Labyrinth of Cinema (海辺の映画館-キネマの玉手箱, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2019)

“A movie can change the future, if not the past” according to the newly reawakened youngsters at the centre of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final feature, Labyrinth of Cinema (海辺の映画館-キネマの玉手箱, Umibe no Eigakan – Kinema no Tamatebako). Continuing the themes present in Hanagatami, Labyrinth of Cinema takes us on a dark and twisting journey through the history of warfare in Japan as mediated by the movies with the poet Chuya Nakahara as our absent prophet reminding us that “dark clouds gather behind humanity” but that we need not feel as powerless as Nakahara once did for there are things to which our hands can turn. 

As the intergalactic narrator, Fanta G (Yukihiro Takahashi), explains the “present” of this film is our own but we find ourselves once again in Obayashi’s hometown of Onomichi where the local cinema is about to play its final show, a programme dedicated to the war films of Japan. Torrential rain has ensured a good audience, including three variously interested young men – cinephile Mario Baba (Takuro Atsuki), monk’s son Shigure (Yoshihiko Hosoda) who fancies himself a Showa-era yakuza, and “film history maniac” Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada). Noriko (Rei Yoshida), a teenage girl in sailor suit who only appears in blue-tinted monochrome, opens the show with a ‘40s folksong but soon disappears into the screen, followed by the three men who become the guardians and protectors of her image as they attempt to safeguard her existence through various scenes of historical carnage.

Noriko, the embodiment of a more innocent Japan, insists that “all you need is movies” and that she wants them to teach her of the things she does not know, most pressingly the nature of war. She enters the movies to find out who she is as we too peek into the soul of the nation, spinning back to the years of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate later juxtaposed with those of wartime nationalism in which “overseas” had become synonymous with adventure and opportunity, if perhaps darkly so in enabling the advance of Japanese imperialism. 

The three heroes find themselves literally immersed in cinema, pulled in by the great empathy machine to experience for themselves that which they could only previously imagine. Yet like the narrator of Nakahara’s poem they find themselves powerless, defined by their status as “members of the audience” even as their identities begin to blur with those of the various protagonists with whom they are being asked to identify. They attempt to protect the image of Noriko wherever they find her, even as a young Chinese woman orphaned by Japanese atrocity, but largely fail, unable to alter the course of history as mere spectators bound by the narrative rules of cinema. 

Yet sitting in front of the cinema screen convinces them that “movies demand I do something with my life”. Fanta G explains away the Meiji-era mentality with the claim that “people in power always punish freedom with death”, concluding that one man cannot change the system in the various assassinations of the revolutionaries trying to determine the future course of a nation, but insists on the right of all to be free to live their present and their future. The men learn that though they are powerless in the face of history, they have the power to craft their own happy ending but only if they abandon their identities as “members of the audience” in the knowledge that “if we just watch nothing will change”. 

With a deliberately theatrical artifice, trademark colour play, and surrealist imagery Obayashi wanders through 100 years of Japanese cinema with jidaigeki silents giving way to Masahiro Makino musicals and they in turn to the Hollywood-influenced song and dance of the immediate post-war era which was itself in the eyes of Fanta G an attempt to avert ones eyes from the horrors of the recent past but also a “lie” which carried its own kind of truth. The image of “Noriko” remains burned into the cinema screen, the movies the sole repository of the soul of Japan, though perhaps a Japan which no longer knows itself. “As long as I remember you, you’ll live” another bystander claims, “that’s why I have to be here”, waiting in a movie theatre existing outside of time and home to the labyrinths of cinema in which are to be found the vaults of human empathy. “To young people who want a future where no one knows wars, we dedicate this movie with blessing and envy”, run the closing lines, “in order to achieve world peace there are many things our hands can turn to” if only we rediscover the will to turn them. 


Labyrinth of Cinema is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Murders of Oiso (ある殺人、落葉のころに, Takuya Misawa, 2019)

(C) Wong Fei Pang & Takuya Misawa

The dark heart of wholesome small-town Japan is fully illuminated in Takuya Misawa’s second feature, The Murders of Oiso (ある殺人、落葉のころに, Aru Satsujin, Rakuyo no Koro ni). Then again, depending on your point of view, there might not be any “murders” in this murder story only a series of admittedly strange deaths, but even if you choose to exclude the idea that these unfortunate victims were done in by their society, there would be several possible explanations and a variety of suspects on offer. Employing a bold non-linear structure across several levels of thematic complexity, Misawa plays with the unreliability not only of memory but of narrative in leaving us to contemplate the subjective truths of our own perception as we search for connection to make sense of the fragmentary evidence presented to us. 

As far as certainties go, Misawa sets his tale in the small coastal town of Oiso, its faded grandeur perfectly matching the defeated hopes of our four protagonists: former high school buddies Kazuya (Yusaku Mori), Tomoki (Haya Nakazaki), Eita (Shugo Nagashima), and Shun (Koji Moriya). Now in their early 20s, the boys are all working construction jobs at the company owned by Kazuya’s family thanks in part to his uncle, Hiroki, who was their basketball coach at school. When Hiroki is found dead in a freak gardening accident, their lives are turned upside down not only in the sudden loss of their primary figure of authority but in a series of unexpected reversals which directly threaten their way of life. 

Even before that, however, we get the impression that these “friends” don’t actually like each other very much and are only together out of a combination of fear, habit, and lack of other options. Kazuya, the thuggish leader, never misses an opportunity to remind the guys they have (and keep) their jobs only because of his largesse while quietly resentful of Eita’s relationship with his girlfriend Saki (Ena Koshino) who is, in actuality, the narrator of this complicated tale of small-town pettiness. Like Kazuya, Tomoki (a classic underling) fears the fracturing of the group, alarmed by news from Shun that he’s thinking of quitting his job and moving away, and goes to great lengths to protect it. 

Hiroki’s death, however, presents a series of problems besides its suspicious quality in that he had apparently remarried in secret, keeping the existence of his much younger wife Chisato (Natsuko Hori) even from his closest family which of course includes Kazuya something which causes him a degree of embarrassment on top of his anxiety. As the only son, Kazuya is perhaps overburdened by filial responsibilities in needing to take over the family firm whether he wants to or not. His thuggishness is in essence a rebellion against his lack of agency, but he’s also unaware that his father seems to be in debt and mixed up with loanshark gangsters who frequently need stuff dumped on the sly. If they were hoping that Hiroki’s death would result in a windfall, the existence of a wife is a major inconvenience as is her quite reasonable eying up of the funerary donations and hope that the inheritance will come through as quickly as possible. 

According to the narrator, the town is much more scandalised by Chisato’s existence than they are by Hiroki’s death. Small-town life is still fiercely patriarchal and socially conservative. Immature, Kazuya has outlawed women in the “workplace” (a den where the boys hang out playing cards, smoking, and drinking) and resents Eita’s girlfriend for weakening his ties to the group. With Hiroki, the authority figure, gone, an emboldened Kazuya makes a pass at his friend’s girlfriend which she manages to dodge while Eita does nothing more than watch from outside. He confronts Kazuya on realising that Saki is upset enough to mention the police, but Kazuya brushes it off, claiming that she was drunk and is mistaken before instructing Eita to fix his girlfriend’s “funny” dress sense. Tomoki chimes in too, laughing that he doesn’t see why Saki is outraged because it’s not as if Kazuya succeeded in raping her and in his view it’s disproportionate to be so upset about “touching”. He also points out that Saki’s attitude is a threat to their group and to Eita’s employment prospects (eventually going so far as threatening Saki at her place of work), leaving him with a clear choice and, it seems, he chooses Kazuya making no attempt whatsoever to defend his future wife or dare to criticise his friend’s bad behaviour. 

Kazuya may be resentful at his lack of agency, but the other guys seems to have internalised a sense of futility and hitched their carts to his wagon no matter how much they hate him or themselves. Only Shun seems to be conflicted, turning away while Kazuya mugs an old high school friend in a local subway tunnel, later joking about his weakness for handing over the money right away. Misawa adds to the sense of Lynchian dread through noirish composition, all empty streets and canted angles, along with a moody jazz score to find the menace lurking round every corner in this strangely violent town apparently ruled by corruption and nepotism while breaking off into Ozu-esque pillow shots of vacant hallways and urban decay alternating with nature at the turn of autumn. Frequent shots of the director himself apparently writing the female narration we are hearing further add to the sense of unreality as we meditate on the single phase “I remember” while hearing the narrator mislead and contradict herself. Were there murders in Oiso, or is this all a dream from the mind of a frustrated young man realising he’s hit a dead end and teenage friendship can’t last forever? That’s one mystery (among many others) you’ll have to solve for yourself. 


The Murders of Oiso is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Day of Destruction (破壊の日, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2020)

“I want to create a movie that exorcises Tokyo of its possession by the spectre of capitalism.” so goes the introduction* given by director Toshiaki Toyoda to the crowdfunding project for his latest mid-length movie, The Day of Destruction (破壊の日, Hakai no Hi). Set to open on July 24, the day which should have marked the opening of the 2020 Olympic Games had it not been for their postponement, The Day of Destruction returns Toyoda to the disillusioned rage of his early career in a painful wail of protest against an infinitely self-interested society in which there is “a price tag on our lives fluttering in the wind”. 

Toyoda opens in black and white with snow falling like ash across the gate of a shuttered mine. City slicker Shinno (Ryuhei Matsuda) has come to see the monster, and he’s brought an envelope of cash for just that purpose, handing it to former miner Teppei (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) now unemployed thanks to the “rumours” of what might be lurking in the darkness. Shinno presses on alone and discovers a pulsating, gelatinous mass at the end of his path but merely laughs, muttering “one hell of a monstrosity has been born, huh?” as he turns around and walks away seemingly unimpressed.  

Shifting into colour and the present day, Toyoda pans past the Diamond Princess cruise ship, controversially quarantined for two weeks in Yokohama Harbour, before taking us straight into the city of Tokyo and the Olympic stadium which he then implodes with the “Genriki” spiritual power later explained onscreen, ending on the face of a mummified monk. Back in the country, at the Mt. Resurrection-Wolf shrine mountain ascetic Kenichi (Mahi To The People) is attempting to mummify himself as a sacrificial offering to stop the “plague” which has been spreading since the monster’s discovery but his efforts are disrupted by an earthquake which sends him into existential torment from inside his coffin while collapsing the mine in which the monster had taken root. 

On his way to rescue Kenichi, Teppei, apparently a former monk himself now working as a mechanic, encounters a crazed salary man ranting that the monster has infected us all. He’s not the only troubled soul Teppei encounters, later passing a woman in the middle of her shopping screaming that we’re all in hell and it’s the monster’s fault, but as head monk and herbalist Jiro (Issei Ogata) points out, nothing can destroy the evil spirit haunting the town because you cannot kill what is intangible. You can’t end the plague by killing the monster, only by curing it because the monster is a part of nature too. Humans possessed by demons are cured by humans who might also in fact be demons themselves. There is only imperfection and co-existence. All you can do is show the way. 

The irony is that Kenichi, eaten up by rage and resentment over the death of his younger sister Natsuko (Itsuki Nagasawa) from the epidemic, thought he could change the world through prayer fiercely believing in the prophesied return of the Maitreya but if there is a Maitreya here it is Natsuko who appears to each of our heroes and eventually reveals the only real cure to her brother in instructing him to heal himself. Only by changing himself can he change the world. With the power of his Genriki, he knocked the demon of apathy out of Teppei but now he must point the finger within towards his own darkness, the rage and impotence that has in its own way made him selfish and left him blind to the true nature of sickness blighting his society. 

That sickness is embodied in the stadium that looms in the background of the hospital rooftop where Kenichi meets his sister, explaining that he sees no point in competition and that the Olympics are nothing more than a “greed-filled field day”. The crazed salaryman bangs on the palace doors begging to be let in, berating the “politicians, landowners, bankers, and monks” for locking themselves away in safety, refusing their responsibility to those like him. Kenichi says he’s going to change the world through prayer, but Natsuko, child of summer, tells him nothing will change, not her or her illness. You can’t change the world by withdrawing from it, mummifying yourself is not the answer in fact it’s the essence of the problem and somewhat symptomatic of Kenichi’s egotistical saviour complex. You have to start with yourself, but in the end we save each other or nothing ever changes. 

As topical as it’s possible to be, The Day of Destruction was shot in only eight days from June 22 to 30 with editing and postproduction on the incredibly rich sonic experience lasting until July 20 with the DCP arriving at cinemas the day before the release date of July 24 which is of course the “Day of Destruction” that should have marked the opening of the 2020 Olympic Games. It makes direct reference to the official wording of the government advice urging “self restraint” in light of the pandemic and situates itself in the “broken days of summer” of a lost year. Yet for all the fatalism and despair it also reminds us that “Everyone on Earth is a central player, we’re all in the same boat called Generation”, calling out for change but pointing an accusatory finger directly at the camera to remind us where the responsibility lies.


The Day of Destruction streamed for one day only as as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

*translation by Ben Dimagmaliw of Indievisual

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My translation of director Toyoda Toshiaki's introductory comment for the crowdfunding campaign of his latest. . . . “The Tokyo Olympics will begin on July 24th, 2020. Starting this year, that date will become a national holiday known as Sports Day. This has elicited a large divide between those in favor of it, and those against it. The rift spreads. A collision will occur. I have a feeling something will be destroyed. I'm not saying it will be a violent destruction. It will be a collision of differences–in ways of life; in ways of thinking. It is the era of division and intolerance. I thought, 'it's effectively the Day of Destruction.’ . I've heard movie theater owners say customers won't go to movie theaters during the Tokyo Olympics. Fictional entertainment and such can't beat real-life emotional excitement. There is nothing that can surpass the passion of athletes from around the world being sent out to televisions in homes. A movie that could get them to come watch it at the theater doesn't exist, right? So they say. If that's the case, give this period of time to me. I plead with them that I'd like to try my hand at what can be done in a movie. That would be the very time to really test what movies should show us. I want to create a movie that exorcises Tokyo of its possession by the specter of capitalism. Only those rescued by movies will save movies. That's what I believe. . I have decided to seek crowdfunding for the production costs of 'Day of Destruction' to be released on July 24th. If this were done through the "production committee" system of which big corporations are a part, there would be many opinions regarding casting or the story. I think everyone already knows this absolutely will not be good for the movie. Foregoing that system this time, I have placed my hopes on completing this production through our and your funds.” . . . He sounds like he means to intentionally cause a ruckus. Stay tuned to Indievisual for updates. #破壊の日 #toyodatoshiaki #豊田利晃 #2020tokyoolympics #dayofdestruction #movies #japanesecinema #independentfilm #j_indies #japanesedirector #japanesefilmmaker #filmdirector #crowdfunding #クラウドファンディング #motiongallery

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Voices in the Wind (風の電話, Nobuhiro Suwa, 2020)

Shortly before the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck the coast of Japan in March 2011, a resident of Otsuchi constructed the “wind telephone” as a way of “communicating” with a relative who had recently passed away. As his words would obviously not reach him in the usual way, he hoped they might be carried on the wind though like a letter never intended to be sent, the sentiment is perhaps more important than the delivery. In the years since the disaster, over 30,000 people have picked up the receiver, hoping to reconnect in some way with those they’ve lost. Widely reported in the international media, the story of the Wind Telephone brought director Nobuhiro Suwa back to Japan for the first time in 18 years after a career mostly spent in Europe as a young woman attempts to come to terms with the past in order to find the strength to continue living in the wake of such devastating grief. 

Nine years old when the tsunami struck, 17-year-old Haru (Serena Motola) lost everything in a single moment. Her family home was destroyed, her parents and younger brother swept out to sea their bodies never found. Since then she’s been living in Kure, Hiroshima, with her aunt Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe) who suggests making a visit to Otsuchi to attend an event celebrating the town’s rejuvenation but Haru is understandably reluctant. When Hiroko is taken ill suddenly, however, she finds herself making the trip alone, reeling in her sense of abandonment and in search of some kind of answer to her sorrow. 

Throughout the course of her journey she encounters many other griefstricken souls, not all of them in a direct sense at least affected by the earthquake but carrying a heavy burden all the same. A concerned old man who spots Haru lying vacantly in a quarry and takes her home reveals that he did so in part because she had an absent look that reminded him of his sister who took her own life over a decade previously. “Stay alive” he pleads with her as he drops her off at the local station after a good meal and an oddly cathartic conversation with his elderly mother who spoke of her memories of the atom bomb and a relative who went to the city in search of his wife’s family but returned only with a funeral urn which, to her consternation, contained no bones only a button from a student’s jacket. 70 years later she still feels ashamed for her six-year-old curiosity to know what human bones looked like. 

This sense of what remains and what is swept away becomes central to Haru’s ongoing journey. It isn’t just the people who are gone, but the spaces they inhabited and memories contained within them. An elderly gentleman (Toshiyuki Nishida) finds himself reduced to tears while watching an old comedy he must have seen countless times before, overcome with grief on seeing the paddies and fields as they once were while a local folk tune plays in the background. The man who travels with Haru for much of the trip, Morio (Hidetoshi Nishijima), declares himself homeless but does in fact have a home only one he can’t bear to visit, while Haru’s no longer exists at all, reduced to foundations still partially submerged yet overgrown as nature begins to reclaim its territory. 

Meanwhile, she discovers other kinds of grief and displacement in meeting the family of a Kurdish refugee who went to Fukushima to help after the earthquake but is now indefinitely detained by immigration officials while they decide on his case. The man’s daughter, perhaps slightly younger than Haru, explains to her that she’s acted as an interpreter in hospitals for other Kurdish women who are often isolated and speak little Japanese. She’s decided that she’d like to become a nurse to go on helping people, but Haru can find little of her positive forward motion, stuck as she is in the past with no real concept of the future.

But then, there are also signs of life. The first people who pick Haru up hitchhiking are a cheerful heavily pregnant woman and her more serious brother. The woman confesses that she’s having the baby on her own, and that many did not approve of her decision thinking her too old at 43 to become a mother. “Isn’t it amazing how we can just make another person?” she exclaims, “It’s like there’s a whole little universe inside you”. In the midst of all this grief, there is life too, not to mention warmth and kindness such as that found in each of those who help Haru on her way until she finally reaches the telephone. 

Using mostly improvised dialogue, Suwa’s European arthouse aesthetic has an elegiac quality as Haru edges her way towards an accommodation with her grief, resolving to live on even in the wake of tragedy. “Because I’m alive I remember all of you” she adds, acknowledging her place with the grand sweep of history. “It’s OK”, Morio tells her, “you’ll be OK” speaking for himself as much as anyone else, looking towards a possible future if in memory of the irretrievable past.


Voices in the Wind (風の電話, Kaze no Denwa) is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sending Off (おみおくり〜Sending Off〜, Ian Thomas Ash, 2019)

Following his 2014 documentary -1287 which followed a woman suffering with terminal cancer, Ian Thomas Ash examines the process of dying, and its aftermath, from a more immediate perspective in Sending Off (おみおくり〜Sending Off〜, Omiokuri: Sending Off) which sees him accompany Dr. Kaoru Konta who provides palliative care for those, mostly very elderly, who are approaching the end of their lives and are otherwise being looked after at home by family members rather than in hospitals. 

While in the past it might have been much more normal to die at home and for ordinary people to be familiar with illness and death, it may now be more usual to be cared for by trained professionals at a medical facility. Most particularly in rural areas, however, that might mean being entirely removed from a local community with friends and relatives perhaps unable to be present as much as they would like and so elderly family members are largely looked after by loved ones. That sense of community is certainly something that the bereaved family at the first home are very grateful for, affirming that while people in the cities can be distant from each other, people will always come to help in the country and true their word, the house is filled with neighbours helping to prepare food at 8.30am the morning after an elderly relative passes peacefully in her sleep shortly after 2. 

At the second house, meanwhile, a son who has been painstakingly taking care of his elderly mother laments that he feels oppressed by the ritualistic elements of a traditional funeral but would be failing in his duty to give her a proper send off if he did not complete them properly. Mr. Endo had remained conflicted about telling his mother that her condition was terminal, helping to video some of her treatment himself, including a mobile bathing session and soothing ice afterwards so other relatives could see his mother enjoying her life even while its quality continued to decline, but admitting that he hopes her suffering will soon be over so that she can finally reunite with his late father. Mrs. Endo receives a typical Japanese Buddhist funeral in a local temple and is then cremated, the family participating in the traditional ritual of picking up the remaining bones with chopsticks and placing them carefully into an urn. Dr. Konta also attends the public memorial service and gives a eulogy, discussing her brief relationship with the late Mrs. Endo and remarking on her admiration for the Endo family. 

As she says, caring for those with no possibility of recovering can be emotionally difficult. Yet we often see her taking time to admire the beauty of nature whether in a well kept garden, field of flowers, or the landscape to and from appointments. She tries to do her best to offer care and advice not only to the patients but to those who are their primary care givers and will often be making difficult decisions on their behalf. One elderly couple she visits appear to be in quite good health and mostly able to look after themselves, but she worries that as they had no children and their other relatives, save a nephew they don’t seem keen to contact, are also elderly there is no one who they can call should one of them become seriously ill and unable to look after the other.  

Mr. Hata, meanwhile, has the opposite problem in that he is worried about leaving his wife behind when he dies especially he claims because she’s not so good at the practical stuff and he’s always taken care of that for her. Those familiar with Ian Thomas Ash’s work may already be acquainted with Mr. Hata as he became the subject of an ongoing social media project as Ash helped him reunite with the son he had lost contact with 30 years previously after separating from the child’s mother. “Regret and regret, sometimes enjoy life” is how Mr. Hata describes the business of living but declares himself satisfied with being happy in the moment, seeing this as a “happy ending” witnessing the cherry blossoms surrounded by people he loves. Capturing the process of dying as unobtrusively as possible and with absolute sensitivity, Ash can also be seen stepping in to help when needed while documenting both the highly ritualised processes of “sending off” a relative and the managing of grief which accompanies them. 


Sending Off is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Life: Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Kana Yamada, 2019)

“Killing is easy. Revive me instead!” The heroine of Kana Yamada’s Life Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Title: Kyozetsu) exclaims during a climactic argument, trying to find meaning in a life of ceaseless transaction. Adapting her own play, Yamada sets her tale of existential disappointment in an apartment used as an HQ for a group of call girls, each with their own problems but trying to live as best they can within the compromising environment of a patriarchal society which offers them little in the way of hope for a less depressing future. 

According to the agency’s top girl Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki) “everyone here is a failure of society”. Asking herself whether her painfully “ordinary” life was worth much of anything, Kano (Sairi Ito) resolved to become the hare rather than the tortoise, put on her recruit suit and submitted her CV to “Crazy Bunny”, a “delivery” company offering services only hinted at on the menu. Discovering that sex work was something she couldn’t handle, she managed to switch sides, becoming part of the management team taking “orders” and dispatching other women to various love hotels in the surrounding area, which means of course that she is privy to most of the interoffice drama even if she has little knowledge of these women’s external lives beyond that which they offer up freely as part of their work. 

The women who work at the agency, if you can call it that, are a varied bunch almost as if Yamashita, the thuggish boss running the operation on behalf of an older man (Denden), has made an effort to cater to all tastes. Three of the ladies gossip about ridiculous clients and their excuses for not wanting to use protection (including a fake medical certificate), while openly taking potshots at an older woman, Shiho (Reiko Kataoka), who has been selected as a substitute for the in demand Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu). Older women are cheaper they giggle, though the oldest of them, Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), is not so young herself and perhaps aware that she’s reaching a crisis point as she ages of out of the “most desirable” demographic. Kano thinks of Mahiru as the office’s hare in comparison to her patient tortoise, an embodiment of faceless desire wanted by all known by none. 

Mahiru too is well aware of her appeal and an expert in manipulating it. She loves money, she says, because she wants to use it to “buy someone’s life to burn the garbage inside me”, later vowing to “buy a person who can serve me for life”.  Carrying the burden of childhood trauma and sexualised from an early age, Mahiru is distrustful of relationships not based on transaction but perhaps craving something deeper while darkly yearning to burn the city of Tokyo to the ground. As it happens she is not the only one yearning to raze this society for the various ways in which it condemns women like her to a kind of underclass while men continue to live by a double standard that allows them to “buy” female bodies but resents the women who “sell” them. 

Another young woman, Kyoko (Kokoro Morita), finds this out to her cost in her difficult romance with the agency’s driver Ryota (Syunsuke Tanaka) with whom she slept for free while they were both drunk. She claims to understand him, that they are really both alike, soft people trying to look hard in order to survive in a cruel society. But he rejects her, asking who’d want to date a “hooker” like her, echoing Riyu’s words that she is “utterly worthless” by virtue of her life in sex work. Kyoko may be right and he likes her too, but he can’t let go of the idea that there is something “humiliating” about being romantically involved with a woman who has sex with men for money. 

Yamashita, meanwhile, is breaking all the rules of the trade by having sex with the girls he runs sometimes paying but perhaps sometimes not, wielding his position of power for sexual gratification before finally unmasking himself in describing the women as “garbage waiting to be thrown away”, disposable merchandise to be used and discarded once no longer useful to men like him. Kano might have been under no illusions as to Yamashita’s character, but the depths of his callousness surprise her. She’d developed a fondness for his underling, Hagio. (Hagio), who seemed sensitive and kind but turns out to have more than she’d expected in common with the girls while continuing to engage in the double standard, insisting that those who pay for sex are stupid, deluded for falling in love with those who only want money. 

Kano thought her “ordinary” life was “pathetic” and wanted to know if a “tortoise” like her could become the protagonist of her own story only to remain on the sidelines, a patient observer of these women’s lives while not quite as conflicted as you might expect her to be in her complicity with their exploitation. “A woman who ran away wouldn’t understand” Riyu fires back on being pushed for her refusal to entertain an unpleasant client, and perhaps it’s true, she wouldn’t because she works for the other side. She decides that perhaps it’s alright for her life not to have a “title”, meandering aimlessly without clear purpose but continuing all the same while the women take their particular kinds of revenge against a misogynistic and oppressive society ruled by male violence. Fully taking the play off the stage, Yamada depicts the lives of sex workers with a melancholy empathy quietly enraged at the society which forced them into lives they may not have asked for or wanted but discriminates against them simply for doing a job which is in essence like any other. “It’s not my fault” a high school girl instantly answers when questioned by a policeman, and you know, it really isn’t. 


Life: Untitled is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

What Can You Do About It? (だってしょうがないじゃない, Yoshifumi Tsubota, 2019)

“Datte, shoganai janai?” The subject of Yoshifumi Tsubota’s empathetic documentary asks, stoically accepting disappointment with a resigned, well What Can You Do About It? (だってしょうがないじゃない). Recently diagnosed with ADHD, 41-year-old Tsubota documents his friendship with a relative diagnosed with a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, in his case autism with mild learning difficulties, as he tries to come to terms with the many changes in his life from the death of his mother some years previously to the impending prospect of having to leave his childhood home and enter a residential facility. 

Born in 1957, Makoto had lived alone with his mother for over 40 years before she passed away. Leaving education after middle school, he drifted around in various jobs before joining the SDF with which he served until returning home on his father’s death and is now in his early 60s. Yoshifumi’s aunt, Machiko, has become his legal guardian, helping him get the PDD diagnosis and sorting him out with a pension while managing his money and just generally watching over him. Other than Machiko, whom he refers to as a sister, Makoto is also visited by a series of helpers who assist him with day to day matters such as cleaning and grocery shopping he otherwise finds difficult. 

As his grocery helper points out, sometimes it can take a while for Makoto to fully understand why something is not working out the way he expected. In the case of shopping, he forgets about his budget and puts everything he wants into the basket only for the helper to remind him that he needs to put something back because he’s run out of money. He also gets himself into trouble with Machiko after asking Yoshifumi to go shopping with him and splurging on new trainers just because he liked them, lying that Yoshifumi had bought them for him and remorseful about potentially getting Yoshifumi into trouble. The biggest problem, however, is with a seemingly pernickety neighbour who has been making complaints about Makoto’s sometimes eccentric behaviour, especially his strange habit of going out late at night and throwing plastic carrier bags in the air just because he enjoys seeing them dance in the wind. He knows he needs to change, but finds it impossible to stop. 

Makoto’s compulsions worry Machiko who recalls a previous occasion on which he almost started a fire idly playing with matches. She is also alarmed on discovering a pornographic magazine he’d hidden in his figurine cabinet, paranoid that he might harm someone, unable to control himself or understand what might be considered inappropriate. Machiko’s rather prurient reaction appears to cause Makoto a great deal of anxiety despite Yoshifumi’s reassurance that most men have similar magazines and looking at them, so long as that’s all it is, is perfectly healthy whatever Machiko might say to the contrary. 

Meanwhile, he’s acutely worried about the prospect of being forced out of his family home and realising that if something happens to Machiko there will be no one left to look after him. After his mother’s death, Makoto had announced a sudden intention to marry a beautiful woman, but, as it turns out, only to get himself another mother. Two older women who come to chat with him as part of a community outreach programme try to talk him out of it, persuading him that wives and mothers are different, something which apparently took a little time for him to fully understand. When a cherry tree in the garden has to be cut down, he finds it very distressing as if he no longer recognises his home as his own with only two trees when there had always been three.

Yoshifumi too is looking for acceptance and understanding, explaining to Makoto and the visiting ladies that his wife is struggling to accept his ADHD diagnosis while telling us in voiceover that he’s been hiding his medication in his office and taking it in secret because she doesn’t approve. His quest to understand Makoto is also one to understand himself while trying to capture the way he sees the world. As Makoto says, however, Yoshifumi’s wife can never fully understand because she does not experience things the way they do. Nevertheless, the two men though a generation apart generate a genuine friendship, going to theme parks, baseball games, summer festivals, and eventually karaoke as they bond over their shared sense of difference. Lending a whimsical touch with frequent transitions into surrealist animation, Tsubota’s warm and empathetic approach explores not only his cousin’s usual life but also the problems of ageing and of disability in contemporary society along with a persistent stigma towards the acknowledgement of development disorders but finds solace in community support as friends and relatives rally round to help Makoto live his life to the fullest for as long as he can. 


What Can You Do About It? is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fukushima 50 (フクシマ50, Setsuro Wakamatsu, 2020)

The “Fukushima 50” (フクシマ50), as the film points out, was a term coined by the international media to refer to the men and women who stayed behind to deal with the unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Loosely inspired by Ryusho Kadota’s non-fiction book On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi which featured extensive interviews with those connected to the incident, Setsuro Wakamatsu’s high production value film adaptation arrived to mark the ninth anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami which occurred on 11th March, 2011 and closes with a poignant callback to the plant’s role in Japan’s post-war reconstruction as the nation once again prepares to host the (now postponed) Olympics with a torch relay beginning at Fukushima as a beacon of hope as the country continues to rebuild in the wake of the disaster. 

Though inspired by real events Wakamatsu’s dramatisation is heavily fictionalised and while surprisingly frank for a mainstream film in its criticism of the official reaction to the disaster, is also quietly nationalistic while doing its best to pay tribute to the selfless sacrifice of the plant workers who stayed behind to do what they could many of whom had little expectation of surviving. Chief among them would be Izaki (Koichi Sato), an imperfect family man and veteran section chief, and the plant’s superintendent Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) who are both local men and old friends. Local, it seems, is later key with multiple appeals to the furusato spirit as each is at pains to point out that they stay not only to prevent a catastrophic meltdown that would leave most of central Honshu including Tokyo uninhabitable, but because they feel a greater duty to protect their hometown and the people in it. 

Meanwhile, they find themselves burdened rather than assisted by official support as government bodies’ political decision making undermines their attempts to avert disaster while the boardroom of TEPCO who operate the plant reacts with business concerns in mind. A few hours in the prime minister (Shiro Sano) decides to make a visit, in political terms he can’t not national leaders who don’t visit sites of crisis are never forgiven, but his presence actively hinders the recovery efforts. Referred to only as the PM, Wakamatsu’s film presents the man leading the nation as an ignorant bully overly obsessed with his personal image. He has little understanding of nuclear matters or the implications of the disaster, refuses to abide by the regular safety procedures required at the plant, and mostly governs through shouting. Beginning to lose his temper, Yoshida does his best to remain calm but resents the constant interference from those sitting in their offices far away from immediate danger while he does his best to contend with the increasingly adverse conditions on the ground, mindful of his responsibilities firstly to his employees and secondly to those living in the immediate vicinity of the plant who will be most at risk when measures taken to prevent meltdown will lead to an inevitable radiation leak. 

Yoshida’s hero moment comes when he ignores a direct order from the government to stop using seawater to cool the reactors, knowing that he has no other remaining options. Meanwhile, the government refuse offers of help from the Americans, who eventually make a strangely heroic arrival with Operation Tomodachi, discussing plans to move their families to safety while their commander reflects on his post-war childhood on a military base near the site of the nuclear plant. Japan’s SDF also gets an especial nod, granted permission to leave by Yoshida who is beginning to think he’s running out of time but vowing to stay and do their duty in protecting civilians in need. 

In essence, the drama lies in how they coped rather than the various ways in which they didn’t. The conclusion is that the existence of the plant was in itself hubristic, they are paying the price for “underestimating the power of nature” in failing to calculate that such a devastating tsunami was possible. They thought they were safe, but they weren’t. Perhaps uncomfortably, Wakamatsu mimics the imagery of the atomic bomb to imagine a nuclear fallout in Tokyo, harking back to ironic signage which simultaneously declares that the energy of the future is atomic while the plant workers reflect on the sense of wonder they felt as young people blinded by science back in the more hopeful ‘70s as the nation pushed its way towards economic prosperity. Frank for a mainstream film but then again perhaps not frank enough, Fukushima 50 is both an urgent anti-nuclear plea and an earnest thank you letter to those who stayed when all looked hopeless, suggesting that if the sakura still bloom in Fukushima it is because of the sacrifices they made.


Fukushima 50 is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Reiwa Uprising (れいわ一揆, Kazuo Hara, 2019)

With a career spanning more than 40 years, veteran documentarian Kazuo Hara cannot exactly be described as prolific. His films can often take years to produce, his upcoming documentary on the Minamata disease apparently having been in development for the last decade and a half. Perhaps appropriately enough Reiwa Uprising (れいわ一揆, Reiwa Ikki) is then something of a revolution even within the director’s own career in that it saw him spring into action at a moment’s notice after being invited to document the imminent House of Councillors election by the documentary’s subject, Ayumi Yasutomi, making good on a joke made during an online interview. 

A transgender woman and professor at the University of Tokyo, Ayumi Yasutomi had received some previous press attention during an eccentric but unsuccessful campaign to become a local mayor. She was now one of 10 candidates selected to stand for brand new political party Reiwa Shinsengumi founded by former actor Taro Yamamoto. Yamamoto himself was already known for his unconventional political style, and Reiwa Shinsengumi was set up expressly to oppose the scandal-beset Abe administration with a series of broadly left-wing policies prioritising human rights and the environment in addition to pushing for an end to the consumption tax, nuclear power, and the controversial Henoko US military base in Okinawa. 

As a new political party, however, there was no firm organisation in place and Yamamoto chose his various candidates for their individual platforms, giving them in the main a fairly free rein to run their own campaign as they saw fit prioritising their own policy ideals. Yasutomi’s central policies revolve around the protection of children with a focus on preventing abuse and reform of the educational system, but she is also keen to encourage a return to nature and as in her mayoral campaign is regularly accompanied by a rented horse temporarily stabled in the city. Like Yamamoto she stages a series of publicity stunts including a Thriller flashmob, describing the video’s zombies as adults who have died inside after being robbed of their childhoods and have subsequently become mere machines perpetuating the systems of oppression which have made them what they are, while continuing with the musical processions which had originally caught Hara’s eye during her mayoral campaign. 

Though Yasutomi remains his main focus, Hara expands the canvas to capture the nascent revolution that Reiwa Shinsengumi is attempting to foster. As a new political party, they are not so much focussed on winning power as gaining a foothold, hoping for the 2% vote share that would grant them status as an official political party. The other candidates stand on a variety of social issue policy platforms from disability to workplace exploitation and the anti-nuclear movement with a keen focus on social equality insisting that no-one should be judged according to their “productivity” or “usefulness” to society. A sign language interpreter appears onstage next to the candidates at the central rallies, and in an impressive hustings gimmick the floor literally rises to allow his two wheelchair-using candidates access to the stage on the same level as their able-bodied colleagues. It is perhaps an unexpected candidate who makes the most impact, however, in the impassioned speeches of part-time worker and single mother Teruko Watanabe who advocates fiercely for the rights and dignities of Japan’s impoverished working class as a woman who found herself at the mercy of an inherently exploitative employment system which offers little protection to those outside of the full-time salaried employee. Her concerns are echoed in those of another candidate who once ran a 7-Eleven and has a deeply held grudge against Japan’s famous combini culture having taken the unusual position of being a boss who regularly advocated on behalf of workers. 

While passively documenting their struggle, Hara nevertheless uncovers a possible schism at the heart of the movement in that, as unconventional as he otherwise is, Yamamoto is determined to work within the system if only to change it while Yasutomi would rather destroy it completely, repeatedly insisting that the entire country is “crazy” and has never fully managed to escape from its militarist past. She resents the ruling LDP, who have been in power for almost the entirety of the period since Japan’s new post-war constitution came into effect, for perpetuating a kind of “positionism” in which all they care about is a conservative desire to maintain their own status granting only the concession that they will in turn recognise the status of others. It’s this “positionism” she seeks to counter in what she sees as the best expression of liberalism through rejecting labels, something which has apparently brought her into conflict with the wider LGBTQ+ community. Reiwa Shinsengumi managed to win two Diet seats, awarded to the two disabled candidates in a first for Japan, though Yamamoto himself did not make it back to parliament and Shinzo Abe’s administration remained comfortably in power. Nevertheless, Hara captures a political moment in which real change seems possible for the perhaps the first time since the decline of the post-war leftwing student movement in the early 1970s. As Watanabe puts it, this is just the start the starting line. The revolution starts now. 


Reiwa Uprising is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

It Feels So Good (火口のふたり, Haruhiko Arai, 2019)

“It’s kind of erotic” a young man remarks watching the local bon odori, “Like dancing on the border between this world and the next”, the woman adds, “people who have died and are stuck in limbo”, “kind of like us”. In limbo is indeed where the lovers of It Feels So Good (火口のふたり, Kako No Futari) seem to be, perpetually awaiting the end of the world while wilfully retreating into the romantic past as they reheat their adolescent love affair from a perspective of experience.

Now approaching middle age, Kenji (Tasuku Emoto) is a dejected divorcee living an aimless life in Tokyo when he gets a call from his father (Akira Emoto) to let him know that his cousin, Naoko (Kumi Takiuchi), is getting married and would like to invite him to the wedding. He spins a yarn about needing to ask for time off from a job he doesn’t have, but packs up and leaves right away, staying in the old family home vacant since his mother died and his father remarried. Naoko visits him almost immediately, enlisting his help transporting a large TV set to the house she will be sharing with her fiancé, a major in the SDF currently engaged in disaster relief. Apparently still not over their aborted romance of more than a decade earlier, she determines to seduce her former lover for a one night stand, but the night of passion reawakens Kenji’s desire and eventually leads to a five-day holiday in which the couple cocoon themselves in intimacy awaiting the return of the absent major. 

Adapted from the novel by Kazufumi Shiraishi which was published in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, It Feels So Good finds itself in a moment of acute anxiety and existential threat. The lovers feel themselves in various ways already dead, in part because of the poetic affectation of a lovers’ suicide in which they imagined themselves swallowed by the crater of a dormant mount Fuji. The inactive volcano motif perhaps hints at the untapped potential of their still simmering passion, but also at their mutual emptiness as they attempt to find meaning in the aftermath of disaster. Naoko confides that she decided to get married, in part, because she wanted to become a mother after witnessing so much death, but later adds that she is also suffering from a kind of survivor’s guilt as a resident of Akita, in the disaster area but itself relatively untouched by death or destruction. Kenji, meanwhile, struggles to emerge from the ashes of his failed marriage which seems to have sent him into a self-destructive, alcoholic spiral, that cost him his career and left him living aimlessly in the city. 

Naoko spins their “temporary” affair as a return to the past, not really cheating just temporally displaced, as they hole up together in her marital home making the most of their time alternating between the bed and the dinner table engaging in two kinds of dialogue, that of the body and the other of the mind. Returning to a previous intimacy they marvel at the ease of their connection while edging their way towards a frank discussion of how and why their original affair came to an end, reflecting on shame and fear as they meditate on past choices and their future implications always aware that their present connection has an expiry date. That sense of an ending takes on existential connotations not only for the couple but for the wider world as they contemplate a coming disaster, refocussing their minds and desires on the here and now. “I should have listened to my body” Kenji laments, refusing to think of the future in favour of the present moment, “it’s now or never”.

It Feels So Good topped the Kinema Junpo Best 10 list for 2019, a feat doubly notable because it is directed by Haruhiko Arai who is, among other things, editor of rival publication Eiga Geijutsu (ethical concerns aside it took the top spot in their poll too). Arai began his career in pink film writing scripts for Koji Wakamatsu and there is something distinctly ‘70s in It Feels So Good’s nostalgic sensibility besides its plaintive retro folk score and theatrical dialogue. Nevertheless what he charts is two people learning how to live in a world of constant anxiety, sitting atop a volcano but choosing heat over ash, retreating into private passion as a protective bubble against existential uncertainty.


It Feels So Good is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)