Kyoshin (共振, Keiichi Higuchi, 2021)

In modern society we often criticise others, but not always ourselves, for a perceived lack of empathy but what would it be like to truly empathise with everyone, all of the time, with no control over our own feelings? The hero of Keiichi Higuchi’s psychological drama Kyoshin (共振) finds himself with just this problem after a traumatic incident leaves him with both intense PTSD and the unwelcome side effect of being forced to feel the pain of others as his own. 

26-year-old Takehiko (Akihiro Yamamoto) thought of himself as perhaps a little over sensitive, feeling obvious discomfort sat opposite two salarymen arguing loudly in a crowded restaurant while also somewhat disconnected from his partner in a moment of supposed intimacy. It’s one evening on the beach, however, when everything goes into overdrive. Spotting two guys manhandling a screaming woman into a van he and his friend Gin (Keisuke Sohma) intervene but aren’t much of a match for two the young thugs and find themselves tied up and stunned in the back while the woman is forced to provide oral sex to the driver. Taking advantage of a momentary lapse from the other man who was busy interrogating Gin and Takehiko, the woman takes drastic action of her own in a bid to escape. Gin tries to help her, but seeing what’s befallen the driver Takehiko is plunged into fugue state able to do nothing other than scream in pain as if it were he that had suffered the catastrophic injury. 

A year on, Takehiko is a broken shell of a man unable to venture outside owing to the intense assault of other people’s pain. Ignoring calls from Gin, he’s cared for by his older brother Yuya (Daichi Yamaguchi) who ferries him to various doctor’s appointments, jeopardising his own employment in the process. Sick of medical professionals unwilling to admit they don’t know how to help him and obsessed with the curse of 27, Takehiko decides he’ll take his own life if there’s no improvement in his condition by his next birthday but then discovers potential salvation in an experimental programme run by a lesbian couple in which he will receive treatment from a woman who once experienced something very similar to himself but claims to have learned to live with it. 

The irony is that Takehiko’s condition is caused by extreme empathy in that he cannot avoid feeling other people’s physical pain as his own, yet he continues to treat those around him badly blind to the emotional toll caring for him is taking on them. His brother, feeling a parental responsibility as their parents passed away young, drops everything to help him but his boorish boss, ironically, has a fundamental lack of empathy. Annoyed that Yuya takes so much time off, he openly mocks him making the rather irrelevant point that Takehiko is 26 not six and therefore shouldn’t need so much care virtually accusing him of mollycoddling as if the problem were Yuya’s anxiety rather than his brother’s precarious mental health. 

Yet the experimental programme Takehiko finds himself involved with raises its own collection of ethical questions as the psychiatrist pushes him into a series of erotic situations arguing that if he learns to empathise across the emotional spectrum to experience other people’s pleasure as well as their pain he’ll be able to turn it off much more easily or at least flatten it out. She implies that similar therapies are what has enabled her to live a relatively normal life, but fails to disclose that she is also carrying a similar trauma which the treatment ironically recalls while largely failing to deal with the obvious possibility of transference in the potentially inappropriate lack of boundaries between patient and doctor. 

It might not be appropriate to ask how much empathy is too much empathy, but Takehiko’s path to recovery ironically enough lies only in secondary shock and a brush with death that allows him to reconnect with his friend Gin, suffering alone in their shared trauma, while empathising emotionally with his brother’s obvious care for him. It isn’t so much that Takehiko needs to disengage with those around him, but learn how to process effectively so that he can better help and understand rather solipsistically internalising external suffering. Shot with a sense of uneasy eeriness and a sci-fi twist in the manifestation of Takehiko’s descent into an oppressive empathy bubble, Higuchi’s provocative drama advocates for caring a little more about the pain of others but not so much that it stops you seeing where it hurts. 


Kyoshin streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

Crime does not pay for a series of conspirators at the centre of Nobuo Nakagawa’s supernaturally-inflected historical tale, The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo). As the title implies, Nakagawa’s ominous jidaigeki is inspired by a historical legend in which a retainer supposedly attempted to assassinate the shogun through the rather elaborate device of a mechanical ceiling designed to crush him as he slept. In actuality no such thing took place, the shogun changed his route and subsequent investigations of Utsunomiya Castle found no sign of a false ceiling, yet the story took on a life of its own as local folklore. 

In this version of the tale, conspirators Councillor Kawamura (Ureo Egawa) and local yakuza Kagiya (Masao Mishima) are conspiring to depose Tokugawa Iemitsu (Yoichi Numata) in favour of his brother, manipulating Lord Honda (Shuntaro Emi) of Utsunomiya Castle by convincing him that his clan will prosper when the other retainers fall in behind the new shogun. The pair have arranged for nine talented craftsmen to be shut up in the castle to install “the mechanism” in time for the arrival of the shogun who is due to stay at the castle on his way to Nikko. Meanwhile, Kawamura is also intent on sleeping with the daughter of head carpenter Toemon (Yoji Misaki), Ofuji (Konomi Fuji), whom chief minion Tenzen (Tetsuro Tamba) is supposed to kidnap once the workmen have gone into isolation in the castle. Righteous samurai Ryutaro (Hiroshi Ogasawara) however, an undercover shogunate bodyguard, begins to disrupt their plan saving Ofuji while bonding with a friendly bar hostess, Onobu (Sachiko Toyama), and secret princess forest woman Oshino (Akemi Tsukushi). 

The plot represents in itself a malfunctioning of the feudal order in the essential weakness of Lord Honda, the ambition of his underling Kawamura, and the cruel greed of Kagiya. As the two men conspire, Kagiya jokingly laments that he isn’t a samurai while Kawamura reminds him that if the plan comes off he’ll be fantastically rich. Kagiya, a yakuza who sends his thugs to extort protection money from the local market, is representation of the threat of the rising merchant class whose financial power presents a challenge to the authority of the samurai. Toemon, meanwhile, a master craftsman, is manipulated into participating in the plan because he is in debt to Kagiya, later promised that he too will be “promoted” in being given permission to carry a sword little knowing that Kawamura and Kagiya not only plan to kidnap and rape his daughter but never intend to allow any of the craftsmen to live because they simply know too much. 

The Ceiling at Utsunomiya is not a ghost story in the manner for which Nakagawa is best known but it certainly plays like one, Kagiya eventually haunted by the figure of a betrayed Toemon which in turn leads him to a self-destructive attack on Tenzen and his eventual demise collapsed over his ill-gotten gains, a koban falling from his hand. Greed and violence will only repay in the same, the weak-willed Lord getting his comeuppance from the ever confident shogun even if he himself coolly stands back while others risk their lives to protect him. Even so, the eventual operation of “the mechanism” is intensely startling, the ceiling abruptly collapsing with alarming ferocity though one wonders what the advantage is in such an expensive, elaborate contraption aside from its ironic symbolism when the point of a sword will do. 

Then again, the heroic Ryutaro is almost assassinated while crossing a river via zip wire later fished out of the river by sullen forest woman Oshino, first encountered hunting birds with darts but later revealed to be the illegitimate child of samurai parents who fell foul of political intrigue. In a sense this revelation emphasises the restoration of the political order, Ryutaro permitted to fall in love with Oshino because they are of the same social class, while the romance between Ofuji and craftsman Yoshichi (Kotaro Sugiyama) also comes to fruition eliding the minor class difference between them in allowing the boss’ protege to marry the now orphaned daughter. Onobu meanwhile pays heavy price for her misplaced love for Ryutaro, denied romantic fulfilment in her liminal existence as a bar hostess. In any case, the corruption is exorcised and the normal order resumes reinforcing the hierarchical shogunate society with each of the players back in their rightful positions and possessing new hope for the future as Ryutaro and the shogun continue their tour while their former comrades kneel at the roadside. 


Pickles and Komian Club (丸八やたら漬け, Koichi Sato, 2021)

For years the Komian Club had been a familial haunt for visitors to the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival becoming almost an artificial hub where filmmakers and spectators could meet on equal terms. However, the 135-year-old family-run pickle store was left with little choice other than to close given the decline in demand for pickles among younger consumers and the additional strains placed on their business by the conoravirus pandemic. 

Pickles and Komian Club (丸八やたら漬け, Maruhachi yatarazuke Komian) is as much about the film festival and the wider Yamagata community as it about the building at its centre. The loss of the store leaves many feeling quite literally displaced, not only lacking a new place to gather and mourning the atmosphere of the traditional building, but reflecting on the absence of these kinds of structures in the urban environment which places value only in the land on which new structures more profitable to the modern economy may be built. We’re told that the pickle store had been approved as an intangible cultural asset because of its luxurious interior, but this does not apparently provide much protection under Japanese property laws. The store’s owner Yoshinori mentions the possibilities of someone buying his storehouse and moving it to a new location preserving all of its period features but is eventually forced to sell to developers who plan to knock it down to build build yet another generic apartment block. 

As he explains, in Japan property depreciates over time and the value that it has is essentially sentimental rather than financial. Few people are interested in preserving these traditional buildings along with their classical architectural styles because there is no real financial incentive to do so. The best that can be done is to salvage what one can that could be re-used or incorporated in another structure such as the heavy wooden beams and ornate friezes. Yoshinori sells one of his giant wooden pickling vats to an old friend who runs a traditional Japanese inn which is then repurposed as a bath. His friend worries what the decline of traditional culture might mean for his business, inns largely being the repository of the traditional in the modern society. But the repurposing of the vat which in essence turns something used for industry into something used for leisure is an example of one way to bring something of the past into the present finding new uses for old technology. 

While the pickle store could not be saved, other owners of similar properties have been able to breathe new life into old spaces, turning a small outside guesthouse into a cinema which the local community can enjoy or renting out part of the premises for local events taking full advantage of the calming atmosphere such traditional buildings can offer. Though as an architecture student later makes plain what’s needed is further action at the legislative level to ensure that older buildings are better protected and less likely to be torn down because of an economic imperative that has no interest in tangible history. Seeing the buildings stripped of their assets then roughly broken apart is a heartrending sight as is the giant empty space they leave behind robbing the area of its unique atmosphere in favour of the generically urban. 

One interviewee makes the point that in choosing to focus on documentary film the festival in a sense made an investment in its future by choosing the unique over the flashy, building a friendly atmosphere of openness and equality rather than the red carpets and VIP areas which can often define some other events. In a sense it’s this loss of traditional spaces which damages the fabric of the community in further distancing one person from another while robbing it of the architectural history that gives it its sense of place.  Even so the presence of the festival providing a place in which filmmakers and film lovers from all over the world can gather is a potent symbol of alternative community bolstering the local, while the young are also busying themselves finding new ways to incorporate the traditional into their modern lives or breathing life back into that which had been thought old-fashioned but might now be reappreciated for its quality of serenity in an ever changing society.


Pickles and Komian Club Storytellers streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)

Storytellers (うたうひと, Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Ko Sakai, 2013)

Many tend to forget the folktales and fables they were told when young or at least until they themselves have a child yet it’s often through mystical stories that we first begin to learn about the world and our place within it. Third in a series of documentaries by Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Ko Sakai focussing on the Tohoku region in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Storytellers (Utauhito) follows folklore scholar Kazuko Ono of Miyagi Minwa no Kai as she travels the local area visiting friends in order to hear the various stories they remember from their youth. 

Yet as she explains during a trademark Hamaguchi backseat monologue in a car he and co-director Sakai are driving, folktales may have different meanings and interpretations to different people and in different eras in their own particular context. As an example she cites the tale we’ve just heard recited by an elderly woman titled The Monkey’s Bride in which a farmer with three daughters unwisely promises a wife to a monkey who agrees to help him with his rice paddy. The first two daughters refuse, but the third agrees because her father made a promise only to trick the monkey, who has been nothing but kind to her, into drowning himself in a lake. As a child, Kazuko like many disliked the story feeling sorry for the monkey who had acted only with humanity and does not seem to warrant being killed in such an unkind fashion. But then she began to reconsider how her grandmother from whom she first heard it may have read the tale as a woman married off at 16 who constantly tried to run away and only wanted to escape cruel treatment at the home of her in-laws. To her the daughter in the story was brave, doing that which she could not in freeing herself from a forced marriage after being sold to pay her father’s debt. Looking deeper again she began to wonder if the monkey wasn’t also a metaphor for the rich landowners who oppressed peasant famers with only poor quality paddies who were often forced to sell off their daughters in return for financial assistance. 

Other stories meanwhile speak of the ingenuity of the poor, a little girl rewarded after responding to an ad promising vast riches for anyone who manages to bore the story-loving lord, she managing it quickly by making him repeat a lengthy nonsense phrase at regular intervals. A story apparently meant to encourage young couples to find “clever” ways of sorting out marital disputes similarly finds a husband returning from the city selling his wife’s lover whom she hastily shut in a water jar, getting one over on him and her, getting his hands on 10 ryo, and even getting the jar back too. Such stories tell us something about the world in which they took place, female adultery in this case not so much of problem able to be solved with some comedic shenanigans rather than the point of a sword, while we might equally find it an absurd way to deal with marital infidelity. Then again there are also a series of thematically similar stories cautioning against marginalised members of society who create problems in order to gain fame and fortune through solving them such as two bizarre tales of magical instruments which cause people’s bottoms to sing an absurd and annoying song which only the holder of the object can stop allowing them to leverage their new talents for unearned wealth and status. 

Even so it isn’t perhaps the tales that matter so much as their transmission, many of the elderly storytellers recalling memories of their grandmothers from whom they first heard how the shrimp got its curved back or of eagles who tried to fly to the edge of the ocean. Each of the storytelling sessions begins in ritualised fashion, Kazuko and the other party introducing themselves to each other though they have all been friends for years or sometimes decades and already know each other well. As in the story of the girl and the lord, we’re reminded that tales like these expect call and response, an exchange between the storyteller and the listener that transcends the story itself. A now elderly man recounts that he’d forgotten most of the tales his eccentric grandmother had told him before joining the folktale group in his 40s, but also advances that the stories she gave him were intended to foster a sense of wonder in the world along with a confidence and security that would allow him move freely through the darkness. A lesson in oral history in which these ancient tales are shared and retold before reaching new generations is perhaps a sign of hope that something has and will survive in the simple act of speaking and listening even as Kazuko explains that in order to hear the story she must also change herself so she too may keep moving forward . 


Storytellers streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Dear Pyongyang (Yang Yong-hi, 2006)

“Whether she accepts my ideas or not, I’m glad because she’s all grown up” the father of documentarian Yang Yong-hi insists implying perhaps that he has more respect for his daughter’s questioning nature than she had assumed he might. Deeply personal, Dear Pyongyang is Yang attempting to parse the disconnect between her loving parents’ lifelong faith in the Great Leader and her own upbringing in a much more open society which has encouraged her that she should be free to live her own life and make her own decisions rather than as her father would have it devote herself to a “fatherland” which remains unfamiliar to her. 

As the opening titles explain, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and fell under colonial rule until its independence was returned with the collapse of the Japanese empire at the end of the war only to be partitioned in 1948. During the colonial era, many Koreans had settled in Japan, divisions also emerging between them as those who supported the North chose to take North Korean nationality even if in reality from the south. Yang’s father was one such person, having grown up around ardent Marxists on Jeju Island. A member of pro-North organisation Chongryon, he devoted his life to activism campaigning for the rights of other Zainichi Koreans while proselytising for Kim Il-Sung thought. He even sent his three sons “back” to North Korea as part of a repatriation program in 1971 incorrectly believing that the North’s economy was improving, the nation would soon be reunified, and relations with Japan would become normalised. Had he known it would mean an almost permanent separation, he may have made a different choice. 

Six years old at the time and kept behind as the only daughter, Yang attended North Korean schools and was in a sense indoctrinated with North Korean propaganda yet she was also coming of age in Japan where she was free to listen to the Beatles and watch movies while it gradually became obvious to her that the place her brothers had been sent to was far from the paradise they’d been promised. She herself was able to meet with them in 1983 as part of a school trip but even then she was only permitted to see them for short periods of time agreed with North Korean authorities. Permitted to travel back and forth with some regularity she finds herself noting more each time how the images in her mind don’t line up, fixing her gaze on a incomplete tower construction long since abandoned as an ironic symbol of the North’s false prosperity. 

In actuality Yang cannot show much of this in her film for obvious reasons and in the time she spends with her brothers and their families, their lives seem comfortable enough save the odd power cut. Her young nephew has even benefitted from the CDs she used to send his father and is an accomplished piano player. Nevertheless, her mother Yon has been sending heat packs en masse to each of the brothers as well as other friends and relatives after receiving a letter telling her that one of the grandchildren had been suffering frostbite because of the extreme cold. Yon had always sent care packages to her children, so shocked on receiving the first photo of them from the North and noticing how much weight they’d lost that she tore it up rather than let their father see it, but boxes have increased significantly in size as the families grew and she became more aware of the reality of the situation in Pyongyang. Still she and her husband remain loyal to the Great Leader, unable to discern the level of cognitive dissonance in the evidence of their eyes and their faith in North Korean communism. 

It’s the disconnect that Yang can’t understand or forgive, finding it particularly galling that her parents have been supporting whole communities with their care packages but everyone attributes the largesse to the goodness of the Great Leader even though the packages wouldn’t be necessary if the system itself had not failed. Her ideological opposition to her father manifests itself in her desire to change her nationality though opting not for a Japanese passport but a South Korean one that would allow her to travel more easily if also ironically preventing her from visiting her brothers and extended family in the North. Finally he seems to relent, admitting that the “circumstances have changed” and he wants her to have more opportunities in her working life. In any case, even if she lived in the South she would be free to visit him in Japan in a way his sons are not, his exclusion of her from his instructions that his sons and grandchildren should devote their lives to the “fatherland” perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that she need not follow his path but should seek her own. Then again perhaps it’s also an acceptance that his life’s work has not turned out as he’d hoped and has in fact robbed him of the company of his children through literal and ideological divide. Even so this moment of compromise allows Yang to begin to bridge a division she thought unbreachable, able for the first time to see her father as just that, longing to hear his thoughts and have him listen to hers only to be immediately robbed of the opportunity. At times raw and filled with a sense of melancholy regret, Yang’s incredibly personal documentary is partly a treatise on the destructive effects of cognitive dissonance and blind faith, but also on the freedom to be found in mutual acceptance. 


Dear Pyongyang streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

US Trailer (Japanese & Korean with English subtitles)

The Cheese & The Worms (チーズとうじ虫, Haruyo Kato, 2005)

A series of quotidian observations of an ordinary life, Haruyo Kato’s moving personal documentary The Cheese & The Worms (チーズとうじ虫, Cheese to Ujimushi) sees the director returning to her hometown in order to spend time with her mother, Naomi, who is suffering with a terminal illness, and her elderly grandmother. Yet hers is not so much an exploration of sickness or old age as what it means to live in the shadow of death through the tiny moments of the everyday which ultimately construct a life as her mother tries to find joy in ordinariness and the director an acceptance of the abruptness with which a life can end. 

Kato structures her tale as a series of vignettes each preceded by a title card featuring two words joined by an ampersand until such time as her mother passes away at which a single word remains only later joined by others. She begins and ends with the sky, but otherwise captures the small moments of everyday life that might otherwise be forgotten such as her mother cooking, attempting to grow vegetables in the field behind her home or appreciating the cosmos flowers blooming near by. Poignantly they decide to plant more the following year though uncertain if Naomi will see them bloom. 

Meanwhile, Naomi uses her remaining time perfecting old hobbies such as learning to play the shamisen or painting in preparation for an exhibition alongside others from the retired teachers association. She spends time with her two young grandchildren and witnesses the birth of a third, the family coming together to celebrate grandma’s birthday. They do not talk very much about death save discussing Kato’s childhood trauma having lost her father young contributing to her sense of despair regarding her mother’s illness and declining health. We see her undergo various hospital treatments and gradually become weaker though trying to live as normal a life as possible. 

Kato asks her grandmother if she fears death but is told that once you reach a certain age it no longer frightens you, she hoping only that it be peaceful and as painless as possible for herself and those left behind. One of Naomi’s regrets had also been that in dying first she would be abandoning her elderly mother while grandma too struggles to accept the loss. Poignant pillow shots capture the anxieties of ageing in her scattered mobility aids and the false teeth sitting in a glass, or otherwise find her too trying her best to live while reflecting that Naomi at least got to see her four grandchildren and lived a full and happy life. On her death she had said she wanted to become dust of the cosmos, while grandma after thinking for a moment answered that she’d like to be the earth which is perhaps a touching metaphor for a life of a mother and a daughter. 

Yet the reality of Naomi’s death is echoed in its absences. Kato flipping through an old day planner as the number of appointments gradually declines before all of a sudden the pages are blank save for the boxes where her mother had penned in the days of the week, the book thereafter one of constant emptiness that reminds her of all the life left unlived in the terrible abruptness of its ending. She and her siblings later attend a sumo match in her mother’s place, reflecting that the camera flashes are like twinkling stars and wishing she could have come with them to see it. 

Kato and her grandmother rewatch the home videos she had shot of her mother, reflecting on lost moments and their own memories as they each try to find acceptance and accommodation with loss. At her funeral, Naomi’s youngest grandson had attempted to crawl over her body, too young to understand the meaning of death and bursting into tears at the adults’ reaction, a confused mixture of horror and bemusement as they gently lift him away. It’s in these small, forgettable moments that Kato eventually finds meaning in life a sense of everyday happiness now unburdened by fear or anxiety and existing only as fragmentary memories of warmth and humour and given in a sense a second life in their constant replay through the art of Kato’s gentle filmmaking. 


The Cheese & The Worms streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

A2 (Tatsuya Mori, 2001)

“Japanese society is definitely worse than it was five years ago” according to director Tatsuya Mori, returning to the subject of Aum Shinrikyo following his 1998 documentary A, “It is definitely warped.” In A2, he wonders if the legacy of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway has affected society in unexpected ways as its rage and fear is channeled in the wrong direction in its pathological hatred of the new religion sect without attempting to understand why the attack happened or why people continue to follow the cult’s teachings given its violent history. 

Five years on, Aum has rebranded as Aleph and distanced itself from the teachings of Shoko Asahara but is still holding out on coming up with a plan for compensating victims and their families while some members directly involved in the attack remain on the run (the final fugitive was apprehended only in 2012). The government has decreed that those who had no connection to the incident should be allowed their constitutionally guaranteed rights to practice their religion, but as Mori follows them the current members face constant harassment in the local communities in which they attempt to settle. As someone later puts it, there is no real solution, once Aum is rejected they have no option but to move on to another town where the same thing will happen again with no real progress made. 

Even so, in one particular community the locals become almost friendly to the Aum members they are also keeping under close and intensive surveillance. Though instructed not to interact with them, some residents explain that they personally would prefer to be on friendly terms, others jokingly even offering them food or alcohol over the fence and almost sorry to see them leave when their rental contract finally expires. Through their admittedly hostile interactions, they’ve come to accept the members of Aum as distinct from their association with the sarin gas attack and no longer harbour the same sense of fear they once held for the unknown quantity of the new religion organisation. 

On the other hand, the fear and anxiety which has become linked with Aum has been hijacked by right-wing nationalist groups seeking to manipulate it for their own gain as they step into the vacuum created by a lack of action with their own ideas for potential solutions to the Aum problem. Their solutions are not as extreme as one might assume, but advocate for Aum’s forced disbandment with no practical plans for how that might happen. As Aum members admit, as a new religion organisation they often attract those who are vulnerable and looking for solutions to their own mental anguish. Faced with the intense harassment they face in smaller communities, these members are often pushed towards taking their own lives while the press has sometimes also attempted to manipulate their image for personal gain one man claiming he was essentially abducted and taken to hospital on the grounds he seemed malnourished but was prevented from leaving after getting the OK from a doctor as the police had already issued a statement about him which the press had printed without verifying. 

The current Aum members frequently complain that they have been misrepresented by the press while Mori himself is on one occasion accused of being an Aum sympathiser when challenging potential inaccuracies or asking if those participating in anti-Aum activity might be better off trying to understand them instead. This seems to be the direction in which some of the protests have drifted, local societies putting up signs to encourage thse who might want to leave the organisation to reassure them that they will be reaccepted by mainstream society, that their friends and relatives with whom they have severed ties are waiting for their return. The members, however, are often so disconnected from “worldly” matters that they may not know what mainstream society is, Mori’s brief questioning of an official revealing that she is unable to recognise the names of even the biggest contemporary pop stars. “Ultimately harmony can’t be achieved, can it?” Mori asks somewhat rhetorically, worrying that the psychological strain placed on the followers not only in the austerity of their religion but their treatment by wider society cannot but lead to further damage while opinions on either side are unlikely to soften. 


A2 streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The New God (新しい神様, Yutaka Tsuchiya, 1999)

Yutaka Tsuchiya opens his 1999 shot on video personal doc The New God (新しい神様, Atarashii Kamisama) with a lengthy scene of performance art in which a young woman dressed in a suit explains why she was drawn to nationalist ideology while seemingly ignored by the other passersby in the street, a woman behind her even continuing to hand out flyers as she speaks. On the left himself, Tsuchiya was nevertheless struck by the raw emotion in the song of right-wing punk band Revolutionary Truth as performed by charismatic lead singer Karin Amamiya whom he eventually ended up marrying despite their conflicting views. 

In any case, it’s clear even from the film’s opening that Karin is becoming disillusioned with the version of nationalism to which she has hitherto ascribed, a feeling which is intensified after she is invited to visit North Korea in the company of a former member of the ultra-left organisation Japanese Red Army. During her time in Pyongyang, recording video diaries with Tsuchiya’s camera, she is extremely attracted to the quality of unity she sees as integral to the North Korean system while otherwise unable to process the simultaneous truth that oppression and unity are not synonymous. Children are not abused in North Korea she naively explains having been invited to tour a day care centre, reflecting on her own difficult childhood in which she experienced bullying so severe it has left her with lasting trauma which prevents her from fully connecting with the world. 

It is indeed this sense of dislocation that pushed her towards nationalism, taken in by the idea of nation as family while looking for a place to belong. To be fair to her and to her bandmate Itoh neither of them express particularly extreme views aside from their historical revisionism and their idea of nationalism seems to be inclusive rather than exclusive in which they have no particular problem with minorities or people who are not considered to be ethnic Japanese. In fact, they seem to subscribe more to a patriotic small-c conservatism in which hard work is regarded as a virtue which should always be rewarded in full. This is the reason they give for their views on the controversial Yasukuni shrine which houses the souls of those who died in war including those later convicted of war crimes, believing that the soldiers like everyone else “worked hard” during the war and their sacrifice shouldn’t be ignored. 

For his part, Tsuchiya listens patiently to their sometimes confused ideology while internally questioning his own as someone who identifies as left-wing progressive and believes that the war was wrong and the emperor system is responsible for the majority of ills in contemporary Japan. Yet as someone else puts it left and right are in themselves fairly meaningless labels as is the concept of nation. Karin gets on fairly well the guys from the Japanese Red Army but finds their impassioned speechifying off-putting while later disillusioned with her nationalist organisation after her speech about her experiences in North Korea fails to elicit much of a reaction from those she now decries as being part of a social club less interested in serious politics than getting together for drinks and chat. The issue for her is that these people don’t really care about Japan and aren’t sufficiently interested in changing society for the better. 

The implication is that Karin and Itoh were drawn towards nationalism because of their marginalisation, Karin mercilessly bullied and disconnected from her birth family, while Itoh later admits he became a nationalist to escape being a “nerd”. What Karin craves is the sense of extended family one might feel in a society such as she feels North Korea to be, the emperor a father figure of paternalistic feudalism. She feels herself to be worthless, admitting that she feels best when’s she’s needed and is attracted by the sense of purpose found in activism while politics is for her an escapist fantasy that allows her to evade the need for self-examination. The pair of them also feel a sense of ennui in a stagnant society, decrying their “boring” lives in insisting that “this suffocating peace” has endured too long as they direct their ire ironically enough towards capitalism and Japan’s geopolitical relations with America. 

Opposition to American imperialism unites both left and right, implying that they aren’t so different after all. Tsuchiya advances that the difference between them is that he thinks the emperor system is at fault, while Karin and Itoh feel it to be a solution. He doesn’t understand why they need to locate a sense of pride in something external like nationhood or emperor rather than learning to find it from within, while Karin seems to long for authoritarianism out of a lack of self-confidence essentially hoping to be freed from the burden of choice. Even so through spending so much time listening to each other the trio have discovered a sense of mutual understanding which does not require them to agree or even to share common ground though they do more than expected, becoming as Tsuchiya hopes a path to a better society in which such meaningless labels existing only to divide one person from another are no longer relevant. 


The New God streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)

Japan Academy Film Prize Announces Nominees for 45th Edition

The Japan Academy Film Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Oscars awarded by the Nippon Academy-sho Association of industry professionals, has announced the candidate list for its 45th edition which honours films released Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2021 that played in a Tokyo cinema at least three times a day for more than two weeks. This year’s big contender is Kazuya Shiraishi’s Last of the Wolves which picks up 13 nominations across 12 categories, while Takahisa Zeze’s In the Wake trails closely behind with 12, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s international festival hit Drive My Car comes in with eight.The awards ceremony hosted by last year’s Best Actress winner Masami Nagasawa and TV presenter Shinichi Hatori will take place at Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa International Convention Center Pamir on 11th March.

Picture of the Year

Animation of the Year

Director of the Year

Screenplay of the Year

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

  • Yuki Amami (What Happened to Our Nest Egg!?)
  • Kasumi Arimura (We Made a Beautiful Bouquet)
  • Mei Nagano (And, the Baton Was Passed)
  • Mayu Matsuoka (Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction)
  • Sayuri Yoshinaga (A Morning of Farewell)

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Satomi Ishihara (And, the Baton Was Passed)
  • Kaya Kiyohara (In the Wake)
  • Mitsuko Kusabue (What Happened to Our Nest Egg!?)
  • Nanase Nishino (Last of the Wolves)
  • Suzu Hirose (A Morning of Farewell)

Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography

Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Direction

Outstanding Achievement in Music

  • Taisei Iwasaki & Ludvig Forssell & Yuta Bandoh (Belle)
  • Taro Iwashiro (It’s a Flickering Life)
  • Otomo Yoshihide (We Made a Beautiful Bouquet)
  • Takatsugu Muramatsu (In the Wake)
  • Goro Yasukawa (A Morning of Farewell)
  • Goro Yasukawa (Last of the Wolves)

Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction

  • Tsutomu Imamura (Last of the Wolves)
  • Takashi Nishimura (It’s a Flickering Life)
  • Tetsuo Harada (Baragaki: Unbroken Samurai)
  • Katsuhiro Fukuzawa (A Morning of Farewell)
  • Fumiko Matsuo (In the Wake)

Outstanding Achievement in Sound Recording

  • Kadoaki Izuta (recordist) & Miki Nomura (re-recording mixer) (Drive My Car)
  • Tomoharu Urata (Last of the Wolves)
  • Shinya Takada (In the Wake)
  • Shota Nagamura (It’s a Flickering Life)
  • Kenichi Fujimoto (A Morning of Farewell)

Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing

  • Kazuhide Ishijima (It’s a Flickering Life)
  • Hideaki Ohata (A Morning of Farewell)
  • Hitomi Kato (Last of the Wolves)
  • Ryo Hayano (In the Wake)
  • Azusa Yamazaki (Drive My Car)

Outstanding Foreign Language Film

  • Tailor
  • Nomadland
  • Minari
  • No Time to Die
  • Dune

Newcomer of the Year 

Special Award from the Association

(Lifetime achievement awards)

  • Kyoko Obayashi (producer)
  • Toshiyuki Sasatake (artwork type designer)
  • Sadao Tsukioka (animator)

Award for Distinguished Service from the Chairman

(Lifetime achievement awards for contribution to the film industry)

  • Mitsuko Kusabue (actress)
  • Natsuko Toda (subtitler)
  • Teruyo Nogami (production manager for Akira Kurosawa)
  • Masako Nozawa (voice actress)
  • Hanae Mori (costume design)
  • Tsutomu Yamazaki (actor)

Special Award from the Chairman

(Lifetime achievement award presented to members of the film industry who passed away during 2021)

  • Yasuo Otsuka (animator)
  • Masato Hara (producer)
  • Kunie Tanaka (actor)
  • Sonny Chiba (actor)
  • Shinichiro Sawai (director & screenwriter)
  • Tan Takaiwa (producer, former president of Toei Animation)
  • Emi Wada (costume design)

Shigeru Okada Prize

  • Kyoto Animation
  • Toei Animation

Source: Japan Academy Prize official websiteEiga Natalie

The Weald (杣人物語, Naomi Kawase, 1997)

@KUMIE Inc.

“I wish I were younger” comes a common refrain among the cast of elderly men and women living a traditional life in the mountains and forests of rural Japan in Naomi Kawase’s 1997 documentary, The Weald. Arriving in the same year as Kawase’s Caméra d’Or-winning narrative feature Suzaku, The Weald (杣人物語, Somaudo Monogatari) continues many of the same themes in her fascination with nature and moribund ways of life while taking on a meta existential dimension as her interviewees muse on loss, loneliness, and a lifetime’s regrets. 

What they almost all say is that they wish they could be young again with all the possibilities of youth. A lumberjack dreams of becoming a timber dealer, while another man jokes that he was once handsome though you wouldn’t know it now. One heartbreakingly laments that he’d like to start over because he’s never felt true happiness in his life. Then again, another believes that “happiness depends on your way of thinking” and that a man who’s learned to be satisfied with a small portion is in his own way rich. For another man happiness lies in having people speak well of him after he’s gone, knowing he must then have lived a good life. 

Then again life has its sadnesses. A carpenter reveals his private grief in having lost a son, unable even to watch his daughter’s wedding video because it’s too painful to see him there. “In a city he wouldn’t have had a motorbike” he sighs, reflecting that he was unlucky to have been born in the country and needlessly blaming himself for something not in his control. The last man, meanwhile, speaks movingly of his late mother’s descent into dementia and his own decision to give up on marriage while still young to dedicate himself to her, only to be left on his own in the end. He wonders if he was right to sacrifice his life for her while longing to be reborn in the hope of seeing his former girlfriend, his face dissolving into an old photograph in which he is young and handsome as if to grant his wish. 

Meanwhile, an old lady meditates on loneliness in a solo life of busyness firstly claiming to feel none but then revealing the emptiness of her days with no one to cook for. “I don’t know the meaning of life, I just live day to day” she explains, insisting that it’s pointless to worry and better just to get on with things. “I am satisfied to live each day peacefully” she adds, immersing herself in the moment. She like the others is uncertain why Kawase is filming her, telling her to come back later when she’s 18 again because old people are no fun. Another man later tells her not to waste her expensive film on him in case she needs it for something more important, the elderly residents either maudlin or amused but each mystified as to why someone is so keen to listen to their stories.  

Implicitly in these stories of the elderly, Kawase hints at the effects of continuing rural depopulation with fewer young people around, an elderly couple explaining that they have come to depend on each other even more as they aged only for the wife to fall ill and need care from her husband 14 years older but in better health. They go about their lives in the same way they have for decades, wandering the forests and practicing traditional skills which may all too soon be lost. 

In keeping with her earlier documentary work, Kawase often films in extreme close up or layers dialogue on top of another scene as when old lady wanders aimlessly trough the forest while her meditations on loneliness accompany her. What she seems to have discovered in the wisdom of those who agreed to speak to her is that happiness and suffering go hand in hand while youthful regret tinged with nostalgia can in itself almost be lonely. Even so many have managed to find meaning in their lives whether it be being present in nature or the love for one’s spouse and family while longing to be reborn eager for their next lives whatever they will be. “I wish only the best for everyone” someone adds before returning at last to spring and all the brief joys it will deliver. 


The Weald streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)