Our 30-Minute Sessions (サヨナラまでの30分, Kentaro Hagiwara, 2020)

“I want to move on” a grieving young woman explains, though perhaps ironically heading in the wrong direction. A youthful take on learning to live with loss, Our 30-Minute Sessions (サヨナラまでの30分, Sayonara made no 30-bun) finds a group of college hopefuls shattered by the unexpected death of a charismatic friend leaving them each lost, moving on in one sense but treading water in another uncertain what to do with the unfulfilled potential of their adolescent memories. Yet, through ghostly intervention, what they eventually realise is that nothing’s ever really lost, the echoes of those memories merely add to the great symphony life and all you can do in the end is learn to play along with it. 

That’s something introverted college student Sota (Takumi Kitamura) has however struggled with, unable to emerge from the trauma of losing his mother at a young age. As we first meet him, he’s subjected to a painful group interview for a regular salaryman job at which they ask about the memories he’s made with his university friends but rather than come up with a convincing lie, Sota honestly tells them he has no friends and that’s a good thing because it means he’s free to dedicate himself to work 100%. As expected, he gets a rather brutal rejection text before he’s even reached the lift, pausing only to rudely but perhaps accurately decline an invitation to join a WhatsApp group with the other hopefuls for the reason that it’s “pointless” because they’re unlikely to meet again. 

Sota doesn’t like to share his space with other people, but after noticing a walkman abandoned at a disused swimming pool finds himself a permanent host to Aki (Mackenyu), recently deceased lead singer of up-and-coming college band Echoll. Unlike Sota, Aki is charismatic and outgoing, every inch the rock star but less cocky than aggressively caring. It pains him that the thing he left unfinished has fallen apart in his absence and that all his friends seem to have given up their dreams and aspirations in life. For unknown reasons it seems that when Sota presses the play button on the walkman, it allows Aki to take over his body for the length of a single side of a cassette tape temporarily lending him the swagger and verve hitherto missing in his life even if he claimed not to particularly have missed them. 

In fact, Sota quite enjoys the arrangement because it means he doesn’t quite exist for the time the tape is playing, other people are no threat to him in his literal invisibility. Yet over time, a conflict obviously develops especially as the main thrust of Aki’s mission is healing his former girlfriend’s broken heart. Having lost her love of music, Kana (Sayu Kubota) has spent the last year largely inside working her way through a book of daily soup recipes that only her mother tastes. She claims she’s “moved on”, but in reality has done anything but caught in a kind of limbo unable to let go of her guilt and memories of lost love while conflicted as she bonds with the shy and introverted Sota himself it turns out also a frustrated musician.

A poignant reminder of Aki’s unfinished business as he and his friends attempt to find a degree of accommodation with loss the Japanese title translates more closely to “30 minutes to goodbye”, but there’s also something in the Japanese for playback (再生) equating to “again life” as it grants the late singer a temporary resurrection if one that lasts only the length of a set list. Perhaps a hipsterish affectation, the love of the outdated analogue recording mechanism, besides its practical advantages, provides a tangible proof of life albeit a fallible one in which every attempt to replay necessarily weakens integrity. Yet as a veteran later puts it, no matter how many times the tape is erased and overwritten, traces of previous recordings remain becoming in a sense just one of many layers that add depth and richness to the quality of the whole. 

The bandmates begin to realise that starting over doesn’t mean forgetting Aki or betraying his memory, they don’t have to leave him behind but can in a sense take him with them in the memories they share while Sota eventually begins to see the joy in human interaction and the power of connecting through music shedding his introversion in the knowledge that not all friendships are inauthentic and even if someone makes an early exit they leave traces of themselves behind on which others can build. A stylistically interesting take on the band movie with a fantastic soundtrack of convincing college rock hits, Our 30-Minute Sessions is a classic coming-of-age drama but one dedicated perhaps less to the art of moving on than to that of moving forward adding new notes to an ever expanding symphony of life.


Our 30-Minute Sessions streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

his (Rikiya Imaizumi, 2020)

Though Japanese society is often regarded as comparatively liberal, that liberality can sometimes reflect a superficial politeness and respect of discretion more than true acceptance. Though several prefectures have now made local provision for same sex unions, Japan lacks a basic anti-discrimination law at the national level protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people and has often been slow to accommodate social change especially when it comes to the organisation of the family unit. The journey of the two men at the centre of Rikiya Imaizumi’s his, a sequel to the TV drama of the same name set some years earlier, perhaps travels at a rapid pace from internalised homophobia to the acceptance of identity and foundation of a home but mirrors the path of society at large as it edges its way towards the truly liberal in which all are free to live in the way they choose. 

Beginning with an ending, Imaizumi opens in the “past” as Shun (Hio Miyazawa), now an isolated young man living alone in the country, dwells on ancient heartbreak as his first love Nagisa (Kisetsu Fujiwara) abruptly breaks up with him as they prepare to graduate from university. We subsequently discover that Shun got a regular salaryman job but remained in the closet only for rumours to circulate around him at work forcing him to endure the casual homophobia of his co-workers at the compulsory nomikai all the while denying his true identity. This seems to be the reason that he’s taken up the offer of cheap rural housing designed to bring the young back to the depopulated countryside and has been largely keeping himself to himself, growing his own produce and deliberately keeping the locals at arms’ length. All that starts to change, however, when Nagisa suddenly turns up on his doorstep with his six-year-old daughter Sora (Sakura Sotomura) in tow. 

Though not exactly overjoyed, Shun allows the pair to stay but remains conflicted unsure what it is Nagisa wants from him and also fearful of his new life being derailed should the local community discover what it is that he’s so obviously in hiding from. Nagisa, meanwhile, apparently broke up with him for the same reasons, afraid to continue into his adult life as an openly gay man eventually travelling to Australia where he drifted into a relationship with a Japanese woman, Rena (Wakana Matsumoto), working as an interpreter with whom he later conceived a child and formed a conventional family. Struggling with himself he tried to maintain the facade through casual relationships with men, but discovered that he couldn’t make it work and unlike Shun decided the only way out of his predicament was to embrace his sexuality and attempt to live a more authentic life with the man he never stopped loving. 

Having pursued contradictory solutions to the same problem, the two men find themselves still in some senses at odds even as they reunite in their obvious love for each other. Nagisa envisages for them a family life raising Sora together and with the help of his sympathetic, supportive lawyer intends to have his conviction vindicated by a verdict in law but his former wife, while not openly hostile if obviously hurt and feeling humiliated in having been deceived, wishes to retain custody of her daughter even though she was not the primary caregiver. The court battle opens a veritable can of worms in a fiercely patriarchal, conformist society, Nagisa’s lawyer reminding him that he has an uphill battle because society inherently believes that women are better suited to childrearing. Rena’s lawyer throws the homophobic book at them, describing the relationship between the two men as “eccentric”, implying it cannot be other than harmful to Sora not least because of the bullying and social stigma she may face as a daughter raised by two fathers. Even the judge agrees that the situation is “not exactly normal”, though in this he may have a point in the fact that Nagisa had been a househusband and his wife the breadwinner, still an extraordinarily unusual family setup in a society in which women are expected to shoulder the domestic burden sacrificing their careers in the process. 

Indeed, it’s this same paradox that Nagisa’s female lawyer eventually throws back at Rena, that she cannot claim to adequately care for her daughter while working especially as she is a freelancer whose hours are often unpredictable. Rena had been reluctant to involve her family because of the shame of admitting her marriage has failed and for the reason it has but is later forced to ask her mother for childcare assistance only to receive a curt “I told you so” which speaks volumes as to the quality of their relationship. Meeting in a coffeeshop Rena looks at her mother looking askance with mild though unvoiced disgust at two men holding hands, reflecting both on her unforgiving austerity and her relationship with her granddaughter. The two women obviously differ when it comes to childrearing philosophy, Rena not wanting her daughter to suffer in the same way she has suffered because of her mother’s unforgiving conservatism and is extremely worried on being called to the school and told that Sora, who had previously been so cheerful and outgoing, has become sullen and withdrawn. 

Yet Sora is perhaps the force which allows each of her parents to accept themselves for who they are and embrace their true identities. Worried that she might be a burden to her mother who often drinks and appears to resent her for interfering with her work, Sora wonders why everyone can’t just get along and live together happily. She sees nothing “weird” in her father’s new relationship, though perhaps fails to understand why the four of them might not be able to live together as a family. Supported by Sora, Shun begins accept himself for himself, eventually coming out to the community and finding them entirely unbothered by his revelation bearing out the commonly held belief that small rural communities are often far more liberal than the famously conservative capital. Filled with a sense of love and mutual support, his presents a perhaps idealistic view of the modern society but an infinitely hopeful one as the three adults resolve to be kinder to themselves and others as they move forward together into a happier, more authentic existence. 


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1962)

Yoshitaro Nomura is most closely associated with the thriller and particularly with its lower end as a purveyor of B-movie noir, yet look a little closer and his films are perhaps not really about crime at all but about the complicated relationships between people in the ever changing post-war society. Just as Stakeout is really about a policeman’s marriage, Tokyo Bay (東京湾, Tokyowan) is less concerned with the radiating corruption of the smuggling ring at its centre than with frustrated male friendship and the wartime legacy.

Opening with an aerial pan over post-war Tokyo, a title card informs us that this is just one frame in the “intense struggle for existence” in a city of 10 million before we arrive at the titular bay and a boat which is presumably carrying drugs later passed from one hand to another. The fixer, Takeyama (Kei Sato), talks to a man in a car and instructs him to be in front of the Taiyo building before 10am to pick up a golf bag from his contact. Gazing up at a post-war construction site, however, the man, Saeki (Jun Hamamura), is shot in the head and killed by a bullet piercing the roof of his car, Nomura suddenly switching to a disorientating POV shot as he twists in a sudden death spiral. 

As it turns out, Saeki was a plant, an undercover cop with the drugs squad sent to expose the smuggling ring the shadowy owners of which will predictably turn out to have Chinese connections in another echo of post-war cinema’s continuing Sinophobia. Two officers are assigned to the case, the young and earnest Akine (Jiro Ishizaki), and the veteran Sumikawa (Ko Nishimura) who acts largely on a series of inexplicable policeman’s hunches. Their major lead, however, comes as a stroke either of dumb luck or dark fate as Sumikawa, dodging into a dodgy mahjong parlour while tailing Takeyama, runs into an old army buddy, Inoue (Isao Tamagawa), who just happens to be a left-handed sniper perfectly matching the profile of the man they’ve been looking for. 

While Sumikawa keeps tabs on his old friend, somehow feeling he has something to do with all this but ambivalent in his torn responsibilities, Akine travels to Inoue’s hometown of Onomichi and sympathetically concludes that he was merely “rather unfortunate”. His life derailed by the war, Inoue returned to discover the girl he hoped to marry had married someone else. Giving evidence at Inoue’s trial for pulling a knife on her husband, the young woman remarks that she never promised him anything and did not consider their relationship to be serious, merely treating him with the politeness due to someone about to leave for war. In any case, she asks, even if she had been in love and intended to wait for him, as an orphaned woman there were only two choices open to her to survive, marriage or sex work, what else could she have done?

Back in Tokyo, Sumikawa begins to catch up with his old friend, realising that his romantic disappointment set him on a dark course of bad relationships and a drift towards crime but that he seems to have turned himself around. He is now happily married to a woman he describes as “simple” who seems devoted to him and if he did this, he did it to start again. His one last job intended to take him back to Onomichi, a pleasant coastal town the bay of which he describes as far more beautiful than that of the grimy, industrial Tokyo and largely untouched by urban corruption. Sumikawa feels himself torn, not least on account of the debt that exists between the two men because Inoue once saved his life, but also knowing that he may have to arrest this man and destroy his attempt to return to a more innocent world leaving his wife alone. Disapproving of the nascent relationship between his younger sister Yukiko (Hiromi Sakaki) and his partner, Sumikawa worries Akine may be becoming the kind of man who cares more for making an arrest than friendship, a conflict presumably weighing on his mind, even as he agrees he’s a good man and a good police officer. Yukiko meanwhile fires back that Sumikawa’s wife left him not because he is a policeman but because he is selfish and arrogant, and more to the point incapable of understanding a woman’s feelings. 

Nevertheless, he’s acutely aware of the effect his actions or inactions may have on Inoue’s wife Yoshiko (Kyoko Aoi), especially as it’s suggested she may need a degree of looking after. Inoue, careful to admit nothing, reveals that the man who carried out the hit may not have known he was killing a police officer but may have assumed the target was fair game being, like themselves, a denizen of the underworld. Largely a MacGuffin, the smuggling ring is not as important as one might assume, the two men locked into a cycle of guilt and retribution each marked by wartime trauma and in a sense unable to claim their place in the post-war society. Twin betrayals lead to a fateful, train-bound showdown shot with fraught claustrophobia as each man engages in an intense struggle for his survival but also perhaps already defeated in a shared sense of fatalistic nihilism. Trekking through the half-constructed streets of the post-war city with shaky handheld Nomura hints at the radiating corruption exemplified by the growth of the trade in drugs, but perhaps one corruption is merely the result of another which may in turn be far less easy to cure. 


Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie (グッドバイ~嘘からはじまる人生喜劇~, Izuru Narushima, 2019)

“You wrote that a man should be pure and honest” a conflicted editor reminds his friend, “yes”, he replies, “but that was fiction.” Osamu Dazai is not particularly remembered for his sense of humour, but Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie (グッドバイ~嘘からはじまる人生喜劇~, Goodbye, Uso kara Hajimaru Jinsei Kigeki) adapted from a play by Keralino Sandrovich (Crime or Punishment?!?) inspired by his final and in fact unfinished novel Goodbye is a dark-hearted farce grafting ‘30s screwball comedy onto an ironic satire of heartless post-war capitalism through the prism of one man’s emotional cowardice. 

As the black and white newsreel-style opening informs us, literary magazine editor Tajima (Yo Oizumi) made a bit of money on the black market amid post-war chaos but is beginning to feel conflicted about his Tokyo existence especially after receiving a postcard from his small daughter Sachiko in provincial Aomori whom he hasn’t seen since her infancy. His problem is that he’s an inveterate womaniser with several mistresses on the go at once who ironically all already know that he’s a married man, to that extent “honest” at least, but remain unaware of each other. Suddenly wanting to reform his image and become a proper father to his little girl, he’s realising he ought to sort out his problematic love life but Tajima is also the sort of man who can’t bear unpleasantness and is too frightened to break up with his lady friends in case they cry. His writer friend, Rengyo (Yutaka Matsushige), comes up with a cunning ruse – find a pretty woman to pretend to be his long absent wife returned and the mistresses will most likely retreat voluntarily. Tajima decides to do just that on catching sight of a beautiful lady through a peephole in the gents at a bathhouse only she turns out to be someone he already knows, manly black-markeeter Kinuko (Eiko Koike) who secretly loves dressing up in the latest fashions. 

Kinuko is in a sense everything Tajima is not. An abandoned child, she’s learned to take care of herself and is strong both physically and emotionally. She agrees to help him with his nefarious plan because he offers to pay her handsomely, feeding her well in her copious desire for food which perhaps indicates her strong desire to live in a society where many are starving. She’s a black-marketeer because that’s all that’s left for her to be and perhaps has made her peace with exploiting the desperation of others in the knowledge that they also need the service she provides. In any case, she won’t let herself be trampled, frequently getting into fights with male dealers and later throwing Tajima off a balcony when he follows some bad advice from Rengyo and attempts to seduce her in the hope that then he wouldn’t have to pay her for participating in his scheme to rid himself of extraneous women. 

Yet it’s also clear that it’s women who are most at the mercy of the times, Tajima’s first mistress being a heartbroken war widow (Tamaki Ogawa) making a living as a florist who later attempts suicide after saying “Goodbye” to Tajima and the possibility of romantic salvation from post-war hopelessness (though her involvement with him does perhaps eventually lead her to that). The second mistress is a young painter (Ai Hashimoto) who approached him for work on the magazine attempting to support herself while her brother (Sarutoki Minagawa) remained in a Siberian labour camp, and the third is a self-assured doctor (Asami Mizukawa) looking perhaps for company though seemingly aware that Tajima is a weak-willed, unreliable man. His wife, Shizue (Tae Kimura), meanwhile, has become fed up with waiting for him to accept his male responsibility as a husband and father and unbeknownst to him his plans to keep her looked after may have backfired. 

Yet strangely Kinuko finds herself falling for the “pathetic” Tajima without quite knowing why while he perhaps begins to accept that maybe what he needs is a capable woman to look after him because he is after all too cowardly to look after himself. He’s fond of saying that the war changed everything for everyone, but she points out that her life has always been one of scrappy survival and now perhaps they are all equal in that. The post-war world however seems to be in permanent decline, an associate of Tajima’s (Gaku Hamada) eventually becoming accidentally rich, buying a suburban mansion, dressing in a garish white suit and snarling with a mouth full of gold teeth as he advances that money is everything and can even love can be bought. In this at least it turns out he may be wrong. Taking a “detour” allows Tajima to shed his commitment phobia and finally say “Goodbye” to post-war limbo in embracing both a desire to live and the possibility of enduring love. 


Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blue Ribbon Awards Announces Winners for 63rd Edition

The Blue Ribbon Awards, presented by film critics and writers in Tokyo, has announced the winners for the 63rd edition which honours films released in 2020. Fukushima 50, a tense dramatisation of the efforts to mitigate the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, takes Best Film while Ryota Nakano takes home Best Director for The Asadas, Masami Nagasawa picks up Best Actress for her second consecutive year reprising her role in The Confidence Man JP, and Tsuyoshi Kusanagi takes Best Actor for his role as a transgender woman. Owing to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there will be no physical ceremony for this year’s awards.

Best Film  

Fukushima 50 – Setsuro Wakamatsu draws inspiration from Ryusho Kadota’s nonfiction book to pay tribute to the workers who stayed behind during the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Best 10

Presented in no particular order.

  • True Mothers – heartbreaking drama from Naomi Kawase in which a young couple adopt a baby only for the birth mother to resurface
  • The Asadas – latest from Ryota Nakano starring Kazunari Ninomiya inspired by the life of photographer Masashi Asada.
  • Underdog – boxing drama from Masaharu Take.
  • Ito – Heisei love story inspired by the classic Miyuki Nakajima song, directed by Takahisa Zeze, and starring Nana Komatsu & Masaki Suda
  • Theatre: A Love Story – A self-obsessed writer slowly destroys the joy and hope of a woman he claims to love then turns it into art in Isao Yukisada’s dark romance
  • Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train – record breaking movie of the hit TV anime in which a boy in the Taisho era tries to heal his younger sister after she is turned into a demon
  • Wife of a Spy – 8K wartime drama from Kiyoshi Kurosawa in which Yu Aoi tries to stop her husband Issey Takahashi from blowing the whistle after witnessing atrocity in Manchuria.
  • The Voice of Sin – Shun Oguri stars as a reporter investigating a 30-year-old unsolved case.
  • Fukushima 50 – Setsuro Wakamatsu draws inspiration from Ryusho Kadota’s nonfiction book to pay tribute to the workers who stayed behind during the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant.
  • Midnight Swan – ex-SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi stars as a transgender woman who takes in a little girl neglected by her parents.

Best 10 Runners up

Presented in no particular order

  • A Beloved Wife – An unsuccessful screenwriter is henpecked by his understandably irate sake-guzzling wife in this autobiographical take on a toxic marriage.
  • Kyou Kara Ore Wa!!: The Movie – big screen outing for the TV drama adaptation of the high school delinquent manga by Hiroyuki Nishimori directed by Yuichi Fukuda..
  • The Confidence Man JP: Princess – sequel in which the gang of scammers try their luck in Malaysia
  • Any Crybabies Around? – a young man flees his family in embarrassment after going viral for getting drunk and being naked at a festival only to return two years later to make it up to them.
  • First Love – boxing drama from Takashi Miike
  • Mother – Masami Nagasawa stars as an abusive mother who pushes her teenage son towards murder.
  • Mishima: The Last Debate – documentary focussing on Yukio Mishima’s address to the students at the University of Tokyo in 1969
  • Minoriyuku – drama about an apple farmer who was born with a stammer and dreams of becoming a comedian.
  • Mio’s Cookbook – Haruki Kadokawa period drama in which a woman who lost her parents in a flood discovers a talent for cooking.
  • Yowamushi Pedal – live action adaptation of the popular high school bicycle racing manga.

Best Director

  • Eiji Uchida (Midnight Swan)
  • Naomi Kawase (True Mothers)
  • Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Wife of a Spy)
  • Nobuhiro Doi (The Voice of Sin)
  • Ryota Nakano (The Asadas)

Best Actor

  • Shun Oguri (The Voice of Sin)
  • Tsuyoshi Kusanagi (Midnight Swan)
  • Koichi Sato (Fukushima 50)
  • Kazunari Ninomiya (The Asadas)
  • Mirai Moriyama (Underdog)

Best Actress

  • Yu Aoi (Wife of a Spy)
  • Mana Ashida (Child of the Stars)
  • Hiromi Nagasaku (True Mothers)
  • Masami Nagasawa (Mother / The Confidence Man JP: Princess)
  • Asami Mizukawa (A Beloved Wife)

Best Supporting Actor

  • Satoshi Tsumabuki (The Asadas / I Never Shot Anyone)
  • Ryo Narita (The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese / Ito)
  • Masahiro Higashide (The Confidence Man JP: Princess / Wife of a Spy)
  • Gen Hoshino (The Voice of Sin)
  • Ken Watanabe (Fukushima 50)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Sairi Ito (Theatre: A Love Story / Step / Junihitoe wo Kita Akuma / Hotel Royal)
  • Nana Eikura (Ito)
  • Haru Kuroki (The Asadas)
  • Becky (First Love)
  • Aju Makita (True Mothers)

Best Newcomer

  • Daiken Okudaira (Mother)
  • Sakurako Konishi (First Love)
  • Nao (Mio’s Cookbook / Stigmatized Properties)
  • Misaki Hattori (Midnight Swan)
  • Hio Miyazawa (his)
  • Nana Mori (Last Letter)

Best Foreign Film

Parasite

Foreign Film Best 10

13 because of multiple ties. Presented in no particular order

  • Never Look Away
  • 1917
  • Judy
  • Bombshell
  • Little Women
  • Tenet
  • Onward 
  • House of Hummingbird
  • Parasite
  • The Farewell
  • Ford v Ferrari (AKA Le Mans ’66 in some territories)
  • Midsommar 
  • Wonder Woman 1984

Foreign Film Best 10 Runners Up

Presented in no particular order

  • Mr Jones
  • The Painted Bird
  • Abe
  • Cats
  • The Kindness of Strangers 
  • Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey  
  • A Rainy Day in New York 

Sources: Eiga NatalieSports Hochi

Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Chang Guangxi, 1999)

“I only want to have a normal life” a wronged woman complains on discovering that it’s almost impossible to escape the tyranny of the celestial realm and most particularly if you are a goddess. Released in 1999, Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Băo Lián Dēng) apparently took over four years to produce requiring 150,000 animation cells and 2000 painted backgrounds, and like much of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s output is inspired by a well-known folktale celebrating filial love and in fact featuring the Monkey King himself in a small role. Unlike the studio’s earlier work however and despite its roots in Chinese folklore, Lotus Lantern perhaps owes much more to Disney’s ‘90s renaissance than it does to the nation’s animation history. 

Animated in a classic 4:3, the tale opens with a voiceover as a scarf elegantly falls to Earth and into the arms of a young man. Defying her brother Yang Jian’s (Jiang Wen) wishes, the goddess Sanshengmu (Xu Fan) has chosen to leave the realm of the immortals to be with the man she loves taking the famed Lotus Lantern with her in an attempt to evade his control. He however finds her and attacks the pair with his eye lasers. Sanshengmu’s lover is killed but she gives birth to a son, Chenxiang (at 7: Yu Pengfei / at 14: Yang Shuo), and lives happily with him in the mortal realm for seven years until the flame in the Lotus Lantern is extinguished allowing Yang Jian to track her down and kidnap Chenxiang to force her to return. She tries to bargain with her brother but as she later puts it Heaven Temple lacks compassion and so he imprisons her underneath a mountain and tells Chenxiang his mother is dead. Chenxiang does not believe him and is determined to get the Lotus Lantern back, especially after a cryptic visit from the God of Land hints the same fate as befell the Monkey King, who has since become a Buddha, may have befallen his mother. 

First and foremost a tale of filial love and devotion, Lotus Lantern is also another subversively anti-authoritarian rebuke against heartless celestial tyranny. We learn than Sanshengmu’s mother also loved a mortal, yet her brother refuses to forgive her for this apparent transgression against the law of heaven, burying her under a mountain while vowing to raise her son as his own in accordance with filial piety. Meanwhile, he’s also quietly terrorising a community of non-Han Chinese trying to force them to carve a colossal statue of him by kidnapping the chief’s daughter Ga Mei (Ning Jing) and keeping her in Heaven Temple as a maid. Yet Yang Jian isn’t the only problem. The God of Land tells Chenxiang to seek out the Monkey King (Chen Peisi) for advice on busting out of a mountain, but now that he’s become a Buddha Sun Wukong has no interest in helping. Indifferent to all things, he believes suffering is a path to enlightenment and sees no reason to help Chenxiang alleviate his by showing him how to rescue his mother. 

Then again, the mortal world’s not much better. The first person Chenxiang meets on his quest turns out to be a dodgy priest who claims he knows where to find the Monkey King and can even help Chenxiang with his training but predictably ends up kidnapping his pet monkey and exploiting it as part of a fairground act even members of the crowd complain is cruel and distasteful. Nevertheless, after reuniting with his monkey buddy Chenxiang trudges on looking for a way to release his mother from under the mountain, finally moving the Monkey King by needling him about his own sense of maternal abandonment in his apparently parentless genesis. In this unsteady world, it seems to say, the only true thing is a boy’s love for his mother though a conflict perhaps arises after another seven year jump reunites Chenxiang with Ga Mei who has been returned to her tribe and probably should be his love interest if he were not currently fixated on his filiality. 

Yet as the disembodied voice of his mother reminds him, only by embracing true love which is what Heaven Temple lacks can Chenxiang finally defeat it. Borrowing heavily from Western animation and particularly from classic Disney, Lotus Lantern may in some senses seem old fashioned even for 1999 in its still frame pans and unconvincing effects, but perhaps reflects a desire to take Hollywood on at its own game as the studio found itself needing to commercialise its output especially in its series of musical montages featuring a contemporary pop songs performed by top Mandopop stars while the faces of the A-list voice acting cast are also showcased during the end credits. The approach apparently paid off, Lotus Lantern proved a huge domestic hit and is credited with reinvigorating the Chinese animation industry which had gone into decline in the market-orientated ‘90s. Complete with adorable monkey sidekick there’s certainly no doubting its mass appeal in its warmhearted, family-friendly take on filial devotion.


Lotus Lantern is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Wang Shuchen & Yan Dingxian & Xu Jingda, 1979)

Chinese animation had entered a golden age in the mid-1950s. That however came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Cultural Revolution which saw most studios shut down and many cartoons banned for insufficiently reflecting socialist values or like Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven having subversively seditious themes. Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Nézha Nào Hǎi), released in 1979, was the first feature completed by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio when production resumed following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like Havoc in Heaven, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is also inspired by classic Chinese mythology and features a rebellious hero standing up to oppression in defence of ordinary people at the mercy of corrupt authority. 

As in the classic legend, General Li’s wife has been pregnant for three years only to give birth to a weird fleshy egg that he splits with his sword revealing a lotus flower from which emerges a strange child already capable of walking and talking though little more than an inch high. Luckily, a wise sage soon arrives describing himself as “only an old man who likes to fight for justice and joke around”, and gives Nezha a pill that allows him to grow to a more normal height for a child of around seven. Master Taiyi also gifts him a scarf and golden ring before telling him to visit the Golden Light Cave if he ever runs into trouble. 

Meanwhile, the kingdom is currently experiencing a period of instability because of an ongoing drought caused by the dragon lord of the sea Ao Guang, one of four dragon lords (dare we say a “gang of four”) who just love causing trouble in the mortal realm because they’re awful. To appease Ao Guang, the people have sacrificed a banquet of luxury food, dumping it into the ocean to be conveyed to the Crystal Palace by turtle and stingray minions but all Ao Guang does is complain about the noise of the people protesting before asking an underling to remind General Li that he only wants sacrifices of small children. The sea warrior, however, jumps the gun by snatching one of Nezha’s friends whom he’d allowed to ride his magical deer on the seashore. As expected, Nezha doesn’t like that and gives the sea warrior a telling off though he fails to rescue his friend. Matters quickly escalate as Ao Guang sends his son Ao Bing to sort out Nezha but Nezha kills him in dragon form and strips out his spine to use as a whip so as you can imagine there is a sharp decline in diplomatic relations. 

Though children’s animation in this era was perhaps darker and bloodier the world over, it has to be said that the world of Nezha is especially extreme. Not only does Nezha use his enemy’s spine as a weapon, but his own father later tries to kill him to appease Ao Guang while he himself makes a brutal and unexpected act of self sacrifice in an attempt to protect his realm and his family from his apparently failed attempt to resist Dragon oppression. The problem, however, remains with the corrupt authority of the Dragon Lords who continue to expect child sacrifice as part of a celestial protection scheme. Thinking they’ve won, the Dragon Lords organise a huge feast at the Crystal Palace all while there is discord in the kingdom. Only the unexpected reappearance of Nezha, now complete with his fiery wheels, can challenge their corrupt rule and free the people from their oppression. 

Though less sophisticated in terms of animation style and more highly stylised, influenced both by social realist art and classical ink painting, Nezha like Havoc in Heaven also makes fantastic use of Peking Opera from the score to the choreography of the battle scenes as Nezha leverages his spear against the swirling Dragon threat. It is also, however, likely to prove disturbing to younger viewers especially in its unexpectedly visceral scene of child suicide not to mention dragon dismemberment and talk of child sacrifice. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that such themes could return so immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution even if it’s true that Nezha, less mischievous than holding an extreme love of justice, challenges corruption rather than the system as he protects the people from overreaching elites. 


Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Wan Laiming, 1961/1964)

The late 1950s to mid-1960s would come to be known as a golden age of Chinese animation ushered in by the pioneering Shanghai Animation Film Studio under the aegis of Wan Laiming who along with his brothers had produced China’s very first animated feature Princess Iron Fan in 1941. Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Dànào Tiāngōng) was conceived soon after Iron Fan’s release but its production was derailed firstly by the continuing Sino-Japanese War and then by the Chinese Civil War that eventually brought Mao Zedong to power. Produced in two parts released in 1961 and 1964 but screened together only in 1965, the film would ironically prove to be the studio’s last before being closed down during the Cultural Revolution. 

Most particularly in this context, the story of Sun Wukong might seem ill-advised even in its definitive cultural capital adapted like Princess Iron Fan from the well-known Journey to the West. The Monkey King as all know is a mischievous scamp forever causing trouble because of his resistance to following the accepted rules of mainstream society, something one might think anathema to a rigid, increasingly authoritarian regime. Yet in the Wans’ characterisation, Sun Wukong is also a good, socialist hero in the guise of a chaotic Robin Hood robbing the Heavens not for himself but to share with all the little monkeys waiting for his return on The Mountain of Flowers and Fruits certain that such luxuries should not be limited to the gods alone and seeking to redistribute them on Earth (if only among his friends). 

Even so, at the heart of the story is a challenge to the celestial authoritarianism of the Jade Emperor and the godly elites who live quite literally in another realm. Lamenting that he is unable to train the little monkeys properly because he can’t get his hands on a weapon befitting his majesty, Sun Wukong is advised to swim to the underwater palace of the East China Sea Dragon and ask him to find something suitable, which he does, but nothing proves up to the talents of the great Monkey King. Finally, hoping to get rid of him, the Dragon King shows Sun Wukong the Gold Cudgel which calms the sea and tells him he can have it if he can take it away. Annoyingly, the Cudgel responds exactly to Sun Wukong’s magic and becomes his trademark giant staff leaving the Dragon King with a problem he can only take to the Jade Emperor. Thereafter succeeds a continuing debate as to how to deal with the Monkey King problem which begins with the decision to tempt Sun Wukong to Heaven by offering him a fancy title and position so they can hopefully keep an eye on him. 

This is perhaps a minor irony and element of subversive satire amid the corruptions of a newly collectivist society in which flattery and title inflation are becoming a persistent problem. Put in charge of the stables, Sun Wukong immediately sets all the horses free which is less of a problem than it sounds and considerably improves conditions for all, only it annoys the austere Horse General who makes the mistake of revealing to Sun Wukong that he’s not really “in charge” at all, sending him right back down to the mountains where he offends the gods by appointing himself “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” in an affront not only to their majesty but the celestial order itself. Some still feel appeasement is the way, that humouring Sun Wukong by pretending to respect his made-up title and convincing him to come back with a better position is the best way to minimise his rebellion but they fail to learn their lessons. On being told he can’t eat the fruit in his garden until a banquet is held and then discovering he’s the only one not invited and everyone is merely humouring him with The Great Sage stuff Sun Wukong is once again offended, deciding he’ll go anyway and then getting extremely drunk and trashing the whole place. 

For this some feel he must die, but Sun Wukong refuses to expire even surviving being baked alive in a pot. Drawing inspiration from classic Peking Opera, the Wan brothers allow Sun Wukong to defeat each of the gods’ various challengers using both his cunning and agility in a series of beautifully choreographed action sequences which leave him standing defiant a thorn in the side of authoritarian power if perhaps one with his heart in the right place, living for the anarchic joy of sharing all his spoils with the ordinary monkeys of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The 2012 restoration of the film keeps both halves together but also reformats the aspect ratio from the original 4:3 to a “modern” widescreen in addition to giving it a 3D makeover. Nevertheless, the flawless and inventive animation along with beautifully painted backgrounds drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings coupled with the use of Peking Opera instrumentation and choreography lend the film a charmingly timeless quality while the subversive themes of resistance to rigid authoritarianism seem to take on new import most particularly in the present day. 


Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Restoration 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)

In the Mood for Love (花樣年華, Wong Kar Wai, 2000)

“That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.” So runs a melancholy title card placed a little before the conclusion of Wong Kar Wai’s Sirkian melodrama, In the Mood For Love (花樣年華). Extracted perhaps from the hero’s nascent foray into romantic fiction, the lines hint both at his plaintive sense of longing for lost love, and also to a changed Hong Kong which leaves the lovers stranded having missed their moment for happiness and thereafter trapped, like so many Wong heroes, in a perpetual evocation of the nostalgic past. 

Set like Days of Being Wild in the Hong Kong of the early 1960s, In the Mood for Love is in a sense an anti-melodrama concerning itself with the other side of an affair as betrayed spouses find in each other a kind of solace which ironically leads to love but a love that can never truly be fulfilled. Reporter Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) first brushes past secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), sharing a name with the lovelorn box office girl of Days of Being Wild, when he attempts to rent a room for himself and his wife only to discover she has already taken it. The couple next door, however, are also looking to rent out their spare room now their son has married and so the pair find themselves next-door neighbours. Their respective spouses, seen only from behind and heard only on the other end of telephone calls or distantly from another room, eventually become more than that, their affair exposed as much as by their excessive business trips and suspicious overtime as by the rather crass practice of buying identical gifts for the illicit lover and legal partner, something also practiced by Li-zhen’s sleazy boss (Kelly Lai Chen) who enlists her husband to pick up a pair of handbags for wife and mistress. 

Li-zhen’s husband Chan (Roy Cheung Yiu-Yeung) seems non-plussed by the request but it perhaps gives him ideas, though not particularly good ones considering his mistress lives next-door, Li-Zhen pointing out to Mo-wan that a woman might not like a gift of a handbag identical to that of her neighbour before admitting she’s noticed his wife carrying just that, while Mo-wan is wearing the same tie as Chan who claimed it was a present from his boss which is why he’s been wearing it every day. Confronted on a similar point, Li-zhen’s boss makes a point of changing his tie before meeting his wife for a birthday dinner. Male adultery is, it seems, normalised and to an extent permissible as long it remains a secret even if openly. With her husband so frequently away, however, Li-zhen becomes a figure of suspicion, her landlady Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan Di-hua) warning her that her late night returns have not gone unnoticed while others marvel at her elegance, unable to accept she’s all dressed up just to buy noodles in the rain. 

For all these reasons, the relationship between Mo-wan and Li-zhen must remain chaste and pure even as they consciously role play their adulterous spouses. “We won’t be like them” Li-zhen insists, later echoed by Mo-wan’s admission that “I thought we wouldn’t be like them, but I was wrong.” He wanted to know how it started, and now he does. “Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control” he remarks in a speech which seems to echo Celia Johnson’s shattering revelation in Brief in Encounter “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people”. Like the old busybodies of Coward’s prurient, middle class England, the landlady acts as an enforcer of conventional morality, always on the look out for breach of conduct and believing herself acting in Li-zhen’s best interest even as her admonition leaves her in a moment of virtual collapse, grasping the doorframe for support as her eyes momentarily fill with tears. 

Yet it’s Mrs. Suen’s eventual absence that informs us of a sea change. Years later, in 1966, she’s one of many in an apparent mass exodus fleeing the political instability in the wake of a series of riots against British colonial rule. Mrs. Suen is vacating her apartment to live with her daughter in the US where she may stay indefinitely. The Koos from next-door have already moved to the Philippines to live with their son, laying bare the ongoing expansion of the Hong Kong diaspora. Mo-wan eventually finds himself in Singapore, though fleeing emotional rather than political instability, eventually travelling to Angkor Wat in a failed attempt to exorcise his sadness, while Li-zhen, unable to act on her desires and trapped by patriarchal ideas of conventional morality is, like Happy Together’s Po-Wing, left only with memory living in the metaphorical past of Mrs. Suen’s apartment. Something has changed, a once impossible love may now be possible, but “that era has passed”. The couple have missed their moment, trapped on either side of an unbreachable divide. 

For Mo-wan, “the past is something he could see but not touch” a subject of perpetual longing blurred and indistinct as if seen through a dusty window pane. Working again with Christopher Doyle, Wong’s sweeping cinematography captures Mo-wan’s etherial existence through comparatively restrained composition and use of gentle tracking shots following the lovers as they repeatedly pass each other in shadow on the stairs or wander along the deserted, rainy streets of a midnight city. Like a long slow waltz, In the Mood For Love sends its protagonists spinning back towards opposite sides of the floor, trapped in a world which no longer exists and consumed by an irresolvable longing for the nostalgic past. 


Transfer: presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio though like the other films in the series of 4K restorations featuring the near universal green tint in a significant change for a film known for sumptuous colour and particularly associated with the use of deep reds.


In the Mood for Love is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)