Hard-Core (ハード・コア, Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2018)

Hard-Core retro poster“The world will always be corrupt”, the cynical brother of the angry young man at the centre of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Hard-Core (ハード・コア) advises him, “you just have to work around it”. Unfortunately, Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) just wants to do “the right thing”, but it is constantly unsure of the best way to do it while remaining resentful and conflicted in his conviction that the world has already rejected him. Yamashita has made a career out of chronicling the struggles of disenfranchised young men but Ukon and his pals are less genial slackers than potentially dangerous idealists looking for a way back to a simpler time in which the world was not quite so rotten.

An opening bar scene in which Ukon gets slowly drunk and then lays into a rowdy bunch of guys bothering a middle-aged woman (Takako Matsu) just trying to enjoy a drink showcases his propensity to abruptly lose his temper and fall into a self destructive cycle while also subtly pointing out his entitlement issues in his taking the guy to task by praising himself for leaving the lady alone while he presumably had exactly the same desire not to. In any case, after getting banned from the bar, he ends up joining an ultranationalist political cell, the Crimson Hearts, which aims to teach the youth of Japan to re-embrace its traditional culture. In order to facilitate his goals, the elderly and eccentric leader, Kaneshiro (Kubikukuri Takuzo), has enlisted Ukon, along with a friend, Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) who is almost entirely mute, to dig out a mysterious cavern where he is convinced there is buried Edo-era treasure.

It’s easy to see why Ukon might fall for the rather insane ramblings of Kaneshiro. They reinforce his sense of moral decline while giving him a banner to follow and a place to belong. His loyalty to Kaneshiro is as absolute as a retainer’s to his lord, though he is perhaps conflicted in his commitment to the core ideology even as he sees obvious merit in wanting to reclaim something of the old Japan. Meanwhile, his relationship with his family appears strained. His younger brother Sakon (Takeru Satoh) has become a cynical salaryman out for nothing other than greed and self interest, staring into his own empty eyes in the reflection of the full glass panelling of his high rise office as he has meaningless sex with anonymous office ladies. Ukon just wants to do the right thing, but Sakon wants to make the smart choice and doesn’t particularly care about the wider implications of his choices.

Meanwhile, Ukon is fiercely loyal to his friends and fellow outsiders in solidarity with all those who feel the world will never be willing to accept them. Ushiyama, a man laid low by familial expectation and societal pressure, lives in an abandoned factory where he has made “friends” with a broken robot that Ukon manages to repair and names “Robo-o”. Believing that Robo-o is just like them in that he would be ostracised if people discovered his true nature, Ukon and Ushiyama set about disguising him and even get him in on their gold hunting gig (where he gets paid!) at which he proves adept considering his considerable technical superiority. Ukon’s first instinct is to protect his friend, while Sakon’s is how best to exploit him.

Nevertheless, events at the Crimson Hearts begin to escalate as unpleasant underling Mizunuma (Suon Kan) considers taking the battle to the next stage to “overthrow the corrupt totalitarianism masquerading as democracy” through actions others will regard as terrorist. Meanwhile, Ukon has also begun to fall for Mizunuma’s damaged daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi) whom he met by chance after being inappropriately charged with spying on Mizunuma’s new girlfriend to make sure she wasn’t sleeping around (as women do, according to Mizunuma). Ukon, as the first scene implied, is not in favour of all this obvious misogyny but can only find the strength for passive resistance. What he chooses, in the end, is his friends and his precious group of outsiders, albeit with his hopes pinned on his cynical brother and the illusionary lustre of historical treasure. The power of friendship eventually enables even Robo-o to break his programming, though it’s Sakon’s cynicism that, in one sense at least, seems to triumph. Yamashita takes his troubled young heroes on a rocky, noirish path through the “rotten” world which they are increasingly convinced holds no place for them but finally finds hope in human compassion even if that compassion may be the long buried treasure of an archaic civilisation.


Hard-Core was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival on 31st May at 22.30pm and 1st June, 22.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lying to Mom (鈴木家の嘘, Katsumi Nojiri, 2018)

Lying to Mom posterLearning to live with loss is difficult for any family, but when the loss was caused by suicide the pain is even more acute as those left behind try to understand why it is their loved one had to die and if there was anything else they could have done to prevent it. The family at the centre of Lying to Mom (鈴木家の嘘, Suzukike no Uso) choose, initially at least, to avoid dealing with it at all. Each taking their individual paths through grief, they keep the past painfully alive by pretending that oldest son Koichi (Ryo Kase) is only temporarily absent and will eventually return.

Koichi, who has been a hikikomori for many years, takes one last look at the peaceful suburban scene outside his window and hangs himself from a storage closet in his room. His mother Yuko (Hideko Hara), out at the time, only discovers the body when trying to get him to come down to lunch. Panicked, she injures herself and ends up in a coma in hospital while nothing could be done for Koichi. When she wakes up some time later, she’s lost all her memories of the incident and the family don’t have the heart to tell her that her son is gone so they pretend he went to work for his uncle in Argentina.

This is of course very comforting to Yuko who now believes that as a result of her illness Koichi has finally been able to leave his room for a more productive life, but it places a strain on the other family members – father Yukio (Ittoku Kishibe) and daughter Fumi (Mai Kiryu), who remain conflicted about keeping up the pretence while dealing with their own grief in secret. Fumi, whose idea it was to lie in the first place, types out beautiful letters supposedly from Koichi to be handwritten in his handwriting by an associate in Argentina which detail his new life full of freedom and promise overseas.

Meanwhile, Yukio ponders on his relationship with his son with whom he admits he never quite bonded. He sets about trying to find a mysterious woman named on Koichi’s life insurance policy less for practical reasons than to ascertain some sort of evidence that his son lived, even if he lived the last years of his life alone in a room. The reasons for Koichi’s isolation are never exactly explained with Yuko blaming high school bullying and the stagnant economy, but it is clear that he never managed to find himself in Japan and perhaps if he really had gone to Argentina things might have been different.

Wracked with guilt, Fumi finds herself trying out a support group for relatives of those who died by suicide but struggles to put her own thoughts in order. Though people try their best, insensitivity reigns when they try to offer words of condolence. Only love can save people, Fumi’s colleague smugly tells her with a random story about coaxing a shy high school student out their room, little realising he’s tacitly accusing her of not trying hard enough to save her brother. People can’t be saved, Fumi retorts, and she might well have a point. Even the leader of the support group shows himself up when he considers banning a grief-stricken woman with a loud personality because her problems are “smaller” seeing as she’s wealthy. As another attendee tells him, people grieve in different ways and having money or not is unlikely to affect the degree of your emotional pain even if it might in some sense reduce the burden. Besides, his assumptions about her are mostly wrong because he’s not been paying attention to the things that really matter only to his own surface level prejudices.

Despite the prevalence of suicide, the Suzukis still find themselves embarrassed by Koichi’s passing. They tell people it was an illness or avoid mentioning it all. Meanwhile they keep the secret from Yuko and avoid talking about it amongst themselves until finally forced to deal with all of their anger, guilt, pain and confusion. A comforting lie may serve its purpose, but only an emotional reckoning can clear the air. There may be no real answer to why Koichi did what he did, but the Suzukis will have to make their peace with it, finding fresh hope in the process as they begin to repair their emotional wounds together as a family.


Lying to Mom was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival on 30th May at 7.30pm.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Melancholic (メランコリック, Seiji Tanaka, 2018)

Melancholic posterJust because you’re smart and graduated from a top university, does that necessarily mean you have to put on the salaryman straitjacket in order to become “a success”? The dejected hero of Seiji Tanaka’s Melancholic (メランコリック) isn’t quite so sure, but then he’s always been the type to amble through life going wherever the wind blows him. The time is about to come, however, when decisions must be made and priorities decided lest someone else decide them for you.

Kazuhiko (Yoji Minagawa) graduated from Tokyo University but he’s never been in full time employment and has no definite career plans. Still living at home with his parents, he floats between part-time jobs with little sense of forward motion while his mum and dad are content to let him find his way, if a little exasperated. On a rare visit to a public bathhouse he ends up running into an old high school classmate, Yuri (Mebuki Yoshida), who half-jokingly advises he apply for the open job at the baths seeing as it’s bound to be less stressful than your average salaryman gig. Smitten but too awkward to do much about it, Kazuhiko applies for the job and consents to go to a school reunion as a means of seeing Yuri again. Much to his surprise, however, the bathhouse has a second life as a yakuza kill room with on site body disposal facilities.

Asking questions about what goes on at the bathhouse after dark, Kazuhiko’s boss Azuma (Makoto Hada) tells him that it’s dangerous to know things you aren’t supposed to know, but Kazuhiko is not good with hints and his natural curiosity won’t it let it rest. After he finds out about the secret yakuza backroom deal, Kazuhiko has a “difficult” choice to make – elect to help out with the “night shift”, or die. Kazuhiko chooses to help out (he likes being helpful) and discovers that he actually doesn’t mind it all that much, especially considering the “bonus” package Azuma gave him for being a good boy.

The extra money made Kazuhiko feel as if he could grasp that swanky salaryman life without having to submit himself to the rat race. He uses the money to take Yuri to a fancy French restaurant where he’s flummoxed by the wine list and she’s uncomfortable, but still it goes well even if they both resolve to go somewhere more casual next time. Kazuhiko’s inferiority complex is only enflamed by the lingering presence of Tamura (Yuta Okubo), another old classmate made good, who is also interested in Yuri and is everything Kazuhiko feels himself not to be – handsome, successful, filthy rich, cultured, and confident.

Being allowed in on the after hours business made Kazuhiko feel as if he’d been promoted, that Azuma obviously trusted him and that there might be more overtime coming if he played his cards right. His confidence receives a further knock, however, when he realises that a punkish colleague who joined at the same time as him, Matsumoto (Yoshitomo Isozaki), is technically in a more senior position despite being a barely literate drop out with bleach blond hair. In way over his head, Kazuhiko still desperately wants to regain some of that status and approval he felt was his when the cleanup business was their little secret.

An awkward, naive, but sincere man, Kazuhiko marvels on realising how many yakuza seem to be “around” before Azuma and Matsumoto remind him that not everyone involved with crime is a bona fide yakuza. The bathhouse outfit is, more or less, run by freelancers but still at the mercy of mob boss Tanaka (Masanobu Yada) who has an iron hold over Azuma because of outstanding debts. Azuma would like to put a stop to the night shift, but can’t – or so he claims. As is later pointed out, for those getting on in years an unsatisfying status quo is often preferable to a turbulent new. Though Kazuhiko has no real objection to working the night shift as far as the clean up goes, he is not completely comfortable with its wider implications, often asking why it was someone had to die only for Matsumoto and Azuma to shrug and say it doesn’t matter. They had orders and carried them out, anything else is an irrelevance they don’t need to worry about.

Kazuhiko, however, does worry if in a fairly minor way until his gradual descent into the world of crime drags him into a vicious quagmire in which he must accept the seriousness of his situation along with its potential costs. Despite the original animosity and natural sense of distrust, what wins out is a sense of fellow feeling between unlikely allies Matsumoto and Kazuhiko who begin to see a way out of their mutual malaise through seizing their own futures and daring to pin their hopes on things they assumed unattainable, like love and friendship. Rather than chasing the salaryman dream, or climbing to the top of the yakuza tree, they pick an ordinary kind of “good enough” success in which moments of warmth and togetherness become the only things which give life meaning. A surreal ode to just muddling through and learning to be happy in the moment, Melancholic more than lives up to its name but despite all the darkness eventually finds real joy in the easy pleasures of mediocrity and mutual acceptance.


Melancholic was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened at the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival where director Seiji Tanaka and actor Yoshitomo Isozaki will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nippon Connection Confirms Full Lineup for 2019!

marriage hunting beauty still 1Nippon Connection, the largest showcase for Japanese cinema anywhere in the world, returns with another fantastic selection of new and classic films screening in Frankfurt from 28th May to 2nd June. Opening with the latest quirky rom-com from Tremble All You Want’s Akiko Ohku Marriage Hunting Beauty, the festival will also welcome Guest of Honour Shinya Tsukamoto with a screening of his latest film Killing plus classics Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tokyo Fist. Meanwhile, this year’s classics strand is dedicated to Golden Era actress Ayako Wakao. The programme in full:

Nippon Cinema

Fly Me to the Saitama still 1

  • And Your Bird Can Sing – Adapted from the novel by Yasushi Sato, And Your Bird Can Sing follows a trio of lost youngsters as they drift into an almost certainly destructive ménage à trois.
  • Another World – a middle-aged man keeps his family at a distance but the reappearance of a childhood friend begins to shake his world in the latest from Junji Sakamoto.
  • Asako I & II – A young woman finds herself torn between old love and new in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s whimsical drama. Review.
  • The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine – Taisho era tale of sumo and revolution in which a band of anarchists find themselves fascinated by an itinerant troupe of female sumo wrestlers shortly after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 in the latest from Takahisa Zeze.
  • Dare to Stop Us – Kazuya Shiraishi’s nostalgic look back at the heyday of Wakamatsu Production through the eyes a young female AD. Review.
  • Dawn Wind in my Poncho – a trio of college kids takes a last roadtrip before graduation.
  • Fly Me to the Saitama – zany comedy from Hideki Takeuchi in which the residents of Saitama have become an oppressed minority. Review.
  • Hard-Core – a purehearted guy with a violent streak laments the cruelty of the modern world but finds friendship with a lonely homeless man and a robot they find in an abandoned factory.
  • Inuyashiki – an angry young man and mild-mannered dad get superpowers on the same day in Shinsuke Sato’s blockbuster manga adaptation. Review.
  • It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up – ensemble drama from Ryuichi Hiroki following 10 years in the lives of a collection of lost souls from small town Japan.
  • Jam – Returning to the realms of Dangan Runner, Sabu brings three dreaming guys together through the power of cosmic coincidence. Review.
  • Killing – a samurai prefers not to pick up his sword in Shinya Tsukamoto’s first foray into the jidaigeki.
  • Love at Least – a young woman with bipolar tries to get her life together but is frustrated by the reappearance of her supportive boyfriend’s manipulative ex. Review.
  • Lying to Mom – When her son tries to hang himself, the mother of the Suzuki family knocks herself out in an effort to save him and winds up in a coma. When she wakes up, she can’t remember anything of the incident. Lacking the heart to tell her the truth, the family pretend he is alive and well and living in Argentina.
  • Marriage Hunting Beauty – manga adaptation from Akiko Ohku in which a beautiful woman with terrible taste in men decides to get married.
  • The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan – shogi drama from Toshiaki Toyoda.
  • Ramen Shop – a bereaved ramen chef travels to Singapore after finding the diary of his late mother.
  • Room Laundering – a young woman puts her ability to see ghosts to a productive use. Review.
  • Special Screening: Tetsuo: The Iron Man – classic 1989 cyberpunk from Shinya Tsukamoto.
  • Special Screening: The Legend of the Stardust Brothers – rediscovered ’80s cult classic from Macoto Tezka.
  • Special Screening: Tokyo Fist – classic boxing drama from Shinya Tsukamoto.
  • Thicker Than Water – ironic warring siblings comedy. Review.
  • We are Little Zombies – anarchic pop comedy in which four orphaned kids decide to start a band!

NIPPON VISIONS

Melancholic still 1

  • Ahum – atmospheric black and white horror film in which a nuclear plant employee begins to lose his grasp on reality.
  • Blue Hour – a young woman takes her best friend on a roadtrip to her home town but finds old wounds reopening on reuniting with her family.
  • The Call of Zon – experimental science fiction film in which a small town has been walled off by a mysterious force known as Zon for the past 20 years.
  • The Chaplin – Ren Osugi stars as a prison chaplain ministering to death row prisoners.
  • Complicity – an undocumented man from China starts working at a soba restaurant but lives in constant fear of discovery.
  • Jesus – a 10-year-old boy moves to his grandmother’s out in the country and has to attend a Christian school.
  • Life Finds a Way – the latest from Hirobumi Watanabe is a meta take on the filmmaking process.
  • Melancholic – a graduate of a top university takes a job in a bathhouse and is shocked to discover it doubles as a yakuza killing ground in Seiji Tanaka’s ironic debut.
  • Sea – a man who witnessed a rape as a teenager but did nothing to help muses on his failings when he meets the perpetrators again years later.
  • Tourism – two women take a trip to Singapore but things take a turn for the strange when one gets lost.

Nippon Docs

Kagura still 1

  • Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa – documentary exploring the child soldiers who fought under the Japanese during the battle of Okinawa.
  • From All Corners – a young man gives up his job to become a cardboard picker.
  • I Go Gaga, My Dear – director Naoko Nobutomo follows her elderly parents and charts the development of her mother’s Alzheimer’s.
  • Japanese Documentaries Presented by NHK World-Japan – two NHK docs including the first episode of 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki, and another about a Syrian musician’s discovery of a piano which survived the 1945 nuclear attack.
  • Kagura Troupe on the Beat – traditional shinto music and dance.
  • Portraits of the Rainbow – Ayumi Nakagawa follows photographer Leslie Kee as he photographs members of the LGBT community in order to combat their invisibility within Japanese society.
  • Sending Off – Nippon Connection regular Ian Thomas Ash returns with a documentary following a doctor and her team of nurses as they offer hospice care to patients in their homes.
  • Shinjuku Tiger – Yoshinori Sato follows the man in the tiger mask often seen around Shinjuku.
  • Tower of the Sun Love at Least director Kosai Sekine uses Taro Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun as a jumping off point to explore the evolution of Japanese culture

Nippon Animation

Penguin highway banner

Nippon Retro: Ayako Wakao – Magnificent Icon of Japanese Cinema

blue sky maiden still

  • An Actor’s Revenge – Kon Ichikawa classic in which an onnagata attempts to avenge the death of his parents.
  • The Blue Sky Maiden – cheerful melodrama in which a young woman travels to live with her birth father’s family but is fiercely resented by her step-mother and half siblings. Marks the first collaboration between Yasuzo Masumura and his later muse. Review.
  • Elegant Beast – satirical comedy from Yuzo Kawashima in which a criminal family meets their match in a wily entertainment accountant.
  • Floating Weeds – Ozu classic in which the leader of an itinerant theatre troupe reunites with his former lover in a seaside town.
  • The Goddess of Mercy – Yasuzo Masumura’s adaptation of the Junichiro Tanizaki novel in which a bored housewife enters a relationship with a woman she meets at art class who reminds her of the goddess of mercy. Review.
  • The Red Angel – Ayako Wakao stars as a frontline nurse in Masumura’s powerful anti-war drama. Review.
  • Seisaku’s Wife – a young woman marries an old man and continues to live alone after he dies suddenly becoming a social pariah until she falls in love with a model soldier.
  • Women are Born Twice – Wakao stars as a melancholy geisha in another comic drama from Yuzo Kawashima.

Nippon Connection takes place in Frankfurt, Germany from 28th May to 2nd June. Tickets are available from 11th May via the official website where you can also find full details on all the films as well as timetabling information. Unless otherwise stated, films screen in Japanese with English subtitles. In addition to the films the festival will also host a series of events including director talks and workshops in a rich cultural programme. You can keep up with all the latest information by following the festival on FacebookTwitterYouTubeFlickr, and Instagram.