Ride Your Wave (きみと、波にのれたら, Masaaki Yuasa, 2019)

“The next wave is already on the horizon waiting for you to catch it” according to the heroine of Masaaki Yuasa’s uncharacteristically uncomplicated Ride Your Wave (きみと、波にのれたら, Kimi to, Nami ni Noretara) offering words of comfort to her dejected soon-to-be boyfriend over his continuing failure to master the surfboard. It’s advice she struggles to follow herself, however, after she’s blown off course by unexpected tragedy. Yet, nothing’s ever really as off course as you think it is and the waves she must learn to ride are her own and hers alone. 

Oceanography student Hinako (Rina Kawaei) is something of a mess. She’s moved out on her own to study at university in Chiba, but is struggling with the transition to adult life, unable to unpack her things or cook herself a decent dinner. Nevertheless, she’s become a “hero” to dashing fireman Minato (Ryota Katayose) who watches her bravely ride the waves from the roof of the fire station. The pair finally meet when some irresponsible students have an impromptu fireworks party that ends up setting fire to Hinako’s building, leaving her marooned on the roof cradling her surfboard at which point she’s rescued by Minato heroically appearing in a cherrypicker. She offers to teach him to surf, they go for coffee, and eventually fall hopelessly in love. Their romance, however, is cut short when Minato heads to the beach alone in stormy seas and drowns trying to save a jet skier who’s got into trouble. Unable to deal with the grief, Hinako avoids the sea altogether but begins to believe she is seeing Minato in every watery surface and can in fact summon him by singing their favourite song. 

Fellow firefighter Wasabi (Kentaro Ito), himself a little in love with the formerly fearless Hinako, tries to jolt her out of her “delusion” by asking how this could have happened to her, once so brave and independent now filled with grief and anxiety. Minato, whose name literally means “harbour”, had promised to protect her, staying by her side forever. Faced with her first serious relationship going far too well, Hinako identified a potential problem in her possible over reliance on her extremely capable boyfriend, preferring to wait until she was able to ride the waves alone before taking the next step. Minato wanted the same thing, encouraging her growth while providing a “safe harbour”, but his sudden absence has left her afraid to move forward and unwilling to leave the land. 

Delusion or not, Hinako clings to her lost love, carrying around “Minato” in a tiny flask of water or filling up an inflatable porpoise and walking it all around town to the constant consternation of the locals. What she learns, on one level, is that she has to learn to save herself, but also that in doing so she can help to save others. Learning something about Minato’s past and the reasons which eventually led to him becoming a fireman persuade her that she ought to use whatever skills she has for the common good. Meanwhile, the lovelorn Wasabi learns something similar after reconnecting with Minato’s spiky sister Youko (Honoka Matsumoto) who was once a shut-in refusing to go to school where her rather abrasive manner made her an outcast but found a new strength in self-acceptance on hearing Wasabi declare that just being herself was good enough for him. 

Youko decides to pick up her brother’s dream of opening an artisanal coffeeshop, which is nice but also a little shortsighted in that it does not allow her to pursue a dream that’s entirely her own other than through finding the courage to embrace the risk of romance. Likewise, Hinako and Wasabi are largely carried along in Minato’s wake, but nevertheless make unambiguously good decisions in choosing to dedicate their lives to helping others, accepting that that’s often less about grand heroic gestures than it is about small moments of connection. Hinako realises that she has to let go of the past, however painful, for Minato’s good as well as her own, while finding her sea legs to take her into a more promising future. After all, the waves keep coming. Minato recedes into the great confluence of life, while Hinako gains the courage to ride the waves alone, no longer afraid to leave the shore but in search of new horizons. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

UK Trailer (English subtitles)

Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2019)

Gambling, the ultimate act of faith or the height of anarchic genius? Based on the hit manga which has already been adapted as a popular TV anime, Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ) is the sequel to two seasons of a live action TV drama set in a school where hierarchy is decided not by grades or by fists, but by your prowess at the gaming tables. Those who lose so badly they bankrupt themselves become a kind of subhuman underclass, tied up like dogs and routinely humiliated, while the Student Council becomes a stand in for an oppressive social order ruling over all and enforcing the law with an iron hand. 

Into this high stress environment walks Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), a transfer student to the elite Hyakkaou Private Academy determined to bend its rules to her own advantage. Meanwhile, Student Council President Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda) is forced to deal with a new and unexpected threat – The Village, a small cult made up of students who have rejected the system, dropped out to live a hippy lifestyle in the grounds, and refuse to participate in “meaningless” games of chance. Their priest-like leader, Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), once beat Kirari at cards becoming something like a god of gambling, but lost his zeal for the game after losing the only thing he ever cared about. 

Where he opposes the system passively yet pointedly, Yumeko rebels in her own, fiercely individualistic way by superficially conforming, becoming a top gambler, but only because she is exercising a free choice to do so. She plays for kicks alone, and generally wins because she isn’t stressed enough about losing to let it bother her. This individualist streak makes her a hidden threat against Kirari, but one that might in itself be an interesting gamble for the infinitely bored Student Council President. 

While Yumeko’s individualism threatens to unbalance the system, The Village presents a collectivist threat, agitating wholesale revolution and an end to the oppressive rule of the Student Council which renders losers inhuman. Yet there’s an essential irony in The Village’s creepy monotony that stands in stark contrast to Yumeko’s seeming conformity but insistence on her own freedom. Your life’s your own, she later explains, it’s annoying if people try to manipulate it. In this instance she’s talking not about the “life plans” handed out by the Student Council, but the egotistical desire to “save” the lives of others without considering if they want them saved or if you’re merely infringing on their personal freedom in attempting to make choices for them based entirely on your own value system. 

Murasame perhaps bet something he shouldn’t have and technically won, but ended up losing anyway which is what has made him turn against gambling. Yumeko, meanwhile, believes that the only way to be truly free to entrust yourself to luck and destiny. That is, however, somewhat disingenuous, because what Yumeko excels at is mind games, essentially manipulating those around her in order to win. Yumeko plays players, not cards, and is rarely played herself. Unlike Murasame’s righthand woman Arukibi (Haruka Fukuhara), she doesn’t care that much what people think. Arukibi, meanwhile, is desperate for approval and is playing her own game just to get someone’s attention which makes her a volatile, if easily manipulated, opponent.

Essentially, Murasame wants freedom outside of the system where Yumeko has found it within, but her philosophy is perhaps the more dangerous in that it proposes total freedom that has no regard for the systems of governance. Then again, maybe this is all a long con to get better cakes in the cafeteria, merely gaming the system rather than actively undermining it. Nevertheless, for Yumeko life is risk, rebelling against an oppressive social order through the anarchic individualism of living by “chance”. Living in a society as highly regimented as this is a high stakes game, but you can’t win if you don’t play, and you need to play smart. That’s the peculiar irony of life at Hyakkaou Private Academy where the Student Council literally owns your future but you can win it back by playing them at their own game. Bet your life, win your freedom Yumeko seems to say but she still makes sure to bring cake for everyone, not just the “winners” or the privileged few. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Her Sketchbook (世界は今日から君のもの, Masaya Ozaki, 2017)

Many young people struggle to find their place in the world, but for young Mami who largely just wants to be left alone, the struggle is all the greater. Less a hikikomori drama than a tale of destructive parenting and buried talents, Her Sketchbook (世界は今日から君のもの, Sekai wa Kyou kara Kimi no Mono) charts the gradual blossoming of a young woman who begins to take root after finding the right environment in which to thrive, encouraged by others who take the time to see and appreciate her for who she is rather than all they fear she’s not. 

A shut-in since dropping out of middle school, Mami (Mugi Kadowaki) has recently taken a factory job but is laid off after a little misadventure at the seaside leaves her with an injury that prevents her from strenuous labour. Her father Eisuke (Makita Sports), recently made redundant himself, is worried for her future and wants her get out more so he sets her up with a job that seems ideal, testing games for bugs at a software company. It’s there that she crosses paths with harried project manager Ryotaro (Takahiro Miura) who is getting fed up with the artistic temperament of his usual character designer. He drops a sketch covered in markup notes and she tries to hand it back to him but is too shy and ends up taking it home where she diligently corrects it according to his instructions and mails the revised illustration to the address on the bottom, trying to make up for her failure in being unable to approach him in person. The new drawing is exactly what Ryotaro had envisioned, but he has no idea who the mystery illustrator is. Nevertheless, he decides to start mailing additional requests to the unfamiliar email address. 

Eisuke thinks he’s doing the best for his daughter, but even he in unguarded moments describes her as odd and a failure. He had no idea that she had any kind of “talent”, believing she was just sitting in her room twiddling her thumbs. But for Mami, the discovery of her boxes of illustrations is something of a mixed blessing. She’s glad people seem to be pleased, but partially resents the new attention and quickly realises that they’ve misunderstood her capabilities. She’s good at mimicking the style of others and correcting proofs according to instructions, but struggles when asked to come up with ideas of her own. 

That struggle is essentially a mental block on being able to see herself. Always a little “different”, Mami never fit in at school and while her father fretted that she wasn’t making friends, her mother (You) was content to let her be. Unfortunately that wasn’t because she accepted her daughter for who she was and wanted to support her, but that she knowingly or otherwise used her difference against her as a reason to keep her close. Now having left the family for unclear reasons, Mami’s mother remains possessive and domineering, never missing an opportunity to undermine her daughter’s sense of confidence or to remind her that she doesn’t belong in regular society. Mami’s struggle is, in that sense, to break free of her mother’s toxic parenting and reject her view of her as someone who is entirely unable to lead a normal life as independent adult. 

Essentially infantalised, Mami finds herself learning adult life lessons at an accelerated pace but also battling unhelpful attempts to exploit and misuse her hikikomori past. A sleazy public servant who threatens to assault Mami after bringing home her drunken friend from a bar convinces her to appear at a panel he’s running on the hikikomori phenomenon but completely ignores everything she tells him, trying to twist her words to suit his own hypotheses in presenting her as someone who has successfully reintegrated into mainstream society. He wants her to say that she took the factory job to help out after her dad was laid off, but really she took it because his being home all day was quite annoying so she got a job to avoid him. The public servant simply isn’t listening, but a shy little girl in the back is and finally knows there’s nothing wrong with her and she’s not alone. 

What gives Mami the courage to move forward is the gentle encouragement of her new friends who never treat her as if she’s weird or incapable and are prepared to be patient while she finds her footing. Just like the flower in the flip book she draws while waiting for inspiration, Mami blossoms after finding the right environment in which to thrive, gaining confidence from other people’s confidence in her but resolving to take things one step at a time, harnessing her newfound talent to claim a space for herself in a world opening up before her.  


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2018)

In most countries, the legal and medical definitions of death centre on activity in the brain. In Japan, however, death is only said to have occurred once the heart stops beating. The bereaved parents at the centre of The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Ningyo no Nemuru Ie), adapted from the novel by Keigo Higashino, are presented with the most terrible of choices. They must accept that their daughter, Mizuho, will not recover, but are asked to decide whether she is declared brain dead now so that her organs can be used for transplantation, or wait for her heart to stop beating in a few months’ time at most. As their daughter was only six years old, they’d never discussed anything like this with her but come to the conclusion that she’d want to help other children if she could. Only when they come to say goodbye, Mizuho grasps her mother’s hand giving her possibly false hope that the doctor’s assurances that she is brain dead and will never wake up are mistaken. 

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Harimas were in the middle of a messy divorce when they got the news that Mizuho had been involved in an accident at a swimming pool. Kazumasa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Mizuho’s father, is the CEO of a tech firm specialising in cutting edge medical technology mostly geared towards making the lives of people with disabilities easier. He does therefore have a special interest in his daughter’s condition and is willing to explore scientific solutions where most might simply accept the doctor’s first opinion. His wife, Kaoruko, meanwhile has a deep-seated faith that her daughter is still present if asleep and will one day wake up. 

It so happens that one of Kazuma’s researchers (Kentaro Sakaguchi) specialises in a new kind of technology which hopes to restore motor function through artificial nerve signals controlled by computers and electromagnetic pulses. He hatches on the idea of using the technology to improve his daughter’s quality of life by letting her “exercise” to maintain muscle strength, but despite the excellent results it achieves in terms of her health, it takes them to a dark place. Muscle training might be one thing, but having Mizuho make meaningful gestures is another. They don’t mean to, but they’re manipulating her body as if she were a puppet, even forcing her to smile without her consent. 

Kazumasa starts to wonder if he’s gone too far. Seeing his daughter’s face move with no emotion behind it only proves to him that she is no longer alive. Meanwhile, he comes across another parent raising money to send his daughter to America for a life saving heart transplant and begins to feel guilty that perhaps his decision was selfish. The father of the other girl sympathises with him and confides that they can’t bring themselves to pray for a donor because they know it’s the same as praying for another child’s death, but Kazumasa can’t help feeling he’s partly responsible because he made the choice to artificially prolong his daughter’s life but now realises that she is little more than a living a doll. 

This is something brought home to him by Kaoruko’s increasing desire to show their daughter off. Her decision to take her to their son Ikuo’s elementary school entrance ceremony instantly causes trouble with the other parents who feign politeness but are obviously uncomfortable while the children waste no time in ostracising Ikuo because of his “creepy” sister. Kazumasa privately wonders if Kaoruko’s devotion has turned dark, if she’s somehow begun to enjoy this new closeness with her daughter to the exclusion of all else and has lost the power of rational thought. He can’t know however that perhaps she’s coming to the same conclusion as him, but it finding it much harder to accept that they might have made a mistake and all their interventions are only causing Mizuho additional suffering.

What’s best for Mizuho, however, is something that sometimes gets forgotten in the ongoing debate about the moral choices of her parents and relatives. Kazumasa’s colleagues accuse of him of misappropriation in monopolising a key researcher, hinting again at the “selfishness” of his decision to expend so much energy on treating someone whom many believe to be without hope when there are many more in need. The researcher in turn accuses Kazumasa of “jealousy” believing that he has displaced him as an “artificial” father working closely with Kaoruko in caring for their daughter. The “life” in the balance is not so much Mizuho’s but that of the traditional family which is perhaps in a sense reborn in rediscovering the blinding love that they shared for each other which will of course never fade. What they learn is to love unselfishly, that love is sometimes letting go, but also that even in endings there is a kind of continuity in the shared gift of life and the goodness left behind even after the most unbearable of losses.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (パパはわるものチャンピオン, Kyohei Fujimura, 2018)

“Your job embarrasses me” little Shota (Kokoro Terada) coldly tells his actually quite lovely father, slowly closing the door on his well meaning attempt at connection. Self evident from the title, My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (パパはわるものチャンピオン, Papa wa Warumono Champion), Shota’s dad Takashi (real life wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi) is a former champ reduced to playing the “heel”, a masked villain fans love to hate whose signature move is comic relief. Like all little boys, Shota really looked up to his father and wanted to be just like him, and so he gets a dose of paternal disappointment a little earlier than expected in realising that he is in a sense a professional loser with a degree of internalised shame regarding his failure to get back in the ring under his own identity. 

10 years previously, just before 9-year-old Shota was born, Takashi was a champion but a knee injury cost him his career. To stay in the game and provide for his family, he decided to become a heel as a temporary measure until he was well enough to return to being a “face”. A decade later however he’s still “Cockroach Mask” working with “Bluebottle” as a comedy villain known for pulling all sorts of unscrupulous tricks like using “Roach Spray” on his opponents or extracting gadgets from a Doraemon-esque interdimensional portal in the shape of a garbage can. Ashamed of himself, Takashi has avoided telling Shota what exactly it is he does for a living, promising that he’ll explain everything when he’s older. 

But Shota’s at the age when everyone at school is boasting about their dads and it’s niggling at him that he doesn’t really know, especially when one of his friends jumps to the conclusion he must be a yakuza. Determined to find out, Shota does some detective work and secretly follows him, only to wind up surrounded by beefy guys backstage at the ring. Bumping into a wrestling obsessive classmate (Maharu Nemoto) there with her father (Yasushi Fuchikami), Shota is horrified to realise his dad’s that jerk that everyone hates so when she somehow jumps to the conclusion that his dad’s her idol, reigning champ Dragon George (real life wrestler Kazuchika Okada), he doesn’t bother to correct her. 

The irony is, Takashi is a genuinely nice guy. He’s desperate to make it to Shota’s parents’ morning at school, but misses it because he stops on the way to help an old lady who was struggling with her shopping. When the kids are asked to compose a speech about their dreams for the future, Shota says that he wants to get big and strong like his dad in the hope that being big will also make him kind. Shota, however, is still too young to understand the way that wrestling works. He only sees his dad degrade himself, do “bad” things to win, and act in an underhanded, dishonourable way that is completely at odds with his offstage personality. Yet as much as it is that he’s disappointed to think his dad’s a “loser”, the real cause of his resentment is seeing that he’s not being true to himself. Shota’s mother tells him that wrestling is Takashi’s passion, but he pointedly asks her if his dream was being a heel, which it obviously wasn’t. 

While Shota picks up on his dad’s internalised sense of shame over the failure to achieve his dreams, he indulges in a little subterfuge himself in keeping up the pretence that his father is not the hated Cockroach Mask but the universally loved Dragon George. Failing to clear up the misunderstanding makes him an unexpected class hero, but it also unbalances the social hierarchy with snooty rich kid and all-round popular boy Yuta irritated at Shota stealing his thunder. When some of his friends start to doubt his story, it’s not the fact that Takashi is Cockroach Mask that upsets them only that Shota lied. Having a pro wrestler dad is cool in itself, he didn’t need to worry about what people would think and he shouldn’t have anyway because he should have stuck by his father rather than rejecting him completely and changing his dream to boring salaryman like the odious Yuta. 

Takashi, meanwhile, needs to think through why he’s doing a job that he’s essentially ashamed of. Bluebottle, his partner, who entered the trade as a heel and loves the strange thrill of being booed by the crowd, is offended at his insinuation that being a heel is somehow embarrassing. Michiko (Riisa Naka), an eccentric journalist and wrestling obsessive, tries to explain to Shota that the heel is an essential part of the game – you can’t have a fight without a villain after all, but Takashi still wants to be the face and regain his rightful place as a champion. He can’t let go of past glory and struggles to accept that there are new ways to win. “Wrestling’s not about winning or losing, it’s a way of life” an exasperated Michiko tells her editor (Yo Oizumi), trying to get him interested in the soap opera drama by way of investment in Takashi’s struggle. You don’t have to win, all you have to do is keep getting back up and make sure you put on a good show. Shota figures out that just because his dad’s a “bad guy” doesn’t make him a bad person, while Takashi figures out the only way to be the champ is to embrace his inner roach. Turns out, what wrestling’s all about is authenticity, just not quite in the way you were expecting it. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Hong Kong release trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Organ (あの日のオルガン, Emiko Hiramatsu, 2019)

Emiko Hiramatsu is best known as a regular collaborator to the endlessly prolific Yoji Yamada. Though his repertoire is more varied than some give him credit for, Yamada is one of several veteran directors to have begun looking backwards with a sometimes uncomfortable nostalgia for the wartime era in tales of maternal suffering such as Kabei and Nagasaki: Memories of my Son, or its legacy of unfulfilled desire in the more complex The Little House, all of which were co-written by Hiramatsu. It’s to the war she returns in her second directorial feature Organ (あの日のオルガン, Ano Hi no Organ), once again chronicling female fortitude as an idealistic nursery school teacher defies governmental advice to evacuate the children in her care to the relative safety of a disused temple outside of the city. 

“Angry girl” Kaede Itakura (Erika Toda) is outraged by the news that the schools will soon be closed, not least because of it’s impracticality seeing as the parents of the children in her care have all been mobilised for the war effort and will not be able to look after them. Worried about the intensification of aerial bombardment, she’s considering taking the children somewhere safer but is struggling to convince others that she is right to reject the governmental line. Her greatest challenge is not, however, the authorities, but the children’s parents, many of whom have been quite thoroughly brainwashed and have no idea how badly the war is going. They find Kaede’s suggestion defeatist and are certain that they are in no real danger. Of course, no one wants to be separated from their children, but some begin to wonder if they aren’t being selfish in wanting to keep them close if they’ll be safer elsewhere. Experiencing a serious air raid, most parents ultimately decide that perhaps evacuation is for the best. 

The kids, though obviously distressed to be taken away from their parents, perhaps think of it as an extended school trip. The locals, however, are not universally pleased to see them. A farmer beefed up by militarist credentials, loudly complains about being forced to feed and shelter “unproductive” refugees. He’s only talked round when the sole male teacher explains to him that the children are important because they too are children of the emperor who will someday grow up to become fine soldiers fighting for imperial glory. 

Kaede bristles, but finally cannot argue. A neat mirror of macho male militarist ideology, her philosophy also has its patriotic quality in her constant insistence that they must save their “cultural identity” by teaching the children traditional arts such as flower arranging and folk songs which, while admired by the militarists for their essential Japaneseness, are also regarded as frivolous. She tries to maintain distance between herself and the children, clear that this a school and not a home, but is forced to accept a degree of maternity when it becomes clear that lack of human warmth is causing them to suffer. 

The teachers at the school, all of whom are necessarily unmarried and most of them young, are doubted by others precisely because they have no children of their own even if they are ultimately respected as educators. Caring for the children is also their way of serving, allowing their parents to devote themselves entirely to the war effort in the knowledge that their kids are safe. The country is, however, much more conservative than the city. Also viewed with suspicion is a man who’s come home from the war injured and now finds himself out of place, “unproductive”, and to a degree feminised. When he dares to talk cheerfully to one of the teachers after helping her fix her bicycle, the ultra militarist doesn’t like it, accusing the teachers of being a bunch of loose women in the habit of taking advantage of “vulnerable” men who are apparently both emasculated and infantilised by their inability to serve. The militarist’s complaint gets the teacher sent home, back to the city, and straight into the heart of danger where she may die simply for smiling at a lonely young man. 

Kaede once again doesn’t approve, but is powerless to resist. She is forced to compromise her principles for the greater good to keep the children safe. Her “angry girl” fortitude is directly contrasted with the ethereality of the bumbling Mitsue (Sakurako Ohara) who has a knack with the children but is not exactly a responsible adult. Yet Mitsue too is “serving”, if only as a morale booster, her cheerful attitude helping to carry others through tough times. It’s her organ from which the film takes its title, gathering the children to sing wholesome folk songs including the classic “furusato” with all its evocations of nostalgia for an idyllic pastoral innocence.

Meanwhile, Kaede wonders if she’s done the right thing in separating families, darkly worried that the parents might have preferred to die with their children rather than be glad they sent them away to safety. Many of the children in her care are orphaned, losing homes and family members in the fire bombing, and finally not even rural Saitama is safe, but she has at least saved something in her determination to carve out a space for peaceful innocence far away from the unfeeling chaos of militarist folly.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Our Meal For Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Masahide Ichii, 2017)

Eat, drink, and be merry, as they say, for tomorrow we may be gone. The hero of Masahide Ichii’s Our Meal for Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Bokura no Gohan wa Ashita de Matteru) has committed himself to the first of those, is still too young to be much interested in the second, and is resolutely failing at the third. Somewhat gloomy and introverted, he has decided on a course of self-isolation, convinced that it’s better not to get attached because all attachment ends in heartbreak, but a life without sensation is barely a life at all and in the end all you can do is live while you’re alive taking your pleasure where you can. 

Young Ryota (Yuto Nakajima) is a dreamy high school boy with his head in the clouds. Bamboozled into participation in a sack race relay with pretty classmate Koharu (Yuko Araki) he approaches the matter in characteristically analytical fashion, eventually realising that he, taller and stronger (physically at least), will have to take the lead if they are to move forward. Off the track, however, that’s a lesson he finds difficult to learn. After their victory, Koharu stuns Ryota by confessing that she asked him to join her in the sack race precisely because she has a crush on him. He panics and apparently turns her down, but eventually reconsiders.

Their romance continues in typical high school fashion, only strengthening as they prepare to move on to new stages in their lives in heading off to uni while idly dreaming of an imagined future with the family they will forge together as adults. There is however a shadow hanging over their love. The reason Ryota is so brooding and contemplative is because he’s reeling over the death of his older brother from an illness, something he tries to “discuss” (or more accurately monologue) with Koharu but she abruptly cuts him off because she has more important things to do than listen to a long sad story she feels she already understands. He, meanwhile, never quite thinks to ask her very much about her life outside of him and is both hurt and slightly resentful when she casually mentions that she’s had her share of loss too which is why she’s so keen to start a family of her own. 

Ryota may be the contemplative sort, but he’s also the type that likes to talk out loud about his feelings without feeling the need to hold anything back. Koharu meanwhile is precisely the opposite. She might be upfront about what she wants and direct in stating her desires, but she’s also resolutely uncurious, dislikes talking about “unpleasant” things, and is content to let the mystery linger where Ryota wants to know absolutely everything (but without actually asking any questions). Taking a (solo) holiday, he finds himself alone among a gaggle of middle-aged women taking a break from their husbands who explain to him that small secrecies are an entirely normal and in fact essential element of a healthy relationship. Without them, their lives would not be possible.

It was a quest for self knowledge, however, which took him to Thailand. Ironically, he went “alone” but as part of a tour group, whereas Koharu took the opportunity to go to Australia and hunt gemstones entirely by herself only to be confronted by a sense of loneliness in wanting to turn to someone with whom to share the moment but finding no one there. In sync to a point, they are still not quite ready to act as one, Koharu confessing that it’s undoubtedly easier to do things on your own, laying bare the shyness that unpins her deceptively outgoing personality in her fear of the awkwardness that comes with shared intimacy. 

That intimacy is something Ryota craves but also fears. He’s afraid of getting attached, she’s afraid of getting bored. Ryota compares his fear of falling in love to the sense of emptiness one feels when a movie ends, or perhaps the act of enjoying a beautifully cooked steak but knowing that the meal will all too soon be over. Koharu points out that a never ending steak would be a hellish nightmare, implying that it’s better to just enjoy the steak until you’re full and then be thankful for a delicious meal. That’s something she too finds hard to accept, however, when she discovers that her dreams of a picture perfect family may be impossible to achieve. She pulls away, isolating herself, nobly trying to spare Ryota the pain of witnessing her suffering. An old lady (Hairi Katagiri) advises him to be foolish in love, make an uncharacteristically grand gesture. The future may not be quite the way you pictured it, but that’s no reason you can’t be happy with what you have while you have it. No one knows what may come. Savour the moment while the moment lasts, everything else is for another day.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Actor (俳優  亀岡拓次, Satoko Yokohama, 2016)

“There are no small parts, only small actors” according to the mantra of the bit part player, but perhaps deep down everyone wants to play the lead. Most jobbing actors will tell you that they’re happy to be working and if you work as much the dejected hero of Satoko Yokohama’s The Actor (俳優  亀岡拓次, Haiyu Kameoka Takuji), you can make a pretty decent living with a little more job security than a big name star whose career will inevitably hit the odd dry spell. Yet, who doesn’t want to at least feel that they’re the lead in their own life story? Spending all your time being other people can make you lose sight of who you really are and live your life with a sense of cinematic romanticism forever at odds with accepted reality. 

Takuji Kameoka (Ken Yasuda) is a classic background actor, turning up in small roles in TV dramas, often playing the villain of the week or appearing as a prominent extra. Meanwhile, his offscreen life seems to be lived in a booze-soaked haze, hanging out in his favourite bar surrounded by similarly dejected middle-aged men or occasionally meeting up with colleagues. Even his agent expects him to be sozzled when she rings to confirm new jobs though to be fair she doesn’t seem too bothered about it. 

Kameoka has perhaps made his peace with the kind of actor he is, but there’s also an inbuilt anxiety in waiting for people to ask what it is he does, knowing that it sounds glamorous and exciting when, to him at least, it’s anything but. Chatting with a pretty young woman, Azumi (Kumiko Aso), working behind a bar in a small town where he’s filming, Kameoka spins her a yarn about being a bowling ball salesman rather than be forced into a conversation about the life of a jobbing actor which might perhaps depress him more. Alone in the bar, the pair of them strike up a rapport over shared sake, but Kameoka forgets that in essence she’s just the same as him – acting, performing her role as the cheerful hostess, keeping him happy to sell more drinks. Later, she tells him that she’s switching roles, “recasting” herself as a good wife and mother, pointing again towards the unavoidable performative quality of conforming to socially defined labels such as “wife”, “mother”, “landlady”, “actor” or “man”. 

Everyone is, to some degree, acting, forced to perform a role in which they may privately feel miscast but are unable to reject. Kameoka is losing sight of who he is and so his life begins to feel increasingly like a movie, obeying narrative logic rather than that of “reality” while he often drifts off into flights of fancy in which he gets to play not the lead but a slightly bigger supporting part, recasts himself as the star of a favourite film, or finds himself momentarily in a film noir. Real or imagined, his directors have nothing but praise for him to the degree that it somehow feels ironic. He’s brought in to show the rookie leads how it’s done, an accidental master at dropping dead on camera, but as the landlady at his local says of another actor on TV, he just doesn’t have that leading man sparkle. Of course, not having that kind of presence is perfect for being a background player but a great shame when he has the talent to succeed, just without the burden of “star quality”. 

Then again, his talent is uncertain. Despite telling his agent that he doesn’t do stage, he agrees to work with a famous actress/director on an avant-garde theatre piece. Though she’s much harder on the young female star, Matsumura (Yoshiko Mita) rarely compliments his acting and eventually advises him that he’s unsuited to stage work because he has “film timing”. Privately, he might agree, but a job’s a job. Ironically enough, the performance that Matsumura failed to bring out in him is vividly brought to life during a very weird audition for a Spanish director who happens to be one of Kameoka’s favourites. He inhabits the role so strongly as to completely become it to the extent that its world rises all around him, but all too soon the audition is over with a simple “that’s great, thank you – we’ll be in touch”. Kameoka even suffers the indignity of crawling under the frozen shutters to exit the building while the next hopeful, a top TV actor he worked with on a previous job, makes his way inside. 

The woman in Kameoka’s audition fantasy is clearly Azumi, something that becomes clearer to him still during another flight of fancy that recasts him as a romantic hero making the grand gesture of a rain soaked dash, motorcycle filmed against rear projection, as he prepares for the inevitable “happy ending”. Reality, however, triumphs once again. Lovelorn, Kameoka declares himself lonely and indeed is always alone, not one of the “main cast” just a “bit player” hanging round until his scene and then moving on to the next project. He waves at women who weren’t waving at him, sympathises with a failed singer turned bar hostess, and celebrates the unexpected marriage of a friend but in a strange sense perhaps misses “himself”, gradually eclipsed by all the roles he plays onscreen and off. “Who are you?”, the Spanish director’s interpreter asks. “Takuji Kameoka, Japanese Actor”, is as good an answer as any. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sea of Revival (凪待ち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2019)

“One bad thing leads to another” according to overprotective mother Ayumi (Naomi Nishida) in Kazuya Shirashi’s Sea of Revival (凪待ち, Nagi Machi). She’s not wrong, but breaking the chain proves harder than expected, especially as trouble has a way of following people around and the one thing you can never outrun is yourself. Yet, what might save you in the end is not so much self acceptance as that of others and finding your place along with a sense of belonging as member of a family in the knowledge they have chosen you as one of their own. 

Ikuo (Shingo Katori), the hero, certainly has plenty of demons he’s looking to leave behind. A devotee of the bicycle races, he’s just been laid off from his factory job and is preparing to move to his girlfriend Ayumi’s hometown where she plans to open a hairdressers and care for her ageing father Katsumi (Ken Yoshizawa) who has just been diagnosed with stage four cancer. Ayumi left rural Miyagi with her daughter, Minami (Yuri Tsunematsu) whose name is written with the characters for beautiful waves, after the tsunami which devastated the area and took her mother’s life. She hopes that it can be a new start for their family and that Ikuo will finally be able to shape up, knock his gambling habit on the head and ease back on the drinking. 

Things get off to a bad start, however, when Ikuo fails to bond with Katsumi who largely ignores him, while he discovers that Ishinomaki is much more conservative than Kawasaki and not everyone seems to approve of his liminal status in the Konno household. The fact remains that Ayumi and Ikuo, though they’ve been living together for five years, are not legally married and therefore in the eyes of some not a proper family, and more to the point Ikuo is an outsider with relatively little to recommend him. He does however try to make good on his promise, impressing the boss at a printshop where an overly helpful family friend, Onodera (Lily Franky), has found him a job, but quickly succumbs to old habits when a pair of ne’er-do-well colleagues introduce him to an illegal bicycle racing betting club run by local yakuza. 

Matters come to a head when Minami gets fed up with her mother’s overprotective conservatism and decides to pay her back by staying out late with new friends Ayumi doesn’t approve of. Flagging up their differing parenting styles, Ikuo tells Ayumi that she’s overreacting and should be happy for her daughter who is finally living something like a normal teenage life rather than shutting herself up in her room playing games like she did in Kawasaki where the other kids made her life a misery, calling her a “radioactive” transfer student from Fukushima. Ayumi fires back that Ikuo obviously isn’t very invested in Minami because, after all, he’s not her real dad and has no idea what family is. An extraordinarily hurtful thing to say in any circumstances, Ayumi’s words strike a nerve as Ikuo struggles to claim his place as a non-husband who has nevertheless become a father figure but is not recognised as a legitimate member of the family. 

Claim his place he does however when tragedy strikes, rushing into a police cordon shouting “I’m family” but being held back by the forces of social order while Minami cleverly evades them to see something no one should ever have to see. Old Katsumi meanwhile, apparently much like Ikuo in his youth, a fiery scrapper with a self-destructive streak, struggles to accept his failure either to save his wife or die by her side. Recognising something of himself in the younger man, he finally warms up to Ikuo, literally “redeeming” him from vengeful yakuza, offering only the explanation that he does so because “he’s my son”. 

Others such as the weirdly ever present Onodera may think it proper that Ikuo leave the Konno household because he has no more reason to be there, that his presence is now even more inappropriate than it was before. Minami is advised to move in with her birth father (Takuma Otoo) despite the fact Ayumi described him as abusive and that he has remarried and is currently expecting another child. Ikuo’s five years as her father count for nothing, because he was not married to her mother. During the car journey to their new home, Minami had playfully suggested to Ikuo that he should propose but he claimed he had no right to do so as an irresponsible man unable to contribute meaningfully to the household. Ayumi dreamed of the sea and of beautiful Caribbean islands to which Ikuo had promised but failed to take her. She ironically hoped to rebuild their lives in the ruined landscape of Ishinomaki where they’ve put up walls so tall you can no longer see the sea, still beautiful despite all its terrible ferocity. 

“A good wife makes a decent man” Ayumi’s ex bitterly fires back at her though others have found it to be true, Katsumi not least among them, but Ikuo’s problem is an internalised sense of masculine failure which keeps him on the edges of a family which is otherwise his by right. In a strange way, a piece of paper can make all the difference and no difference at all, both legitimate and not, in making it plain who is and is not accepted as “family”. Accepted by others, Ikuo learns to accept himself, still burdened by guilt and regret but also bound by it as he joins his chosen family on new a journey powered by those same beautiful yet destructive forces which have engendered so much grief and hope.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Little Nights, Little Love (アイネクライネナハトムジーク, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

What is love? Is it an accident, cosmic destiny, or something that finally you have to choose? The romantically inclined hero of Little Nights, Little Love (アイネクライネナハトムジーク, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) is convinced that romance is something that happens to you at an unexpected moment, but his friends worry that he’s letting life pass him by because of his bashful passivity. While the city is gripped by the upcoming world heavyweight boxing championship which might finally result in a Japanese underdog raising the belt, its citizens gain the courage to fight for love, but discover that love is less victory than mutual concession. 

Sato (Haruma Miura), a hopelessly romantic salaryman, is forced to stand outside the station in the centre of Sendai conducting public surveys to make up the data that was lost when he accidentally spilt coffee on his colleague’s computer. Naturally shy, he’s not an ideal fit for the job but serendipitously bonds with a young woman, Saki (Mikako Tabe), when they are both captivated by the soulful song of a street musician. She agrees to fill in his form, and he notices she has “shampoo” written on her hand. He thinks it might be a sign, but she’s gone before he can do much about it. 

Sato’s college buddies Yumi (Erika Mori) and Kazuma (Yuma Yamoto), married young in a shotgun wedding but seemingly blissfully happy and parents to two adorable children, are quick to tell him that his romantic desire for serendipitous love is just thinly veiled cowardice and his essential passivity, refusing to put himself out there, is the reason he’ll end up alone. Meanwhile, Yumi is also trying to support her longterm single sister, Minako (Shihori Kanjiya), who is in a strange “relationship” with the younger brother of a client at her hairdressing salon. Despite talking regularly on the phone, he seems reluctant to meet because his job keeps him very busy which leaves her feeling confused and suspicious. 

Yumi and Kazuma think they ended up together out of necessity, but that necessity was in its own way chance. Secretly, Kazuma might wonder what might have happened if he’d been careless with some other girl, but has come to the conclusion that he’s glad it was Yumi and not someone else. Sato’s colleague Fujima (Taizo Harada), meanwhile, thought he had a cheerily romantic origin story for his relationship – a classic dropped wallet meet cute of the kind Kazuma insisted only happens in the movies, but now nearing 40 his wife has left him and the failure of his marriage has provoked a nervous breakdown. Sato asks him if he’s still glad it was his wife who dropped her wallet and not someone else, and if she’s glad that it was him who picked it up. Not only can he not quite answer, he doesn’t quite want to know. 

Meanwhile, Minako discovers that her diffident lover has decided to stake his romantic future on the championship match, that if the Japanese challenger wins he’ll finally have the courage to speak his heart. Minako is angry and disappointed, infuriated that he has so little courage that he has to vicariously channel the power of someone else to confess his feelings, but is as glued to the match as everyone else. 10 years on, the same thing happens again. Yumi and Kazuma’s daughter, Mio (Yuri Tsunematsu), is now a rebellious teen fed up with her father’s perpetually easygoing attitude and infuriated by a school friend, Kurume (Riku Hagiwara), who also pins his romantic hopes on the boxing match while inwardly resenting his overly spineless father (Yurei Yanagi) for becoming a mere cog in the great machine of capitalism. His refreshingly honest mother (Mari Hamada), however, reminds him that everyone thinks that when they’re 17 but really there’s no life without compromise and cogs at least have their place in keeping the wheels turning. Kurume finds this out by chance when his dad is able to save him from a sticky situation using classically meek, salaryman-style strategy. 

Perhaps what Kurume resents is the sense of impending powerlessness that comes of being a teenager squaring off against the salaryman straightjacket even if he’s still too diffident to put up much resistance. Meanwhile, the reverse is also true. The youngsters bond while staking out a bicycle parking garage to look for a thief who stole Mio’s 60 yen parking sticker and put it on his own bike, leaving her with the fine. They discover it’s an old man who wastes no time in yelling at the young whippersnappers while kicking off against his sense of impotence by gaming the system over a measly 60 yen he could have easily paid. The same thing happens again at Mio’s part-time job where a horrible old man decides to take out his frustrations with his place in the world on an innocent teenage girl. 

10 years earlier, Sato had saved a boy with hearing problems from being beaten up by bullying classmates, giving him new strength by introducing him to Japan’s boxing champ. The inevitable, however, happens, and even champion boxers have feet of clay. Things don’t always go to plan, or perhaps they do but that only makes you wonder if you’re really on the right path or merely settling for that of least resistance. The street singer’s song asks if you’re happy where you’ve ended up or if you still want more than ordinary happiness. Sato, still diffident, has to admit that perhaps he isn’t sure, while Saki does something much the same in wondering if they’re only still together out of habit and a misplaced belief in the narrative destiny of their serendipitous meeting. Another championship match sees them all ready for the fight once again, encouraged by the embattled boxer’s refusal to give-up on his fighting dreams, but perhaps still waiting for a “sign”. What Sato learns, however, is that they don’t always arrive quite as serendipitously as one might might think. “It builds up” Fujima warns him, waking up to the fact that his wife likely left him after years of small microagressions that killed their love through taking it for granted. But love can build up too, if only you build up the courage to fight for it with a willingness to be honest with your feelings, and what’s life if not lots of little nights filled with lots of little love, no grand romance but maybe not so bad after all. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The song – Chiisana Yoru by Kazuyoshi Saito