Storytellers (うたうひと, Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Ko Sakai, 2013)

Many tend to forget the folktales and fables they were told when young or at least until they themselves have a child yet it’s often through mystical stories that we first begin to learn about the world and our place within it. Third in a series of documentaries by Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Ko Sakai focussing on the Tohoku region in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Storytellers (Utauhito) follows folklore scholar Kazuko Ono of Miyagi Minwa no Kai as she travels the local area visiting friends in order to hear the various stories they remember from their youth. 

Yet as she explains during a trademark Hamaguchi backseat monologue in a car he and co-director Sakai are driving, folktales may have different meanings and interpretations to different people and in different eras in their own particular context. As an example she cites the tale we’ve just heard recited by an elderly woman titled The Monkey’s Bride in which a farmer with three daughters unwisely promises a wife to a monkey who agrees to help him with his rice paddy. The first two daughters refuse, but the third agrees because her father made a promise only to trick the monkey, who has been nothing but kind to her, into drowning himself in a lake. As a child, Kazuko like many disliked the story feeling sorry for the monkey who had acted only with humanity and does not seem to warrant being killed in such an unkind fashion. But then she began to reconsider how her grandmother from whom she first heard it may have read the tale as a woman married off at 16 who constantly tried to run away and only wanted to escape cruel treatment at the home of her in-laws. To her the daughter in the story was brave, doing that which she could not in freeing herself from a forced marriage after being sold to pay her father’s debt. Looking deeper again she began to wonder if the monkey wasn’t also a metaphor for the rich landowners who oppressed peasant famers with only poor quality paddies who were often forced to sell off their daughters in return for financial assistance. 

Other stories meanwhile speak of the ingenuity of the poor, a little girl rewarded after responding to an ad promising vast riches for anyone who manages to bore the story-loving lord, she managing it quickly by making him repeat a lengthy nonsense phrase at regular intervals. A story apparently meant to encourage young couples to find “clever” ways of sorting out marital disputes similarly finds a husband returning from the city selling his wife’s lover whom she hastily shut in a water jar, getting one over on him and her, getting his hands on 10 ryo, and even getting the jar back too. Such stories tell us something about the world in which they took place, female adultery in this case not so much of problem able to be solved with some comedic shenanigans rather than the point of a sword, while we might equally find it an absurd way to deal with marital infidelity. Then again there are also a series of thematically similar stories cautioning against marginalised members of society who create problems in order to gain fame and fortune through solving them such as two bizarre tales of magical instruments which cause people’s bottoms to sing an absurd and annoying song which only the holder of the object can stop allowing them to leverage their new talents for unearned wealth and status. 

Even so it isn’t perhaps the tales that matter so much as their transmission, many of the elderly storytellers recalling memories of their grandmothers from whom they first heard how the shrimp got its curved back or of eagles who tried to fly to the edge of the ocean. Each of the storytelling sessions begins in ritualised fashion, Kazuko and the other party introducing themselves to each other though they have all been friends for years or sometimes decades and already know each other well. As in the story of the girl and the lord, we’re reminded that tales like these expect call and response, an exchange between the storyteller and the listener that transcends the story itself. A now elderly man recounts that he’d forgotten most of the tales his eccentric grandmother had told him before joining the folktale group in his 40s, but also advances that the stories she gave him were intended to foster a sense of wonder in the world along with a confidence and security that would allow him move freely through the darkness. A lesson in oral history in which these ancient tales are shared and retold before reaching new generations is perhaps a sign of hope that something has and will survive in the simple act of speaking and listening even as Kazuko explains that in order to hear the story she must also change herself so she too may keep moving forward . 


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

My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Kyoko Miyake, 2013)

“I can’t let TEPCO ruin my life” the heroine of Kyoko Miyake’s personal documentary My Atomic Aunt (波の向こう, Nami no Mukou) eventually asserts, explaining that when you have no more tears to cry then you become defiant. Having lived in London for 10 years prior to filming the documentary, a lack of defiance was something that had initially interested Miyake, wondering if she’d simply been away too long no longer understanding why everyone in her family’s hometown of Namie in Fukushima continued to refer to the Tokyo Electric Power Company in such affectionate terms. Then again, as her aunt Kuniko points out before losing her patience, “anger won’t get us anywhere”.

Returning to Japan soon after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Miyake details her own relationship with Namie, rendered uninhabitable after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, during her opening voiceover describing it as a warm and nostalgic place marked by a sense of rural tranquility. Nevertheless through making the documentary she comes to question both herself and the town, wondering why it was that people were so keen to have the plant come when the prevailing wisdom of her own generation was anti-nuclear and wary of duplicitous heavy industry. As her aunt and her friends reveal, however, post-war Namie was a poor village where farmers often had to leave for city jobs over the winter to make ends meet. Some grew envious of other local towns which had become economically prosperous thanks to corporate investment while others remained sceptical. Those who refused to sell their land for the development of another nuclear plant were harassed into submission by those convinced of its benefits, while TEPCO was keen to invite the local community to inspect existing plants to prove that they were safe. 

An awkward and in fact incredibly sexist propaganda video targeted at local wives and mothers demonstrates that safety was still an issue as late as the ‘90s, a company representative ominously claiming that the plant has been designed to withstand a tsunami before adding “we will never betray your trust”. Many residents still want to believe in TEPCO’s promises, sure that they will somehow fix what is broken even while many of them are trapped in temporary housing with no idea when or if they’ll be allowed to return home. Aunt Kuniko tries to stay cheerful, bored with trying to kill time having previously devoted herself entirely to work. Miyake describes her aunt as a feminist pioneer who showed her how to be glamorous and successful while also having a rich family life. Ironically enough, Kuniko ran both a wedding parlour and a funeral home right next to each other with a bakery in-between. She wanted her children to take the businesses over, but her three sons have already moved on, one buying an apartment and starting a business of his own far away without saying anything at all about it to her. 

The tsunami disaster has deepened a generational divide with the young leaving the area to make new lives elsewhere while as one old lady puts it the elderly are left behind with nothing to do but laugh. These people haven’t just lost their homes, they’ve lost their hometown, in a sense orphaned and free floating in a Japan struggling to find space for them as the heartrending echoes of plaintive folksong Furusato make clear. Forced to accept they may never be able to return, Kuniko looks for new premises but only for her funeral home conceding that there’s not much future in the wedding business, with all of the youngsters gone there’s no one left to get married. “There’s no such thing as absolute safety” she laments, regretting having been duped by TEPCO and the dubious promises they sold even as they positioned themselves as the driving force of the post-war economic miracle. The town felt proud by proxy that the energy they generated went into rebuilding the country, but as Miyake admits as long as the lights stay on in Tokyo no one cares about Fukushima or about the people still living in temporary accommodation caught in a never-ending limbo waiting for someone to tell them what they’re supposed to do now that everything they’ve ever worked for or built is lost in an instant. 

While her husband remains somewhat sympathetic to TEPCO, arguing that the problem isn’t nuclear power but safety, Kuniko begins to lose her patience taking part in protest marches against the plant while trying to salvage what she can from her old life. Miyake bookends the film with images of post-Fukushima Namie now an eerie ghost town, pastries still sitting in Kuniko’s bakery the area’s timelessness ironically mirroring Miyake’s description of it in her childhood memories as a kind of time-warp to post-war Japan from bubble-era Tokyo. An elegy for a community erased, Miyake’s quietly angry documentary takes aim at indifferent government and corporate greed, but finds also a stoical sense of endurance as Kuniko waters her abandoned flowers and prepares to start again. 


My Atomic Aunt streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Vision (ビジョン, Naomi Kawase, 2018)

In her most recent work, Naomi Kawase has been moving further towards the mainstream, shooting in a more conventional arthouse register and mainly casting established professional actors in contrast to the amateurs who often took centre stage in her earlier career. Vision (ビジョン) however returns her to her familiar Nara Prefecture with its verdant forests and rolling mists and to more obscure realms of poetic ambiguity and new age philosophy.

French scientist/travel writer Jeanne (Juliette Binoche) has come to Japan in search of a herb so rare it apparently only spores once a millennium but has the capability to “dispel human weakness, agony, and pain”. Tomo (Masatoshi Nagase), a mountain man she ends up lodging with along with her interpreter Hana (Minami), answers only that “happiness exists in each of our hearts”, a somewhat hollow and ironic reply given his general grumpiness and stern expression. He tells them that he’s only lived in the cabin for 20 years having moved to the country because he was “tired” and that his purpose is to save the mountain. Despite his seeming reluctance, he eventually introduces the pair to a blind shamaness who claims to be 1000 years old and was born when the last plant (or as she points out fungus) spored. 

Lost in the beauty of nature, Jeanne begins to wonder if she is really in the present, losing the certainty of the moment. We get occasional snippets of what seems to be memory bathed in a golden light and presented as flashback which might hint at the “pain” Jeanne is trying to cure through finding the “vision” herb even as she engages in a halfhearted though apparently passionate affair with the indifferent Tomo. She sees him as “starving” for something, not knowing what it is he’s longing for, though her friend describes him as “happy” as if silent like the mountain he claims to be saving though all we see him do is destroy it by carving up trees even if he does point again to the transience of things in explaining that the lumber he produces is the work of several generations who planted and grew so he could cut down, perhaps hinting back at Jeanne’s claim that when life develops too far it begins to destroy itself. 

Tomo doesn’t quite seem to buy her new age philosophies, explaining only that “you see, and hear, touch, you feel, that is everything”, rooting his sense of reality firmly within the realms of the sensual. “Sometimes because we have language we can’t understand each other” Jeanne later says, echoing him though perhaps accidentally while expounding on the human condition to a mysterious young man, Rin (Takanori Iwata), discovered injured in the forest. Aki (Mari Natsuki), the shamaness, advances that there are changes in the forest, that it has become unbalanced, and that it will soon be time for the “vision” to present itself though it seems to take a while for Jeanne to understand what form that may take. Aki dances furiously amid the trees as if bending them to her will, her ritualistic dance later echoed in the climatic final sequence that sets a fire in the mountain but causes Tomo to suddenly declare that it is after all alive. 

Jeanne finds her “vision” in an alignment of past and future, a familial, generational reunion which allows her ease her pain just as it was said vision would do. All moments are perhaps one moment. On the train Hana had described a feeling of long forgetten happiness that Jeanne’s travel essay had provoked in her as akin to “nostalgia”, instantly amusing Jeanne who is overcome by the incongruity of this young woman already romanticising a sense of nostalgia for an unlived past. Tomo had declared that it was enough simply to remember that he too was a part of this world, but is suddenly reminded that he is not alone. Literally setting fire to the past they buy themselves the possibility of being reborn, making space for new growth in the knowledge that the mountain is “alive” as indeed are they. Tomo has saved the mountain, and Jeanne has perhaps saved herself. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she exclaims embracing a new vision of a bright and shining future no longer burdened by pain or despair.


Vision streams in the US until Dec. 23 alongside Naomi Kawase’s 1997 debut Suzaku as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Albino’s Trees (アルビノの木, Masakazu Kaneko, 2016)

A young man is forced to face up to the nature of existential struggle when tasked with killing a god in Masakazu Kaneko’s meditation on land, modernity, and the taking of a life, The Albino’s Trees (アルビノの木, Albino no Ki). Filled with a sense of unease, Kaneko’s parabolic drama asks if it’s right to force others to live in the way you think is best, if it’s right to take the life of an animal simply because it’s inconvenient to you, and if it’s right to assume ownership over the natural landscape as if it’s yours to do with as you wish. To the young man at the film’s centre, these questions are ones he thinks he can’t afford to ask but is eventually confronted with in committing what to some may be an unforgivable transgression. 

Yuku (Ryohei Matsuoka) used to work in removals but times being what they are, his boss has taken a left turn accepting lucrative contracts working as animal control agents on behalf of local councils carrying out culls of wildlife deemed out of control. His colleague Imamori (Shuichiro Masuda) remains conflicted. He isn’t completely happy with this kind of work but has been persuaded that it’s necessary though it still seems cruel to him if not morally wrong to hunt and kill healthy animals solely for existing. Nemoto (Hiroyuki Matsukage), their boss, is keen for them to take on a well paid “confidential” job but with so little information the guys are reluctant, something about it seems shady. Nevertheless, with his mother seriously ill and needing money for medical treatment Yuku agrees as does Imamori only to discover that not even the local councillor who hired them wants to explain what the job is. 

The councillor does, however, begin to outline the economic history of the town once dependent on coal mining now pivoting towards innovative farming. With barely concealed disdain, he replies to Yuku’s inquiry as to whether the mountain in question is inhabited by briefly remarking on a traditional village on the other side the existence of which seems to fill him with such disgust one half wonders if Yuku’s contract job is even darker than it seems. He laments that they have “no desire to develop”, continuing to live a traditional rural existence rather than succumbing to the dubious conveniences of modernity. On meeting up with their contact (Hatsunori Hasegawa), another hunter living on the ridge, the pair discover that their assignment is to eliminate an albino deer because, according to the hunter, the council is nervous that some may assume its mutation hints at corruption in the soil endangering the stability of their eco farming project. The problem is that the villagers believe the albino deer to be an embodiment of the White Deer God that protects the mountain as part of their Shinto animist beliefs and have been protecting it by dismantling all his traps. Imamori declines to go through with the job, feeling that it’s wrong to kill the deer just because it was born different but thinking only of his mother Yuku is determined to do whatever it takes.  

His dilemma is in a sense mirrored by that of Nagi (Kanako Higashi), a young woman from the village he rescues from an animal trap who tells him that she remains torn between the allure of modernity and a traditional rural existence. Yoichi (Yusuke Fukuchi), a young man making a living carving traditional wooden bowls, is determined to preserve ancient beliefs Yuku regards as backwards and superstitious convincing himself that killing the deer is also an act of liberation that will bring enlightenment to the villagers so that they won’t “need” to live in such an archaic and primitive way. But as Yoichi tries to explain to him, you can’t force people to conform to your own way of thinking, it’s not as if anyone is a prisoner here if they didn’t like it they’d leave as all of the other young people have already done. He asks him if a world in which you simply eliminate things which are “inconvenient” to you is one you really want to live in but Yuku isn’t here for such philosophical questions only baffled by what he sees as primitive superstition that stands in the way of progress. 

Yet, the village is largely untouched by the corruptions of the modern society. The water in its rivers is clean and sweet, the wood in its trees strong and beautiful. As Nagi explains to him, the White Deer God has given them permission to drink from these springs, and permission to harvest the trees. By contrast, there’s an unpleasant look of triumph in Yuku’s eyes as he shoots deer from a distance killing for no reason at all, man overcoming nature. He thinks only of his own survival, taking the lives of other living things in order to preserve his own, determined to save his mother but indifferent to the fates of others. When it comes to killing the white deer his hands shake, struck for the first time by the enormity of what he’s doing while literally preparing to kill a god. While Yoichi venerates and protects the natural environment in a process of symbiotic living, Yuku sides with those willing to exploit it for economic gain brainwashed into believing that living with the land is “backward” and that it’s only “natural” to eliminate “inconveniences” such as “vermin” which impede “modern life” in a capitalistic society. Capturing the natural beauty of the Japanese countryside Kaneko’s existential fable is filled with a quiet unease in the ambivalent relationship between man and landscape but also in the solipsistic struggle for survival that all too often defines human relationships. 


The Albino’s Trees streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

We Are Moluccans (Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku, Angga Dwimas Sasongko, 2014)

A motorbike courier finds himself torn between conflicting priorities when his community is threatened by internal strife in Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s inspirational sporting drama We Are Moluccans (Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku). As the title suggests, team sports provide a means of communal healing fostering both hope and unity among the young but even so the traumatic memories of the recent past prove hard to overcome while the older generation struggle in the wake of their own broken dreams and contradictory responsibilities. 

At the turn of the century, a violent conflict breaks out between Muslim and Christian communities who had until that point lived together in relative peace. With his motorcycle courier business disrupted by the ongoing chaos, former youth footballer Sani (Chicco Jerikho) begins coaching a collection of local boys mostly as a means of keeping them away from the immediate violence of the riots. As the situation begins to stabilise, his new responsibility to the children places a strain on his relationship with his wife, Haspa (Shafira Umm), who complains that he spends too much time giving back to the community while the family is struggling economically to the extent that she can no longer extend their tab at the grocery store. His old football friend Rafi (Frans Nendissa) is also struggling with his fishing business having lost most of his crew who fled the area’s violence and so the two of them begin to make the football club more formal but it soon becomes clear that they each have differing goals and responsibilities that endanger their partnership and the commitment they’ve made to the boys.  

At several points Rafi, not to mention Haspa, criticise Sani for what they see as irresponsibility while some of the other village men also accuse him of unmanliness for choosing to look after the children rather than fight with them to protect the village. His problem is that he’s too kind hearted but is entirely unable to order his priorities torn by the necessity of providing for his family and following through on the commitment he’s made to the neighbourhood boys. He often gives his hard won money away to those in need, angering his wife who cannot understand why he continues to help others rather protect his own family even giving away money he’d saved for their youngest daughter’s vaccinations and abruptly selling their goats without discussing it with her when she’d earmarked them as an emergency fund to pay the enrolment fees when the oldest daughter starts school. 

Because of the ongoing violence, many of the boys are in single parent families and live in relative poverty often needed to help out with their parent’s businesses. To begin with many are fine with them playing football so long as it keeps them safe but as they begin to grow older attitudes harden, many believing that it’s a “pointless” waste of time and too much of a distraction when the children should either be earning money or studying. Sani becomes a kind of surrogate father teaching the boys diligence and responsibility even if struggling with the same in his personal life but obviously cannot overcome the social and economic difficulties of small town life all on his own. His original goal was only to keep the children safe and ensure they had happy childhood memories that weren’t about hate, violence, and fear, whereas Rafi is much more ambitious floating the idea of opening an official football school while eventually deciding to run for public office further adding to Sani’s sense of personal inadequacy. 

“Nothing can destroy us as long as we have will to live a better life” Sani later tells the children, mistaken it seems in his belief that they would find it easier to overcome the differences between them when acting as head coach for a team representing the entirety of the local area. Many of the original team resent the introduction of “outsiders” from the nearby Christian town, but the difficulties turn out less to be about religion or community than trauma, the source of the problem being that the father of two of the Christian boys is a policeman whom another of the players blames for his own father’s death. While such tensions exist within the group the team continues to fail, losing not because of a lack of ability but because they cannot overcome the legacy of trauma to work together. The problem is only solved through a reassertion of their commonality as “Moluccans” rather than Muslim or Christian ironically forged in opposition to their current other which happens to be a team from Jakarta, the urban pitted against the rural. 

In any case, Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s inspirational drama eventually makes the case for mutual forgiveness as path toward putting the past to rest in order to move forward into a kinder and more prosperous era. The emotional closing scenes provide both a personal sense of acceptance in as Rafi begins to put his pride aside to support the local team while Muslims and Christians come together to listen to the nail-biting penalty shootout through their respective contacts in the auditorium after the TV broadcast cuts out before extra time. Demonstrating the power of sports to overcome cultural barriers, We Are Moluccans finally advocates for the right to dream as the youngsters begin to develop self-confidence and a sense of possibility while working together towards a clearly defined goal. 


We Are Moluccans streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Weeds on Fire (點五步, Steve Chan Chi-Fat, 2016)

“Even though disappointed, do not lose hope” reads a piece of graffiti in the closing moments of Steve Chan Chi-fat’s nostalgic coming-of-age drama Weeds on Fire (點五步). Though touted as a baseball movie, as incongruous as that may sound given that the sport is a niche interest in contemporary Hong Kong, Chan’s strangely hopeful if quietly melancholy tale of ‘80s Sha Tin is bookended by scenes of the present day city in the midst of the Umbrella Movement protests the story the hero wants to offer seemingly intended for an audience of dejected youngsters as confused and disappointed as he once was in order to encourage them that what’s important isn’t winning or losing but staying the course and gaining the confidence to take the first step. 

Now in his mid-40s, Lung (Lam Yiu-sing) casts his mind back to the Hong Kong of 1984 when he lived on a rundown council estate in Sha Tin and attended a high school with a less than stellar academic record. A shy and nerdy boy, he was often bullied but always had childhood friend Wai (Tony Wu Tsz-tung), physically imposing and with a confident swagger, at his back. When the city comes up with additional funding for schools to use in the promotion of sport their enterprising headmaster Lu Kwong-fai (Liu Kai-chi) hatches on the idea of starting the region’s very first local high school baseball team, recruiting both Wai and Lung in the hope of teaching them teamwork and discipline. Nevertheless, being teammates begins to place a strain on their friendship and it becomes clear that the boys are destined for different paths. Wai quits the team in a huff and leaves school, mooching round in pool bars and hanging out with triads while Lung steps up to the plate but is troubled by the loss of his friendship and the fracturing relationship between his unhappily married parents. 

Chan somewhat unsubtly ties Lung’s personal development to that of Hong Kong as he finds himself coming of age in era of anxiety. The world is literally changing around him, 1984 being as says the year that the redevelopment of Sha Tin began in earnest while it also marked the signing of the Sino-British Declaration paving the way for the transfer of power in the 1997 Handover. A young man, Lung wants to “change” himself in that he longs for the confidence to ask out a young woman he’s developed a crush on but is too shy and disappointed in himself for doing nothing when witnessing her being harassed by a drunken creep in the lift of the apartment block where they both live. Yet in other ways change frightens him and really he wants everything to stay the same believing that saying nothing will maintain the status quo only to realise that there are situations over which he has no real control. 

His headmaster and coach of the baseball team Lu admits that he set Wai and Lung against each other in order to encourage him to come out from his friend’s shadow embracing his own identity and discovering a sense of self-confidence. Yet Lung continues to struggle, a little lost unable to find clear direction in his life while everything changes around him occasionally consumed by a sense of despair as perhaps are the young protestors in believing their movement has failed. In baseball what he realises that it isn’t about winning or losing but having the confidence to step up to the plate, subtly telling the protestors to hang in there because there’s still time to turn this around. “I never said we had to win”, inspirational coach Lu reminds the boys, “but I did say never give up!”.

Loosely based on the real life story of the Shatin Martins though as the closing credit reel reveals the original team were primary school children rather than high schoolers, Chan shifts away from sporting drama towards the more familiar youth movie metaphor of two former friends heading in different directions, the good boy knuckling down while the “bad” becomes a victim of his own hotheaded arrogance even if managing to repair his fractured friendship with Lung before tragedy strikes. Filled with memories of Handover anxiety and a healthy dose of ‘80s nostalgia, the film’s incongruous jauntiness is perhaps at odds with the gravity of the tale though that is perhaps itself part of the message the older Lung has for the young. “This is the city where I grew up. It’s become increasingly unfamiliar” he laments striding through streets filled with tents occupied by student protestors, sympathising with their cause while offering them a note of melancholy hope in his own, sometimes painful, tale of finding his feet in a changing Hong Kong. 


Weeds on Fire streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Kim Jong-kwan, 2021)

“I see hope! Let’s change direction” a distressed woman shouts in a park, “We should follow the wind, let’s hold hands that way you won’t get lost.” Her interjection is perhaps unexpected, in its own way sad, but also a sign offered to the melancholy protagonist of Kim Jong-kwan’s Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Amoodo Eobneun Got), a man who has become without quite realising it “someone who waits” yet through encounters serendipitous and otherwise begins to see new paths in front of him, turning a corner into another story.

Novelist Chang-seok (Yeon Woo-Jin) has just returned to Seoul after seven years abroad following the breakdown of his marriage in the UK. He has begun to have strange dreams, seeing an older version of himself and presumably his wife walk away from him and eventually disappear. Yet each of the people he meets is also in someway burdened by a sense of loss or despair, his first meeting with his mother who appears to have some kind of dementia and does not initially recognise him thinking once again she’s on her first date with his father. Her sadness is the loss of past and present but also of future, telling her son on finally recognising him not to smoke so much so he won’t die young like his dad. 

Chang-seok had apparently given up smoking, but is motivated to start again perhaps seeing little point in extending his life, accepting some unusual Indonesian cigarettes from a former colleague now his editor who eventually tells him of her failed love affair with a young exchange student which apparently ended partly because he could not acclimatise himself to the harsh winters of Seoul. The other reason perhaps echoes something in Chang-seok’s own life though also tinged with a different sense of sadness. A serendipitous meeting with a former acquaintance meanwhile takes a turn for the strange, photographer Sung-ha (Kim Sang-Ho) somewhat manic in his ecstasy in having run into Chang-seok explaining that his wife is terminally ill yet a Buddhist monk had told him he’d run into someone he knew who would bring him luck. On the other hand, Sung-ha also shows him a vial of cyanide he’s managed to procure apparently planning to use it to take his own life after his wife dies but now filled with an almost certainly false hope in the strange power of religious mysticism. “I don’t believe in all that, but people.. they need to hang their hope on something” he explains.

Chang-seok may not have much of a sense of hope, but what little he has he’s hung on people or on art. He is forever “waiting” for someone who may or may not arrive or even exist, making notes in his notebook or wandering around the surprisingly lonely streets of Seoul after dark pausing by the now obsolete phone booths filled with the detritus of city life unsure whether or not to make a call. His final conversation is with a woman who tells him that she has no memories of her own, having been robbed of her past, and more, in an accident and now “buys” them off her customers swapping free drinks for personal stories while writing poems about their lives. “No one is coming, but he became someone who waits” she writes of Chang-seok, their meeting oddly mirroring his first in its mixture of fiction and reality along with relationships forged through the exchange of stories true or otherwise. As he’d said, sometimes a made up story can be the more truthful. 

“But they come in the depth of despair, miracles” Sung-ha had added hopefully seconds after saying he didn’t believe in them, each of Chang-seok’s encounters a tiny miracle in itself. Imbued with a deep sense of melancholy and loneliness, Kim’s delicately scripted ethereal drama is an exercise in grief and despair Chang-seok’s sense of fiction and reality beginning to blur even as he begins to find the urge to write again and with it perhaps to live again too. “I see hope!” the woman shouts once more, restored something as she takes her place in a new story, Chang-seok turning the corner and beginning once again to dream. 


Shades of the Heart screens 14th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I’m Flash! (Toshiaki Toyoda, 2012)

A conflicted cult leader’s existential crisis plays havoc with the “family business” he’s unwillingly inherited in Toshiaki Toyoda’s ironic contemplation of life, death, and everything in-between, I’m Flash!. Taken from a Sheena & The Rokkets song, the slightly awkward title refers not to the hero’s taste for visible wealth, but to the briefness of life. Shot in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, Toyoda apparently intended the film to “shake off death” but ultimately casts off only its shadow while suggesting once again that “death is the ultimate salvation” and the only true path to freedom. 

As the film opens, “guru” Rui (Tatsuya Fujiwara) literally collides with destiny as the bright red sports car he’s driving meets a motorcyclist coming in the other direction. The unnamed cyclist (Tasuku Emoto) is killed instantly and thereafter callously forgotten while the girl in the passenger seat next to him (Kiko Mizuhara) who’d he’d only met that evening in a bar is now in a coma with no indication of when or if she may wake up. Rui is shaken, however, most in being confronted with the real world cost of his phoney religion something which he has perhaps been ignoring in order to continue living his life. “If you want to make serious money there’s nothing better than religion” he’d cynically joked, playing the playboy enjoying the attention his gurudom grants him, particularly with the opposite sex, while living a life of undeserved luxury built on exploiting the vulnerability of others. 

Yet as we come to realise his troubles are not only moral or spiritual but personal in realising that he is but a puppet of his own organisation which is in reality run by his pragmatic mother (Michiyo Okusu) and hard-nosed sister (Mayu Harada) to whose marketing genius he attributes the cult’s recent success. One of three bodyguards hired to protect him quips that Rui is “kind of like a mob boss”, and he’s not far off except that Rui is only the face of the organisation with no real power to affect change. The cult, which runs under the slogan “Life is Beautiful”, was apparently founded by his grandfather and can only be inherited through the male line but Rui later discovers that both his grandfather and father whose skulls sit in his ossuary may have died unnatural deaths suggesting perhaps that they too came to experience this same sense of existential impotence or fell victim to the machinations of others. Feeling emasculated, Rui was forced to become the guru when his middle sister decided to transition, joining older sister Sakura and his mother as part of the matriarchal governing body while refusing the burden Rui must now carry. 

“Everyone needs something to cling to” Rui’s mother rationalises, justifying herself that the members of the cult would merely have joined another organisation if not theirs. Veteran hitman Kamimura (Shigeru Nakano) says something similar when the bodyguards are asked to switch sides and take Rui out of the picture, insisting that if they don’t do it someone else will. Rui’s decision to dissolve the church sparked by his meeting with the girl in the bar creates a serious business problem for his mother and sisters, yet reflecting he realises that he had plenty of opportunities to change his life and let each of them pass him by. “Is life supposed to be enjoyable?” zen hitman/bodyguard Fujiwara (Ryuhei Matsuda) answers when Rui asks him if he’s happy living on the sidelines, but it’s he alone who seems to see the value of living in the present ironically embodying the cult’s central messages that it’s only the fear of death that prevents one living a happy life while also correcting Rui’s minder that the contemplation of mortality shouldn’t be as “effortless” as the solutions they offer profess.  

Rui’s only escape lies in the ocean, in a sense diving into life while swimming towards the sun in search of rebirth while Fujiwara asks himself if he’s completely free if the world is but a fleeting dream and after death everything disappears as if it never existed. The guru may have fallen victim to his own philosophy, looking for salvation in death while perhaps selfishly prioritising his own liberation rather than destroying the corrupt system of which he was a part and in which he will simply be replaced. “Not at any time will the illusion of hope be destroyed” according to an ethereal voiceover casting doubt over its own message of positivity even while its hero swims toward the light. 


I’m Flash! is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th October as part of the Toshiaki Toyoda: 2005 to 2021 box set courtesy of Third Window Films accompanied by a typically insightful commentary from Tom Mes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Monsters Club (モンスターズクラブ, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2011)

“I’m disappointed in you. Very disappointed. You’re still in love with the world” a young man is told in a dream or perhaps delusion by a man he respected but by whom he may also in a sense have been betrayed. Partly inspired by the life and writings of the Unabomber, Toshiaki Toyoda’s Monsters Club (モンスターズクラブ) is less a treatise on post-millennial Japan than it is a profoundly moving character study in trauma and isolation in which an orphaned young man struggles to find meaning in world in which he feels he has no control over his existence. 

The second son of a noble family, Ryoichi Kakiuchi (Eita Nagayama) has retreated from “this stench-filled society” to live alone in a small cabin in the woods. In an opening voiceover he reads from a manifesto railing against the “industrial society” which he believes railroads those born into it towards a life of wage slavery from the day they are born. Yet his existence is more 19th century than it is a primitive return to the land, his appearance meticulously well maintained in an incongruous clash with his rejection of social conformity, and he must necessarily in some sense still be connected with the outside world given that he will need to obtain batteries and gunpowder used for constructing the bombs he’s been mailing to CEOs of advertising and entertainment companies, not to mention the cigars he is often seen smoking after repurposing their packaging. 

Though he is aware people have died because of his bombs, Ryoichi regards them not as murder but as a “message”, later penning a letter to the prime minister which he ultimately discards in favour of sending him the poems of Kenji Miyazawa instead. Ryoichi’s dilemma is that, as one of the ghosts who visits him suggests, he still wants to save a world he believes is beyond salvation. The bombs are therefore a wake up call, but an awkward one which fails to deliver the message he intended in urging a corrective course away from empty capitalism towards a less regimented social order in which he is master of his own destiny. “Freedom is power” he later writes, resentful of a society he feels infantilises him by removing his “right to self-determination” while his life “depends on the decisions of others” whom he doesn’t even know. 

It might be easy to sympathise with his philosophy in the Japan of 2011 entering another decade of a stagnant economy in a rigid and conformist social culture in which the rewards of playing by the rules have all but disappeared. But Ryoichi’s nihilism is born as much of his successive traumas as it is by dissatisfaction with a world devoid of meaningful opportunity. Formerly the son of a wealthy man with no need to worry about the future, uncertainty enters his consciousness with the death of his father, followed soon after by his mother’s from illness, his younger brother’s in an accident, and his older’s by suicide leaving only he and his younger sister (whom he has also abandoned) as the last of his line. Literally orphaned he finds himself unanchored, forced into retreat and choosing self-isolation. Yet if retreat was all he wanted he could have achieved it, living quietly alone in the woods with no need for bombs or indeed any kind of communication at all. Taunted by the ghost of his brother Yuki (Yosuke Kubozuka), he at once takes aim at the “system” which drives those who cannot accommodate themselves with it to suicide, while flirting with the nihilism that suggests suicide is the only true expression of freedom in an oppressive society. 

Nevertheless, Ryoichi eventually loses faith in his brother’s philosophy rationalising that if he had managed to find the pathway to the ideal world he spoke of he would not have needed to take his own life and could have lived in “relative happiness” even if in “a forest of monsters”. He claims to have found this happiness himself and urges his sister to do the same, ignoring the ghosts of their brothers should they visit. Haunted both by familial trauma and a maddening demon, Ryoichi makes a monster of himself but is ironically later chased out of the forest and back towards civilisation, gradually removing his mask as he goes. In an ending he would later repeat in the similarly themed anti-Olympic treatise Day of Destruction, Toyoda leaves his hero screaming in the centre of the city left with no other outlet for his rage and grief, but uncertain if this represents defeat or victory, defiance or surrender. Elegiac and in its own way profoundly sad, Monster’s Club is the story of a man haunted by himself, unable to break free from the legacy of trauma and embracing his loneliness all alone surrounded by snow but ultimately still in love with an imperfect world and finally learning to play “that pipe organ made of light that fills the sky”. 


Monsters Club is released on bluray in the UK on 18th October as part of the Toshiaki Toyoda: 2005 to 2021 box set courtesy of Third Window Films and is accompanied by a richly detailed audio commentary by film scholar Jasper Sharp.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Queer Japan (クィア・ジャパン, Graham Kolbeins, 2019)

Japan has in recent years become a much more progressive place in which LGBTQ+ rights continue to advance though hopes that hosting the Olympics would finally provoke a shift in the political reality ultimately came to nothing with anti-discrimination and national equal marriage legislation still pending. Released in 2019, Graham Kolbeins’ comprehensive documentary Queer Japan (クィア・ジャパン) as its name suggests explores the lives of ordinary people across the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community yet cannot perhaps avoid falling victim to, as one interviewee points out, a certain degree of exoticisation even while demonstrating the diversity present with the community itself.

Nevertheless, Kolbeins is keen to stress the warmth and solidarity found with the various subcultures he explores such as that surrounding Department H, a costume fetish ball at which all are welcome from gay furries and puppy play enthusiasts to avantgarde artists such as a young woman whose multi-person rubber pig giving birth is notable inclusion. As the club’s hostess, drag queen Margarette, points out the fetish scene often transcends ideas of gender, the club providing a totally safe, inclusive, and relaxed place where anyone can come to be themselves and find acceptance. 

That has not always been true when it comes to other aspects of the community as evidenced by the controversy surrounding lesbian bar Gold Finger which came under fire some years ago for refusing admittance to transwomen under its longstanding women only policy. Interviewed here Chika Ogawa outlines her original reluctance to admit transmen who had previously been frequent customers prior to transition but eventually reconsidered to team up with another group to host an evening geared towards transmen and masculine women as a place where the community can come together. 

As explained by activist Fumino Sugiyama, it is legally possible to change one’s gender in Japan though the conditions are somewhat draconian and require the surgical removal of reproductive organs which some have viewed as a breach of fundamental human rights. The change in the law was largely due to Japan’s first transgender lawmaker Aya Kamikawa who outlines how difficult her life had been unable to change her gender on her family register creating problems when trying to rent an apartment, access healthcare, or gain employment. She admits that the law passed was very strict, but laments the limits of what is possible under the current LDP administration and its ultraconservative outlook as evidenced by gaffe-prone politician Mio Sugita’s characterisation of the LGBTQ+ community as “unproductive” and therefore not deserving of social benefits. 

Pioneer of gay manga and G-Men co-creator Hiroshi Hasegawa remarks that the oppression faced by the community in Japan is often less direct than it might be elsewhere operating largely through societal shaming and a conformist social culture. Kolbeins discovers this to be true on visiting other cities such as Naha, Okinawa, where a cheerful dentist reveals that he only embraced his love of dancing at the age of 33 and spoke to no one for two years after receiving a bad reaction to coming out during university. Nevertheless, in the face of this indirect oppression the community has developed a sense of comprehensive, intersectional solidarity often coming out to counterprotest racist prejudice against ethnically Korean citizens and discovering that the anti-racist straight community often comes to Pride to support them in return. Bearing out this spirit of intersectionality, Queer Japan is fully subtitled in Japanese throughout while a deaf LGBTQ+ activist highlights the importance of proper sign language interpretation which is familiar with the community.

Even so, Japan’s LGBTQ+ community is subject to the same concerns as many others from around the world one Pride goer criticising the increasing commercialisation of the event, sympathetic that some degree of sponsorship is necessary to hold a celebration on this scale but also that you need to be accountable. Meanwhile a young trans person objects to the celebratory atmosphere insisting that all they want is to feel safe using the bathroom, love can wait. There is clearly work to do, but also much already accomplished one vox popper enthusiastically listing all of his various fetishes with thinly concealed glee while making a serious point about normalising condom usage. Featuring internationally well-known figures such as gay erotic manga pioneer Gengoroh Tagame alongside activists and ordinary members of the LGBTQ+ community, Kolbeins’ handsomely lensed doc showcases the diversity of queer life in Japan while never losing sight of the battles still to be won. 


Queer Japan screened as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)