The New God (新しい神様, Yutaka Tsuchiya, 1999)

Yutaka Tsuchiya opens his 1999 shot on video personal doc The New God (新しい神様, Atarashii Kamisama) with a lengthy scene of performance art in which a young woman dressed in a suit explains why she was drawn to nationalist ideology while seemingly ignored by the other passersby in the street, a woman behind her even continuing to hand out flyers as she speaks. On the left himself, Tsuchiya was nevertheless struck by the raw emotion in the song of right-wing punk band Revolutionary Truth as performed by charismatic lead singer Karin Amamiya whom he eventually ended up marrying despite their conflicting views. 

In any case, it’s clear even from the film’s opening that Karin is becoming disillusioned with the version of nationalism to which she has hitherto ascribed, a feeling which is intensified after she is invited to visit North Korea in the company of a former member of the ultra-left organisation Japanese Red Army. During her time in Pyongyang, recording video diaries with Tsuchiya’s camera, she is extremely attracted to the quality of unity she sees as integral to the North Korean system while otherwise unable to process the simultaneous truth that oppression and unity are not synonymous. Children are not abused in North Korea she naively explains having been invited to tour a day care centre, reflecting on her own difficult childhood in which she experienced bullying so severe it has left her with lasting trauma which prevents her from fully connecting with the world. 

It is indeed this sense of dislocation that pushed her towards nationalism, taken in by the idea of nation as family while looking for a place to belong. To be fair to her and to her bandmate Itoh neither of them express particularly extreme views aside from their historical revisionism and their idea of nationalism seems to be inclusive rather than exclusive in which they have no particular problem with minorities or people who are not considered to be ethnic Japanese. In fact, they seem to subscribe more to a patriotic small-c conservatism in which hard work is regarded as a virtue which should always be rewarded in full. This is the reason they give for their views on the controversial Yasukuni shrine which houses the souls of those who died in war including those later convicted of war crimes, believing that the soldiers like everyone else “worked hard” during the war and their sacrifice shouldn’t be ignored. 

For his part, Tsuchiya listens patiently to their sometimes confused ideology while internally questioning his own as someone who identifies as left-wing progressive and believes that the war was wrong and the emperor system is responsible for the majority of ills in contemporary Japan. Yet as someone else puts it left and right are in themselves fairly meaningless labels as is the concept of nation. Karin gets on fairly well the guys from the Japanese Red Army but finds their impassioned speechifying off-putting while later disillusioned with her nationalist organisation after her speech about her experiences in North Korea fails to elicit much of a reaction from those she now decries as being part of a social club less interested in serious politics than getting together for drinks and chat. The issue for her is that these people don’t really care about Japan and aren’t sufficiently interested in changing society for the better. 

The implication is that Karin and Itoh were drawn towards nationalism because of their marginalisation, Karin mercilessly bullied and disconnected from her birth family, while Itoh later admits he became a nationalist to escape being a “nerd”. What Karin craves is the sense of extended family one might feel in a society such as she feels North Korea to be, the emperor a father figure of paternalistic feudalism. She feels herself to be worthless, admitting that she feels best when’s she’s needed and is attracted by the sense of purpose found in activism while politics is for her an escapist fantasy that allows her to evade the need for self-examination. The pair of them also feel a sense of ennui in a stagnant society, decrying their “boring” lives in insisting that “this suffocating peace” has endured too long as they direct their ire ironically enough towards capitalism and Japan’s geopolitical relations with America. 

Opposition to American imperialism unites both left and right, implying that they aren’t so different after all. Tsuchiya advances that the difference between them is that he thinks the emperor system is at fault, while Karin and Itoh feel it to be a solution. He doesn’t understand why they need to locate a sense of pride in something external like nationhood or emperor rather than learning to find it from within, while Karin seems to long for authoritarianism out of a lack of self-confidence essentially hoping to be freed from the burden of choice. Even so through spending so much time listening to each other the trio have discovered a sense of mutual understanding which does not require them to agree or even to share common ground though they do more than expected, becoming as Tsuchiya hopes a path to a better society in which such meaningless labels existing only to divide one person from another are no longer relevant. 


The New God streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)

The Weald (杣人物語, Naomi Kawase, 1997)

@KUMIE Inc.

“I wish I were younger” comes a common refrain among the cast of elderly men and women living a traditional life in the mountains and forests of rural Japan in Naomi Kawase’s 1997 documentary, The Weald. Arriving in the same year as Kawase’s Caméra d’Or-winning narrative feature Suzaku, The Weald (杣人物語, Somaudo Monogatari) continues many of the same themes in her fascination with nature and moribund ways of life while taking on a meta existential dimension as her interviewees muse on loss, loneliness, and a lifetime’s regrets. 

What they almost all say is that they wish they could be young again with all the possibilities of youth. A lumberjack dreams of becoming a timber dealer, while another man jokes that he was once handsome though you wouldn’t know it now. One heartbreakingly laments that he’d like to start over because he’s never felt true happiness in his life. Then again, another believes that “happiness depends on your way of thinking” and that a man who’s learned to be satisfied with a small portion is in his own way rich. For another man happiness lies in having people speak well of him after he’s gone, knowing he must then have lived a good life. 

Then again life has its sadnesses. A carpenter reveals his private grief in having lost a son, unable even to watch his daughter’s wedding video because it’s too painful to see him there. “In a city he wouldn’t have had a motorbike” he sighs, reflecting that he was unlucky to have been born in the country and needlessly blaming himself for something not in his control. The last man, meanwhile, speaks movingly of his late mother’s descent into dementia and his own decision to give up on marriage while still young to dedicate himself to her, only to be left on his own in the end. He wonders if he was right to sacrifice his life for her while longing to be reborn in the hope of seeing his former girlfriend, his face dissolving into an old photograph in which he is young and handsome as if to grant his wish. 

Meanwhile, an old lady meditates on loneliness in a solo life of busyness firstly claiming to feel none but then revealing the emptiness of her days with no one to cook for. “I don’t know the meaning of life, I just live day to day” she explains, insisting that it’s pointless to worry and better just to get on with things. “I am satisfied to live each day peacefully” she adds, immersing herself in the moment. She like the others is uncertain why Kawase is filming her, telling her to come back later when she’s 18 again because old people are no fun. Another man later tells her not to waste her expensive film on him in case she needs it for something more important, the elderly residents either maudlin or amused but each mystified as to why someone is so keen to listen to their stories.  

Implicitly in these stories of the elderly, Kawase hints at the effects of continuing rural depopulation with fewer young people around, an elderly couple explaining that they have come to depend on each other even more as they aged only for the wife to fall ill and need care from her husband 14 years older but in better health. They go about their lives in the same way they have for decades, wandering the forests and practicing traditional skills which may all too soon be lost. 

In keeping with her earlier documentary work, Kawase often films in extreme close up or layers dialogue on top of another scene as when old lady wanders aimlessly trough the forest while her meditations on loneliness accompany her. What she seems to have discovered in the wisdom of those who agreed to speak to her is that happiness and suffering go hand in hand while youthful regret tinged with nostalgia can in itself almost be lonely. Even so many have managed to find meaning in their lives whether it be being present in nature or the love for one’s spouse and family while longing to be reborn eager for their next lives whatever they will be. “I wish only the best for everyone” someone adds before returning at last to spring and all the brief joys it will deliver. 


The Weald streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Trailer (no subtitles)

Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Makoto Sato, 1992)

Image ©️ Murai Osamu

With a crew of seven including himself, director Makoto Sato spent three years embedded within the small communities along the Agano River capturing a disappearing way of life but also the resilience of the elderly residents many of whom are unrecognised victims of Minamata disease caused by the chemical discharge from the Showa Denko chemical plant. 

“Kids don’t care about our rivers and our mountains” 80-year-old Miyae Hasegawa reminds her husband on the phone to their oldest daughter as she once again tries to convince him that he’s too old for the intensive labour of farming their rice paddies. Like many, the Hasegawas’ children have fled the rural village for more comfortable lives in the cities while their parents attempt to preserve their traditional way of life. “Gradually we realised that these rice paddies were their entire existence” the film crew later reflect, almost pitying them as they witness these quite elderly people bent over still harvesting the rice in their 80s while discovering on trying to help them that the work is far more difficult than they could have imagined not, presumably at least, very used to physical labour at least of this kind. 

Even so, “humans are cruel” Yoshio Hasegawa laments to his son having had too much to drink, somewhat ambivalent in having become proficient at catching salmon by hook. After all, the fish are only trying to live but humans keep pulling them out of the water. Later we watch him hook fishing at the river, the camera cutting to black as another man takes a fish he’s caught on a hook and bashes its brains in. Ironically, as the voiceover explains, Miyae had worked on the construction of the Kanose hydraulic dam in the 1920s which later powered the fertiliser plant which then became Showa Denko. After completion of the Yogawa dam in 1963, the fish ominously disappeared from the river and with them the traditional practice of fishing by hook.  

Many in the small communities along the water had welcomed the arrival of modernity that the Showa Denko plant had represented, some still remaining loyal to the company despite knowing what they know unable forget that they had benefitted economically from the factory’s existence. Ebana, meanwhile, who had worked for Showa Denko for 34 years now runs regular patrols of his local area monitoring for the possibility of landslides behind the plant. He was the only employee to sue Showa Denko as a victim of Minamata disease though the company’s attempt to transfer him out of the area when he did so put others off following his example, as did the degree of animosity towards him as others feared for their own economic stability or resented him for betraying his employers. Though the chemical emissions from the plant which flowed into the Agano have been acknowledged as the cause of the disease, the government introduced increasingly strict criteria for official recognition as a Minamata victim leaving many along the Agano unrecognised and therefore ineligible for support or compensation. Those involved in the ongoing legal case were required to make an arduous journey to Niigata once a month by bus or car, a heavy imposition on a community which is often elderly and suffering physical disabilities caused by the illness. As one elderly woman talks of her arched hand which she cannot straighten, a man shows her his burned foot after treading on the heated rail for his bath and being unable to feel it because of the loss of sensation caused by the Minamata disease. 

The fact that the river by which so many lived became actively harmful contributed to the rural exodus and decline of traditional ways of life along with skills which may then die out with no one to pass them on to. Boatmaker Endo had long since retired from making boats and had never taken on any apprentices but at an advanced age finally consented to teach a local carpenter how to make boats the traditional way, a special Shinto ceremony conducted as the next generation boat is completed. Meanwhile we also see a Shinto ceremony performed for the Mushi Jizo which protects people from disease born by insects such as the tsu-tsu living in the river which both gives and takes. Gently observational, Sato captures these disappearing ways of life with a poignant lyricality while equally addressing the politicisation of life along the river in a sense poisoned by modernity as the villagers must come together to fight for justice in a society which seems to have all but forgotten them. 


Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Aga ni Ikiru) streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

A Movie Capital (映画の都, Toshio Iizuka, 1991)

As the opening of Toshio Iizuka’s A Movie Capital (映画の都, Tokyo no Miyako) makes plain, 1989 was a year of turbulence all over the world but also perhaps also of hope as many of the directors invited to the very first Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival often insist in positioning their art as an act of resistance against authoritarianism. In essence a visual record commemorating the festival’s inauguration, Iizuka’s film also has its meta qualities interrogating not only what documentary is and what it’s for but its potential as a means of bringing disparate communities together in an exchange of truth and solidarity. 

In fact, the film opens with a brief prologue dedicated to Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens, who sadly passed away just before the festival opened, contrasting Ivens’ 1928 work The Bridge with the box office hit of that year in Japan, Shozo Makino’s Chushingura. Jumping into the film proper we witness something similar as the tranquility of the Bubble-era nation is directly contrasted with the events of Tiananmen Square as seen in a video sent to the festival by a Chinese associate living in Hong Kong. In actuality, the first Yamagata featured no films from Asia in its competition section provoking a symposium in which a number of Asian directors, producers, and critics discuss why that might be. Ironically enough, fifth generation Mainland Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Horse Thief) was invited but unable to speak because, as his wife explains during an exasperating phone call, it’s not as easy for someone from China to travel abroad as it would be for someone elsewhere. The authorities haven’t granted him permission to leave and so he cannot even apply for a passport. 

Censorship and an element of personal danger to oneself or one’s family are otherwise cited as reasons documentary filmmaking has not taken taken off in Asia. The director of May 80 Dreamy Land which concerns the Gwangju Uprising is also unable to attend because he is currently on trial. Meanwhile, his representative Kong Su-Chang laments that he is among the older members of his small circle of documentary filmmakers who are of a generation without mentors having to teach themselves how to make films because there was no one there teach them. Filipino directors meanwhile cite the continuing influence of America along with wealth inequality as potential reasons the documentary has not flourished while asking if documentary and entertainment are in some way incompatible given that documentary is at its most popular at moments of crisis. 

Still as almost every interview states at one time or another, their primary goal is to make sure the voices of their subjects are heard and their faces seen determined to capture the everyday experiences of ordinary people as honestly as possible. While it’s obviously true that none of them were themselves included in the competition, many directors also claim that more important is the opportunity to meet other filmmakers in order to generate friendships and exchange ideas. They see their mission as making the world a better place to live hoping to challenge the status quo through their filmmaking while what Yamagata becomes to them is an opportunity to improve the fortunes of documentary filmmakers throughout Asia through mutual solidarity while the town of Yamagata itself also comes together as a community in order to celebrate documentary art even recruiting the marching band of a local primary school to help. 

One director’s suggestion that the future will become harder for dictators thanks to the democratisation of technology may in a sense be naive but in its own way true in the ability of ordinary people to record their own stories even if they face the same difficulties and dangers. Even so Iizuka’s assembled footage from the films which played that first edition alongside interview and Q&A footage not only help to give an impression of the open and enquiring nature of the festival, but also to interrogate itself and its art asking what it’s for and what purpose it can serve at a moment of geopolitical instability as the Berlin Wall falls and the echoes of Tiananmen reverberate while documenting not only a single event but its purpose and intention. 


A Movie Capital streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Kinji Fukasaku, 1994)

“I was trying to reform our times!” cries a man about to abandon his revolution at the moment of its inception. “The times have reformed us” his friend retorts, rejecting him for his self-interested cowardice before seconds later deciding to follow his example. Largely remembered for his contemporary jitsuroku gangster pictures, Kinji Fukasaku’s tale of rising individualism amid political turbulence and economic instability Crest of Betrayal (忠臣蔵外伝 四谷怪談, Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan) hints at a perceived moral collapse in contemporary post-Bubble Japan defined by a sense of nihilistic impossibility in marrying the classic ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan with the noble tragedy of the 47 Ronin. 

The action opens the very concrete date of 14th March 1702 which as an early title card reminds us is at the close of the Genroku era which had been regarded as a “golden age” but its appearance of affluence had in fact been semi-engineered by the shogunate’s unwise decision to continue debasing the currency which later led to an inflation crisis (sounding familiar?). Meanwhile, in the samurai world Tsunayoshi, the fifth Tokugawa shogun, has deposed 38 Daimyo creating 40,000 masterless samurai each vying either for new positions as retainers in other clans or some other way to survive in a manner which befits their station. 

The 14th March, 1702 is a significant date in terms of the narrative in that it marks the first anniversary of the death of Lord Asano who was ordered to commit seppuku after offending another lord, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka (Takahiro Tamura), leaving his house ruined and his retainers masterless. Samurai code dictates they seek revenge, but leader Oishi (Masahiko Tsugawa) suggests they bide their time leaving him and the clan open to accusations of cowardice or betrayal, mocked by peasants at the memorial service while Oishi decries their appetite for samurai drama. Enter Iemon Tamiya (Koichi Sato), antihero of the classic Yotsuya Kaidan, who had apparently joined the clan only two months before it was dissolved after years as a wandering ronin biwa player and alone has the courage to ask him if he truly has no appetite for vengeance moments after Oishi has scandalised his men by pointing out that it was Asano’s “short-temperedness” which destroyed their clan. His only answer is that it cannot be now, they must wait a year in order to prove their internal resolve. 

In marrying the two classic tales, Fukasaku directly contrasts the sublimation of the individual self into the samurai code as in the internecine nobility of the 47 ronin avenging the death of their lord knowing their own must shortly follow, and the self-serving individualism of (in this case) conflicted opportunist Iemon. Iemon has indeed been reformed by his times, becoming a thieving murderer out of desperation and misplaced filial piety after he and his father were forced into a life as itinerant biwa players on the dissolution of their clan. In most versions of the classic tale, Iemon is an ambitious sociopath who tricks his way into marrying up but loses interest in new wife Oiwa after she bears his child, later doing them both in to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant who took a liking to him in a market square. Here, Oume (Keiko Oginome) is taken with him after he hacks the sword-bearing hand off an aggressor but unbeknownst to Iemon her father is a retainer of his sworn enemy leaving him with a double conflict, while Oiwa is a lowly bath house sex worker pregnant with a child he does not truly believe is his. 

The radical samurai had wanted to “reform our corrupt times”, but Iemon like his friend who drops out of the movement after being taken on as a successor to a hatamoto and becoming a direct retainer to the shogunate, comes to the conclusion that the times cannot be reformed and he must conform to them. If he chooses Oume, he betrays his loyalty to his lord by uniting with his rival to further his own prospects, a decision many will understand it is perhaps little more than leaving one firm for a better job at another, but it’s also an unforgivable subversion of the samurai code which drives him deeper even than the class conflict which sometimes informs his choices in Yotsuya Kaidan into a hellish spiral of greed and immorality. “The world hates your type” Oishi reminds him, “they’ll kill you, like a snake. Can you live fighting with the world for the rest of your life?” He asks, pitying Iemon for his self-destructive decision to turn away from “justice” for personal gain knowing that he will never reconcile himself to his choices nor will the world approve them. 

Yet as in Yotsuya Kaidan it’s not so much his latent sense of guilt that does for him as Oiwa’s curse, her ghost with its face ruined by his transgression taking its otherworldly revenge though interestingly only indirectly against him even as she provokes Iemon into destroying his chances for the secure, comfortable life he’d chosen for himself. The 47 ronin, meanwhile, continue with their righteous mission even if it’s a stretch to insist that their vengeance serves the cause of justice or is even intended to “reform these corrupt times”. Those corrupt times, Fukasaku seems to argue, forged a man like Iemon rather than the toxic masculinity, personal insecurity, or innate sociopathy which are generally ascribed to him to explain his dark deeds, and so these corrupt times of post-Bubble insecurity might create more like him. Finding the director in a noticeably expressionistic mood, opening with an ominous storm and climaxing in an unexpected, supernatural blizzard, Crest of Betrayal adopts a register of high theatricality and an etherial air of mystery culminating in a beautifully executed series of ghost effects overlaid with a watery filter but ends on a note of hopeful ambiguity in which Oiwa’s curse has perhaps been healed even if Iemon finds himself condemned, a wandering samurai for all eternity. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Moving (お引越し, Shinji Somai, 1993)

The title of Shinji Somai’s 1993 coming-of-age drama Moving (お引越し, Ohikkoshi) quite literally refers to the process of vacating one space in order to inhabit another but also to the heroine’s liminal movement into a space of adulthood while caught in the nexus of a recently destabilised society itself in a state of flux. Not only must she process the disruption of her father’s decision to leave the family home, but its wider implications that will one day leave her orphaned while coming to accept that such partings are only a part of life to borne with stoicism and sympathy. 

At around 12 or so, Renko (Tomoko Tabata) finds herself on the brink of change. Not only is she beginning to grow up, soon to be changing schools, but is also facing a further destabilisation of her home as her parents prepare to separate. The tension in the household is clear from our first meeting with the family as they sit around an almost violent, green triangular table the point aimed straight at us with Renko at the opposite end and her near silent mother and father on either side. As she often will, Renko attempts to parent her parents, repeatedly criticising her father for his poor table manners wondering if he’ll be able to take care of himself when living alone while later remonstrating with her mother for having had too much to drink while cautioning her to mind what the neighbours might think. 

Already unbalanced by the economic shock of the bubble bursting, the Japanese society of the early 90s was also changing evidenced in part by the separation itself. Divorce is still a minor taboo, even Renko herself had taken part in the shunning and bullying of another girl who’d transferred to their school after returning to her mother’s hometown following her parents’ separation, but this is perhaps the first era in which it becomes acceptable to end a marriage solely because one or both parties is unhappy rather than there being some additional pressure that endangers the family. “Marriage is survival of the fittest”, Renko’s mum Nazuna (Junko Sakurada) later exclaims during a heated exchange but we can also see that the marriage itself was already unusual perhaps uncomfortably suggesting an altered power balance and shifting gender roles led to its breakdown. Father Kenichi (Kiichi Nakai) had previously worked from home completing many of the domestic tasks while Nazuna had become the breadwinner with a successful career earning higher salary. She complains that when she was pregnant with Renko Kenichi sniped at her for not contributing to the household financially but changed his tune when her economic success undercut his sense of masculine pride. 

Despite apparently embracing her freedom Nazuna nevertheless seems to resent Kenichi for leaving, accusing him of deserting his family while he later floats the idea of trying again but only perhaps because he is feeling the ache of the loss of the home he previously hinted suffocated him in responsibility. Meanwhile, Renko is also forced to process the fact that a family friend, Yukio (Taro Tanaka), on whom she’d had an innocent childish crush, is engaged to be married. Overhearing their conversation she also learns that his fiancée is pregnant but unsure about having the baby. Given all of these changes, she begins to wonder why it is she was born, intensely anxious in potential parental abandonment while witnessing the remaking of her home. 

Yet to cure her of her anxiety Somai removes her from her environment, Renko once again taking on a parental role in borrowing her mother’s credit card to book a hotel and train tickets to a familiar destination they’d previously travelled to as a family. It’s in this liminal space that Renko begins roam, eventually encountering an old man with some important life lessons while undergoing a spiritual odyssey of her own as she weaves through a summer festival towards an ethereal encounter with her past self and the spectre of her future orphanhood. Somai’s characteristically lengthy tracking shots add to the sense of destabilisation, Renko’s world constantly in motion yet as she tells us herself she’s on her way to the future, moving on but on a more equal footing and discovering at least a sense of equilibrium in an ever shifting society.


Moving screens at the BFI on 29 December as part of BFI Japan.

Love Letter (ラブレター, Shunji Iwai, 1995)

“People are forgotten so easily” a widow laments after an insensitive comment from a family friend, yet there is perhaps a difference between forgetting and letting go as exemplified in the distance between two accidental pen pals in Shunji Iwai’s profoundly moving romantic melodrama, Love Letter (ラブレター). A huge hit and pop culture phenomenon throughout Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s first theatrical feature bears many of the hallmarks of his enduring style in its soft focus, ethereal lighting and emphasis on nostalgia as the two women at the film’s centre each restore something to the other through their serendipitous correspondence. 

Iwai opens with a memorial service for Itsuki the late fiancé of the heroine, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama), who passed away two years previously in a mountain climbing accident. Hiroko has since started a relationship with his friend Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa) who avoided attending the memorial out of misplaced guilt and gave up mountaineering soon after Itsuki’s death. Akiba is keen to move their relationship forward, but fears that Hiroko is still stuck in the past unable to let go of her love for Itsuki. On a visit to Itsuki’s mother (Mariko Kaga), she finds an old address in his middle school year book for a home that apparently no longer exists and decides to mail him a letter saying nothing more than “How are you? I’m fine” of course expecting no reply. What she didn’t know, however, is that there were two Itsuki Fujiis in her Itsuki’s class, the other being a woman still living at the same address to whom Hiroko has accidentally mailed her correspondence. Confused, the other Itsuki (also played by Miho Nakayama) mails back and eventually finds herself recalling memories of the male Itsuki as an awkward, diffident teen she may have entirely misunderstood. 

Played by the same actress the two women are each in a sense trapped in an eternal present, unable to move forward with their lives. While Hiroko is consumed by grief and fearful of committing to her new relationship with Akiba lest she betray the memory of Itsuki, Itsuki is still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic death of her father 10 years previously who passed away from pneumonia after contracting the common cold leaving her with persistent health anxiety. Meanwhile, she is also struggling to move on from her family home which is in an increasingly perilous state of disrepair. She and her mother (Bunjaku Han) want to move into a modern apartment, while her grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) prefers to stay even though it seems that the house will soon have to be demolished. 

Through their accidental correspondence, both women are forced to deal with recent and not so recent loss, Itsuki in some senses having forgotten the boy who shared her name while Hiroko remains unable to forget. Through his trademark ethereal lighting and frequent use of dissolves, Iwai hints at a sense of perpetual longing for the nostalgic past. The letters may not have been from the late Itsuki in a literal sense but were perhaps a message from him, connecting the two women and eventually freeing each of them as the love letter of the title is finally delivered ironically enough hidden inside a copy of Remembrance of Things Past. 

This sense of grief-stricken inertia is perfectly reflected in the snowy vistas of the lonely northern town of Otaru, thrown into stark contrast with the intense heat of the furnace in Akiba’s glassblowing workshop, or the gentle warmth of the old-fashioned stove in Itsuki’s room as she types replies to Hiroko’s handwritten letters. As Hiroko eventually reflects, they each knew a different Itsuki and have each in a sense both lost him if restoring something one to the other through the exchange of memories that grants Hiroko the understanding she needs to let go and Itsuki the poignant realisation of a youthful missed connection. A bittersweet meditation on love, loss, grief, and memory, Iwai’s epistolary drama has its own sense of magic and mystery in the strange power of this serendipitous connection leading to a tremendous sense of catharsis as a long delayed message finally makes its way home bringing with it a shade of melancholy regret but also possibility in the new hope of forward motion.


Love Letter screens at the BFI on 22/28 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?, Masayuki Suo, 1996)

If your life has gone pretty well and you’ve more or less achieved conventional success but you’re still somehow unhappy then what is it that you’re supposed to do? Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), the hero of Masayuki Suo’s charming ballroom dancing dramedy Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?) is beginning to wonder, after all he’s a “serious” man as his wife repeatedly describes him but is it really acceptable for a middle-aged husband and father to chase emotional fulfilment or would he be cheating on the salaryman dream in daring to nourish his soul?

As he later says, Sugiyama has followed a conventional path in life. He has a respectable job as an accountant, married at 28 and had a child at 30. By 40 he was able to buy a family home, but also acknowledges that he sold his soul to the company to do so seeing as with the mortgage hanging over his head he is now fully locked in to the corporate system and couldn’t leave even if he wanted to. Yet he’s not quite like his co-workers, an early scene sees the roles somewhat reversed as he, the boss, declines the invitations of a drunken subordinate to stay out longer after an effectively compulsory after work drinking session to return to his family home at only 9pm but going straight to bed when he gets there. He and his wife Masako (Hideko Hara) share a room but sleep in separate beds presumably so he doesn’t wake her when he gets up early to go to the office making his own breakfast before he leaves. 

“It’s not a matter of like or dislike, it’s work” Sugiyama tells his co-worker as she complains that the more glamorous sales department gets all the best perks and she’s sick of working in accounts, hinting at his inner malaise in his relentlessly corporate life. That’s one reason he’s captivated by the sight of a beautiful yet sad woman gazing out of a window from a building above on his train journey home. When he gets off the train to look for her, he in one sense leaves the salaryman rails breaking with the conventions that he is expected to fulfil in search of something more. Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), a former ballroom dancer taking a temporary sabbatical from competitive sport teaching at her father’s studio, is just as unhappy as he is but for contrary reasons. She has lost the joy of dance, for her it has become as soulless a job as Sugiyama’s accountancy and she too struggles with the image she has of a dancer and what that means for her in terms of personal fulfilment. 

Yet as Sugiyama explains in his opening voiceover, ballroom dancing is viewed as something of a naff hobby mostly associated with sleazy old men only there for the opportunity of physical contact with women of varying ages. When he spots his co-worker Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) at the dance class it’s embarrassing for both of them, each promising not to say anything to anyone at work, the floor later erupting in laughter when someone finds a picture of Aoki taken at a competition in the newspaper. Developing an interest in the sport, Sugiyama buys a ballroom dancing magazine but interrupted by his daughter quickly hides it as if he had been looking at pornography or some other material he feels to be shameful. 

The irony is that Masako had wished Sugiyama would go out more, realising that he’s selflessly dedicated himself to the salaryman dream in order to provide for their family, but then becomes suspicious and resentful as he leaves her alone to pursue his new hobby which he cannot disclose to her out of embarrassment. She in turn sniffing perfume on his shirts fears he’s having an affair, but is unable to ask him about it directly preferring to hire a private detective (Akira Emoto) instead. Leaving aside that each of them ends up secretly spending money when they’re supposed to be saving for the mortgage, the oppressive social conformity of the salaryman existence is beginning to erode their relationship. Forced into the role of the conventional housewife, Masako too is lonely expected to find fulfilment only in home and family while preparing to re-enter the world of work now her daughter is old enough to care for herself because of the financial burden of the mortgage rather than her own desire to fulfil herself. Sugiyama isn’t having an affair, but still she feels betrayed because he left her behind to chase emotional liberation on his own rather than taking her with him never really noticing her loneliness. 

Yet as Sugiyama is repeatedly told, dancing, unlike the salaryman game, is about more than learning the steps, it’s about feeling the music and finding joy in movement. That’s something Mai has also lost sight of, finally realising that she too was a selfish dancer who’d been dancing alone all along unable to fully trust her partner rediscovering her joy in dance as she coaches not only Sugiyama but his classmates towards their own liberation. Sugiyama remains conflicted because the excessively corporatised society leads him to believe that it’s taboo to devote oneself to anything other than work or in essence to experience joy that is not directly related to productivity, that he should be wholly “salaryman” and nothing else, just his wife should be nothing more than that. It’s this oppressive conformity that undermines their conventional marriage rather than Sugiyama’s transgressive decision to get off the salaryman train, put down his briefcase, and embrace his desire for personal fulfilment. Only through this act of mutual emotional authenticity can they restore familial harmony. A minor meditation on the emptiness of the increasingly elusive salaryman dream in the economically stagnant ’90s, Suo’s charming drama insists on joy as a basic human need in a society which often trivialises personal happiness.


Shall We Dance? screens at the BFI on 21/30 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Suzaku (萌の朱雀, Naomi Kawase, 1997)

Changing times and economic malaise slowly encroach upon the lives of an ordinary rural family in Naomi Kawase’s Caméra d’Or winning feature debut, Suzaku (萌の朱雀, Moe no Suzaku). Previously known for her experimental 8mm documentaries, Kawase maintains a trademark naturalism in capturing both the beauty of the natural world and the incidental details of everyday life as the family finds itself at odds with its environment, facing a moment of extreme transience as they recognise the existential threat to their way of life that is caused by, perhaps ironically, a failure of modernity. 

The action opens in the early 70s as an ordinary family take breakfast in a remote rural cabin with a picturesque view of a verdant local mountain. Patriarch Kozo (Jun Kunimura) lives with his wife Yasuyo (Yasuyo Kamimura), mother Sachiko (Sachiko Izumi), daughter Michiru (Machiko Ono), and Eisuke (Kotaro Shibata), the son of his estranged sister whose continued absence already seems to hint at cracks in the family unit. Meanwhile, the village has been badly hit by an economic downturn causing many of the younger people to leave and seek their fortunes in the city. Hopes have been pinned on a controversial rail line with Kozo one of its foremost proponents, hoping that with greater infrastructure provision the town will be reinvigorated. Kawase then flashes forward 15 years during which a now grown Eisuke has become the family’s breadwinner with a job at an inn outside of the village while Kozo appears depressed and Yasuyo seems to be suffering from some kind of illness. The long delayed rail project is finally cancelled, much to the consternation of the local community who now seem to have universally come round to the idea. They fear that cut off as they are, the village will dwindle, they will find it harder to find spouses, and their children will have far fewer possibilities. 

The smallness of the community is both a strength and a weakness as Kawase plays with the less palatable sides of isolation in the awkward adolescent infatuation of Michiru for her cousin who has been raised more or less as her brother while he appears to have a not altogether maternal appreciation for his aunt who is nearing the end of her tether with stultifying rural life and her husband’s emotional absence, her mysterious illness perhaps a manifestation of her existential unease. She takes a part time job at the inn, moving further away from the family home, out of the village and towards the town while Kozo walks in the other direction, retreating into nature unable to step into the present let alone the future. 

Kozo’s camera reels may not contain any great secret but perhaps have their own profound truths, mimicking Kawase’s documentary practice as he captures the smiling faces of local farmers amid the natural greenery. It is precisely this, it’s implied, that he wanted to save, the traditional way of life with its tightly bound communities and local festivals, a life lived in concert with the natural world in all its glorious greenery. He watches the old couple next-door prepare to leave the village because their children have decided to put them in a nursing a home and the sight breaks his heart. He can’t bear to go on living in such a declining world. Pinning all his hopes on modernity he throws himself into the rail project, but in a slightly overworked metaphor the tunnel stops right in the middle. He cannot cross to the other side, and neither can Eisuke, permanently trapped by a painful sense of nostalgia but exiled from his natural habitat. 

Eisuke himself is already displaced as a foster child whose mother has abandoned him, apparently in the city but out of contact with her family. Michiru faces a similar dilemma when her mother finally decides it’s time to leave and return to her hometown. Grandma Sachiko sings a folksong sitting on her front porch which quickly gives way to the voices of children echoing those we heard in the opening sequence of 15 years previously in which the local kids played together happily making the most of a warm summer’s day. The family is scattered, divided along its natural fault-lines and trapped between tradition and unrealised modernity with only the melancholy comfort of transience to sustain them.


Suzaku streams in the US until Dec. 23 series alongside Naomi Kawase’s 2018 drama Vision as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wang Tung, 1992)

Two orphaned brothers set out to find a literal goldmine, but discover only relentless exploitation and defeat in Wang Tung’s meditation on oppression and colonialism, Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wúyán de Shānqiū). The third in a trilogy of films exploring Taiwanese history, Wang’s tragic melodrama finds commonality if not solidarity among a collection of villagers living in a small town sustained entirely by the mine which produces riches only for the Japanese while those who risk their lives underground deprived of the light of the sun delude themselves that if they work hard they too can become rich only to discover each of their attempts to escape the constraints placed against them leading to nothing other than despair. 

As the film opens, brothers Chu (Peng Chia-Chia) and Wei (Huang Pin-Yuan) who have signed long-term five year contracts as farm labourers, are listening to an old man’s story about the grandfather of a local man who followed a frog to a mountain noticing its skin glowing gold and thereafter filling his pockets with gold dust he later used to buy up land and become rich. Chu thinks the man was foolish for not going back and becoming even richer, but the old man explains that he was reminded in a dream that excessive greed would only anger the gods and lead to his downfall. Fed up with their lives as labourers, the brothers take the story to heart and decide to look for their own mountain of gold, their backs too bathed in the light of the sun as they rest while looking for the goldmine town of Jiou-fen, later coming across a grisly and ominous scene shortly before they arrive. 

Both illiterate and speaking only Taiwanese, the brothers are each intent on becoming landowners partly in order to give their late parents, apparently killed by TB, a fitting resting place, but soon find themselves once again exploited, Wei becoming increasingly disillusioned with being trapped underground whereas in the fields at least he’d had the sun. The mine is of course a Japanese concern and its operators care little for the local Taiwanese workforce even if their treatment may not be as deliberately brutal as it might have been elsewhere. The new director is convinced that the miners are pocketing gold before it reaches the surface, instituting several new controls which threaten the local economy and especially that of the Japanese-style brothel which depends entirely on the mine for its survival. 

Like many, Hong-mu (Jen Chang-bin), a young man raised in the brothel by its madam following the death of his mother, looks up to the Japanese colonisers seeing them as innately “better” than the Taiwanese all around him. “People will respect me if I wear Japanese clothes” he tells the madam disappointed on receiving a new outfit in the local fashion. Having been told that his father, whom he has never met and was presumably a client of the brothel, was Japanese he speaks the language fluently and believes himself to be slightly superior by virtue of his birth but only too late learns his mistake in collaborating with the mine owners believing they would help him marry a young Japanese woman working at the brothel as a maid, Fumiko (Mayko Chen Hsien-Mei), and finding himself betrayed. As Fumiko is from the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa), the mine owner doesn’t quite see her as fully “Japanese” either and thinks nothing of using and abusing her in the course of his activities. 

The wily madam quips that you can’t call yourself Taiwanese if you haven’t figured out how to do illegal things legally finding ways of getting around the prohibition on accepting gold from the miners as payment, but that doesn’t stop the military police later raiding the brothel and brutally taking back “their” gold even though it has already changed hands albeit not entirely in good faith. The sex workers too are victims of this same vicious cycle, dependent on the custom of the miners for their livelihood while deprived any real possibility of escaping their desperate circumstances. Meanwhile, the brothers’ grumpy landlady, Ro (Yang Kuei-mei), is a twice-widowed single mother of numerous children left with no choice other than to engage in independent sex work, advertising herself as the more economical, local alternative to the Japanese-style “opulence” of the traditional teahouse. While Wei falls for the melancholy innocence of Fumiko singing Okinawan folksongs in a field of golden flowers, Chu takes a liking to Ro and her many children but though they both dream of the same thing, saving enough money to buy a farm, their tempestuous romance is later frustrated by Chu’s reckless decision to take advantage of chaos at the mine in an attempt to get rich quick by harvesting a mega load of gold while no one’s looking. 

He has perhaps been too greedy, ignoring the lessons from the old man’s story. The brothers are continually forced to pay for their transgressions, Chu cutting off his own fingers when cornered by thugs sent out by his previous employer to satisfy their literal demand for an arm and a leg in satisfaction of the broken contract, while Wei’s foot is later injured in a partial cave in when caught underground during an earthquake. Ro calls Chu foolish in his delusion that hard work will bring him a comfortable life, watching him slaving away to make the Japanese rich but what other choice do either of them really have? Only later does Wei begin to reflect on the possibility that the treasure of the mountain was the bright yellow flowers which covered it, a natural beauty soon destroyed by industrial exploitation. A melancholy chronicle of life in a small mountain town in the colonial era, Hill of No Return finds only despair and impossibility for its orphaned brothers whose eternal quest for ownership of their own land leads to nothing but continual disappointment. 


Hill of No Return streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English Subtitles)