House on Fire (火宅の人, Kinji Fukasaku, 1986)

In the closing scene of Kinji Fukasaku’s 1986 literary drama House on Fire (火宅の人, Kataku no hito), the hero plays a game he’s designed with his children titled “too heavy to bear” in which they each climb on his back waiting to see which if any of them can prove too much for the paternal shoulders. In recent years Fukasaku has become most closely associated with his late career international hit Battle Royale but prior to that his name had been almost synonymous with the genre he helped to consolidate, the jitsuroku gangster picture. Like the later A Chaos of Flowers, however, House on Fire is a subdued literary drama though one set largely in a more recent past revolving around conflicted author’s paternal anxiety and inspired by the autobiographical fiction of Kazuo Dan who might be best known outside of Japan for having penned the novel which inspired Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami

Like many similar literary endeavours of the time, House on Fire revolves around a conflicted writer’s affair with a much younger woman. Though set mainly in the 1950s, the film opens with a prologue set 40 years earlier in which the young Kazuo witnesses the breakdown of his parents’ marriage as his father abruptly leaves the family while his mother (played by Dan’s real life daughter Fumi Dan) later leaves him too after falling in love with a young student. As an older man (Ken Ogata) he feels he understands, though as a young boy all he felt was resentment. It’s this central conflict that consumes him as he contemplates embarking on an affair, knowing that he’s betraying his own wife and children in the same way that his father had him and his mother. He explains that this is partly because of a distance that has arisen in his relationship with his second wife Yoriko (Ayumi Ishida) following a family tragedy in which his second son Jiro was left with brain damage after contracting meningitis, Yoriko retreating grief-stricken into obsessive religious practice praying for a miracle he does not believe will come. 

Typical of the “I Novel” Kazuo funnels all of this inner conflict into a serialised novel including all the salacious details of his subsequent affairs. The first of these is with a young actress, Keiko (Mieko Harada), who came to him with a letter of recommendation hoping to get his support and advice on embarking on a career in Tokyo. It seems clear that what Kazuo is attracted to is youth while what he fears is an ending, an anxiety which overshadows his romance while he continues to neglect his responsibilities as a husband and father leaving Yoriko to cope alone looking after the other children while caring for their disabled son. Learning of the affair she temporally leaves the family in much the same way his mother had, yet rather than accept his responsibility for the children Kazuo promptly abandons them too retreating to a hotel to write while leaving Jiro’s nurse and the housekeeper in sole charge of the family home. 

It may be true in a sense that if he lived as a regular family man he’d have nothing to write about, but as much as Kazuo agonises over the possibilities of making Keiko mother to his children he knows he cannot marry these two desires as simply as swapping one woman for another. Just as he had, his eldest son Ichiro born to his first wife comes to resent him, breaking in to the flat he shares with Keiko and smashing the place up to make plain his sense of hurt and betrayal. Yet Kazuo seemingly cannot reconcile his passionate desires with his familial responsibilities while consumed by guilt in his failure to live up to an inner ideal. The only conclusion he comes to is that he is illequipt to understand the complicated relationships between men and women, looking back on his parents’ romance and reflecting that they run from love so great it makes you want to die to hate so strong it makes you want to kill. 

Meanwhile, he circles around three women from the capable if strangely mysterious Yoriko who insists that she knows everything he does, to the petulant Keiko and carefree Yoko (Keiko Matsuzaka), a melancholy bar hostess who accompanies him on a trip around Japan while trying to decide whether to accept an offer of marriage from a wealthy old man. In contrast with the maternal Yoriko, both Keiko and Yoko present a less complicated vision of typical femininity each lively and childlike but both ultimately wanting something Kazuo can’t give them because to him the relationships are transitory. Yoko understands this the best even if Kazuo’s assertion that he enjoys being with her because she never asks him difficult questions speaks volumes about his own insecurity, enjoying the journey while coming to her own realisations in ultimately opting for a kind of stability in a loveless marriage. An essentially passive figure, Kazuo is abandoned by all three women as they exercise a romantic freedom he didn’t really consider they had with Yoriko finally deciding to return but defiantly redefining the terms of their relationship as she does so. 

With this the family is in a sense repaired, Yoriko reminding him that she knows everything he does while he is forced to acknowledge that he is lucky his family will have him back even as he plays the “too heavy to bear” game with his children as pregnant as it is with his internal failures as a husband and father. A minor meditation on the changing social mores of the post-war society and the inner turmoil of a man caught between them, Fukasaku’s distanced approach undercuts the sense of melancholy in the otherwise conservative conclusion as Kazuo both resists his self-characterisation as a feckless and weak willed man and embraces it in his imperfect determination to reintegrate himself into a quietly smouldering home. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

One Day, You Will Reach the Sea (やがて海へと届く, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2022)

“We only see one half of this world” according to the absent heroine of Ryutaro Nakagawa’s moving mediation on loss and the eternally unanswered questions we leave behind when we die, One Day You Will Reach the Sea (やがて海へと届く, Yagate umi e to todoku). Taking its name from a plaintive folk song about a wife waiting for the return of a husband lost at sea, Nakagawa’s indie drama finds its melancholy heroine struggling to move on while plagued by a sense of regret in the absence of an ending. 

Mana (Yukino Kishii) first bonded with Sumire (Minami Hamabe) in the early days of university when she helped her navigate the tricky social rituals of freshers week, eventually moving in to her apartment but then moving out again to live with uni boyfriend Tono (Yosuke Sugino). It’s Tono who in one sense brings the reality of Sumire’s absence back to her more than a decade later as he decides it’s time let go. Letting go is however something Mana struggles to do, not least because Sumire disappeared during the 2011 tsunami and as her body was never found there’s still a part of her that refuses to believe she will never be coming back.  

Tono criticises Mana for wanting to keep Sumire stuck in the same place forever yet it is she who is somehow stuck, still living her admittedly stunning apartment as if afraid to move in case Sumire should return and find her gone. She had once told her that she wanted to work for a furniture company in Kyoto but is currently working as a head waiter at an upscale restaurant where she has developed a paternal relationship with the manager, Mr Narahara (Ken Mitsuishi), only to discover that perhaps she didn’t really know him either or that she only knew the part of him he wished for her to see. Her resentment towards Tono is in part that he knew a different side of Sumire that remained unknown to her, though equally neither of them can be said to have known her entirely. 

The relationship between the two women remains frustratingly ill-defined but what’s clear is that they represented something one to the other as two halves of one whole. They made each other feel at ease, but if romance is what it was it remains unresolved. Despite having claimed that she wanted nothing more than to stay in Mana’s apartment, Sumire eventually leaves explaining to Tono that she cannot say cannot stay with her forever giving him a look that perhaps he should know when he quite reasonably asks why. Then again perhaps she just thinks she’s holding her back, that if it were not for her Mana would long ago have moved on finding new and more fulfilling directions in life. She urges Mana to interact more, hoping that she’ll find someone to tease out the “real” her though she of course already has.

A perspective shift late in the film fills in some of those details from the other half of the world that we don’t get to see, laying bare Sumire’s own distress and vulnerability as it becomes clear that she has something she wants to say to Mana but is always frustrated and finally never does. When someone is gone, you can no longer ask them what they meant or solve the riddles of their life even if you can patch back together a vague picture composed of the memories of those who knew them. “I didn’t want her to be found but I felt I had to find her” Mana explains of her early attempts to look for Sumire after the tsunami wanting answers while simultaneously afraid to get them. Burdened by another sudden and unexpected loss, she takes a road trip to Tohoku and witnesses testimony taped by a local woman from tsunami survivors eventually receiving her own epiphany in an animated dream sequence that links back to those which bookend the film. Watching footage from Sumire’s ever present videocamera fills in a few more details, but what she comes to is less a point of moving on that an accommodation with loss that suggests Sumire has in a sense returned and will always be with her as sure as the sea. What we mourn is not only an unresolved past with all its concurrent regrets, but the other half of the world we’ll never see in all the unlived futures that never got to be. 


One Day, You Will Reach the Sea streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Parasite in Love (恋する寄生虫, Kensaku Kakimoto, 2021)

A pair of exiles from mainstream society develop a bond that allows for mutual evolution, but are their feelings genuine or the result of a love bug and does it really matter anyway? Kensaku Kakimoto’s adaptation of the light novel by Sugaru Miaki Parasite in Love (恋する寄生虫, Koi suru kiseichu) finds a germophobic man planning to plant a virus to destroy the world he thinks has rejected him coming to care for a young woman who cannot face the glare of a judgemental society while asking if love were a sickness would you really want to be “cured” and if its sacrifice would be worth the price of living a “normal” life. 

Kosaka (Kento Hayashi) lost his parents to suicide at eight years old and has been alone ever since. He is terrified of the world around him believing that everything and everyone is covered in dangerous pathogens and leaves his apartment, where he is busy writing a virus designed to disrupt communication between devices in an ironic revenge for his own inability to connect, only when necessary. On one such trip, however, he runs into high schooler Hijiri (Nana Komatsu) who cannot bear to see other people’s eyes and wears headphones to block out the interpersonal noise of the mainstream society. Where Kosaka chooses isolation because he fears infection, Hijiri is convinced she has a life-limiting parasite in her brain which is infectious to others and does not want to pass it on. 

Approached by an intimidating middle-aged man, Izumi (Arata Iura), Kosaka is charged with “looking after” Hijiri in part to find out why she’s been skipping school. She too lost her mother to suicide which her grandfather (Ryo Ishibashi), a mad scientist, has told her is down to a parasite in her brain, the same one that Hijiri has, which eventually drove her to take her own life while it seems simultaneously rejecting the role of his own authoritarianism in which he attempted to force her to have the parasite removed against her will refusing to listen when she insisted her feelings were her own whether he chose to recognise them or not. Hijiri’s quest is similarly one for personal autonomy in the face of her grandfather’s attempts to excise what he sees as abnormal in what amounts to a modern day lobotomy. 

Then again, it’s difficult to argue with the thesis that the relationship between Hijiri and Kosaka is inappropriate given that he is a 27-year-old man and she is a high school girl, which would be one thing if the scientists had not originally forced them together after discovering that Kosaka has the same parasite in his brain and the mutual evolution their pairing would produce would allow them to remove the problematic bug more easily. As the pair hang out together doing “normal” things such as riding public transportation and eating in cafes, gradually the masks and earphones disappear as they give each other the strength to face a hostile environment with an open question mark over whether it’s all down to the bugs or they’ve fallen in love for real. Hijiri’s dilemma is just as in the story she tells of a man who was infected with a parasite that made him love his cat to the exclusion of all else, if they really want to be “cured” or if the price of sacrificing their love and the essence of who they are is worth paying for the right to reenter mainstream society. 

As Izumi admits, our bodies are full of bugs and perhaps some of them have more power over us than we’d like think. How much control do you really have over your own biology anyway? Kakimoto’s quirky drama only ever flirts with darkness in Kosaka’s original desire to burn the world out of his intense resentment, and in the mad scientist grandfather’s patriarchal insistence on controlling his granddaughter’s emotional life, removing any hint of what is deemed unconventional to turn her into a perfectly “normal” member of a conservative society. Suggesting that romantic destiny may indeed be akin to a parasitic infection, the film nevertheless comes down on the side of the lovers as they discover solidarity in difference and decide to live their lives the way they see fit parasites or not. 


Parasite in Love streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Riho Kudo, 2021)

“I can touch it if I reach out” one of the heroes of Riho Kudo’s second feature Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Hadashi de Narashite Misero) claims as he narrates a fantasy trip to Iguazu Falls, but his tragedy is that he can not reach out and neither can his friend or really anyone in this suffocating enclave of moribund small-town Japan. As in her debut Orphan’s Blues, Kudo finds her heroes trapped with a space of artificial nostalgia and yearning for escape while in constant dialogue with Wong Kar-Wai’s melancholy romance Happy Together as the two young men process their frustrated desires not only for each other but for an end to the loneliness that defines each of their lives. 

Naomi (Shion Sasaki) is lonely in part because he feels trapped. Having dropped out of university he’s working in his father’s (Masahiro Komoto) recycling depot while his best friend and high school sweetheart Sakuko is about to move to Canada. He first catches sight of the enigmatic Maki (Tamari Suwa) at the local pool after trying to learn to swim to effect change in his life and later bonds with him along with a mysterious old woman, Midori (Jun Fubuki), who has lost her sight and claims to have travelled the world in her youth. What the boys later discover is that Midori had not been entirely honest in that her travels had been vicarious, related to her by a third party long since departed whom she did not want to forget. Following a health scare she tries to give Maki her savings telling him to travel the world in her stead but he soon discovers that she was sadly mistaken about amount she’d put away. Lacking the heart to tell her, Maki decides to use an old tape recorder to fake trips to famous places ironically mirroring her final confession that her friend had never travelled either but made all the stories up for her benefit. 

The tape recorder conceit of course directly recalls Happy Together as does the final destination of the Iguazu Falls while hinting at the unattainable freedom each of the young men yearns for as mediated by their desire to travel the world. “We can go anytime” Maki tries to convince Naomi in his mounting desperation though each of them on some level knows they will never leave nor escape their sense of loneliness. Maki describes himself as feeling as if he is trapped within a magnetic field, surrounded by people but unable to touch them. A man permanently at odds with his environment, Naomi feels the same but their feelings for each other are complex and confusing. In a repeated motif one reaches out to touch the other but suddenly pulls back, their repressed desire expressed only through increasingly intense play fighting until one is finally unable to go on with the subterfuge and unsuccessfully attempts to address their unresolved romantic tension. 

Much of their courtship occurs in Naomi’s converted garage bedsit, a space filled with unwanted relics of the past from countless VHS and discarded books to TVs and radios. The garage is his literal safe space, Naomi explaining to Maki that he feels the urge to collect things out of a sense of security that they are safe here even if they disappear from the outside world. “Memories will stay” Maki reminds him, but that’s not good enough for Naomi who ironically can only trust the things that he can touch. Preoccupied with a sense of loss he is unable to move forward, cannot take hold of himself or his desires wishing to preserve the past at all costs while Maki has learnt to live in the moment able to let go but adrift in the present. 

“We may not even be alive tomorrow” Naomi wails in desperation, feeling as if he’s running out of time while boxed in by his equally lonely, disappointed father as a vision of his future self worn down by small-town life and a persistent sense of futility. The two men are forever divided, literal glass standing between them in the closing scenes in which they can no longer touch even if they wished it. Small-town life is it seems the place dreams go to die as symbolised in Sakuko’s eventual defeated return, Naomi left only with resignation to the life he had rejected in an acceptance of the failure of his unfulfilled desires. “I don’t want to forget” he claims echoing Midori’s explanation for her mysterious tattoo while left only with the ironic words of Maki’s cassette tape in their melancholy echo of the romantic impossibilities of Happy Together, “we need to start over”. 


Let Me Hear It Barefoot streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Images: (c)PFF Partners

Under the Stars (星の子, Tatsushi Omori, 2020)

“The time of realisation comes and then that person changes” according to the words of a new religion guru. The sentiment is true enough, even if the meaning is slightly different from that which she’d intended. Young Chihiro, however, the heroine of Tatsushi Omori’s adaptation of the novel by Natsuko Imamura Under the Stars (星の子, Hoshi no Ko), is indeed approaching a moment of realisation as she begins to question everything about the world around her as it had been presented throughout the course of her life. 

As a baby, Chichiro (Mana Ashida) had suffered from severe eczema which had left her in terrible pain and her parents suffering with her in witnessing her distress. On the advice of a colleague, Chichiro’s father (Masatoshi Nagase) decides to try using “Venus Blessed Water” which is apparently full of cosmic energy that can cure all ills. Chihiro begins to recover and her parents become devotees of the cult which produces it eventually alienating her older sister, Ma (Aju Makita), who is unable to reconcile herself with the outlandish beliefs they advance and rituals they conduct. 

For Chihiro, however, the cult is all she’s ever known so it is in that way “normal” and it’s never really occurred to her to question it even after her sister’s mysterious “disappearance”. But as she approaches the end of middle-school, a few well placed questions from her classmates give her pause for thought wondering if her parents’ claims about the miracle water could possibly be true or if, as her best friend Watanabe (Ninon) wonders, they are simply being scammed. After all, if water could solve all the world’s problems it would either be ridiculously expensive or completely free and if you could stay healthy by placing a damp towel on your head then everyone would be doing it. Her parents claim they don’t get colds because the water boosts their immune system, but perhaps they’re just lucky enough to be the kind of people who don’t often get that kind of sick or the fact that they obviously spend almost all their time in the bubble of the cult reduces their exposure. 

Her crunch point comes when her handsome maths teacher (Masaki Okada) on whom she has a crush spots her parents doing the ritual in a park and exasperatedly points them out as complete nutcases. When she eventually tells him who they are, he inappropriately calls her out in front of the entire class by telling her to get rid of her “weird” water while subtly undermining her religious beliefs with advice about how to avoid getting colds or other potentially dangerous seasonal viruses. Omori presents the cult neutrally, hinting that the discrimination Chihiro is facing as a member of a “new religion” may be unfair while the beliefs of traditional religions may seem no stranger to the unfamiliar and to criticise them so directly would be deemed unacceptable in any liberal society. In a sense perhaps we all grow up in a kind of cult only latterly questioning the things our parents taught us to be true. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo meanwhile had once tried to use science and experience to undermine her parents’ beliefs, he and Ma swapping out their holy water for the tap variety to prove to them that they are being duped only for them to double down and refuse to accept the “truth”. 

Uncle Yuzo and his family eventually offer Chihiro a place to stay in the hope of getting her out of the cult but are also of course asking her to betray her parents by leaving them. She remains preoccupied by the fate of her sister, particularly hearing rumours about the cult supposedly disappearing those who turn against them, but is torn between her growing doubts and love for her parents while privately suspicious about the fate of a child much like herself kept locked up by his mum and dad who say he’s terribly ill and unable to speak (which doesn’t exactly support the cult’s claims of universal healing), but who knows what might actually be true.

Shoko (Haru Kuroki), the wife of the guru Kairo (Kengo Kora), is fond of reminding the younger members that they are not there of their own free will which is of course true whatever the implications for fate and determinism because they are children whose parents have forced them to attend which might explain their sense of resentment or what she implies is “resistance” to their spiritual messaging in urging them to make an active choice to accept the cult’s teachings. Chihiro is coming to a realisation that she may be on a different path than her parents but delaying her exit while they too are possibly preparing her for more independent life. Lighter than much of Omori’s previous work despite its weighty themes, Under the Stars is also in its way about the end of childhood and the bittersweet compromises that accompany it. 


Under The Stars streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (c) 2020 “Under the Stars” Production Committee

The Mole Song: Final (土竜の唄 FINAL, Takashi Miike, 2021)

“He’s horny and looks like a fool but you can count on him” according to top mob boss Todoroki and it’s as good a description as any of the hero of Takashi Miike’s adaptation of the manga by Noboru Takahashi, The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji. Billed as the conclusion of the trilogy each of which is scripted by Kankuro Kudo, The Mole Song: FINAL (土竜の唄 FINAL, Mogura no uta Final) arrives almost 10 years since the series’ first instalment and five years after the second as Reiji (Toma Ikuta) proceeds towards his ultimate target and staves off the next evolution of organised crime.

To rewind a little, as film frequently does in flashbacks to the earlier movies, Reiji was a useless street cop facing a host of complaints not least for being a bit of a creep upskirting the local ladies until offered the opportunity to go undercover in the yakuza in order to break a drug smuggling ring run by ageing boss Todoroki (Koichi Iwaki). No longer technically a law enforcement officer because undercover operations are apparently illegal in Japan, Reiji has begun to find himself torn between his ultimate mission and the codes of gangsterdom not least in his relationship with sympathetic, old school yakuza Papillon (Shinichi Tsutsumi) so named for his love of butterflies many of which adorn his brightly coloured suits. 

Reiji’s inner conflict may ironically mirror the giri/ninjo push and pull central to the yakuza drama as he begins to realise that in completing his mission of taking down Todoroki he will end up betraying Papillon who once saved his life at the cost of his legs. Papillon meanwhile is presented as the idealised figure of the traditional yakuza in his fierce opposition to the drugs trade in the conviction that all they do is make people’s lives miserable and destroy families. He alone maintains the traditional ideas of brotherhood that underpin the underworld society in which a boss is also a father and betrayal is a spiritual if also in a sense literal act of suicide. His opposite number, meanwhile, Todoroki’s son Leo (Ryohei Suzuki), is the evolution of the post-Bubble yakuza, highly corporatised and essentially amoral. Papillon compares him to a mutant butterfly fed on coca lives that will eventually kill all of those with which it is confined while Leo himself claims that he intends to redefine the concept of the yakuza for the new generation. 

Caught between policeman and gangster, Reiji’s identity confusion is mediated through his relationships with Papillon on the one hand and pure-hearted love interest Junna (Riisa Naka) on the other. Each of them at one point tells Reiji that he is dead to them, thereby exiling him to the other side temporarily or otherwise. His yakuza traits which include the perversity which plagued him before endanger his otherwise innocent love for Junna in his inability to control his impulses, upsetting her by revealing a possible fling with a local woman while working on the drug deal in Italy, while his inclination towards police work that informs his sense of “justice” places him at odds with Papillon even though they are in many ways pursuing the same goal in keeping Japan free of dangerous drugs and the crime at surrounds them while purifying the contemporary yakuza of the pollution they have caused and restoring it to the pure ideal of another kind of “justice” advocated by Papillon which Todoroki has in a sense betrayed. 

As the film makes clear, the traditional yakuza is in any case on its way out with successive law enforcement initiatives that perhaps unfairly in some senses prevent them from living their lives. Todoroki’s guys defend their choices to the more idealistic Papillon under the rationale that they can’t open bank accounts, rent apartments, or even make sure their kids have lunch to take to school, so they have to dirty their hands with these less honourable kinds of work. Leo is simply a turbo charged version of their determination to survive. As eccentric cat-like gangster Nekozawa (Takashi Okamura), making a shock reappearance, explains it isn’t as if they can go straight either because who’s going to hire a former yakuza for a regular job? 

There may be in a sense a sympathy for those caught out by their choices with no real way back, a more liberal view of “justice” leaning either towards that by their own code or a simple rejection of the amoral selfishness of those who think nothing of ruining the lives of others for their own gain. With plenty of call backs to earlier instalments, Reiji once again opening the film buck naked with in this case a vase for modesty, Miike maintains the same slapstick sense of humour frequently employing zany animation and even a puppet show to express Reiji’s sometimes simplistic way of thinking. The film even unexpectedly shifts into tokusatsu in its closing sequence, bearing out the similarity in the titular “mole song” to the classic Mothra refrain, while placing Reiji and Papillon back into their respective roles having perhaps exchanged something between them in continuing to pursue their shared goal of a drug-free society. 


The Mole Song: Final streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Ⓒ2021 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/SHOGAKUKAN/JSTORM/TOHO/OLM ⒸNOBORU TAKAHASHI/SHOGAKUKAN

The End of the Pale Hour (明け方の若者たち, Hana Matsumoto, 2021)

A series of youngsters contend with disillusionment amidst the failure of the salaryman dream in Hana Matsumoto’s adaptation of the “I Novel” by Masahiko Katsuse, The End of the Pale Hour (明け方の若者たち, Akegata no Wakamonotachi). United by a chorus of “it wasn’t supposed to be this way”, the choice left to them is to resign themselves to life’s disappointment or to take a gamble on a happier future which though it might not work out might grant them a greater feeling of control over an existence which often seems pointless and unfulfilling. 

The unnamed protagonist (Takumi Kitamura) is already feeling a degree of trepidation even at a gathering that has been organised by a brash fellow student who crassly brands it the “winners’ party” to celebrate that they’ve all been able to line up jobs for after graduation in a competitive employment market. He ends up leaving with an equally bored woman (Yuina Kuroshima), a graduate student a little older than him, and drifts into a relationship with her that seems doomed to failure not least in her constant reminders that “everything ends sometime” and “our youth will be over soon, we need to enjoy it now”. The man insists that their youth won’t end just because they’ve entered the working world but in a sense it of course does, his sparkler fizzling out portentously as he’s forced to think of the future. 

A recent trend has seen large numbers of graduate recruits quit their company jobs within the first three years for reasons the man and his new workplace friend Naoto (Yuki Inoue) quickly discover. Japanese companies generally hire en masse in the spring and then shuffle employees into various departments after a probationary period sometimes letting the ones who don’t make the grade go entirely. Though he had done well in the preliminary tasks and hoped to be assigned to the prestigious planning department where the real work gets done, the man is assigned to the “General Affairs” section of office dogsbodies marked out from the regular salaryman workers by their uniform jackets which make it clear that their work is considered menial mainly concerned with setting up furniture for meetings, taking care of maintenance tasks such as replacing light bulbs, and dealing with interoffice complaints. He is constantly told off for not stamping his documents properly only for someone to explain to him that he needs to make sure his name appears at the correct angle to symbolise his bowing to the boss on paper in an example of the rigid office culture for which the young have increasingly little patience.  

Part of the man’s problem is his passivity. He’s dissatisfied with the system but is at heart conventional and lacks the courage to break with it. The woman is seemingly less so, a free spirit who’s chosen a path she believes to be more creatively fulfilling excited that she might make something that will one day be in someone’s hands. But then as we discover she is more conventional than she first appears, her openness and enthusiasm perhaps partly fantasy to mask the disappointment that she too feels that her life has not turned out as she thought it would. The man remarks that he likes walking around at twilight because it’s the only moment in which he can feel free, a moment of infinite possibility in the liminal space between one day and the next in which today is already over but tomorrow has not started. Later Naoto will say something similar of their youthful days as fresh hires filled with resentment but also determination, railing against the system until the early hours of the morning, describing it as the “magic hour” of their lives though they never knew the light was dimming. 

Such dejection may be slightly unwarranted given that none of them are even 30 by time of the film’s conclusion despite the minor greying of their hair. In any case, the man seems to have come to an acceptance of youth’s end, taking the spirit of the twilight with him as he charts a new, if still conventional course, choosing not to jump ship like his friend but tentatively make an application to get out of General Affairs into a better salaryman job. “It’s been a magic time, hasn’t it?” the woman had said of their brief holiday, “like a dream” but one from which she knows, and perhaps he does too, they’ll soon have to awake. Expressing the anxieties of contemporary generation dissatisfied with their overly corporatised lives in a rigid and conservative society, The End of the Pale Hour nevertheless ends with a sense of the dawn and the promise of new beginnings if tinged with the glow of youthful nostalgia. 


The End of the Pale Hour streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Sunday Runoff (決戦は日曜日, Yuichiro Sakashita, 2021)

“I keep choosing a perilous path” the heroine of Yuichiro Sakashita’s political satire The Sunday Runoff (決戦は日曜日, Kessen wa Nichiyobi) explains, “But that’s where change happens”. Change, famously, is not a common occurrence in Japanese politics where the same party has remained in power for all but a handful of years since its foundation in 1955. Part of the reason for that at least according to the reluctant candidate is the nation’s rigid social attitudes in the unwillingness to question the status quo, just going along with however things have always been done, while the main cause is perhaps corruption at the local level in the interplay between supporters groups staffed by influential local businessmen and their representatives along with the collusion of civil staff who have become too blasé about the murky nature of politics. 

That’s especially true for political secretary Tanimura (Masataka Kubota) who had developed a paternal relationship with former defence minster Kawashima who unfortunately is forced to retire from office due to ill health after suffering a stroke. Unable to agree on a suitable candidate to replace him, the supporters groups throw their weight behind Yumi (Rie Miyazawa), Kawashima’s middle-aged, unmarried daughter. The above lines are spoken during her introduction to her staff who find her strange and unconvincing, mocking her Western-style business speak along with her decision to refer to them as her “crew”. 

If “change” was what Yumi wanted, she’s almost certainly standing for the wrong party. Though not explicitly stated, she’s obviously intended to be standing for an LDP stand in and in the opinion of her staff at least her seat is so safe you could paint a face on a rock and get it elected. Their problem is that they assumed Yumi would be easy to manage, though it quickly becomes clear that despite having grown up in politics she is incredibly naive and something of a loose cannon. As she admits, she tells it like it is and doesn’t consider the consequences. She is not media trained and the secretaries, Tanimura included, do not really bother to brief her in part because they assume the election’s a sure thing so they don’t need to. As we can see from her introductory speech, she is essentially playing the part of a politician as she imagines it to be, saying things she perhaps does mean because she thinks it’s what a politician would say such as her offensive reply to a question about the declining birthrate to the effect that childless couples were “slacking off” and “not functioning as humans” leading to a protest outside her office in large part by those who had found her comments hurtful because they had wanted to have children but for various reasons had not been able to. 

It’s Yumi’s political naivety that makes her the ultimate foil for the secretaries and supporters groups as she gradually comes to realise she was never meant to be anything other than a puppet. After a particularly disastrous conference, one of her older male sponsors exasperatedly asks why they couldn’t have picked a better candidate. “At least choose a man”, he adds while one of the secretaries later snaps at Yumi that she’s way out of her league, should “know her position”, and that the only reason an “amateur woman” like her was approved as a candidate was because of the supporters committee so she’s there to do exactly what they say. Forced to apologise to them, Yumi’s face is framed in the lattice work at a restaurant as if she were in prison, a sentiment echoed by Tanimura when he tells her that she has “no choice” but to continue threatening to plant smear stories in the press if she tries to walk away or blow the whistle on all the corruption she has unwittingly uncovered in the local political office. 

That would include the giving and receiving of bribes in an all too cosy relationship with local business and particularly the construction industry. Part of the problem is that the civil staff will all lose their jobs if Yumi is not elected which makes it in their interest not to act with total transparency. Tanimura hadn’t really cared about that before, each time when questioned replying only “that’s just how it is” but slowing beginning to realise that it doesn’t need to be and really it isn’t OK. Despite her eccentricity and impulsiveness Yumi would as Tanimura can see make a good politician if not one ideally suited to a conservative party. Threatening suicide from the roof of a three storey building she decries political apathy in Japan, explaining that they need to remind the people that this is really about them and that politics is not pointless because change can happen while the jaded secretaries roll their eyes and giggle setting up a crash mat in the event that she is not actually bluffing. 

What she decides to do is try to loose deliberately, but everything she tries just backfires. A series of offensive racist rants far from ruining her reputation pick her up new votes from members of the far right who previously felt unrepresented while even planting false stories in the press that she is a drug user with a criminal record doesn’t seem to dent her approval rating. Just as Yumi’s comments about the birthrate echoed those of other gaffe-prone LDP politicians such as Mio Sugita, Yumi and a reformed Tanimura even film a fake video of her pretending to abuse one of her staff directly echoing that of Mayuko Toyota who was forced to stand down after an embarrassing video of her calling her aide “baldly” while beating him went viral, but her popularity only increases. As a last resort they release video footage of her father accepting bribes and have her deny it so it becomes obvious that she lied, but her dishonesty makes no difference to the average voter. 

The cynical secretaries had indicated that ordinarily speaking they’d ride a scandal out because another one will be along before too long to knock it off the front page. Yumi’s whistle blowing plan fails again because of collusion with the local media who despite sniffing around for a story won’t run anything too negative lest they lose their access to the halls of government. The secretaries then get lucky when a possible North Korean missile strike bumps the bribery affair onto the back pages, a video of the staff laughing and cheering their near escape even becoming a meme on social media. Yumi’s resentment is in rooted in her powerless, refusing to be a puppet for local bigwigs, but it may also be true that once she’s elected they have no real power over her and changing the system from the inside may ironically become a real possibility if only she herself can overcome her conviction that nothing is ever going to change. “This is not the world you expected.” Tanimura admits, “accept it and fight”. A throwback to the films of Juzo Itami, Yumi is very much the kind of character Nobuko Miyamoto might have played in one of her “woman” films if perhaps a little more cynical. The Sunday Runoff is decidedly more barbed if at least as pointed in its criticism of incestous local politics, but in the end does believe that real change may indeed be possible if only you’re willing to fight for it. 


The Sunday Runoff streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Popran (ポプラン, Shinichiro Ueda, 2022)

“Wieners are stuck to the body, they can’t go flying!” a confused father attempts to convince his toddler son, but as the young boy had said that isn’t quite the case. The hero of Shinichiro Ueda’s Popran (ポプラン) has been, well, to put it bluntly, a bit of a dick to just about everyone in his life but when even his bits seem to have become tired of his schtick it can’t help but provide something of a wakeup call. More surrealist morality drama than scatological comedy, Popran’s heart at least is in the right place as its hero attempts to, literally, piece himself back together to repair his fractured integrity. 

As we first meet 30-ish entrepreneur Tagami (Yoji Minagawa ), he’s being interviewed for a documentary that wants to explore the real lives of well-known people. As might be expected, the opening questions are fawning, pointing out his vast success at such a young age as the developer of app and manga publishing platform but the atmosphere soon changes when they stray into less positive territory. It seems Tagami’s success might have come as a result of betraying his old friend and business partner, while he also abandoned his wife and child to chase success in Tokyo and apparently has become estranged from his parents. His well-meaning PR shuts down the interviewer’s attempts to ask anything remotely challenging, yet it’s obvious that something inside Tagami is dying even as he reads out a cheesy speech he’d written about the importance of following the compass of your heart from a cue card held up by his assistant. 

We can see what kind of man he is or has been when an excited employee approaches him in the corridor about an exciting project but, feigning politeness, he has to ask his assistant who the guy was once he’s gone. At a birthday party for one of their writers, he leers over a woman sitting behind him and offers to introduce her to their editing department when she tells him she’s interested in writing something herself despite his clearly stated policy of not running original material only buying rights to distribute perennially popular series. It’s after taking her to bed with false promises that he discovers his penis is missing. 

More than a symbol of his masculinity, the errant penis is an indictor of his misplaced desires and lack of both moral fibre and impulse control. To achieve success he’s screwed over countless people besides the young woman who seems to have been the last straw for his literally alienated genitalia leaving a trail emotional chaos in his wake. After discovering that he is not the only one to fall victim to the “Popran” phenomenon he is forced to face himself, his moral cowardice, anxieties, and fears, and reckon with his sense of inadequacy and disappointment. Just as in the message he’d delivered to the youngsters watching the documentary, he too needs to take a look at the compass of his heart and realise he’s been reading it wrong chasing down his penis with a butterfly net before realising he knew where it was all along he just needed to go back to where it all started and remember who he really is. 

Then again, there is perhaps something of frustrated masculinity in Tagami’s quest. As his friend point out, he makes all his money exploiting other people’s labour while offering nothing new of his own. In the interview, he’d said he wanted to be a mangaka but felt he wasn’t good enough so decided to become a distributor instead setting up the company with a colleague from the manga cafe where he was working. But they parted ways because his friend wanted to publish original material and with his eye on the bottom line Tagami forced him out. Where his friend is now running a small studio from his apartment and even while not wealthy creatively fulfilled, Tagami has become rich but empty. Obviously that’s not to say there’s no value in the kind of work he does, but he’s begun to appropriate others’ success as his own with no real thought for their well-being. Chasing his dick around is also in its way a desire to regain his creative mojo as symbolised in his re-energised commitment to publishing original material rather than simply raking in royalties from safe and stable classics.  

As is often pointed out to him, his fantastical tale sounds like something out of a manga though Popran is certainly less reflexive than Ueda’s previous efforts telling a story which is much smaller in scale though also in its way heartwarming as the hero is pulled around by the penises of past and present if not future before reaching a moment of emotional maturity that allows him to exercise a more healthy control over his desires knocking his dickish behaviour on the head to wise up and realise being a man’s about treating others with respect and dignity. Some things you can’t just stick back on if they fall off, but you can at least acknowledge that you should have treated them better and resolve to be happy that they have at least found better futures as you might yourself if only you can figure out which compass to follow. 


Popran streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Ⓒ ”Popran” Film Partners

Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Takuma Sato, 2020)

“Get your act together” an exasperated new mother exclaims, but it seems even new fatherhood isn’t quite enough to jolt the aimless hero of Takuma Sato’s paternity drama Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Nakuko wa Inega) into accepting his responsibility. Fatherhood is indeed a daunting prospect, however Sato isn’t interested solely in Tasuku’s (Taiga Nakano) attempts to “grow up” and embody the ideals of masculinity in a patriarchal society but also in the nature of fatherhood itself along with its legacies and the effects of male failure on those caught in its wake. 

Everyone in the small town of Oga seems to be aware that Tasuku has undergone a shotgun marriage though it’s more the subject of gentle ribbing than scorn or disdain. Many remark on his relative youth, though he’s perhaps not so much younger than his parents might have been when he was born it’s just that times have changed. In any case, his wife, Kotone (Riho Yoshioka), is beginning to get fed up with him worried that he isn’t ready to be a father and isn’t taking the responsibility seriously enough. As young men do he still drinks like a single man and is vulnerable to peer pressure. Kotone begs him not to participate in the local Namahage festival but he insists they have to keep the tradition alive while apparently feeling an obligation to Mr. Natsui (Toshiro Yanagiba) who ensures it continues. She makes him promise not to drink, and he does his best in the beginning but, paradoxically, the Namahage is a drinking festival. Soon enough, Tasuku has had a little too much and beginning to feel hot takes off all his clothes, running around in the nude save for the large oni mask on his face while local reporters there to cover the traditional festival decide to make him a viral sensation. Unable to bear the shame, Tasuku abandons his wife and child and runs away to anonymity in Tokyo. 

The irony is that introducing the festival to the reporters, Mr. Natsui had flagged it up as a bastion of family values, that it’s not about “scaring” children but teaching them “good ethics” while reassuring them that their fathers will always protect them. According to Mr. Natsui, those children then grow up to become fathers who protect their offspring, Tasuku’s unfortunate streaking somewhat undermining his argument. It’s interesting in a sense that Tasuku is himself fatherless, his father having passed away some years earlier leaving not much of himself behind other than the oni masks he carved for the Namahage. Tasuku’s brother (Takashi Yamanaka), who was supposed to be getting married but apparently did not perhaps because of Tasuku’s scandal, later becomes upset on deciding to sell the family business lamenting that he was able to save “nothing” of his father, rejecting the Namahage mask that Tasuku offers him as “trash” while acknowledging perhaps that the Namahage is all is he left them along with the transitory lessons it imparts. 

Tasuku was clearly not quite ready to be a dad, but having spent some time growing up and hearing that his father-in-law has passed away leaving his ex with little choice than to work as a bar hostess on the fringes of the sex trade, he decides to go home and try to make amends. He swears repeatedly that he won’t run away again and will do whatever it takes until he’s forgiven, but still he flounders failing to find secure employment while periodically visiting his grandmother in a nursing home and helping his mother (Kimiko Yo) out selling traditional ice creams at local tourist attractions. “You’re not the only one who can be Nagi’s father” she reminds him as he perhaps begins to realise that there are some bonds you can’t repair even if you’re eventually forgiven for having broken them. 

Performing the Namahage forces Tasuku uncomfortably into the role of the authoritarian father safe scaring the child in order to instil in them a sense of confidence that encourages them not to be afraid of life, in the way that he may ironically be, because there will always be someone there waiting to catch them. The ability to protect a family is a defining feature of the masculine ideal, and the Namahage in its way perpetuates outdated ideas of gendered social roles while Tasuku’s mother and even grandmother are always there for him with unconditional acceptance, supporting him even in the depths of his “disgrace” and encouraging him to move forward even if that means accepting defeat. Keeping the Namahage alive is also in a sense to preserve the paternal legacy, just as Tasuku’s father may have passed nothing else down to his sons so Tasuku may find he has nothing more to offer, perhaps no longer a “crybaby” but still struggling to shift into the role of the father even while belatedly coming of age in the knowledge that he may have left it too late. 


Any Crybabies Around? streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection. For viewers outside of Germany it is also available to stream in many territories via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)