Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート, Michael Arias, 2006)

A pair of orphaned street kids attempt to defend backstreet life from the ravages of progress in Michael Arias’ adaptation of the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート). Though the manga was first published in the early ‘90s which is to say at the beginning of the post-Bubble era, the film looks back to a scrappy post-war Japan embodied by the moribund Treasure Town, once a lively city filled with the promise its name implies but now according to some a lawless slum ruled over by the “Cats” and contested by yakuza determined to turn it into another “Kids Kastle” theme park. 

There is something particularly ironic in the desire to turn Treasure Town, a literal playground for orphans Black (Kazunari Ninomiya) and White (Yu Aoi) collectively known as the Cats, into a walled city taking something that should be free and charging for it while displacing the street kids who live there so that those whose parents can pay can be given a temporary illusion of freedom. To Black, this is his city and he will defend it along with protecting White who has an otherworldly simplicity and makes radio calls to the universe reporting that he has preserved peace on Earth for another day. In a way he has because it becomes clear that the two boys are a two halves of one whole maintaining balance and keeping each other in check. Innocent and naive beyond his years White cannot survive alone, but without White, Black would have nothing to live for. His inner darkness would become all consuming and present a threat to all those who cross his path. 

In a piece of poignant symbolism, White attempts to grow an apple tree by planting a seed in the junk yard where they live but is disappointed that it does not seem to sprout little realising that it cannot grow where it is planted because the conditions are adverse to its development. The same might be said of he and Black who have been abandoned by their society and are cared for only by a wise old man who gives them occasional advice. Their only desire to is protect their town in a bid to avoid yet another displacement this time at the hands of corporatised yakuza who see Treasure Town only as a relic of a previous era sitting on valuable land which must be seized and monetised. Only old school gangster Rat ironically enough agrees with the Cats, confused by the desire to erase community and history riding roughshod over the feelings of all those who have ever called Treasure Town home. 

Rat’s battleground is located in the soul of his protege, Kimura (Yusuke Iseya), who first says that he doesn’t believe in anything only for Rat to tell him that he should at least believe in love. Seduced by the consumerist promises of the duplicitous Snake (Masahiro Motoki) and his giant alien minions, Kimura nevertheless comes around to Rat’s way of thinking on learning that he will soon be a father. Like Black and White, he dreams of escaping Treasure Town for a house by the sea where he could live a peaceful life with his child but is trapped by contrary codes of gangsterdom if even if eventually realising that the two things he believes in are truth and love neither of which are very important to Mr. Snake. Black meanwhile is torn between his inner darkness and his belief in White, caught between nihilistic violence and the desire to plant a seed and watch it grow even on shaky ground. 

Designed by Shinji Kimura, the backstreets of Treasure Town are a Showa-era paradise perhaps stuck in the past in the view from early Heisei but embodying a scrappy sense of possibility. It has an uncanny reality as an organic space built and lived in by human hands that is at an odds with the slick uniformity of the gangster developers who want to turn it into a children’s theme park, the very embodiment of a constructed paradise that will halt the natural growth that Rat describes in reminding Black that Treasure Town will never be what it was but will continue on with or without them. Bringing this place fully to life, Arias’ surprising, inventive direction gives full vent to the anarchy of the source material but is in the end about the heart of a place along with the bond between its two protectors keeping the peace through complementary balance.


Tekkonkinkreet screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 16 as part of the Monthly Anime series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Goodbye, Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ!, Atsuko Ishizuka, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A diffident high schooler finds a new sense of confidence after a poignant summer adventure in Atsuko Ishizuka’s heartfelt coming-of-age anime, Goodbye, Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ!). In many ways about finding direction in life, learning to live with grief, and making the moment count, the film is also a paean to male friendship as the trio at its centre develop new senses of security through mutual support while beginning to figure out what treasure it is they’re seeking in the further course of their lives. 

For Roma (Natsuki Hanae), a farm boy largely rejected by the other kids in the village, this summer is a little different. Not only is it his first as a high schooler, it’s also the first since his best and only friend Toto (Yuki Kaji) moved to Tokyo for high school and despite their previously close relationship it’s clear there’s a minor awkwardness in the distance that’s arisen between them since they’ve been apart while Roma has also added a third boy, Drop (Ayumu Murase), to their secret Don Glees friendship group. Now that he’s been living in the city, Toto finds the whole Don Glees thing childish and decidedly uncool while Roma is obviously keen to hang on to their shared history and childhood friendship. 

Their dilemmas may seem opposed but are in actuality very similar. Toto resents Roma for not having the courage to come with him to study in Tokyo where there are more academic high schools, choosing instead the safe option of attending a vocational school with a focus on agricultural education implying that he plans to stay in his hometown and take over the family farm. It isn’t immediately clear if it’s because this is what he wants to do with his life or if he is simply too afraid to strike out and try something different. Roma does indeed seem to lack confidence often remarking that he feels he’s not enough in some way or doesn’t have the right to chase after the things he wants. Unable to face his inability to tell his middle school crush Tivoli, who has since travelled to Ireland to study abroad, how he feels he ends up deleting his Instagram account to avoid being confronted with pictures of her exciting international life. Toto meanwhile is stressed out by his cram school lifestyle and newly uncertain in his decision making realising that he’s just been following the path his parents set out for him and wondering if he really wants to become a doctor after all. 

The mysterious Drop makes constant suggestions that he can’t really afford to think about the future and is living intensely in the moment. He is insistent on finding some kind of treasure, afraid of ending his life without resolving this one mystery and keen to ask both boys what it is they’d regret if the world were to end tomorrow. The quest takes on literal dimensions when the boys are accused (falsely) of starting a forest fire and set out in search of a drone they were using, technically illegally, to capture a local fireworks display hoping it will contain footage to verify their innocence but getting lost along the way and eventually sharing their fears and anxieties alone together under the night sky. It seems this new friendship is destined to end in unexpected tragedy, but as Drop is fond of saying sometimes all it takes is a little courage to make a jump and see things from a different perspective allowing Roma to gain the confidence in himself he’d been lacking to chase the things he really wants. 

A teen summer adventure movie, Goodbye, Don Glees! features lush animation of the Japanese countryside along with some enhanced CGI of nature in bloom captured forever via photograph which as Tivoli points out is like a freeze-frame in time trapping both the image and its accompanying emotions. That is perhaps what Roma learns, to make memories he can treasure when the moment ends while saying goodbye to something doesn’t mean it’s gone forever, it just exists in a different form. A warm and heartfelt tale of teenage male friendship and summer’s end, Goodbye, Don Glees! discovers a sense of the serene in the face of life’s futility through connections both momentary and eternal. 


Goodbye, Don Glees! screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and is in US cinemas from Sept. 14 courtesy of GKIDS.

US release trailer (Japanese with English subtitles)

The Girl From the Other Side (とつくにの少女, Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A kindly exile and lonely little girl find mutual salvation in Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya’s gorgeously animated fairytale, The Girl from the Other Side (とつくにの少女, Totsukuni no Shojo). A poetic mood piece, the film has a painterly feel reminiscent of classic children’s picture books and essentially tells a very simple story about the redemptive power of kindness and acceptance in which two exiles find the strength to begin again taking care of the other in a world of warmth and safety.

Set in an indistinct time period, the film opens with a cohort of soldiers from the Inside dumping bodies in the forest, apparently victims of some kind of curse. Hearing a noise, one turns round explaining that they have to kill them all or their efforts will be meaningless, while mysterious man with goat horns on his head discovers the angelic figure of a little girl, Shiva (Rie Takahashi), fast asleep. Evading the soldier, who is later himself “cursed”, the man takes her home with him but explains that he cannot ever touch her, not even to treat her wounds, lest he infect her with the “curse” though he is not like the other “Outsiders” who spread it deliberately. 

The curse has robbed the man, whom Shiva calls “Teacher” (Jun Fukuyama), of his humanity. He is certain that he was once human and lived a normal life with a wife and child behind the walls of the Inside, but is now a lonely exile who no longer knows his name. He worries that Shiva will be frightened by his appearance and may choose to leave putting herself in danger in the process but Shiva accepts him instantly and quickly settles in to his cottage-style home while experiencing brief nightmares in which she is eventually rescued from her loneliness by the Teacher. But the closer they get, the more Teacher feels guilty convinced that Shiva would be better off in a community with other humans rather than living with him under the danger of inheriting his curse. 

Shiva and Teacher are each in their ways exiles, though there is also something dark in the constant references to Insiders and Outsiders along with the looming threat of the military and their determination to wipe out anything “suspicious” fearful of any kind of contamoination. The Outsiders are those in some way rejected by the mainstream society, many of whom have become dark and marauding, feeding on the souls of others who live outside the walls. Teacher wants to save Shiva from the unbearable loneliness he feels as a cursed man who no longer knows his past and is forbidden from human touch yet in the need to protect her he also discovers a purpose and begins to recover something of his humanity. “She is my light” he later explains to a supernatural force, himself stunned by the realisation that even he could be a light for someone else and discovering in it a new possibility for life. 

There is of course a sadness for the world that’s been lost and can never be regained, but also warmth and tenderness in the simple life of Teacher and the girl as symbolised by smoke rising from their chimney as if the house itself were breathing. As Teacher had said, all things must end in time, but the time is not necessarily now and there is much to be done before it runs out. In Teacher, Shiva finds a place of safety and protection. In her dreams she is rescued by the hands which on waking cannot touch her, while Teacher finds in her a path towards reclaiming his humanity. They may never find their way back to those they’ve lost, but they can now begin again as a new family overcoming their loneliness and despair through mutual compassion. 

Beautifully illustrated with a retro flickering effect and water colour-esque backgrounds, Girl From the Other Side situates itself in a melancholy world in which some are consumed by the curse of their inner darkness and suddenly sprout into huge burnt trees, yet as Shiva says there’s a poignancy even in their destruction noticing that whole communities sprouted together rather than wandering apart. Moving and tender, it reaches a kind of serenity in its final moments in the simple act of living with warmth and possibility. 


The Girl From the Other Side screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Inu-Oh (犬王, Masaaki Yuasa, 2021)

“Unity demands order” according to an ambitious politician near the end of Masaaki Yuasa’s stunning anime prog rock opera, Inu-Oh (犬王). Inspired by Hideo Furukawa’s novel Heike Monogatari Inu-Oh no Maki, Yuasa’s spirited drama is as much about the liberating power of artistic expression as it is about the danger it presents to those in power, while reclaiming the stories wilfully hidden in history or as the narrator puts it “stolen and forgotten” in order to exorcise a degree of historical trauma lingering in the cultural aura.

Set in the Muromachi period in which two imperial courts contested hegemony, the tale opens with the retrieval of a set of cursed remnants buried at the bottom of the sea after the battle of Dan-no-ura in which the Heike clan were famously defeated. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (Tasuku Emoto) is convinced that possessing imperial treasures would lend credence to his claim, but their resurfacing creates nothing but misery leaving the boy who discovered them, Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), blind and his father dead. Setting off for Kyoto in search of revenge, Tomona is taken in by an elderly Biwa player and eventually runs into a strange creature wearing a gourd mask and behaving like a dog, striking up a friendship that later leads to the realisation that the boy is also cursed, haunted by the spirits of fallen Heike warriors desperate for their stories to be told. 

In true fairytale fashion, curse later begins to dissipate as the pair exorcise the ghosts by telling their stories never singing the same song twice but always in search of new songs to be sung. Tomona changes his name several times, adopting that of “Tomoichi” in keeping with the requirements of his Biwa school and later choosing for himself that of “Tomoari” in his partnership with Inu-Oh in emphasis of the fact that “we are here”. Yet as the ghost of his father reminds him, changing his name makes him difficult to find literally losing touch with his roots in becoming invisible to friendly spirits. He and the cursed boy Inu-Oh are interested in a new kind of Biwa that is opposed by the Biwa priests for its transgressive modernity some feeling that Tomona’s transformation with his long hair and makeup brings the profession into disrepute though the act proves undeniably popular with Inu-Oh the biggest star of the age. 

Having begun in the classical register with images resembling ink painting and a score inspired by traditional noh, Yuasa introduces electric guitar as the film shifts into rock opera, the pair’s stagecraft incredibly modern as they adopt all kinds of elaborate staging to add atmosphere to their tales including at one point a large lantern silhouette mimicking the big screen graphics of the present day. Yet Inu-Oh’s fame comes with a price. His popularity threatens both the pride of a jealous rival and the ambitions of the Ashikaga clan who fear his tales of the Heike are simply too bold and radical, later condemning them as an affront to the glory of the shogun and insisting that their official version must be the only record of the Heika warriors. 

The sense of freedom the pair had felt in their ability to express themselves through music and dance is quickly crushed by cultural authoritarianism, Inu-Oh reduced to a kind of court jester performing only for the lord while as the closing credits tell us becoming the biggest popular star of his age though now too forgotten along with his songs while his more elegant counterpart, Fujiwaka, is remembered for shaping the art of contemporary noh though there is perhaps something in Tomona’s defiant reclaimation of his name along with the essential right to choose it for himself that grants him a greater liberty in simply refusing to allow himself to be subjugated by feudal power. A psychedelic rock opera set in 14th century Japan that remembers even noh was once new and malleable, Inu-Oh insists on art’s danger in its capacity to challenge the status quo not only directly but through a series of internal revolutions born of the masks we choose to wear and those we choose to remove in the radical act of self-expression which is in its own way the truest form of liberty. 


Inu-Oh screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival 

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Deer King (鹿の王 ユナと約束の旅, Masashi Ando & Masayuki Miyaji, 2021)

A broken and defeated man rediscovers a sense of purpose in human connection but finds himself hunted by opposing sides each of whom see in him either salvation or destruction in Masashi Ando & Masayuki Miyaji’s fantasy anime adapted from the novel by Nahoko Uehashi, The Deer King (鹿の王 ユナと約束の旅, Shika no Ou: Yuna to Yakusoku no Tabi). Set in a fractured land of fragile peace, Deer King perhaps uncomfortably casts resistance as villainy while largely letting its oppressors off the hook but argues finally for turning towards the light rather than the darkness in a spirit of mutual forgiveness that permits a less fractious co-existence. 

As a lengthy title roll explains, a war took place between the Aquafa and the Empire of Zol which resulted in a truce, partly because of a mysterious ”Mittsual” plague, the Black Wolf Fever, which frightened the Zolians out of sacking the capital. 10 years on, however, it’s clear Aquafa has become a vassal state living (literally) under the eye of the watchful Zolian emperor. The action opens in a salt mine where the enslaved are mercilessly exploited by their Zolian masters. “Work as if death spared you” one shouts out as an old man collapses, a younger, fitter one silently picking up his burden. As we’ll later discover this man is “Broken Antler” Van (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a lone survivor several times over and about to be so again as the mine is attacked by seemingly rabid dogs, one of them wandering into the prison where Van has been chained for helping the old man with a small child in its mouth. Van lunges at the dog which drops the child and bites his arm instead, the creature in a sense freeing him from the source of his oppression in breaking the chain which tied him to the wall before walking away leaving him bleeding only for Van to discover the bite has given him new power. Breaking free he takes the child with him as he ventures back out into the world. 

Van has lost more than most in this war, in a sense orphaned, a living a ghost with nothing and no one to live for. He could so easily lean towards hate or resentful violence but is given new reason for survival in becoming a father to the little girl, Yuna (Hisui Kimura), who is like him a lone survivor. Yet others feel differently, the resurfacing of the plague a metaphor for the grief and anger existing among the Aquafa targeting as it does only the Zol who look upon it as a “curse” or else or rebellious plot, which it in fact is. The former elite of Aquafa are apparently intent on using the Mittsual, to which they believe themselves immune, to free themselves of Zolian control and regain their independence. A neutral scientist, Hohsalle (Ryoma Takeuchi), however, throws their plan into disarray in his conviction that Van’s blood, the blood of a survivor, may act as cure and vaccine. The Zolians need him to survive, but Aquafans would rather he didn’t. 

Meeting his destiny head on, Van finds he has a choice: either embrace the darkness, accept the fear and the grief and the hate by using the Mittsual to target the Zolians, or allow Hohsalle to use his blood to find a cure. In the small, formerly nomadic, village in which Van finds a temporary home, they care nothing for politics and only want peace. They’ve begun intermarrying with the Zolians and live happily together while another man he meets along the way appears to be grateful for all the Zolians have done for them, which seems on one level a peculiar sentiment in welcoming their ongoing oppression. Yet salvation comes in a sense from re-embracing the Aquafan culture which has been taken from them, the cure not Van’s blood but his bond with nature something which all Aquafans once shared but was disdained by Zol. Zol can only survive by recognising Aquafa’s equality. 

Van’s strange new power, dubbed “inside Out” literally connects him to every other living being in the land becoming one with the great confluence of nature and cosmos. “Blood ties matter not” he tells an embittered young woman realising that Yuna is not his biological daughter, she in turn learning to abandon her hate through the force of his love. He reflects on the memory of a deer who put himself at risk to save a foal, asking himself if that’s what it means to be a hero or if he merely had the means to do what anyone should and did what was asked of him. Where the cruel patriotism of the Aquafans and religious zealotry of the Zolians fail, the rationality of humanitarian science and simple human empathy win out. A sacrifice may in a sense be needed, but it’s not the one you thought it was. A tale of the redemptive power of love, The Deer King argues for forgiveness in the face of hate if perhaps uncomfortably suggesting the burden of peace lies with the oppressed.


The Deer King screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (漁港の肉子ちゃん, Ayumu Watanabe, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

Most children begin to find their parents embarrassing as they approach adolescence, but the problem seems to be particularly acute for young Kikuko. Adapted from the (quite wonderful) novel by Kanako Nishi, Ayumu Watanabe’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (漁港の肉子ちゃん, Gyokou no Nikuko-chan) finds its young heroine struggling to define herself in world of constant anxieties while coming to accept that “ordinary is best” after all and even if her mother is “imperfect” it hardly matters, she loves her all the same. 

As Kikuko (Cocomi) outlines in her opening monologue, she’s recently moved to a small Northern port town with her larger than life mother, Nikuko (Shinobu Otake), after weaving a trail of romantic disappointment over half of Japan. In fact and somewhat unusually, mother and daughter share the same first name (if written with different characters), which is why the sometimes exasperated Kikuko has taken to referring to her mother as “Nikuko”, “Niku” meaning meat in reference to her weight. Though the film Kikuko is less caustic than her counterpart from the novel, there is a good deal of fat shaming in her sometimes contemptuous dismissal of her mother, also often regarding her as stupid both in terms of her intellectual ability, she’s obsessed with kanji puns but often makes spelling mistakes, and in her tendency to be duped by a string of no good men who generally take advantage of her kind heart. 

Being young as she is, Kikuko hasn’t yet learned to appreciate the importance of a kind heart, a lesson she’s about to learn as she finds herself in the middle of a burgeoning conflict between her classmates some of whom feel “left out” in never being picked by the popular girls when they peel off to play basketball at lunch time. When her friend Maria (Izumi Ishii) stages a rebellion, Kikuko doesn’t quite know what to do. After all, what Maria’s doing is only a different kind of bullying, but as she says it isn’t nice to feel left out and even if her solution may be wrongheaded perhaps Kikuko should have looked more deeply at why her friend felt that way rather than rather cruelly assuming she was doing it for attention and deserved everything she got. Bonding with a near silent boy, Ninomiya (Natsuki Hanae), who finds himself compelled to pull faces when no one’s looking, shows her the error of her ways in that she never thought herself to be such a “mean and nasty” person. 

It’s this lack of emotional intelligence that causes her to feel embarrassed by her mother who is, it has to be said, something of walking cliché of a stereotypical working class Osaka woman, loud, brash, and nattering away in her Southern dialect. Mother and daughter couldn’t be more different, tomboyish Kikuko stick thin and a serious bookworm, while the bubbly Nikuko is childishly impulsive and openhearted. Kikuko sometimes feels as if she’s the parent and is embarrassed by Nikuko’s larger than life qualities in a culture that prefers women to remain quiet and take up as little space as possible. Not to mention the fact they live on a boat. About to enter adolescence she’s also sick of being constantly on the move and is becoming paranoid that Nikuko is about to start another relationship with a terrible man meaning they’ll have to move again. 

Yet Nikuko hardly minds Kikuko’s contempt of her and despite having lived a hard life remains compassionate and understanding, seeing the best in everyone and always finding the small moments of joy life has to offer. She is also infinitely in tune with her daughter, half thinking she can hear it too when Kikuko “hears” various creatures and even a shrine “talking” to her as she wanders about the town exercising her rather overactive imagination. A series of climactic events culminating in a medical emergency in which she figures a few things out forces Kikuko to wrestle with herself and stop judging her fiercely non-judgemental mum to realise that she loves her after all even if she can’t resist being a little unkind in expressing it. A gentle coming-of-age tale set in a delightfully old-fashioned and beautifully animated fishing village, Fortune Favors Lady Kikuko is chock-full of heart (not to mention expertly translated kanji puns) as its somewhat resentful heroine begins to find safe harbour and finally steps into herself with a spirit of acceptance and understanding. 


Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner (映画 すみっコぐらし とびだす絵本とひみつのコ, Mankyu, 2019)

Cute characters are ubiquitous in Japan and though many may associate them with merchandising aimed at small children, a more recent trend has expressly targeted dejected adults perhaps longing for an escape into a kinder, more innocent world. San-X has been at the forefront of this trend with its hugely popular merchandising lines often featuring characters who just want to take things easy and enjoy life such as the lazy bear Rilakkuma or the roly-poly Tarepanda. Featuring an entire cast of neurotic characters, Sumikkogurashi has been one of the studio’s most successful collections appearing on everything from stationery items to cookware and clothing. 

Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner (映画 すみっコぐらし とびだす絵本とひみつのコ, Eiga Sumikkogurashi: Tobidasu Ehon to Himitsu no Ko) is the franchise’s first animated movie and at just over an hour long is aimed squarely not at the regular adult audience but at small children (or perhaps the small children of the same overly anxious adults), taking inspiration from various international fairytales as the guys go on an improbable adventure to help a lost little duckling trapped inside a book. For those not already familiar with the world of Sumikkogurashi, the picture book-style narrators (Yoshihiko Inohara & Manami Honjo) introduce each of the characters who never speak themselves but communicate with each other through onscreen text mimicking that which appears on their character goods later interpreted by the narrators. The central theme of the Sumikkogurashi franchise is that each of the characters is intensely neurotic and has retreated from the world in favour of the relative safety of the corner of the room where they find solidarity with other similarly troubled souls which include a polar bear afraid of the cold, a shy cat, the remnants of a tonkatsu cutlet too oily to finish and his shrimp tail buddy, a bunch of tapioca pearls left in a cup of bubble tea, and a green penguin who is confused about their identity wondering if they are actually a lost kappa. 

It’s to Penguin? that the main drama belongs as he bonds with the lonely duckling who has come loose in a book of fairytales and wants to find out where they belong. Sucked into a pop-up book, the Sumikkogurashi guys find themselves taking on the roles of the main characters with shy cat Neko cast as fierce yet tiny warrior Momotaro, Shirokuma as The Little Match Girl forced to face the cold, Tonkatsu and Ebifurai no Shippo in Little Red Riding Hood, secret dinosaur Tokage as The Little Mermaid, and Penguin? thrown into the world of the Arabian Nights. Together they pledge to help Hiyokko, the lost duckling, find where they belong and hopefully some friends along the way facing their own fears as they go.

The irony is that the guys have to leave the corner and go on an adventure where they do not exactly overcome their fears but perhaps learn that there’s not so much to be afraid of, Neko for instance making friends with the scary demon who chases them to offer some “onigiri” (a minor pun) in return for the gift of dumplings rather than fighting him as in the Momotaro folktale, even if they obviously need to return to the corner in the end. The message is that no one is really alone, even if they’re lonely in the corner lots of other people are too and you can find comfort in all being lonely together. The simple, water colour-inspired animation style is a perfect match for the series’ “healing” aesthetic with its gentle humour and random puns appealing both to small children drawn in by the cuteness of the characters and jaded adults looking for a little comfort who are presumably the targets of the more sophisticated gags. A simple bedtime story, Sumikkogurashi: Good to Be in the Corner is filled with wholesome warmth that belies its neurotic premise as the guys find solace in friendship and kindness while contending with an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile world.


Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hello World (ハロー・ワールド, Tomohiko Ito, 2019)

“Hello World” is a phrase familiar to many as the first line of text given to a new program. It signals firstly that the code is functioning correctly, but also expresses a sense of excitement and positivity as if a new entity were standing on the shores of an unfamiliar land eager for adventure. Tomohiko Ito’s sci-fi-inflected anime carefully places the phrase not at its beginning but at its conclusion, affirming that the hero has managed to step into himself, discover his place, and come to an understanding that grants him a sense of agency and possibility in a brand new world that is in a sense of his own creation and choosing. 

Before all that, however, Naomi Katagaki (Takumi Kitamura) is a textbook “regular high school boy” who fears he is just an extra in his own life quietly reading away at the back of the classroom and last in line in the dinner queue. Reading a self-help book on becoming more assertive helps less than he might have hoped, but two changes are slowly introduced into his life albeit passively the first being he is press-ganged onto the library committee and the second that he is approached by a strange man who claims to be himself a decade older. Future Naomi (Tori Matsuzaka) claims not to have come from another time but from “reality”, explaining that the world Naomi currently inhabits is a simulacrum designed to perfectly preserve the city of Kyoto as a digital archive housed inside supercomputer Alltale which has infinite memory. His older self tells him that he is fated to fall in love with classmate Ruri (Minami Hamabe) but she will then be killed by a lightning strike at a festival in three months’ time. Though their actions will have no effect on the “real” world, Future Naomi claims it’s enough for him to “save” Ruri even if it’s only virtually seemingly caring little that he will in fact be completely ruining the Chronicle Kyoto project by introducing a note of the inauthentic perfectly primed for the butterfly effect. 

In any case, what Naomi eventually discovers is that you can’t always trust “yourself” especially if you’re apparently merely data and therefore perhaps infinitely expendable. Young Naomi doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the revelation that his world is not “real”, and is perhaps overly trusting of his new mentor’s guidance following his instructions to the letter in accordance with the “Ultimate Manual” he’s been given to facilitate his romance with Ruri whom he originally claims not to fancy because like many immature teenage boys he only likes “cute” girls like transfer student Misuzu (Haruka Fukuhara) who literally sparkles while Ruri is like him a wallflower obsessed with books, shy and with an aloof, slightly intense aura. What Future Naomi offers him is pure male adolescent fantasy wish fulfilment in gifting him both the means for romantic success and literal superpowers in the form of the Hand of God which allows him to conjure objects from the digital world and will apparently help to save Ruri from her cruel fate.

The universe, however, has other plans. Soon enough he’s being chased by the forces of order, Homeostasis System Droids, trained to eliminate and correct inconsistencies in data appearing as oversize policemen in kitsune masks. Nothing in Naomi’s world makes much concrete sense, even as he’s been told he’s the creation of a simulacrum. Why would Future Naomi fetch up three months before the accident to train him rather than simply altering code, why would someone bother to create these universal super powers, and what exactly are the connections between this world and the “real” from which Future Naomi claims to have come? Some of this might well be explained by a final twist which turns everything we thought we knew upside down, implying perhaps that the gaps and contradictions we see are down to the vagaries of analogue rather than digital memory mixed with trauma both physical and emotional. Nevertheless, it turns out that Naomi’s mission is less to save Ruri than to save himself twice over, allowing Future Naomi to find an accommodation with the traumatic past while essentially giving birth to a “new world” of adulthood in which he is the fully actualised protagonist rather than the bit-playing extra he’s always believed himself to be. 

Featuring character designs by Kyoto Animation stalwart Yukiko Horiguchi, Hello World’s 3D animation fusion of 2D reality and the digital realm makes for interesting production design as Naomi’s world eventually crumbles around him in multi-coloured pixel while he’s chased by giant neon hands under an angry red sky. Nevertheless, its wilful incoherence often proves frustrating even if its myriad plot holes might be explained in part by the final revelation which itself introduces another note of bafflement in its parting scene. Asking some minor questions about the collection, use, and storage of personal data, archival practice, the limits of digital technology, and the nature of “reality”, Hello World is nevertheless a coming of age romance at heart in which the hero saves himself twice over while learning to rediscover a sense of wonder in future possibility.


Hello World streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Yuta Murano, 2019)

“Youth is the liberated zone of life” according to the voice of experience in Yuta Murano’s impassioned anime adaptation of the cult novel by Osamu Soda, Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Bokura no Nanoka-kan Senso). Featuring a number of meta references to the ‘80s original and live action movie, Murano’s stylistically conventional adaptation shifts the action to Hokkaido and the present day encompassing such themes as economic strife, systemic political corruption and small town nepotism, migration and exploitation, but is most of all a coming-of-age story as the rebellious teens meditate on the costs of adulthood, resolving not to become the vacuous and resentful adults they see all around them who have traded emotional authenticity for a mistaken ideal of civility. 

Obsessed with 19th century European military history, high schooler Mamoru (Takumi Kitamura) complains that no one takes any interest in him and remains too diffident to confess his feelings to the girl next door, Aya (Kyoko Yoshine), with whom he has been in love for the past six years. Hearing that Aya and her family will soon be moving away because her authoritarian politician father has been offered the opportunity to take over a relative’s seat in Tokyo gives him the boost he needs, nervously suggesting that he and Aya run away together so they can at least celebrate her upcoming birthday the following week. Aya surprises him by agreeing, but rather than a romantic getaway for two she decides to invite several not particularly close friends from school, holing up in a disused coal refinery on the edge of town. Once there, however, they realise someone has beaten them to it. Marret (Makoto Koichi), the child of undocumented migrant workers from Thailand, has been hiding in the building after being separated from their parents when the building they were living in was raided by immigration authorities. 

Though the group is not universally in favour, they quickly find themselves deciding to protect Marret while trying to help find the kid’s family using both their ingenuity in fortifying the coal refinery and their youthful know how in weaponising the internet and social media to win sympathy and fight back against the oppressive ideology of the authorities. Yet Marret finds it difficult to trust them because they occupy a liminal space between the idealism of childhood and the cynicism of maturity. Marret’s family came to Japan on the false promise of finding good employment only to be ruthlessly exploited, convincing the idealistic youngster that all adults lie and can never be trusted. Mamoru, whose name literally means “protect”, does his best to save everyone but temporarily gives in to despair, confessing that he is just an “optimistic child” lacking the power to do any real good, only later coming to a revelation that the problem with the duplicitous adults they’re rebelling against is that they continue to run from their emotions and the pain of not being able to be fully themselves for fear of not fitting in has made them cruel and cynical. 

Honda (Takahiro Sakurai), the conflicted assistant to Aya’s authoritarian father, tacitly approves of the teens, affirming that the young always fight for the things they believe in but then rebels against himself in doxxing them, exposing both their identities (sans Aya’s) and dark secrets online in an attempt both to intimidate and to drive them apart. But the kids run in another direction. They elect to share their truths and in the sharing neutralise the threat while gaining the confidence that comes with deciding not hide anything anymore. The sharing is it seems what matters, a collective unburdening which paves the way for emotional authenticity but sidesteps the need to consider the fallout from the concurrent revelations. A heavily telegraphed confession of same sex love, for example, is accepted by all though there is no explicit indication as to whether or not is reciprocated save that is in no way rejected. 

In any case, the kids decide that being their authentic selves is more important than conformity and make a mutual decision to respect the same in others, something which is eventually mirrored in those like Honda among the duplicitous adults touched by the kids’ pure hearted rebellion. Necessarily, that leaves the weightier themes such as the plight of undocumented migrants, the casual cruelty of the authorities, small-town corruption and persistent nepotism relegated to the background, perhaps superficially considered seen trough an adolescent lens, but nevertheless products of the inauthenticity of the cynical adult world the kids are rebelling against. A heartfelt advocation for the idealism and universal compassion of youth carried into a more open adulthood that comes with emotional authenticity, Seven Days War leaves its heroes with the spirit of resistance, defiantly themselves as they step into an adult world uncorrupted by cynicism or prejudice.


Seven Days War screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Kenji Iwaisawa, 2019)

The high school band movie has a special place in Japanese cinema. From the anxious release of Linda Linda Linda to the laidback charms of K-On, music is that rare thing that both brings people together and enables individual expression. Adapted from the cult manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi, Kenji Iwaisawa’s highly stylised indie animation On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Ongaku) is a psychedelic ode to the transportive qualities of musical performance from either side of the stage as its laconic, tongue-tied heroes rediscover themselves through the art of song. 

Kenji (Shintaro Sakamoto) is perhaps the archetypal hero of another kind of manga, a shaven-headed delinquent stepping straight out of the pages of Crows Zero or a hundred other tales of high school hierarchies mediated through male violence. Known for his “spaghetti fist”, the monosyllabic young man is feared all around town as a ruthless fighter, engaging in petty acts of aggression with boys from neighbouring high schools, such as the mohawked Oba (Naoto Takenaka) and his identically dressed gang of young toughs who seem to be his current nemesis.

Lost in his own little world, Kenji barely notices when he finds himself in the middle of a crime scene as a thief runs past him on the street pursued by a heroic young man who, temporarily liberating himself, thrusts the guitar he is carrying into Kenji’s arms. Bemused by the chaotic scene in front of him, Kenji becomes fascinated by the strange instrument and immediately announces to his two friends, Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa), that they’ll be forming a band, picking up everything they need from the school music room and cheerfully walking off with it. Of course, they have no idea what instruments even are let alone how to play them but then that hardly matters, or as Kenji puts it might just be the “whole point”. 

Asakura comes up with a name for their musical trio, “Kobujutsu”, without quite knowing what it means (classical martial arts), later realising they have a problem because there’s already a similarly named band at school, Kobijutsu (classical fine arts). Asakura has the idea to strong-arm the other guys into changing their monicker, but in place of the expected battle of the bands the two sets of unlikely allies find unexpected common ground in musical appreciation. Kobijutsu, led by introverted music geek Morita (Kami Hiraiwa), is an old school retro folk trio, while Kenji & co are unrefined, avant-garde punk rockers, but each discovers something in the other that speaks directly to them in mutual understanding as “musicians”. 

In fact, “musicians” is how Kenji demands to be identified, explaining to the gang’s female friend Aya (Ren Komai) who was used to referring to them as the “three musketeers”,  that they’re “now obsessed with music” which is why they “don’t have time” to go fight Oba. But Kenji later finds himself depressed, declaring himself “bored” with the band much to the alarm of his two friends who’ve fully embraced their artistic sides. The young men find themselves literally transported by music, Morita seeing himself in a surrealistic scene surrounded by artefacts of misremembered traditional culture pointing to unexpected angles in Kenji’s raw musical expression which later manifest themselves in an unexpected sight gag as he reveals a different side to himself in a musical register which is both refined and naive, while Morita too begins to embrace his inner rebel with psychedelic glee complete with a fresh new look. 

Iwaisawa spent seven years on the project drawing over 40,000 images by hand largely on his own. His designs perfectly mimic the quirky minimalism of Ohashi’s manga, complete with a lowkey deadpan sensibility that is perfectly in tune with the laidback charms of its slacker heroes. Kenji lives in a slightly different temporality, his extended pauses before offering up his idiosyncratically concise replies rendered as perfectly timed still frames while the musical sequences are filled with the raw anarchic energy of something being set free as the youngsters liberate themselves through the joy of music, climaxing in a rotoscoped final concert which unites all in a shared sense of transcendental transformation. Boasting an expertly crafted, nostalgic soundtrack, Iwaisawa’s joyful celebration of the power of making music is an off-beat gem.


On-Gaku: Our Sound is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)