Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!, Atsuko Hirayanagi, 2017)

Oh Lucy! posterDespite its rich dramatic seam, the fate of the lonely, long serving Japanese office lady approaching the end of the career she either sacrificed everything for or ended up with by default has mostly been relegated to a melancholy subplot – usually placing her as the unrequited love interest of her oblivious soon to be retiring bachelor/widower boss. Daihachi Yoshida’s Pale Moon was perhaps the best recent attempt to bring this story centre stage in its neat contrasting of the loyal employee about to be forcibly retired by her unforgiving bosses and the slightly younger woman who decides she’ll have her freedom even if she has to do something crazy to get it, but Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!) is a more straightforward tale of living with disappointment and temporarily deluding oneself into thinking there might be an easier way out than simply facing yourself head on.

Middle-aged office lady Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is the office old bag. Unpopular, she keeps herself aloof from her colleagues, refusing the sweets a lovely older lady (herself somewhat unpopular but for the opposite reasons) regularly brings into the office, and bailing on after hours get togethers. Her life changes one day when the man behind her on a crowded station platform grabs Setsuko’s chest and says goodbye before hurling himself in front of the train. Such is life.

Taking some time off work she gets a call from her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) to meet her in the dodgy maid cafe in which she has been working. Mika has a proposition for her – having recently signed up for a year’s worth of non-refundable English classes, Mika would rather do something else with the money and wonders if she could “transfer” the remainder onto Setsuko. Despite her tough exterior Setsuko is something of a soft touch and agrees but is surprised to find the “English School” seems to be located in room 301 of a very specific brothel. John (Josh Hartnett), her new teacher, who has a strict English only policy, begins by giving Setsuko a large hug before issuing her a blonde wig and rechristening her “Lucy”. Through her English lesson, “Lucy” also meets another man in the same position “Tom” (Koji Yakusho) – a recently widowed, retired detective now working as a security consultant. Setsuko is quite taken with her strange new hobby, and is heartbroken to realise Mika and John are an item and they’ve both run off to America.

Setsuko’s journey takes her all the way to LA with her sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), desperate to sort her wayward daughter out once and for all. As different as they are, Ayako and Setsuko share something of the same spikiness though Setsuko’s cruel streak is one she deeply regrets and only allows out in moments of extreme desperation whereas a prim sort of bossiness appears to be Ayako’s default. Setsuko’s Tokyo life is one of embittered repression, having been disappointed in love she keeps herself isolated, afraid of new connections and contemptuous of her colleagues with their superficial attitudes and insincere commitment to interoffice politeness. Suicide haunts her from that first train station shocker to the all too common “delays caused by an incident on the line” and the sudden impulsive decision caused by unkind words offered at the wrong moment.

“Lucy” the “relaxed” American blonde releases Setsuko’s better nature which had been only glimpsed in her softhearted agreeing to Mika’s proposal and decision to allow Ayako to share her foreign adventure. John’s hug kickstarted something of an addiction, a yearning for connection seemingly severed in Setsuko’s formative years but if “Lucy” sees John as a symbol of American freedoms – big, open, filled with possibilities, his homeland persona turns out to be a disappointment. Just like the maid’s outfit Setsuko finds in John’s wardrobe, John’s smartly bespectacled English teacher is just a persona adopted in a foreign land designed to part fools from their money. Still, Setsuko cannot let her delusion die and continues to see him as something of a saviour, enjoying her American adventure with girlish glee until it all gets a bit a nasty, desperate, and ultimately humiliating.

Having believed herself to have only two paths to the future – being “retired” like the office grandma, pitied by the younger women who swear they’ll never end up like her (much as Setsuko might have herself), or making a swift exit from a world which has no place for older single women, Setsuko thought she’d found a way out only to have all of her illusions shattered all at once. “Lucy” showed her who she really was, and it wasn’t very pretty. Still, even at this late stage Setsuko can appreciate the irony of her situation. That first hug that seemed so forced and awkward, an insincere barrier to true connection, suddenly finds its rightful destination and it looks like Setsuko’s train may finally have come in.

Screened at Raindance 2017

Expanded from Atsuko Hirayanagi’s 2014 short which starred Kaori Momoi.

Clip (English subtitles)

Rage (怒り, Lee Sang-il, 2016)

rage posterVillain, Lee Sang-il’s 2011 adaptation of a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, used a crime story to investigate the wider effects of social stigma and emotional repression – themes which are recurrent in the author’s work. Rage (怒り, Ikari) attempts to do something similar but its aims are larger, reflexively tacking the vicious cycle of social oppression and emotional repression in a society which actively suppresses the desire for expression in the aim of maintaining an illusion of harmony. A brutal, senseless killing has occurred and three suspects present themselves. The killer could be any one or none of them, but the fact of the matter is that when you cannot speak the truth, you cannot truly believe in anything or anyone.

In the blazing summer heat with its noisy cicadas and uncomfortable humidity, a young couple has been brutally murdered in their Hachioji home. There are few clues to be found save that the killer has painted the kanji for “rage” in blood on the wall. The police do, however, come up with a suspect and circulate a photofit which is anonymous enough to look like any youngish man who might make you feel uncomfortable for a reason you can’t articulate.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged man from Chiba, Maki (Ken Watanabe), anxiously wanders around Kabukicho until someone finds him and takes him to a brothel where his runaway daughter, Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki), has been working and has been very badly injured through her “eagerness to please her clients”. The father, trying to comfort his daughter who seems cheerful enough despite her ordeal, inwardly seethes with rage and is both relieved and worried when she begins a relationship with a secretive drifter, Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama).

Back in Tokyo, Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) visits a gay bathhouse and roughly forces himself on a nervous man hunched in a corner. Despite the slight unpleasantness of their meeting, the two men eat dinner together and Yuma invites his new friend, Naoto (Go Ayano), to live with him in his well appointed apartment despite knowing nothing more about him.

Further south, a teenage couple enjoy a day out on what they think is a deserted island but the girl, Izumi (Suzu Hirose), discovers a backpacker, Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama),  living in some local ruins. Strangely drawn to him, Izumi keeps meeting up with Tanaka but an encounter in the city turns sour when her friend, Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto), works himself into a jealous rage. Trying to get the drunken Tatsuya to the ferry, Izumi is raped by GIs from the local military base.

The Okinawan episode is, in many ways the key. Tetsuya invites Izumi to see a movie in Naha but they’re really going to observe a protest about the continued presence of the US military bases. Tatsuya wanted to be there to see it but pressed for an answer he doubts protest will achieve anything. Izumi, after her brutal encounter, says the same thing. She doesn’t want anyone to know. “Protesting won’t change anything”. No matter what she says, nothing will be done, no one would listen, nobody really cares.

Or, perhaps they simply care about the wrong things. Aiko gets home from her horrible ordeal in the city but everyone knows what she did there; her “sordid” past is the talk of the town. Her father says nothing, because like Izumi he knows it will do no good, but still he berates himself for it and his internalised anger grows.

Izumi does not want the stigma of being a rape victim, and Aiko does not want the stigma of being a “fallen woman”, their secrets are already out, but Yuma is jealously guarding his – living as a cautious gay man with his life strictly divided, his true nature walled off from his professional persona. Too afraid to be open about his sexuality, he projects his sense of unease and discomfort onto Naoto – first going overboard by inviting someone he just met and knows nothing about to live with him and then refusing to let him in all the way. Yuma asks Naoto not to attend his mother’s funeral despite the fact they had been friends because he doesn’t want the awkwardness of deciding how to introduce his boyfriend to a set of relatives he doesn’t really know. What he doesn’t do is ask any questions about Naoto’s past, jumping to conclusions and angrily slinging accusations when he thinks he’s caught Naoto out in a lie but his reaction and subsequent behaviour only bear out his own insecurities in his inability to trust the man the loves.

Each of the trio begins to doubt their friends or lovers with little more to go on than a police photofit which only superficially resembles them. The suspicion, however, is reflexive. It’s born of a society in which one is obliged to keep secrets and emotional honesty is frowned upon. No one speaks the truth because no one wants to hear it – it will only bring more suffering with additional social stigma. Sooner or later, when all of these unexpressed emotions reach a critical mass, they will explode. Such crimes could so easily be avoided were it easier to live a more open, less fearful life, but as long as it is impossible to trust oneself, there can be no unguarded trust between people.

Neatly in line with the self-centred narrative viewpoints, Izumi’s rape is relegated to a plot device as she herself disappears from the screen only to return briefly in the final coda. The effects of the rape are then explored as they impact on Tetsuya and Tanaka whose self images of masculinity are (seemingly) damaged by their failures to protect her. Izumi’s rape is viewed as something that happened to the men, as if she were a car that was scratched or a jacket torn. Self-involved as this is, it plays into the central theme – no one cares very much about anybody else’s feelings until those feelings are visited upon them by means of violence.

The murder occurs essentially because of a betrayal followed by unbearable, unexpected kindness. A woman felt sorry for a man, and so she trusted him and was betrayed. Two parties fail to trust the one they love because of a failing in themselves, their own sense of personal inadequacy will not allow them to believe in the other person’s faith in them, while another misplaces his trust in his need to find an ally and confidant to feel less alone and powerless. Prevailing social stigmas, selfishness, and a need to maintain the status quo have left all running scared, craving connection but too afraid to engage. When the system won’t let you be, violence, of one sort or another, is an inevitable consequence.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Camera Japan Announces Complete Programme for 2017

At the terrace テラスにてCamera Japan, the premier Dutch showcase for Japanese film, returns for 2017 with more than 40 films screening in two cites over two weekends – Rotterdam 21st – 24th September, and Amsterdam from 29th September to 1st October. With so many films on offer it get can a bit overwhelming, so here’s a handy list broken down by genre and/or medium.

Current Cinema – Indie / Arthouse

bangkok-nitesAs usual Camera Japan has brought together some of the most eagerly anticipated recent independent and arthouse features including the latest from festival darlings Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Miwa Nishikawa, to Naoko Ogigami’s family comedy/drama Close-Knit, sleeper Cannes hit Oh Lucy! and a host of soon to be classics from up and coming directors.

  • At the Terrace – Adapting his own stage play, Kenji Yamauchi’s At the Terrace is a scathing satirical comedy charting the gradual disintegration of the bourgeoisie over the course of one very awkward post dinner party drinking session. Review. Screening at Rotterdam only – 21st Sept. 2.30pm, 23rd Sept. 5pm
  • Bangkok Nites – The latest from Saudade director Katsuya Tomita who also stars in the film, Bangkok Nites is a sideways look at the continuing effects of colonialism. ReviewRotterdam only, Sept. 24, 1pm. Producers will be present for a Q&A.
  • Before We Vanish – Kiyoshi Kurosawa returns to the sci-fi genre for the first time since 2013’s Real with an idiosyncratic take on the alien invasion movie. Screening with Dutch subtitles only at Rotterdam 21st Sept, 9.30pm / 23rd Sept. 7pm , and at Amsterdam 30th Sept., 7pm. 
  • Close-Knit – Less surreal than her previous films, Ogigami’s heartwarming family drama follows a neglected 11 year old girl who is taken in by her uncle and his transgender girlfriend, Rinko (played by Toma Ikuta). ReviewScreening at Rotterdam 21st Sept. 7.30pm, 22nd Sept. 4.30pm, and Amsterdam 29th Sept. 7pm.
  • Eriko Pretended – Eriko can’t bring herself to admit to her family that her career as an actress has stalled but discovers a new talent after a trip home for a funeral introduces her to the world of professional mourning in the debut feature from Akiyo Fujimura. Screening at Rotterdam only – Sept. 22, 2.30pm, and Sept. 24, 7.15pm.
  • Going the Distance – Asahi is about to marry the love of his life when a face from the past reappears and threatens to come between them. Forced to choose between his wife-to-be, and a “brother” who grew up with him in the same orphanage, Asahi’s life reaches a crisis point in this comedy/drama debut from Yujiro Hamamoto. Screening at Rotterdam only – 21st Sept. 4.30pm, 22nd Sept. 4.45pm
  • Hello/Goodbye – A young girl accidentally discovers her classmate is pregnant whilst trying to steal something from her bag leading the pair to encounter an old woman with alzheimer’s and a mystery she needs solving in this indie feature from Takeo Kikuchi. Screening at Rotterdam only – 21st Sept. 3pm, 24th Sept. 3pm
  • Her Love Boils Bathwater – Capturing Dad’s Ryota Nakano takes a good look at mum in this heartbreaking comedy/drama which stars Rie Miyazawa as a long suffering wife and mother who learns she has a terminal illness and decides to mend her fractured family while she still can. ReviewScreening at Rotterdam 24th Sept., 12.30pm, and Amsterdam 1st Oct. 12.30pm.
  • Journey of the Tortoise – First time feature director Tadashi Nagama draws inspiration from his own relationship with his father as a boy, his dad, and the pet turtle, join an uncle and his fiancée for an anarchic cross country road trip. Screening at Rotterdam only – 21st Sept. 10.15, 24th Sept. 5pm.
  • Kuro – Directed by Joji Koyama and Noriko Tujiko, Kuro is the story of a Japanese woman living in Paris who works in a karaoke bar and cares for her paraplegic lover at home. When a mysterious Mr. Ono arrives, he threatens to destabilise their previously settled lives. Screening at Rotterdam only 23rd Sept., 8.30pm & 10.30pm. The directors will be present for a Q&A.
  • Life and Death on the Shore – Hikari Mitsushima stars in a tale of wartime romance. Part of the festival’s Kyushu focus. Screening once only at Rotterdam, 22nd Sept. 7pm.
  • The Long Excuse – Miwa Nishikawa’s adaptation of her own novel examines the destructive effects of chronic insecurity as a self centred writer loses his wife in an accident but feels nothing only to have his emotional walls knocked down by the grieving family of her best friend. Review. Screening at Rotterdam 21st Sept. 4.45, 23rd Sept. 7.15, and at Amsterdam on 30th Sept., 12.30.
  • Love and Other Cults – Eiji Uchida returns with another tale of wandering youth as a young girl raised in a cult craves real love but struggles to find it in an increasingly strange world. Review. Screening at Rotterdam 21st Sept., 5pm, 22nd Sept. at midnight, and Amsterdam 29th Sept. at midnight. Director Eiji Uchida will be attending the Amsterdam screening for a Q&A.
  • Noise – 12 years after a spate of random stabbings in Akihabara three ordinary people attempt to deal with the longterm effects in Yusaku Matsumoto’s debut feature. Screening once only at Rotterdam, 24th Sept., 7pm. Director and members of the crew will be present for a Q&A.
  • Oh Lucy! – A sleeper hit in Cannes, Atsuko Hirayanagi’s debut is the story of a lonely middle-aged office lady who decides to spice up her life with English lessons but discovers a whole new side of herself when the charismatic teacher (played by Josh Hartnett) gives her a blonde wig and the alter-ego Lucy. Screening once only at Rotterdam, Sept. 24, 12.30pm. 
  • Over the Fence – The last of three films inspired by novels of Yasushi Sato, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence is a tale of new beginnings and the courage it takes to find them. Review. Screening at Rotterdam, 24th Sept. 4.35pm, and Amsterdam 9.30pm.
  • Parks – Set in Inokashira park, Natsuki Seta’s charming drama centres on three youngsters who bond through the discovery of a tape featuring an unfinished lovesong.  Review. Screening at Rotterdam only, Sept. 23, 14.30.
  • Poolsideman – A timely look at a life of quiet desperation from Hirobumi Watanabe. Review. Screening once only at Rotterdam, Sept. 23, 9.45pm.
  • Rage – The latest from Lee Sang-il, Rage is a tale of three possible murderers, doubt, suspicion and violence. ReviewScreening at Rotterdam 22nd September, 9.30pm, 23rd Sept. 9.30pm, and Amsterdam 30th Sept. 9.30pm.
  • Same Old Same Old – Rikiya Imaizumi’s reflexive drama is the story of a director in over his head, a grieving son, and an actress trying to cover up the suicide of her boyfriend. Screening once only at Rotterdam, 23rd Sept. 4.30pm.
  • The Sower – A powerful film about guilt, responsibility, and redemption, The Sower is a painful tale of a family’s disintegration when a long lost brother returns home from a mental hospital only to encounter a family tragedy. Review. Screening once only at Rotterdam, 22nd Sept., 9.45pm.
  • Seto & Utsumi – Tatsushi Omori’s adaptation of the popular manga is a predictably charming affair comprised of brief vignettes as the two high school boys of the title chat their days away hanging out on the way home from school. Review. Screening at Rotterdam only, 21st Sept., 5pm, 22nd Sept. 5pm.

Current Cinema – Mainstream / Genre

death note light up the new world stillOf course there’s plenty of blockbuster fare on offer too from the latest in the Death Note franchise to cat-centric dramas, tales of Shogi playing geniuses, splatter horror, and one family’s strange journey to familial harmony when all the lights go off.

  • Death Note – Premier blockbuster director Shinsuke Sato brings his typically polished visuals to this spin-off of the main series following officers from the Death Note Taskforce as they face the increasingly global Death Note threat. Review. Screening at Rotterdam, 23rd Sept. 9.30pm and Amsterdam, 1st October 2.45pm.
  • Meatball Machine Kodoku – Yoshihiro Nishimura returns with another splatter fuelled assault on the senses. Screening at Rotterdam, 23rd Sept. at midnight, and Amsterdam, 30th Sept. at midnight.
  • Neko Atsume House – Adaptation of the popular smartphone game in which a blocked writer moves to the country for inspiration but finds his life overtaken by cats! Screening at Rotterdam only, 21st Sept., 7.30pm, and 23rd Sept. 2.30pm. 
  • Neko Ninja – A young ninja completes his first mission but gains an unexpected follower in the form of a pudgy cat he thinks might be the reincarnation of his long lost father. Screening at Rotterdam on 23rd Sept. 5pm, 24th Sept. 10pm, and Amsterdam on 30th Sept. 3pm.
  • Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow – A biopic of the real life shogi player who battled serious and life long illness to reach the top of the shogi tree. Review. Screening at Rotterdam on 22nd Sept., 7pm, and Amsterdam on 1st Oct. 7.30pm.
  • The Sun – Yu Irie’s sci-fi/horror takes place in a world in which vampirism rules the Earth and the only path to survival is to become a vampire. Screening at Rotterdam, 24th Sept. 9.30pm, and Amsterdam 1st Oct., 9.45pm.
  • Survival Family – Shinobu Yaguchi returns with another ensemble comedy following one Tokyo family’s attempts to survive in a post-electric world. Review. Screening at Rotterdam on 24th Sept. 7.30pm and 30th Sept, 4.45pm.

Classic Cinema

blind woman's curse stillAlongside latest releases, Camera Japan has also brought together some classic movies from the recent and not so recent past.

  • Blind Woman’s Curse – Starring Meiko Kaji this ero-guro tale of female revenge features some very strange black cat/tattoo action. Screening at Rotterdam only, 22nd Sept., 10pm. Introduced by Midnight Eye’s Tom Mes whose Meiko Kaji book, Unchained Melody, is released on 11th Sept.
  • Eureka – Screening as part of the Kyushu focus, Shinji Aoyama’s 3.5hr masterpiece from 2000 stars Koji Yakusho as a bus driver attempting to live with the effects of a hijacking. Screening once only at Rotterdam only, 21st Sept. 7pm. 
  • Naoko: Winning Runners – Also part of the Kyushu focus, this 2008 sports movie follows a young man hoping to fulfil his father’s legacy by competing in the marathon relay race with his high school team. Screening once only at Rotterdam, 22nd Sept. 4.30pm
  • A Page of Madness – Teinosuke Kinugasa’s landmark silent screens with live score from Bruno Ferro Xavier da Silva. Screening at Rotterdam 24th Sept. 7.30pm.


boys for saleDocumentary fans also have a lot to look forward to with three very different explorations of modern Japanese life.

  • Boys for Sale – Produced by Ian Thomas Ash (A2-B-C, -1287), Boys for Sale mixes animation and talking heads interviews to explore the lives of the (mostly straight) young men working in the sex industry in Tokyo’s Shinjuku 2-chome. Screening at Rotterdam only, Sept. 22, 7.30pmProducer Ian Thomas Ash will present for a Q&A. 
  • Mother I’ve Pretty Much Forgotten Your Face – fascinating documentary following Michiru Endo, the lead singer of one of Japan’s most high profile ’80s punk bands, The Stalin, still on tour at 60 when the Great East Japan Earthquake strikes. Screening at Rotterdam only , Sept. 24, 9.30pm.
  • Start Line – Ayako Imamura, who was born deaf, charts her long distance bike ride. Screens at Rotterdam only, 21st Sept. 9.30pm.  


napping princess stillThere’s no shortage of animation either with four new releases including the award winning In this Corner of the World, and Studio Ghibli classic Princess Mononoke.

  • Ancien and the Magic Tablet (AKA Napping Princess) – The latest from Ghost in the Shell’s Kenji Kamiyama, this family friendly, sci-fi infused tale follows a young girl’s attempt to stop an international conspiracy from within her dreamworld. Review. Screening at Rotterdam only, 21st Sept. 7.15, 22nd 7.15pm.  
  • In This Corner of the World – Award winning animation from the director of Mai Mai Miracle following the early life of a young woman of Hiroshima during the war. Review. Screening at Rotterdam 22nd Sept., 2pm, 23rd Sept. 4pm, and at Amsterdam on 1st Oct. 5.15pm.
  • Princess Mononoke – Classic Studio Ghibli animation features in the festival’s Kyushu focus. Screening once only at Rotterdam, 24th Sept. 5pm.
  • A Silent Voice – Heartrending tale of a girl with hearing difficulties and the boy who bullied her. Review. Screening once only at Rotterdam, 23rd Sept. at 7pm.
  • Your Voice – High school girl Natsuki is unsure what to do with the rest of her life until she wanders into a radio station and enjoys a stint as a DJ leading her to wonder if her grandmother’s stories of spirits from other worlds could really be true. Screening at Rotterdam only, 23rd September, 2pm, and 24th Sept, 3pm.

WARM-UP @ WORM: concert + movie

GUI AIUEO-S A STONE FROM ANOTHER MOUNTAIN TO POLISH YOUR OWN STONE stillTrippy psychedelic road movie, Gui aiueo:S A Stone from Another Mountain to Polish Your Own Stone, produced by and starring Gui aiueo:S, will screen at WORM Rotterdam alongside a live performance from Krautrock band Minami Deutsch on 15th Sept. as a special warm-up event.

The festival will see two more live concerts by Yasuhito Arai and Noriko Tujiko whose film Kuro is also playing in the festival, as part of a series of special events including beer tasting, sencha and miso workshops, and the film brunch.

Full information on all the films as well as ticketing links can be found on the official website. You can also keep up to date with all the latest news via Camera Japan’s official Facebook page, Twitter account, and Instagram channel.

Follow our ongoing coverage and find reviews for all the films covered so far in our Camera Japan 2017 category.

Napping Princess (ひるね姫 ~知らないワタシの物語, Kenji Kamiyama, 2017)

napping princess posterKenji Kamiyama has long been feted as one of Japan’s most promising animation directors, largely for his work with Production I.G. including the Ghost in the Shell TV anime spin-off, Stand Alone Complex, and conspiracy thriller Eden of the East. Aside from the elegantly shaded quality of his animation, Kamiyama’s work has generally been marked by thoughtful social and political commentary mixed with well executed action scenes and science fiction themes. Napping Princess (ひるね姫 〜知らないワタシの物語〜, Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari, also known by the slightly more intriguing title Ancien and the Magic Tablet) swaps science fiction for steampunk fantasy and, in a career first, is aimed at younger children and family audiences.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics fast approaching, Kokone (Mitsuki Takahata) is a regular high school girl about to enjoy her very last summer holiday before graduation. With no clear ideas of what it is she wants to do with her life, Kokone idly whiles away her time looking after her monosyllabic single dad, Momotaro (Yosuke Eguchi), who only seems to be able to communicate with her via text. Momotaro is a mechanic with a difference – he knows how to retrofit cars with a hi-tech, experimental self driving software that’s a real boon to the ageing population in the tiny rural town where the pair live.

A dreamy sort of girl, Kokone is always tired and frequently drifts off into a fantasy land where the car industry is all important and all are at the mercy of an iron fisted king whose sorceress daughter continues to cause problems for the population at large thanks to her strange powers. Whilst in her dream world, Kokone (or Ancien as she is known in “Heartland”) is accompanied by a her stuffed toy come to life and interacts with slightly younger versions of the people from her town including a dashingly heroic incarnation of her father as a young man.

The main action kicks off when Momotaro is arrested by an evil looking guy who wants a mysterious tablet he says Momotaro has stolen from their company. The fairytale inspired dreamworld might indicate a different kind of tablet, but this really is just a regular iPad with some information on it that certain people would very much like to get their hands on and other people would very much prefer that they didn’t. The tablet itself is a kind of macguffin which allows Kokone to process some long held questions about her past and that of her late mother who passed away when she was just an infant.

Kokone’s frequent flights of fancy start to merge with the real world, firstly when she shares a lucid dream with companion Morio (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) who helps her on her quest, and then later when magic seems to come to the pair’s aid through the tablet (though this turns out to have a more prosaic explanation). At 17 or so, you’d think perhaps Kokone is a little old for these kinds of fantasies, or at least for carting around a stuffed toy which is in remarkably good nick for something which apparently belonged to her mother when she was a child. Nevertheless, her dreamland is a long buried message which helps her piece together her mother’s story and how it might relate to her own all while she’s busy saving the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Olympics from becoming a possibly lethal international embarrassment which would destroy the Japanese car industry for evermore.

Despite his prowess with harder science fiction subjects, Kamiyama can’t quite corral all of this into a coherent whole. Valiantly trying to merge the twin stories of Kokone’s coming of age and the problems of the Japanese auto industry which is good at hardware but struggles with soft, Napping Princess narrowly misses its target neither quite charming enough in its fantasy universe or moving enough in the “real” one. This may perhaps rest on a single line intended to be a small revelation which melts the icy CEO’s heart but essentially comes down to the use of a kanji in a name being different from one on a sign, losing much of its impact in translation as it accidentally explains the whole of Kokone’s existence in one easy beat which easily missed. Failing to marry its two universes into one perfect whole, Napping Princess is a pleasant enough though perhaps inconsequential coming of age story in which a young girl discovers her own hidden powers whilst unlocking the secrets of her past.

Currently on limited UK release from Anime Limited.

Trailer featuring a (very nice) Japanese cover of Daydream Believer


In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Sunao Katabuchi, 2016)

in this corner of the world J posterDepictions of wartime and the privation of the immediate post-war period in Japanese cinema run the gamut from kind hearted people helping each other through straitened times, to tales of amorality and despair as black-marketeers and unscrupulous crooks take advantage of the vulnerable and the desperate. In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni), adapted from the manga by Hiroshima native Fumiyo Kouno, is very much of the former variety as its dreamy, fantasy-prone heroine is dragged into a very real nightmare with the frontier drawing ever closer and the threat of death from the skies ever more present but manages to preserve something of herself even in such difficult times.

We first meet Suzu (Non) in December 1933 when, due to her brother’s indisposition, she’s sent to deliver the seaweed from the family business to the city. Observing pre-war Hiroshima with the painful tinge of memory, Suzu, her head in the clouds as always, gets herself completely lost and is eventually “rescued” by a strange man who puts her in a basket with another boy he’s “found”. Life goes on for Suzu, the tides of militarism rising in the rest of the country but seemingly not in this tiny rural village where she dreams away her days sketching fantasy stories to entertain her younger sister.

Despite a putative romance with a melancholy local boy, Tetsu (Daisuke Ono), Suzu is soon married off and travels to the harbour town of Kure to be with her new husband, Shusaku (the boy from the basket who carried a torch all those years, tracked her down and sought her hand in marriage on the basis of a single encounter). Always a dreamy girl and still only in her late teens, Suzu struggles with the business of being a wife and, though Shusaku’s family are nice people and welcoming to their new daughter-in-law, she constantly provokes the wrath of her widowed sister-in-law Keiko (Minori Omi) while striking up a friendship with her daughter Harumi (Natsuki Inaba).

The atmosphere in the cities may have been tense, but here in a traditional rural backwater, politics rarely rears its ugly head. Suzu and her family are just ordinary people living ordinary lives, yet they are literally on the fringes of the battlefield, gazing in wonder at the impressive array of giant battleships in the harbour including, at one point, the Yamato which becomes a kind of symbol of the nation’s hubris in its claims of invincibility. Shusaku, like his father, works as a clerk at the local naval offices which means he’s present (and as safe as anyone else), but this is otherwise a land of women alone, waiting for brothers, husbands and sons to come home or learning to accept that they never will.

Suzu’s troubles are normal ones for a woman of her age and time in learning to adjust to a new life she has not exactly chosen and which has meant cutting herself off almost entirely from everything she’s known. The severed connection with troubled childhood sweetheart Tetsu lingers but Suzu learns to make Kure her home, developing a deep love both for her husband (to whom she was fated, in an odd way, by their fairytale meeting) and for his family. A mildly conservative message is advanced as Suzu learns to become “happy” even in the midst of such anxiety while her sister-in-law Keiko’s attempt to forge her own future by becoming a ‘20s city flapper and marrying a mild mannered man for love has brought her nothing but heartbreak. Keiko pays dearly for her acts of individualism, suffering (the film seems to say) unnecessarily through allowing her sorrow to make her bitter, though hers is undoubtedly the most tragic of fates only offered respite by the growing community and interconnectedness of the little house in Kure.

Time moves on a pace as Suzu climbs ever closer to the climactic event she has no idea is coming, but has been on the viewer’s mind all along. The bombings intensify, the losses mount, and the future recedes but sooner or later it has to become not about what has gone or what could have been but what there is and what there will be. Suzu’s dream world colours her vision and ours as explosions in the sky become beautiful splashes of paint and raining fire bombs fireflies blinking out in the night sky. The more unbearable everything becomes the more her picture-book illustrations take over until one particular event becomes so painful, so difficult visualise that it is only possible to describe in abstract, black and white line drawings. The bomb is almost a peripheral event to Suzu, considering leaving her new home for the old one. A tremor, a flash, and a feeling of unidentifiable dread. Katabuchi’s aim not to show the direct horror of war (though there is plenty of that), but its effect on the lives of ordinary people just trying to survive in difficult circumstances not of their making. Filled with a sense of essential goodness, In This Corner of the World is a tribute to those who endured the unendurable and remained kind, determined to build a better world in which such horrors belong only to the distant past.

UK trailer

Poolsideman (プールサイドマン, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2016)

poolsidemanAround halfway through Poolsideman (プールサイドマン), the director himself playing an overly chatty colleague of the film’s protagonist, embarks on a lengthy rant about encroaching middle-age which is instantly relatable to those who find themselves at a similar juncture. He’s sure the world seemed better when he was a child, there wasn’t all of this distress and anxiety – everything just seemed like it would go on forever but time has inexplicably sped up with a series of rapid changes packed into recent years. The life of a poolsideman is improbably intense, or at least it is for Mizuhara (Gaku Imamura) whose days are all the same but filled with tension and the low simmer of something waiting to explode. Loosely inspired by the real life case of a man who left Japan for the Middle East with the idea of joining Isis, Poolsideman wants to explore why such a surreal thing might happen but finds it all too plausible.

Mizuhara lives his life to strict routine. He gets up, turns on his radio to listen to the latest current events which mostly have to do with atrocities in the Middle East, eats breakfast and goes to work where he checks the lockers, patrols the pool, writes down various readings from the boiler system, and avoids his colleagues at break times by sitting outside or eating shortbread in his car before leaving for the day. He then goes to a local cinema where he is generally the only audience member and watches a violent film full of shooting, explosions and screaming, before grabbing a McDonald’s dinner and going home to bed.

His precious routine is broken when one of his colleagues informs him that they’re both being sent to a different pool to help out with staff shortages and asks if it would be possible to give him a lift because the pool is kind of far and he is only a “paper driver” – he has a license, but in reality doesn’t drive. It’s not as if Mizuhara can refuse, and so the pair drive together to another pool where they do the same job only in different surroundings.

The first hour or so of this two hour film is entirely taken up with Mizuhara repeating his near identical days while different news reports play recounting various international atrocities. Mizuhara never says anything and runs through each of his tasks with robotic precision but there’s something burning somewhere just behind his eyes. He looks at his colleagues with disdain as they gossip raucously in the rec room before taking himself outside to smoke or enjoy his daily shortbread alone in his car listening to more reports of terrible things happening abroad. Despite his apparent calmness, Mizuhara does indeed seem like the type who may just snap but deciding to join Isis is not necessarily the result most would have predicted.

Poolsideman’s main position is that blanket news coverage of horrific events may have strained Mizuhara’s already tense mind, leading him to believe the world is a worse place than it really is. Later, he switches his radio preferences but sticks with international politics as the world swings right – Trump, at that point still a candidate, suggests using nuclear weapons against “enemy” forces in the Middle East (something particularly worrying to the only nation so far with direct experience of nuclear attack) while Obama and Clinton attempt to talk sense. Britain votes for Brexit, against expectation and its own interest which, the commentator explains, is expected to lead to the destabilisation of Cameron’s government, extreme economic chaos, and political turmoil (on point, as it seems). Mizuhara carries on as before, cereal, toothbrushing, the pool, the cinema, and McDonald’s but there’s always the feeling that he’s standing on the edge about to jump and there’s no way to know how he might do it.

Less ostensibly humorous than And The Mudship Sails Away, Poolsideman still finds room for comedy though mostly through the amusing monologues delivered by Watanabe to the ever silent Mizuhara. Ranting about modern life from an inability to connect with the young to the noise pollution of hipster karaoke bars and ramen restaurants that make you book a ticket in advance, Watanabe’s observations are all too true but at least he works out his frustration with friendliness and good humour rather than internalising some kind of barely suppressed rage which threatens to boil over at any second. A kind of state of the nation address, Poolsideman gestures at the enemy within – the ignored, frustrated, and angry young man whose mind is ripe for hijacking when assaulted by a constant barrage of violence and political disturbance. Ending on a note of ambiguous tension Poolsideman wonders where all of this leads, or if it leads anywhere at all, but offers no easy answers for the problem of Japan’s disillusioned youth.

Poolsideman was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Death Note: Light Up The NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

Death Note- Light up the NEW WorldTsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata’s Death Note manga has already spawned three live action films, an acclaimed TV anime, live action TV drama, musical, and various other forms of media becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. A return to cinema screens was therefore inevitable – Death Note: Light up the NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World) positions itself as the first in a possible new strand of the ongoing franchise, casting its net wider to embrace a new, global world. Directed by Shinsuke Sato – one of the foremost blockbuster directors in Japan responsible for Gantz, Library Wars, and the zombie comedy I am a Hero, Light up the NEW World is a new kind of Death Note movie which moves away from the adversarial nature of the series for a more traditional kind of existential procedural which takes its cues from noir rather the eccentric detectives the franchise is known for.

Ten years after Kira, the Shinigami are bored out of their minds and hoping to find themselves a new puppet to play with and so they drop six notebooks at different places across the world and wait to see who picks them up. The first is a Russian doctor who uses it out of curiosity and compassion when faced with the desperate pleas of a suffering, terminally ill man. Others are not so altruistic, as a young girl with reaper eyes goes on a mass random killing spree in the busy Shibuya streets while the police attempt to cover their faces so they can’t fall victim to her relentless writing. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) of the special Death Note task force hesitates, uncertain whether he should disobey orders and shoot the girl to end her killing spree, but his dilemma is solved when a strangely dressed masked man appears and shoots her for him. He is special detective Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) – L’s successor, and a crucial ally in discovering the Shinigami’s intentions as well as the counter plan to obtain the six books and lock them away to permanently disable the Death Note threat.

As in the original series, Kira has his devotees including the cybercriminal Shien (Masaki Suda) who is intent on frustrating the police’s plan by getting his hands on the books and using them to complete Kira’s grand design. This time around, there’s less questioning of the nature of justice or of the police but at least that means there’s little respect given to Kira’s cryptofascist ideas about crime and punishment. At one point a very wealthy woman begins to voice her support of Kira because something needs to be done about “the poor” and all their “crimes” but she is quickly cut down herself as her well dressed friends attempt to rally around her.

The focus is the police, or more specifically their internal political disputes and divisions. Mishima, described as a Kira geek, heads a special squad dedicated to Death Note related crimes, where he is asssited by the flamboyant private detective Ryuzaki who is apparently the last remaining inheritor of L’s DNA. Mishima remains distrustful of his colleague but the bond between the rest of the team is a tight one. In order to frustrate possible Death Note users, none of the squad is using their real names which places a barrier between comrades in arms when it comes to building trust and solidarity in addition to leaving a backdoor open for unexpected secrets.

Sato’s focus, as it has been in the majority of his career, is genre rather than character or exploring the wider themes of the Death Note franchise from the corrupting influence of absolute power to vigilante justice and the failings of the judicial system. The new Death Note world is a more conventional one loyal to the police procedural in which dogged detectives chase mad killers through whatever means necessary whether on foot or online.

The action, however, is generally exciting as the police engage in a cat and mouse game with Shien even if not as complex as that between Kira and L. The Death Notes are an unstoppable force, corrupting otherwise fair-minded people and turning them into vengeful killing machines acting like gods in deciding who should live and who die. Moving away from the series trademark, Light up the NEW World is, essentially, the generic thriller spin-off to the main franchise but is no less fun for it even if it necessarily loses a little of itself in the process.

Death Note: Light up the NEW World was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)