affords her a slighter higher status than her factory worker neighbours, she has nothing to fill her time other than a little gardening. As no one else has much to do either, her life also becomes fodder for one of the few available activities, gossip, with the other neighbourhood ladies making scandalous allusions to her many “affairs” which are sadly unfounded. Pushed to the brink by the hopeless of her life, she even begins to consider suicide.

Xiaojin’s parents, meanwhile, are mainly consumed by their role as workers and left with little time to look after him. His father is preoccupied by the factory’s 100-day labour competition, seemingly less excited about the prospect of winning a significant prize than being “busy with work” and showing off his dedication through his productivity, while his mother is a seamstress who sometimes works unsociable hours. Little Xiaojin is pretty self-sufficient and as he is fond of saying has figured out how to do things like light a stove or cook a meal simply through having observed his mother and grandmother doing the same, but is obviously lonely at one point agreeing to swap one of his father’s valuable stamps with another boy on the condition that he comes to play with him for only three days. The other boy, Bin, hadn’t really wanted to because there’s “nothing to do” at Xiaojin’s house whereas his family has a TV set which still seems to be a rarity in the local area. 

When Bin takes Xiaojin to the river and they end up getting into trouble, one could argue that it wouldn’t have happened if only his parents had taught him to swim whether in the river or in a modern pool as his father suggested doing but never followed through. But their response is to tie him to a bench and beat him so badly that auntie Fengying and the other neighbours bang on their door and tell them to stop. Even grandma from the country who’s somehow ended up finding out about it comes straight over to tell them off, basically sending them to their room to think about what they’ve done while she looks after Xiaojin and asks the ancestors for their forgiveness. Part of his Xiaojin’s anxiety had rested on the fact that, because of the One Child Policy, she has only one son and has the twin pressures of needing to get it right with Xiaojin so that he grows up into a responsible member of society and living in constant fear that something will happen to him and they’ll be left alone in their old age. A short coda featuring Xiaojin in the present day as a father raising a son of his own suggests he’s doing things a little differently but still reflecting on that one very boring summer when the highlight of his day was ripping a page off the calendar and the only thing he wanted was to be able to swim in the river.


So Long Summer Vacation streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Liu Jiangjiang, 2022)

An immature young man recently released from prison for assaulting his girlfriend’s lover finally begins to grow up when unexpectedly saddled with looking after a grumpy little girl otherwise unwanted by her remaining family members in Liu Jiangjian’s feel good tearjerker, Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Rénshēng Dàshì). As much a tale of finding an accommodation with death and learning to move on as it is of the joys of forged families and unexpected connections, Liu’s drama is as the Chinese title suggests very much about the big things and what it takes to realise what they are. 

At this point in his life, San (Zhu Yilong) hasn’t been giving much thought towards the big things largely because he is consumed by resentment and a sense of inadequacy. He’s keen on getting back together with old girlfriend Xi (Janice Wu Qian) but sends her worryingly controlling voice notes and later becomes violent when she tries to break up with him before discovering that she is pregnant and plans to marry the guy he went to prison for beating up. “I can’t see you becoming a good father” she explains, regarding him as too immature to support the family she is keen to start. San is stung by the suggestion, as he is by his elderly father’s constant needling and refusal to hand the family funeral business over to him, but also has to concede she has a point. 

Nevertheless, there is a kind of tenderness to him as seen in his gentle washing of the body of an elderly woman still lying on the bed where she died while her son and his incredibly callous wife try to organise an express funeral so they can take their spoilt son to Beijing to participate in an academic competition. Meanwhile, little Xiaowen (Yang Enyou) watches while hiding in a cupboard before bursting out and demanding to know what they’ve done with her grandma. It seems that no one has taken the time to explain to Xiaowen exactly what’s happened or what’s going to happen to her now seeing as her grandmother had been raising her. Charging around like Nezha pointing her spear at everyone she meets, Xiaowen sets off to rescue grandma by chasing San’s van and eventually ending up at the funeral parlour which she then refuses to leave. Her uncle comes to fetch her but shockingly decides to leave her there with San and his two friends, asking them to look after her until they get back despite having absolutely no idea if they are suitable people to be looking after a little girl. 

These tears in the fabric of the traditional family are in some ways a result of a contemporary society. Xiaowen’s aunt point blank refuses to have her, insisting that she doesn’t want to expend resources on someone else’s child while blaming her husband for paying too much attention to his niece and not enough to their bratty son who lets them all down by humiliatingly failing the Beijing exam. Her hyperfocus is a reflection of the One Child Policy and rising consumerism as she seeks to express her status as a mother through her son’s success while simultaneously ruining their familial relationships with her constant nagging and hard-nosed practicality. Xiaowen’s henpecked uncle simply goes along with it for a quiet life, obviously very upset by his mother’s death but unable to defy his wife. San meanwhile is at odds with his father and sister who think he’s no good, will never be able to settle down and live a conventional life, and is incapable of accepting the responsibility of the family business. San may think some of this too, living with a sense of inadequacy feeling as if he doesn’t measure up to his absent elder brother, while seemingly floundering in his attempts to make something of himself. 

Through his relationship with Xiaowen he finally begins to come into his own in accepting the responsibility of fatherhood, caring for her both physically and emotionally while repairing his fracturing relationship with his own father and coming to terms with the past. He teaches Xiaowen about death and how to accept it, but also reminds her that her grandmother’s never really gone and will always be with her. Finally, San begins to think about the big things but about the small things too, planting stars in the sky as Xiaowen puts it as they prepare to get on with the business of living even in the presence of death.


Lighting Up the Stars streams for free in the US and Canada Jan. 22 to Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese, English subitles)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Celebrates Lunar New Year with Free Streaming Series

Asian Pop-Up Cinema will be celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a series of films streaming for free in the US and Canada from Jan. 22 to Feb. 5.

Lighting Up The Stars

Streaming via Eventive

Recently released from prison, a jaded young man expected to take over the family funeral business gains a new perspective when he’s suddenly charged with looking after a little girl after her grandmother passes away.

So Long Summer Vacation

Streaming via Eventive.

A little boy tries to stave off loneliness while largely left to his own devices during a particularly dull summer in this nostalgic coming of age film.

GG Bond Ocean Diary

Streaming via Smartcinemausa.com 

Latest in the long-running series of children’s animated movies following humanoid pig and secret agent GG Bond. This time he’s on a mission in search of a dangerous weapon hidden somewhere in the ocean.

Hero

Streaming via Eventive

Three-part anthology film with segments directed by Li Shao Hong (Wuhan Story), Joan Chen (Beijing story), Sylvia Chang (Hong Kong story) each of which focus on the lives and loves of women in the contemporary society.

Four Springs

Streaming via Eventive.

Director Lu Qingyi’s beautiful documentary follows his own family through four celebrations of New Year bringing with them both joy and sorrow. Review.

Each of the films is available to stream for free in the US and Canada Jan. 22 to Feb. 5. Simply register via the links above to receive a streaming link. You can find further information for all the films on Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news by following the festival on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.