Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Wang Ran, 2017)

Doesn’t everyone deserve their time to shine? For the students at the music conservatoire at the centre of Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Shǎnguāng Shàonǚ), a glittering future may be difficult to imagine. Another in the recent series of Chinese youth comedies, Wang Ran’s debut may clearly be inspired by Japanese anime, but adds a noticeably patriotic beat in making its heroes devotees of traditional music facing off against the “pretentious” threat of European classical. 

The academy is strictly divided along class lines with the snooty classical kids pretty much ruling the roost. When an actual fight breaks out between factions, the conservative headmaster sides with the classical club and erects a series of prison-style gates to confine the folkists to their own corridors while also banning them from staying too late or eating in their rooms. Airy fairy nerd Chen Jing (Xu Lu) hadn’t previously cared about the folk vs classical drama, but is pulled into it when she falls for handsome pianist Wang Wen (Luo Mingjie). That’s why she naively volunteers to be a page turner for him at a big concert, not quite understanding she’s being made fun of. Determined to prove herself to him, she decides to form a traditional folk ensemble but finds it difficult to get recruits, ending up with a group of four otaku girls everyone else is scared of who only agree on the condition that she buys them all plastic model kits every week. 

A true underdog story, Our Shining Days makes heroes of its “losers” whose uncool tastes have seen them roundly rejected not only by their fellow students but also by their families. Chen Jing is a talented Yangqin player, but conflicted in her ambivalence towards traditional Chinese music. Internalising a sense of shame about her niche interest, she half convinces herself that she’s only learned yangqin because her parents made her and is not truly invested in the instrument, which is why she immediately assumes they’ll dissolve the band as soon as her mission of winning Wang’s heart is over. 

The otaku students, however, rediscover a love of the admittedly fantastical music, giving it a cool modern edge inspired by their love of anime and games. The otaku live in the “second dimension” and have already more or less othered themselves, but begin to actively enjoy being part of the band along with the communal pleasure of making music together. Meanwhile, the scruffy Chen Jing begins learning a little about life from the sacred otaku texts of her new friends, only to take their shojo manga-style advice a little too seriously in deciding to make a public confession to Wang which brutally backfires. Wang is planning to go abroad to study classical music, he’s not interested in lowly yangqin players. 

The class drama reaches a crescendo when the conservative headmaster announces that as of the following year the school will cease admitting students playing traditional instruments altogether. Spurred on by Chen Jing and the otaku girls, the oppressed folkists finally find the strength to resist, rising to prove there is a viable ensemble for folk instruments to counter the “sophisticated” classicists. The classicists adopt the motto “let my music be the soundtrack of war”,  but the folkists are all about team effort and peaceful co-existence. When the local inspector reminds the headmaster there is no conflict in music and expresses disapproval of the school’s prison-like environment, the folk ensemble, rather than trying to defeat the classicists, come up with a “better” solution in which they can work together so that folk music can still be heard as part of the big end of year concert. 

A cheerful coming of age tale which ends in the message that there’s a place for everyone and that those who are generous of spirit are the likeliest to prosper and be happy as they do, Our Shining Days also has its share of high school drama as the scruffy Chen Jing gradually progresses to towards a more mature elegance while her best friend Li (Peng Yuchang) gets the courage to confess his feelings in a much less ostentatious manner. Subtly patriotic in its suggestion that traditional folk music is “better” than the false sophistication of pretentious Western classical, the central messages are of love, acceptance, and authenticity, insisting there’s a place for everyone who comes with an equally egalitarian spirit. 


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix

Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

Hungry Soul / Hungry Soul, Part II (飢える魂 / 続・飢える魂, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

When you think of the family drama, you think of a young woman getting married and that her marriage is an unambiguously good and righteous thing despite the pain it may bring to her parents who will obviously miss her yet must comfort themselves that they’ve done everything right. In melodrama, however, we get quite a different picture of the “modern” marriage in which it is not quite so unambiguously good or righteous but a patriarchal trap enabled by a kind of gaslighting which tells women that suffering is the natural condition of life and that they should wear their unhappiness as a badge of honour.  

Nowhere does this seem truer than in the films of Yuzo Kawashima who in general takes quite a dim view of romance as a path to freedom and finds his heroines struggling to escape outdated social codes to seize their own freedom. Hungry Soul (飢える魂, Ueru Tamashii) finds one still comparatively young woman and another middle-aged discovering that they want more out of life than their society thinks a woman is supposed to have but continuing to wrestle with themselves over whether or not they have the right to pursue their personal happiness in a rigidly conservative society. 

Reiko (Yoko Minamida), a woman in her early 30s, married Shiba (Isamu Kosugi), 23 years her senior, 10 years previously apparently out of a mix of youthful naivety and post-war desperation. Shiba has supported her financially and apparently enabled her brother’s career, but it’s clear that he thinks of her as little more than a glorified housemaid, treating her with utter contempt even in public. He makes her carry her own bags at the station rather than wait for a porter and forces her to accompany him on business trips where he shows her off to colleagues and then retires her to the hotel with nothing to do all day. Tyrannised, Reiko has been been raised to be obedient and does her best to be a good wife, but Shiba repeatedly reminds her that he bought her while openly talking about his relationships with other women even at one point bringing a geisha home with him while Reiko cringes in the front seat next to the driver. 

Perhaps what she’s learning is that obedience is not an unambiguously good quality, but still she struggles to let go of the necessity of measuring up to the standards of social propriety. When Shiba unwittingly introduces her to handsome politician Tachibana (Tatsuya Mihashi), her accidental attraction to him awakens her to all the ways her married life is a hell of disappointment. Shiba reminds her that he keeps her in comfort, little understanding that she may hunger for something more than the material, while Reiko realises that she may starve to death for lack of love but has been conditioned to think that a woman’s emotional needs are not only unimportant but entirely taboo. 

Mayumi (Yukiko Todoroki), meanwhile, has known love but feels obliged to live on the memory of her late husband and fulfil herself only though caring for her two teenage children. To do that, paradoxically, she has seized her independence as a working woman with a job in real estate, later hoping to manage a ryokan traditional style hotel, only for her children to resent her perceived rejection of motherhood in favour of individual fulfilment. “School is for people who have two parents” her son tells her, threatening to move out into a dorm, while her daughter at one point considers suicide simply because she suspects her mother may be sleeping with her late father’s best friend. 

In Reiko’s case, her desire for liberation is kickstarted by a hunger for love, though as we later realise Tachibana is also perhaps looking to break with the past and with conventional male behaviour in that he has been a womanising playboy involved in relationships with women from the red light district which to him were always casual while they, like Reiko and Mayumi, longed for more. Mayumi’s relationship with Shimozuma (Shiro Osaka), by contrast, is complicated by the fact he is married to a woman with a long-term illness, though what he craves (besides Mayumi herself for whom he seems to have been carrying a torch for many years) is a conventional family home, jokingly chiding Mayumi that her interest in business may be making her less “womanly”.  

Both women try, and fail, to break free of patriarchal control to claim their own agency, discovering that romance is not the best way to find freedom. Despite her love for and possibly misplaced faith in Tachibana, Reiko is both too brutalised by her abusive husband and constrained by the taboo of being a woman ending a marriage for another man to definitively escape Shiba’s control. Mayumi, meanwhile, is shamed by the reflection of herself in her children’s eyes and motivated to reassume her maternity but does so also as a way of rejecting easy romantic fulfilment in the hope of discovering more of herself as a middle-aged woman embracing all the freedom that might offer while her children, though grateful to have her return to them, are also chastened and guilty in having realised that their mother is a woman too and ultimately they just want her to be happy. As often in Kawashima, no one quite gets what they wanted, but they do at least find a kind of resolution. Their souls may still be hungry, but their appetites have returned and there is the promise of future fulfilment if still tempered by the restrictions of a cruelly repressive society.


Hungry Soul opening (no subtitles)

Hungry Soul, Part II opening (no subtitles)

Our Town (わが町, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

“They tricked me and you and everyone! It’s so stupid” a stammering man tries to explain to his deluded friend, but some people just don’t want to hear the truth. Spanning 30 years of tumultuous 20th century history, Yuzo Kawashima’s Our Town (わが町, Waga Machi) charts a course of authoritarian fallacy as its puffed up hero refuses to give up on the imperialism of his youth and condemns all around him to lives of misery out of misguided faith in an outdated code of patriarchal and national pride. Too late he will perhaps begin to realise that his unforgiving rigidity has done nothing more than alienate the people that he loves, but his story is both a lament for past folly and a warning for the freer post-war future. 

Back in the 1900s, the tail end of the Meiji era, Taa (Ryutaro Tatsumi) was one of 1200 Japanese construction workers who travelled to the Philippines to help build a road intended to boost the economy of the recently independent nation. Now, around this time, Japan was also embarking on the the first of its 20th century wars fought against the Russians. While Taa was breaking his back on the Benguet road, other young men were busy painting themselves in glory as imperial soldiers contributing to the expansion of the burgeoning Japanese Empire. In his own way, and quite literally, Taa was also building the Japanese Empire and intensely resents that no one recognises his contribution as the self-styled “Taa of Benguet” who apparently kept his fellow Japanese going even when it became clear that they were just exploited workers, hung out to dry once the job was done and left to die of poverty or tropical disease. 

Taa’s life philosophy is that humans are born to work and that suffering in youth builds character. He wanted to show the world what Japanese people are made of and feels he made Japan proud building the Benguet roadway, but there are no flag waving parades for his return as there were for Hanai who went away to war, nor is there any real work. Embarrassed about his illiteracy, he didn’t even write any letters home which is one reason why he didn’t know that a casual girlfriend, Tsuru (Yoko Minamida), whom he’d perhaps long forgotten, had given birth to his child, Hatsue, who is now four. Despite his initial surprise, Taa submits himself to the role of husband and father, earning money as a rickshaw driver, but never forgets that he is “Taa of Benguet” or that the meaning of life is suffering through hard work. 

Old fashioned and patriarchal even for the times in which he lives, Taa’s attitudes continue to destroy the lives of those around him. He wasn’t there to support Tsuru and so she worked herself to death in his absence. Hatsue (Tomoko Ko) grows into a beautiful young woman and falls in love with Shintaro (Shiro Osaka) the son of a bucket maker who, though athletic, is not perhaps built for hard work in the same way as Taa had been. He tries to force his philosophies on the younger generation, pressuring Shintaro to go to the Philippines to make a man of himself, not quite understanding that much has changed in the previous 15 years, nor that Shintaro may not be able to endure the kind of hardship he regards as indicative of a productive life. 

Taa learns nothing from his mistakes, eventually pressuring his granddaughter Kimie (Yoko Minamida) in the same way he’d done his daughter, objecting to her desire to marry a man of her own choosing even though he embodies many of his oft spoken ideals including dedication to hard work. Jiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) is the son of his old rival Hanai and was himself in the war. Like Taa and the men of his generation, he too was “tricked” into working overseas for a mistaken ideal of Japanese imperialism but he’s also a man of the post-war generation and has no more illusions about things like glory or suffering.

Kimie too, as she later tells Taa, is a post-war woman. She feels no obligation towards her grandfather simply because he raised her, nor will she allow her life to be ruined in the same way her mother’s and grandmother’s were by Taa’s patriarchal authoritarianism. “You’ve got to start listening to the younger generation” Jiro tries to explain, but Taa is not someone used to listening. “Every single thing you’ve ever done has been pointless” Kimie tells him, “trapped in your own happy bubble, getting in the way of everyone else”. All Taa’s philosophy has ever caused is pain and suffering, trying to make the lives of all the men who died building a road in a foreign land mean something while ironically propping up the same ideology that robs men like him of their freedom and possibility. You could say something broke in 1905, but it also broke 40 years later, people are wiser now and they know there’s no glory in suffering. Taa sees the error of his ways, but also that there’s no place for him in the kinder post-war era where there’s no sin in working hard, but no life without freedom. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955)

Two decades into the new century, Japanese society finds itself gripped by a population crisis. Supposedly “sexless”, young people constrained by a stagnant economy and a series of outdated social conventions have increasingly turned away from marriage and children to the extent that the birth rate is currently at the lowest it’s ever been. How strange it is then to revisit Yuzo Kawashima’s baby boom paranoia comedy Burden of Love (愛のお荷物, Ai no Onimotsu) in which the very same anxieties now expressed for the declining population are expressed for its reverse – that it will damage the economy, that it is the result of a moral decline, and that society as we know it is on the brink of destruction. 

All of these arguments are made by the Minister for Health, Araki (So Yamamura), as he tries to chair a committee meeting put together to find a solution to the baby boom crisis. The government policy he’s putting his name to is a birth control advocacy programme coupled with greater education to discourage couples from having so many children. Some object on the grounds that encouraging the use of birth control will inevitably lead to promiscuity and sexual abandon, which is why Araki’s government intends to limit its use only to married couples to be used for proper family planning. A feminist politician challenges him again, first citing the go forth and multiply bits from the bible to imply she objects to birth control on religious grounds only to trap Araki by reminding him that that is exactly what the government encouraged people to do during the wartime years. She thinks limiting birth control to married couples is little more than thinly veiled morality policing which will fail to help those really in need, suggesting that if this is the road they want to go down perhaps they should think about relaxing abortion laws so that those who become pregnant without the means to raise a child will have another option. Predictably, Araki is not quite in favour, but takes her point. In any case, events in his personal life are about to overtake him. 

The first crisis is that his son, Jotaro (Tatsuya Mihashi), is in a secret relationship with Araki’s secretary Saeko (Mie Kitahara), who has now become pregnant and is quite smug about it because Jotaro will finally have to sort things out with his family so they can marry. There are several reasons why he’s been dragging his feet: firstly, Saeko is a very good secretary and it’s customary for women to stop working when they marry (though as we later find out Jotaro is a progressive type who has no intention of stopping Saeko working if she wants to even after they marry and have children), secondly, his mother Ranko (Yukiko Todoroki) and younger sister Sakura (Tomoko Ko) are old fashioned and may feel marrying a secretary is beneath him, and thirdly he’s just a lackadaisical sort who doesn’t get round to things unless someone gives him a push. Sakura has an additional concern in that she’s engaged to an upperclass dandy from Kyoto (Frankie Sakai) and worries his family might object if they know that Jotaro has undergone a shotgun wedding to someone from the “servant class”. Araki’s oldest daughter, Kazuko (Emiko Azuma), is happily married to a gynaecologist (Yoshifumi Tajima) but ironically has been unable to conceive after six years of marriage. All of which is capped by the intense irony that his own wife at the age of 48 may be expecting a late baby of their own. 

The press is going to have a field day. Araki, for all his faults, is a surprisingly progressive guy, a moderate in the conservative party but one who, worryingly, doesn’t seem to believe in much of what he says as a minister of government, merely doing what it is he thinks he’s supposed to do. It’s perhaps this level of hypocrisy that Jotaro so roundly rejects, insisting he wants neither a career in the family’s pharmaceuticals company (which, it’s worth saying, also produces the birth control Araki’s policy seeks to promote), or a career in politics, and insists on being his own man. Tinkering with various bits of modern technology, he eventually gets a job in research and development of cheap TV sets, signalling his allegiance to the new all while dressing in kimono to visit kabuki clubs with Saeko. Saeko too is a modern woman – she speaks several languages and has a university degree, supporting herself independently even though she is “only” secretary albeit to a cabinet minister. Sakura, a more traditional sort, originally looks down her for being all those things, but later comes to a kind of admiration especially when she finds herself in need of advice from another modern woman. Jotaro’s mother, however, only comes around when she hires a detective who discovers Saeko might be posh after all. 

“Children have their own worlds to live in” one of Araki’s grownup kids later emphases, unwilling to rely their father for money or career advancement, they want to make their own way in the world. Jotaro, a kind man and something of a socialist, wonders if they shouldn’t be using some of this money the government has earmarked for defence on social welfare, suggesting perhaps that’s the best way to deal with the population crisis rather than pointlessly trying to police desire. Burden of Love was released in 1955, which is immediately before Japan instituted its anti-prostitution law doing away with the Akasen system that existed under the American occupation. Araki goes to visit an establishment in the red light district and declares himself horrified, but is unable to come up with a good solution when the women working there point out that they support entire families who will starve without their income. He may have a point that the pimp’s identification of himself as a social worker is disingenuous because he profits from the exploitation of women, but Araki’s later visit to a tavern staffed by geisha raises a series of questions about a continuing double standard. 

Araki exposes his own privilege when he tells Jotaro that he’d do anything for a single slice of bread before he’d ever do “that”, which is ignoring the fact that it’s very unlikely he’d ever have to consider it. Araki’s father, himself a retired politician, is also a fairly progressive sort who actively gets involved in the kids’ nefarious plans to get around their parents so they can marry the people the want when they want to marry them, while Araki remains largely preoccupied with his political position, even suggesting to his wife, despite what he said in the committee meeting, that she get an abortion to spare him the embarrassment caused by increasing the population while proposing a series of population control policies. Ranko is distraught because to her the child is the product of their love, even if to Araki it is also a “burden”, but being a traditional sort thinks first of her husband and is minded to do as he says. The younger generation think and feel differently. They want to make decisions for themselves, not just about what they do but who they love and how they live. The lesson is perhaps that this isn’t something to be overly worried about. Children are the “burden” of love, but we carry them together, and it’s a happier society that is content to figure it out rather than trying  to pointlessly police forces beyond its control. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

For Rei (レイのために, Yukari Sakamoto, 2019)

(C)Yukari Sakamoto

Going to university is a prime opportunity to start figuring yourself out, but if you feel a little hollow inside it can often be an uphill battle. The heroine of Yukari Sakamoto’s For Rei (レイのために, Rei no Tame ni) is intensely anxious, somewhat distanced from herself in the unresolved trauma of her parents’ divorce and subsequent loss of contact with her father. University can also be a prime opportunity to reach towards independence, but that necessarily means learning to “let go of the things you don’t like” to chase the things you do while figuring out what the difference between those two things might be. 

Philosophy student Rei finds herself at odds with her classmates, some of whom actively belittle her off the wall contributions for being off the point while the TA offers only the reassurance that she found her words “poetic”, which given the environment she finds herself in might not exactly be high praise. Meanwhile, she’s in a loose relationship with fellow student Nakamura who has a part-time job as a driver he doesn’t much like. As she reveals to her mother, however what’s really bothering her is that she’d like to reconnect with her estranged birth father whom she hasn’t seen since her parents divorced when she was small. Despite her mother’s warnings that her father may only cause her pain, Rei presses ahead and writes a letter, eventually meeting up with him for dinner in a swanky Western restaurant where he orders wine and she coke. 

That comment that so riled her classmate was to do with the nature of perception and its mutual effect on the perceiver. Rei offers that she thinks being looked at is something inherently uncomfortable, that when someone looks at her she wants to look away while looking at someone else can be a cold, abstracted experience. Later, after meeting her father, she returns to the same topic with additional insight, admitting that she was always afraid of being perceived, feeling as if someone was continually watching and waiting for her to mess something up. As much as she feared the gaze, she also felt its pity and wanted to be embraced by it but as she grew she could no longer fit inside as it seemed to grow smaller and recede from her. The sense of loss and distance made her sad, but she is perhaps coming to the realisation that that feeling of disconnection is also a part of growing up as she outsteps the parental gaze to claim her own independent space. That process may necessarily be painful, but it’s her father’s hand on her shoulder that keeps her from moving fully forward as she struggles to separate herself from a half-felt presence. 

Rei’s father, apparently remarried, tries his best to reconnect with his now grown-up daughter but the encounter is unavoidably awkward, belonging both to the past and future as she realises she’s no longer a woman who needs a paternal presence just as she’s made the decision to find one. They chat awkwardly about the intervening years – her feelings of disconnection from her mother’s second family with a step-father and half-sister, and his remarriage, while eventually returning to the past. He never explains why he didn’t keep in contact (though this is sadly normal for divorced fathers in Japan) but is keen to explain that he didn’t leave because of her, only that he and her mother were very young and eventually discovered that they were incompatible, their views on money and family matters apparently entirely different. He didn’t understand her and the distance between them bothered him. 

Like Rei, he couldn’t feel himself inside the gaze and eventually absented himself from it. The reunion seems to have gone well, her father offering to take her mountain climbing, but we somehow feel that they might not meet again. What Rei learns is the power to perceive herself with pity and perhaps let go of the image of her father, a little disappointed in herself to have taken a throwaway comment to heart and remembered it all these years only to garner no reaction on recalling it. Freed from the overbearing gaze, Rei learns to centre her own perception, forgiving both herself and the past, as she steps boldly into a new adult space and sets off into a future of her own choosing.


 For Rei was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Apart (散後, Lester Chan Chit-man, 2020)

“There’s gotta be a price for chasing dreams” sighs the heroine of Lester Chan Chit-man’s Apart (散後) as she mulls over lost love and the fight for Hong Kong independence. A collection of youngsters find themselves swept up in the Umbrella Movement, but some are more committed to the cause than others and divided loyalties are enough to eventually pull even those who love each other apart. 

Yin (Will Or), his cousin Toh (Chan Lit-man), Yin’s girlfriend Maryanne (Sofiee Ng Hoi-Yan), and the bashful Shi (Yoyo Fung) are all earnest university students studying hard to build professional lives for themselves. Maryanne is strongly against Mainland interference and has become a keen participant in the Umbrella Movement protests, dragging Yin and his more committed cousin along for the ride. The conflict lies in the fact that Yin comes from a fairly wealthy family. His father, Hung (Lester Chan Chit-man), is the CEO of a successful coach company and strongly pro-China. Authoritarian in the extreme, he thinks that you have to respect order and that the future lies in the Mainland. Yin’s animosity towards him may be more youthful rebellion against his hypocrisy in his many affairs and subsequent remarriage to younger woman Yin doesn’t seem to care for, than it is true political conviction. Toh’s father, meanwhile, is originally sympathetic towards the protestors and against Mainland interference (if only to needle Hung) but changes his tune when the protests start affecting his business.

“It turns out some people just want to make a living” Yin admits trying to broker peace, but finds his loyalties continually strained as he tries to balance his desire for Maryanne with his personal ambition. As the protests intensify, Yin pulls back. He objects to his friend’s increasing conviction that there can be no victory without violence and fears the outcome of a battle fought on such tense fault lines. Maryanne, however, doubles down, devoting all her energies to the movement, unforgiving of Yin when he dares to step back on the night that his grandmother dies and secretly beginning to doubt him, riddled with romantic jealousy over his growing attraction to Shi. 

In some ways Maryanne represents for him Hong Kong, while Shi represents the Mainland. Yin is a man pulled between two poles and perhaps treating neither of them with the respect they really deserve. The years wear on and the Umbrella Movement winds down. Yin pursues his technological interests in the US, perhaps hoping to escape the HK/China divide through removing himself to another continent. The crisis does not however stop. Maryanne becomes a lawmaker, trying to further her aims in the political arena but encountering fierce resistance. She is lonely and tired, but refuses to give up. Yin finds himself torn, in love with Maryanne but considering settling down with Shi who, like him, is ready for “a settled life”, while Maryanne knows she cannot rest until Hong Kong is free. He won’t come to the protests with her because he fears damaging his prospects on the Mainland, and she won’t be welcome if she accompanies him there (not that she would want to). Politics drives them apart, and as Maryanne said there’s a price for following your dreams. 

Toh, a little younger, remains committed to the ideal but also tempered by practicality, changing the future through teaching the past while his Chinese-American step-cousin, Jessica (Jocelyn Choi), eventually returns to chronicle the battle for democracy from an international perspective. In his student days, someone asks Yin why it is they who have to fight this battle and he replies that they alone can afford this naivety. They can afford to be bold, passionate, reckless, unrelenting, and unafraid of the consequences because they are young. As they grow older, some of them grow away. Yin gives in to practicalities, leans towards his father’s point of view, and eventually does what he thinks is right in looking for peace and compromise, but his actions betray Maryanne’s revolution. Maryanne looks for political solutions, but finds them slow going nevertheless continuing the fight. Nothing may change, but we’re here to show them we won’t mindlessly obey, Shi offers of the Umbrella Movement, filling the streets with the colour of resistance in tiny paper umbrellas in a vibrant yellow.


Apart was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Atsuro Shimoyashiro, 2019)

Where now the dreams of youth? It may be impossible to escape a regretful middle age, wondering what might have been if only you knew then what you know now, but for the heroes of Atsuro Shimoyashiro’s The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Tokyo no Koibito) the pain seems all the more acute. “Today’s the day our youth ends” a brokenhearted woman laments, trying to make peace with her choices but finding that her return to the past may have done more harm than good. 

Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) is a 31-year-old salaryman, married with a baby on the way and living in provincial Gunma. With the anxiety of impending fatherhood on his mind, he’s surprised to receive a message from his university girlfriend, Marina (Nanami Kawakami), who wants to reconnect. Telling his wife he’s going on a business trip, Tatsuo decides to spend the weekend in Tokyo, staying with another friend from uni before meeting up with Marina for a Sunday in the city reminiscing about old times. 

Like Tatsuo, his old college friend Komazawa (Tomoki Kimura) has long since given up the dream of becoming a filmmaker. A breakdown at 27 has apparently led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaving him unable to hold down a job and dependent on his wife, Seiko (Maki Nishiyama), who supports both him and his step-daughter Shizuko through sex work while Komazawa has become an idle alcoholic. Despite his disappointment, Tatsuo spends the evening bonding with the local bar lady who claims to be able to see the future before leaving early in the morning to meet Marina who suggests revisiting the seaside they went to years before. 

Very much ready to step back into the more innocent past, Tatsuo has brought with him a tape of a song they used to listen to way back when and wastes no time in reassuming the poses of his 20-year-old self, sunshades and all. Marina, by contrast is self-consciously cute but mature, if perhaps sad. Tatsuo starts to tell her that he gave up his filmmaking dreams, married a good woman, and took a regular salaryman job at the family firm, but fails to complete the thought. Marina meanwhile casually remarks that she married a wealthy man but hints that she did so largely for convenience and material comfort rather than love. 

“We never get to marry the woman we love the most” Tatsuo’s strangely boys will be boys brother-in-law (Mutsuo Yoshioka) sighs, commiserating with Tatsuo’s lament for his disappointed youth and failure to make his filmmaking dreams a reality. We discover that an early success in a scriptwriting competition gave him an inflated sense of possibility, and that his desire for success was largely a desire to impress his girlfriend. Wounded male pride in his sense of artistic failure eventually convinced him he had to break things off while she silently cursed him, jokingly sentencing him to 18 years of solitude in a playful reference to a Tai Kato film. Now he realises his foolishness and is filled with regret in having settled for a conventional middle-class life as a husband and father.

Marina, meanwhile, is feeling something much the same in trying to achieve closure on the past before she becomes a mother. After breaking up with Tatsuo, she drifted through nude modelling and ended up the trophy wife of a wealthy man she doesn’t love, pegging her hopes on material comfort and hoping that love will come later. “I’m glad you’re happy now” a bar owner and former Instagram fan tries to congratulate her, but all Marina can do is smile sadly and ask her similarly troubled companion if happy is what she looks.    

“I’m not young anymore, I can’t live for a dream” Tatsuo accepts, but living on a dream is all they’re doing, recalling the time when they were “modern lovers” in Tokyo kidding themselves that they were urban sophisticates when perhaps all they did were the kinds of things unsophisticated suburbanites do like hang out at batting cages and go to barbecue restaurants. It’s too late to turn back now, but the past is a difficult trap to escape and perhaps what they long for is not so much the love cut off in its prime but a return to the possibilities of youth. Meeting again reawakens the desire for something more out of life than life may now have to give them, but this is day that youth ends, hitting the end of the road in a slow car crash of realisation that regret is the price of age.


The Modern Lovers was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Retro hit Love You, Tokyo by Akira Kurosawa (not that one!) & Los Primos which recurs frequently throughout the film