Symbol (しんぼる, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009)

kinopoisk.ruSymbol (しんぼる) – one thing which stands for another, sacrificing its own nature in service of something else. Hitoshi Matsumoto waxes philosophical in his follow up to Big Man Japan. Life, the universe, and everything converge in the seemingly unrelated tales of an unsuccessful Mexican luchador, and a confused Japanese man trapped in a surrealist nightmare. As expected, these two strands eventually meet, though not quite as one might expect.

The Mexican desert, a chain-smoking nun drives erratically towards a small house in which there lives a lucha libre wrestler by the name of Escargot Man (David Quintero) who has a big fight coming up but is worried because his opponent is much younger and stronger than he is.

Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location, a Japanese man wakes up in a pair of colourful polka dotted pyjamas inside an entirely white room. The man screams and rails but gets no reply. Eventually he notices a strangely shaped protrusion on the wall and taps it, at which point a host of tiny cherubs swarms around him before returning to the wall leaving only their tiny penises poking through. The man taps more penises and a host of objects begins to flood the room, each more useless than the last until the man begins to concoct a plan of escape.

Matsumoto lets his Mexican opening drift on indefinitely before abruptly cutting to the bright white walls of the mysterious room. The Mexican vistas are warm, wide, and open as the three generation family fret over the masked father’s destiny as a luchador with grandpa comforting the youngest who finds himself bullied over his dad’s profession while the mother is concerned by her husband’s nervous mood.

The mysterious room, by contrast, contains only a lone Japanese man even if just as strangely dressed. Matsumoto does not skimp on the surrealism as the man is bombarded with a series of totally useless accessories each time he presses one of the penis switches attached to the wall. Beginning with a toothbrush, the man is gifted a bonsai tree, hundreds of chopsticks, a sun lounger, toaster, and so on, each lacking any concrete purpose for his new life in the room save making him both more comfortable and also more frustrated. Irony rules as he receives a sushi lunch with no soy sauce only for a bottle to appear as soon as he’s finished, or he’s presented with the next-but-one volume of a manga he’s been reading but remains eternally unable to acquire the missing book. Eventually he finds a method of possible escape, conducts various trial and error attempts to make it work and then discovers it only leads to a second round gamesmanship with his invisible tormentor.

Unbeknownst to the man, his actions have consequences which begin with the improbable story of the Mexican wrestler and then flood around the world as he keeps tapping switches before literally ascending to a higher plane of existence. Random events are, perhaps, the result of a random button pusher in a far off land, trying and failing to escape his own captivity. Or then again, maybe he is us, endlessly tormented by unseen forces, desperately looking for a way out but left with no other mechanism than trial and error. We follow him through “learning” to “practice” and eventually to “future”, though what he learns through his strange evolution in an Escher-like world of inescapable repetition is debatable.

Strange, absurdist and defying interpretation, Symbol is a surreal escape game played on a universal scale. Matsumoto’s message is permanently unclear and possibly a long form joke, but its playfulness and somehow goodnatured attempt at cosmological exegesis is one which evokes a puzzled smile or exasperated laughter more than irritation at its appropriately obilque coda.


Currently streaming on Mubi.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Wu Kong (悟空传, Derek Kwok, 2017)

Wu KongAs it stands, contemporary Chinese cinema is veering dangerously close to Monkey King fatigue. Stephen Chow brought his particular sensibilities to the classic Journey to the West before Donnie Yen put on a monkey suit for Cheang Pou-soi, both of which were quickly followed by sequels. Eddie Peng is the latest to pick up the staff for Gallants’ Derek Kwok, though this is a much more youthful incarnation of the iconic hero, acting as a kind of prequel to recent incarnations and as a coming of age tale for the titular “demon” as recounted in the popular online novel Legend of Wukong by Jin Hezai. Told in grand style, Kwok’s Wu Kong (悟空传, Kōng Zhuàn) is a star studded box office extravaganza but embraces both extremes of its family friendly, mainstream blockbuster thrills.

So, Sun Wu Kong (the Monkey King), as you know, was born from a stone atop Mount Huaguo  – a remnant of a giant who attempted to battle the heavens but was defeated. Heaven fears the existence of the mischievous demon and determines to destroy him but he’s saved by a teacher who gives him a human form and the name Sun Wu Kong. Devastated by the destruction of his homeland, Wu Kong (Eddie Peng) vows revenge on the Heavens and travels to voice his concerns in person. Resenting his “destiny” Wu Kong focusses his attentions on destroying the divine astrolabe which ascribes fate to all beings, but little does he know that its guardian, Hua Ji (Faye Yu), wants his heart for herself so that she might rule all of Heaven and Earth.

Kwok opens with a beautifully designed sequence modelled after traditional chinese ink paintings in which he recounts the pre-history and birth of the demon later known as Sun Wu Kong. Unlike some other recent attempts to tackle this famously fantastical world, Wu Kong boasts fabulously high production values as well as much better special effects than most Chinese blockbusters, and it helps that Eddie Peng is not burdened with spending the majority of the movie in prosthetics.

Nevertheless for all the lack of actual plot, there is a lot going on and the brisk pace of the exposition filled opening is hard to follow (but, thankfully, details are unimportant). As in his other adventures, Wu Kong ends up with a collection of friends and enemies including love interest Azi (Ni Ni) – the equally rebellious daughter of Hua Ji who has just returned from 100 years in “re-education” exile and fiercely resents her mother’s cruel and controlling nature. Likewise her half brother, Erlang (Shawn Yue) has also arrived home at just the right/wrong moment and is conflicted in his views towards the Heavens – wanting to be accepted as a true “immortal” but also wanting to protect his little sister, so obviously unhappy with the ruling regime. Two more cohorts appear in the gadget laden Juan Lian (Qiao Shan) – a kind hearted man with a hopeless crush on Azi, and the lovelorn retainer, Tian Peng (Oho Ou), still pining after his childhood sweetheart who was exiled to the mortal world.

Much of the central drama occurs after Wu Kong, Erlang, and Tian Peng destroy “The Bridge of Destiny” and are cast down to the mortal world themselves along with Juan Lian and Azi. Finding themselves in a desperate village which happens to be on the former site of Mount Huaguo, the five start to believe they’ll never be going home and discuss staying to help the villagers defeat the “Cloud Demon” which has been stealing all their water. Interacting with the villagers teachers each of them some vaiuable lessons, but “destiny” is still waiting, and trying to change the fate of these desperate people may have disastrous, unforeseen consequences.

Once again, Wu Kong’s battle lies in the Heavens and may end up costing more than it gains. Kwok’s direction is conventional in one sense, but also manages to add a youthful energy which befits the film’s message. Wu Kong’s rebellion is the same as many a young a man – against a pre-ordained fate. As he puts it in the punkish final title cards, he will not be blinded by the sky or bound by the Earth – he will decide his own destiny and will never submit himself to the authority of any god or Earthly power. Attempts at melodrama largely fall flat, as does the unwise decision to shift to fantasy sequences for moments of high emotion, not to mention the inclusion of a sappy pop song to really ram home the theme of tragic romance, but whatever Wu Kong’s failings it succeeds brilliantly in its primary objective as an admittedly vacuous summer blockbuster primed to speak to the hearts of hemmed in teens everywhere.


Currently on UK release at selected cinemas.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

Pandora (판도라, Park Jung-woo, 2016)

pandora (korean) posterIn a time of crisis, the populace looks to the government to take action and save the innocent from danger. A government, however, is often forced to consider the problem from a different angle – not simply saving lives but how their success or failure, decision-making process, and ability to handle the situation will be viewed by the electorate the next time they are asked who best deserves their faith and respect. Pandora (판도라) arrives at a time of particularly strained relations between the state and its people during which faith in the ruling elite is at an all time low following a tragic disaster badly mishandled and seemingly aided by the government’s failure to ensure public safety. Faced with an encroaching nuclear disaster to which their own failure to heed the warnings has played no small part, Pandora’s officials are left in a difficult position tasked with the dilemma of sacrificing a small town to save a nation or accepting their responsibility to their citizens as named individuals. Unsurprisingly, they are far from united in their final decision.

As the film opens, a group of children marvel at the towers of the new nuclear plant which has just been completed in their previously run down rural town. Not quite understanding what the plant is, they repeat snippets they’ve heard in their parents’ conversations – that the plant is a “rice cooker” that’s going to make them all rich, or it’s a “Pandora’s box” which may unleash untold horrors. Still, they seem excited about this new and futuristic arrival in their dull little village.

Flashforward fifteen years or so and one way or another all the kids now work at the plant, like it or not, because there are no other jobs available. Kang Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-Gil) is one such conflicted soul who doesn’t disapprove of the plant in itself but has good reason to fear that the powers that be are not taking good enough care seeing that both his father and older brother were killed during a previous incident at the plant some years previously. Jae-hyuk lives with his widowed mother (Kim Young-ae), sister-in-law (Moon Jeong-Hee), and nephew (Bae Gang-Yoo) but is reluctant to marry his long-term girlfriend Yeon-ju (Kim Joo-Hyun) due to his lack of financial stability and growing disillusionment with small town life.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Korean president has been passed a file by a whistle-blower hoping to bypass the corrupt bureaucracy and go directly to the top. The file, compiled by a worried engineer, details all of the many failings at the recently reconfigured plant which has been recklessly rushed into completion without the proper safety checks and required maintenance procedures. Unfortunately the president does not have time to read the report before a 6.1 magnitude earthquake strikes and destabilises the plant to the extent that it edges towards meltdown.

Unusually, in a sense, the president is a good man who genuinely wants to do the best for his people even if he sometimes ignores sensible advice out of a desire to protect those on the ground. Unfortunately, he is at the mercy of a corrupt cabinet headed by a scheming prime minister intent on withholding information in order to push the president into cynical decision-making models predicated on the idea of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few but which mainly relate to the needs of the prime minister and his cronies in the nuclear industry.

The man in charge of the plant has only been there a few weeks and has no nuclear industry experience. His second in command is a company man and his loyalty lies with his employers – he needs to keep everything functioning and ensure the plant will not be decommissioned. The only voice of reason is coming from the chief engineer who wrote the whistle blowing report and nobly remains on site throughout the disaster putting himself at grave personal risk trying to ensure the plant does not pose a greater danger to those in the immediate vicinity.

Claiming a desire to avoid mass panic, the government attempts to order a media blackout, giving little or no information to civilians stranded in the town and fitting communications jammers to prevent the spread of information. The town is eventually given an evacuation order and orderly transportation to a shelter but once there the townspeople are kept entirely in the dark. When they become aware of the full implications of the disaster and try to leave independently, they are locked in while officials flee and leave them behind.

Conversely, the emergency services are hemmed in by regulations which state they cannot act because they would be putting themselves at unacceptable risk. Kang Jae-hyuk, despite his earlier irritation with his place of work, abandons his own cynicism to walk back into the disaster zone to help his friends still trapped inside. The president nobly refuses to order anyone to tackle the disaster directly knowing that it would mean certain death but opts to appeal for volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Unexpectedly, he finds them. The president is well-meaning but ineffectual, the government is corrupt, and the emergency services apparently overburdened with regulation while under-regulated commercial enterprises put lives in danger. The only force which will save the Korean people is the Korean people and its willingness to sacrifice itself for the common good even in the face of such cynical, self-interested greed.

Despite the scale of the disaster, Pandora takes its time, eschewing the kind of black humour which typifies Korean cinema disaster or otherwise. Serious rigour, however, goes out of the window in favour of overwrought melodrama, undermining the underlying messages of widespread societal corruption from corporations cutting corners with no regard for the consequences to politicians playing games with people’s lives. The powers that be have opened Pandora’s Box, but the only thing still trapped inside is men like Kang Jae-hyuk whose disillusioned malaise soon gives way to untempered altruism and eventually offers the only source of hope for his betrayed people.


Original trailer (English subtitles available from menu)

Pulse (回路, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

pulse US posterTimes change and then they don’t. 2001 was a strange year, once a byword for the future it soon became the past but rather than ushering us into a new era of space exploration and a utopia born of technological advance, it brought us only new anxieties forged by ongoing political instabilities, changes in the world order, and a discomfort in those same advances we were assured would make us free. Japanese cinema, by this time, had become synonymous with horror defined by dripping wet, longhaired ghosts wreaking vengeance against an uncaring world. The genre was almost played out by the time Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (回路, Kairo) rolled around, but rather than submitting himself to the inevitability of its demise, Kurosawa took the moribund form and pushed it as far as it could possibility go. Much like the film’s protagonists, Kurosawa determines to go as far as he can in the knowledge that standing still or turning back is consenting to your own obsolescence.

The end of the world starts with a young man staring at his computer screen and the strange images it conjures of the only half alive. Michi (Kumiko Aso), a young woman working at a rooftop plant centre, is dispatched to find out what’s happened to a colleague, Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), who has some essential information stored on a floppy disk. Arriving at his flat she finds him distracted, informing her that the disk is somewhere in a pile scattered on the desk before disappearing off somewhere else. Having found what she came for, Michi looks for Taguchi to say goodbye but finds him hanged in an adjacent room. Barely reacting, Michi deals with the police before meeting up with her colleagues to relate the news, leaving each of them stunned. Another colleague, Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo), then receives a strange phone call as a distorted voice repeatedly utters the words “help me”.

Meanwhile, economics student Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) is attempting to set up this new fangled internet thing in his dorm but failing miserably. When he finally gets online and is greeted with the message “would you like to meet a real ghost?” he thinks he’s done something very wrong and hurriedly shuts his computer down. Seeking advice in the uni computer club he gets to know IT professor Harue (Koyuki) who tries to help him but may be beyond help herself.

The Japanese title, “Kairo”, literally means “circuit”, a fixed path of connectedness along which something flows continuously. A “pulse” is itself a circuit, or more accurately an observation of a fixed point in motion along it which maybe continuous or finite. Pulse, in its most immediate meaning is the life force by which we live, the thing which defines the states of life and death, but the “circuit” here is bigger than that which exists in one body alone, extending across the great confluence of humanity, or at least of that still regarded as “living”.

When Harue attempts to fix Kawashima’s internet she prompts him about why he wanted it in the first place (it was hardly necessary back in the still largely analogue world of 2001). He seems confused and replies he doesn’t quite know, it’s just that everyone seemed to be into it. Harue thinks she has his number – he thought he could use it to connect with people, but, she says, that is hopeless, people don’t truly connect, we all live in our separate bubbles. Harue is the most classically “disconnected” of our protagonists. Never having felt at home in the world, she talks of a lifelong fascination with the idea of death as a portal to another one in which it might be possible to live happily with others, only to realise as a teenager that it might also be a gateway to a land of perpetual nothingness and isolation. Terrified of being alone yet unwilling to submit herself to the inherent risks of connection, Harue exists in a permanent state of embittered longing and anxiety in which the cold embrace of death may prove the the only companion she will ever allow.

Harue may be an extreme case but she’s not the only example of disconnected youth. Michi, is also aloof and isolated – a child of divorced parents who has a close if imperfect relationship with her mother (Jun Fubuki) and an absent father she has already rejected. She says she’s OK in the city because she has her friends prompting her mother to warn her that she’s too trusting, too blind to the dangers of city life. Michi’s connections may turn out to be shallow, but unlike Harue she remains broadly open, seeking physical connections rather than digital ones. She visits her friend’s apartment, and makes a point of chasing after Yabe even after her boss warns her that friendly words can wound and that wounding a friend is also an act of self harm. Compelled to travel onwards, she resolves to keep on living, continue seeking connections until there are no more left to seek.

Kurosawa’s world is one of essential interconnectedness which finds itself frustrated by a mysterious forces leaking in. Yet the ghosts are not all on the other side, these are people who are spiritually dead while physically alive – isolated, defined by routine and expectation, and endlessly unfilled. “Trapped inside their own loneliness” as one character puts it, the disappeared gain a kind of immortality but it’s one filled with eternal longing and isolation. These “broken connections” are continually in search of vulnerable ports, flooding a system which has already begun to fail, and threatening to destroy that which they seek. The “ghosts” have destroyed the machine, but Kurosawa’s apocalyptic conclusion, melancholy as it seems to be, offers as much a hope for rebirth as it does a condemnation to existential loneliness.


Now available on blu-ray from Arrow Films!

Arrow release EPK

Oar (櫂, Hideo Gosha, 1985)

oar posterUntil the later part of his career, Hideo Gosha had mostly been known for his violent action films centring on self destructive men who bore their sadnesses with macho restraint. During the 1980s, however, he began to explore a new side to his filmmaking with a string of female centred dramas focussing on the suffering of women which is largely caused by men walking the “manly way” of his earlier movies. Partly a response to his regular troupe of action stars ageing, Gosha’s new focus was also inspired by his failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter which convinced him that women can be just as devious and calculating as men. 1985’s Oar (櫂, Kai) is adapted from the novel by Tomiko Miyao – a writer Gosha particularly liked and identified with whose books also inspired Onimasa and The Geisha. Like Onimasa, Oar also bridges around twenty years of pre-war history and centres around a once proud man discovering his era is passing, though it finds more space for his long suffering wife and the children who pay the price for his emotional volatility.

Kochi, 1914 (early Taisho), Iwago (Ken Ogata) is a kind hearted man living beyond his means. Previously a champion wrestler, he now earns his living as a kind of procurer for a nearby geisha house, chasing down poor girls and selling them into prostitution, justifying himself with the excuse that he’s “helping” the less fortunate who might starve if it were not for the existence of the red light district. He dislikes this work and finds it distasteful, but shows no signs of stopping. At home he has a wife and two sons whom he surprises one day by returning home with a little girl he “rescued” at the harbour after seeing her beaten by man who, it seemed, was trying to sell her to Chinese brokers who are notorious for child organ trafficking.

Iwago names the girl “Kiku” thanks to the chrysanthemums on her kimono and entrusts her to his irritated wife, Kiwa (Yukiyo Toake), who tries her best but Kiku is obviously traumatised by her experiences, does not speak, and takes a long time to become used to her new family circumstances. Parallel to his adoption of Kiku, Iwago is also working on a sale of a girl of a similar age who ends up staying in the house for a few days before moving to the red light district. Toyo captures Kiwa’s heart as she bears her sorry fate stoically, pausing only to remark on her guilt at eating good white rice three times a day at Iwago’s knowing that her siblings are stuck at home with nothing.

Iwago’s intentions are generally good, but his “manly” need for control and his repressed emotionality proceed to ruin his family’s life. He may say that poverty corrupts a person’s heart and his efforts are intended to help prevent the birth of more dysfunctional families, but deep down he finds it hard to reconcile his distasteful occupation with his traditional ideas of masculine chivalry. Apparently “bored” with the long suffering Kiwa he fathers a child with another woman which he then expects her to raise despite the fact that she has already left the family home after discovering the affair. Predictably her love for him and for the children brings her home, but Iwago continues to behave in a domineering, masterly fashion which is unlikely to repair his once happy household.

Kiwa is the classic long suffering wife, bearing all of Iwago’s mistreatments with stoic perseverance until his blatant adultery sends her running from marriage to refuge at the home of her brother. Despite the pain and humilation, Kiwa still loves, respects, and supports her husband, remembering him as he once was rather than the angry, frustrated brute which he has become. Despite her original hesitance, Kiwa’s maternal warmth makes a true daughter of Kiku and keeps her bonded to the eldest and more sensitive of her two sons, Ryutaro, even if the loose cannon that is Kentaro follows in his step-father’s footsteps as an unpredictable punk. Her goodheartedness later extends to Iwago’s illegitimate daughter Ayako whom she raises as her own until Iwago cruelly decides to separate them. For all of Iwago’s bluster and womanising, ironically enough Kiwa truly is the only woman for him as he realises only when she determines to leave. Smashing the relics of his “manly” past – his wrestling photos and trophies, Iwago is forced to confront the fact that his own macho posturing has cost him the only thing he ever valued.

Gosha tones down the more outlandish elements which contributed to his reputation as a “vulgar” director but still finds space for female nudity and frank sexuality as Iwago uses and misuses the various women who come to him for help or shelter. More conventional in shooting style than some of Gosha’s other work from the period and lacking any large scale or dramatic fight scenes save for one climactic ambush, Oar acts more as a summation of Gosha’s themes up until the mid-80s – men destroy themselves through their need to be men but also through destroying the women who have little choice but to stand back and watch them do it. Unless, like Kiwa, they realise they have finally had enough.


Short clip from near the beginning of the film (no subtitles)

In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Sunao Katabuchi, 2016)

in this corner of the world J posterDepictions of wartime and the privation of the immediate post-war period in Japanese cinema run the gamut from kind hearted people helping each other through straitened times, to tales of amorality and despair as black-marketeers and unscrupulous crooks take advantage of the vulnerable and the desperate. In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に, Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni), adapted from the manga by Hiroshima native Fumiyo Kouno, is very much of the former variety as its dreamy, fantasy-prone heroine is dragged into a very real nightmare with the frontier drawing ever closer and the threat of death from the skies ever more present but manages to preserve something of herself even in such difficult times.

We first meet Suzu (Non) in December 1933 when, due to her brother’s indisposition, she’s sent to deliver the seaweed from the family business to the city. Observing pre-war Hiroshima with the painful tinge of memory, Suzu, her head in the clouds as always, gets herself completely lost and is eventually “rescued” by a strange man who puts her in a basket with another boy he’s “found”. Life goes on for Suzu, the tides of militarism rising in the rest of the country but seemingly not in this tiny rural village where she dreams away her days sketching fantasy stories to entertain her younger sister.

Despite a putative romance with a melancholy local boy, Tetsu (Daisuke Ono), Suzu is soon married off and travels to the harbour town of Kure to be with her new husband, Shusaku (the boy from the basket who carried a torch all those years, tracked her down and sought her hand in marriage on the basis of a single encounter). Always a dreamy girl and still only in her late teens, Suzu struggles with the business of being a wife and, though Shusaku’s family are nice people and welcoming to their new daughter-in-law, she constantly provokes the wrath of her widowed sister-in-law Keiko (Minori Omi) while striking up a friendship with her daughter Harumi (Natsuki Inaba).

The atmosphere in the cities may have been tense, but here in a traditional rural backwater, politics rarely rears its ugly head. Suzu and her family are just ordinary people living ordinary lives, yet they are literally on the fringes of the battlefield, gazing in wonder at the impressive array of giant battleships in the harbour including, at one point, the Yamato which becomes a kind of symbol of the nation’s hubris in its claims of invincibility. Shusaku, like his father, works as a clerk at the local naval offices which means he’s present (and as safe as anyone else), but this is otherwise a land of women alone, waiting for brothers, husbands and sons to come home or learning to accept that they never will.

Suzu’s troubles are normal ones for a woman of her age and time in learning to adjust to a new life she has not exactly chosen and which has meant cutting herself off almost entirely from everything she’s known. The severed connection with troubled childhood sweetheart Tetsu lingers but Suzu learns to make Kure her home, developing a deep love both for her husband (to whom she was fated, in an odd way, by their fairytale meeting) and for his family. A mildly conservative message is advanced as Suzu learns to become “happy” even in the midst of such anxiety while her sister-in-law Keiko’s attempt to forge her own future by becoming a ‘20s city flapper and marrying a mild mannered man for love has brought her nothing but heartbreak. Keiko pays dearly for her acts of individualism, suffering (the film seems to say) unnecessarily through allowing her sorrow to make her bitter, though hers is undoubtedly the most tragic of fates only offered respite by the growing community and interconnectedness of the little house in Kure.

Time moves on a pace as Suzu climbs ever closer to the climactic event she has no idea is coming, but has been on the viewer’s mind all along. The bombings intensify, the losses mount, and the future recedes but sooner or later it has to become not about what has gone or what could have been but what there is and what there will be. Suzu’s dream world colours her vision and ours as explosions in the sky become beautiful splashes of paint and raining fire bombs fireflies blinking out in the night sky. The more unbearable everything becomes the more her picture-book illustrations take over until one particular event becomes so painful, so difficult visualise that it is only possible to describe in abstract, black and white line drawings. The bomb is almost a peripheral event to Suzu, considering leaving her new home for the old one. A tremor, a flash, and a feeling of unidentifiable dread. Katabuchi’s aim not to show the direct horror of war (though there is plenty of that), but its effect on the lives of ordinary people just trying to survive in difficult circumstances not of their making. Filled with a sense of essential goodness, In This Corner of the World is a tribute to those who endured the unendurable and remained kind, determined to build a better world in which such horrors belong only to the distant past.


UK trailer