Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル, Toshimitsu Iizuka, 2017)

poetry angel posterLife is confusing. You think you know what you want, only to realise it wasn’t what you wanted at all. What you really wanted was the very thing you convinced yourself you didn’t want so that you could want something else. The characters at the centre of Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル) are all suffers of this particular delusion, lost and alone in a small town in rural Japan without hope or direction. That is, until they discover the strange sport of “poetry boxing”.

Our hero, Tsutomu (Amane Okayama), is a 21-year-old farm boy with dreams of becoming an author. His illusions are, however, shattered when he checks the board in the community centre and discovers he hasn’t even placed in a local history essay writing contest which appears to have been won by a child. In this delicate state, a pretty girl suddenly approaches him and begs for his help but then drags him into a seminar room where he is forced to listen to a lecture on “poetry boxing”. Almost everyone else leaves straight away but Tsutomu is intrigued – after all, semi-aggressive literary sport might be just the thing to get an aspiring author’s creative juices flowing.

Tsutomu’s problems are the same as many a young man’s in Japanese cinema – he resents having his future dictated to him by an accident of birth. His father owns a large orchard and is a well respected producer of salt pickled plums. As the only child, Tsutomu is expected to take over but he hates “boring” country life and the repetitive business of farming, his thinly veiled jealousy all too plain when an old friend returns from Tokyo on a visit home between university graduation and a new job in the capital. Tsutomu thinks of himself as special, as an artist, but no one seems to be recognising his genius.

This might partly be because his only “poem” is an alarming performance art piece in which he laments his tendency to destroy the things he loves with his “weed whacker”. The sport of poetry boxing has no physical requirements but it has no limits either. It’s more or less like performance poetry or a less directly confrontational kind of slam, but participants are encouraged to step into the boxing ring and express themselves in whichever way they see fit. Once both participants have concluded their “poems” a panel of judges votes on the winner. Like Tsutomu, the other members of the poetry boxing team are dreaming of other things or claiming to be something they’re not. Rappers who really work in cabaret bars, lonely girls who fear they’re plain and long to be “cute”, civil servants longing to kick back at inconsiderate citizens, and old men who really do just want to write poetry and appreciate the time they have left.

Yet through the endlessly wacky tasks set by Hayashi (Akihiro Kakuta), the leader of the group, each of the participants begins to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they really want. Not least among them An (Rena Takeda), a gloomy young girl who spends her life scowling at people and refusing to speak. She’d been into boxing for real and first met Tsutomu when she punched him in the face because his unexpectedly sexist friend from Tokyo was harassing her in the street. Poetry, however, begins to unlock even her deepest held desires which can finally be voiced from the ironically safe space of the poetry boxing ring.

There may be nothing particularly original about Iizuka’s delayed coming of age tale, but it has genuine warmth for its confused no hopers as they look for connection through formalised language and ritual play, discovering new depths to themselves as they do so. As it turns out mostly what you want was there all along, only you didn’t want to look. Annoyingly, other people may have figured it out before you but that can’t be helped and is, after all, only to be expected. Poetry is a doorway to the soul but it’s also one that might need a good kicking to get it open. Maybe the boxing ring is a better place to start than one might think.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Soseongri (소성리, Park Bae-il, 2017)

Soseongri posterElderly people are often assumed to be of a conservative disposition, steadfastly clinging to the values of a world rapidly slipping away, but many have also experienced things they sincerely hope no further generations will be forced to experience. The grannies of Soseongri lived through the Korean War and so they remember just how terrible life in wartime can be. Even so, despite living close to the North Korean border, they’d put those days of fear and anxiety long behind them – that is until it was announced that the peaceful village of Soseongri would be the site for a bank of US military THAAD missile systems intended to act as a deterrent/defensive measure against aggression from the North.

Director Park Bae-il opens with lengthy shot of an old woman’s hands carefully placing seedlings into the earth. The first part of the film immerses us in village life, and in the lives of the old ladies who make up the bulk of the population now that most of the youngsters have moved into the cities. In fact, other than the police officers and right wingers who turn up later, there are only two men ever captured on screen – one very elderly, and the other a cheerful toddler ironically dressed in a T-shirt which reads “let’s go red”. Most of the women arrived in Soseongri to marry and their lives have been defined by farming and family. One particularly feisty old woman proudly tells us how she and her friends have managed to strike a small blow against their restrictive society in reclaiming their own names. When they came to Soseongri, they came as “the new bride” or “so-and-so’s wife”, later becoming “so-and-so’s mother” but now that they’re old they’ve all started to call each other by their given names and insisted everyone else, even the local post service, do the same. Even so, the same woman laments that she feels she was not a good wife to her husband because of her defiant attitude and worries that she made her family unhappy in being unwilling to just go along with the way of things.

Meanwhile, life on the border holds its own share of anxieties. The memories of the war are still vivid for these older women who remember the threat and violence, the horrifying deaths of friends and the constant ideological conflicts. Anti-communist sentiments are still prevalent among the older generation – one woman describes certain villagers as having been “contaminated” by communist ideas, but admits that when the communists came to Soseongri they came in peace. Everyone got a free cow, the villagers ate meat, and the communist cadre treated them well while building infrastructure and protecting village life. When the communists were forced back North, however, it was the South Korean army which marched “collaborators” off to the cliffs never to seen again.

Nevertheless, one of the things that bothers the women the most in their protests is being accused of being “communists” by the right wing counter protestors. In a shocking display of extreme political rhetoric, the arrival of the THAAD missile system is greeted by loud patriotic songs from the authoritarian era which are explicit in their violence, wishing for the bloody deaths of all communists. The defenders of THAAD claim that it will maintain peace through deterrence, but the old ladies fear it will only antagonise an old enemy and prolong the already protracted peace process. They don’t want “peace” through mutually assured destruction, they want an end to the conflict once and for all. In truth they don’t want the THAAD anywhere, but they particularly don’t want it in their village which will after all become a major target, ensuring they will be the first to feel the fire if the missiles fly.

As it stands the old women are already worried about the planes flying constantly overhead, bringing back bad memories of a past they hoped was already far behind them. Now they find themselves facing violence once again as the police act to protect the right wing protest groups and think nothing of using their superior strength against little old ladies who are just trying to make their voices heard. THAAD or not, the peace in this tiny village has already been ruptured and serious questions raised about the rights of local people vs the national government, a difference in attitudes between young and old when it comes to the North, and possible government hypocrisy in the face of rising tensions coupled with geopolitical concerns. Park, immersing himself in village life, allows the ladies to speak for themselves as they offer both their histories and their wisdom, but most of all their fortitude as they refuse to stop fighting for a peaceful existence.


Screened as part of London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Interview with director Park Bae-il from the 2017 Busan Film Festival

Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연,Kim Yong-hwa, 2018)

Along with the gods 2 posterKarma is a bitch, and Korean hell is apparently full of it. You don’t have to be guilty to work here, but it certainly seems to help. Picking up straight after the conclusion of the first film, Kim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods sequel, The Last 49 Days (신과함께-인과 연, Singwa Hamgge: Ingwa Yeon) sees stern grim reaper/celestial defence lawyer Gang-lim (Ha Jung-woo) make good on his promise to clear the name of a once vengeful spirit now cheerfully deceased, but willingly or otherwise it’s himself he’s putting on trial as the facts of his client’s case veer eerily close to his own. King Yeomra (Lee Jung-jae) is up to his old tricks once again.

Brother of the first film’s “paragon” Ja-hong, Kim Su-hong (Kim Dong-wook) is headed nowhere good – after being accidentally shot by one friend and then buried alive by another to cover it up, Su-hong became a vengeful spirit creating havoc in the mortal and underworlds. Gang-lim, however, is convinced that Su-hong’s death was “wrongful”, that he died as a deliberate act of murder rather than simply by a tragic accident, and commits himself to clearing Su-hong’s name so that he can be reincarnated immediately. He manages to win King Yeomra over, but there is one condition – an old man, Hur Choon-sam (Nam Il-Woo), is an overstayer in the mortal world and should have been “ascended” long ago but his household god, Sung-ju (Ma Dong-Seok), keeps despatching the Guardians to keep the old man safe. If Gang-lim and his assistants Hewonmak (Ju Ji-Hoon) and Deok-choon (Kim Hyang-Gi) can clear Su-hong’s name and ascend Choon-sam within 49 Days King Yeomra will at last set them free and allow them to be reincarnated.

Having dealt so thoroughly with the mechanics of hell in The Two Worlds, Kim expands and deepens his canvas to delve into the lives of our various Guardians. As it turns out Sung-ju was once a Guardian himself and so he knows a thing or two about our two underlings – Hewonmak and Deok-choon, whose memories were wiped when they became employees of King Yeomra. As Sung-ju spins a yarn, it becomes clear that the fates of the three Guardians were closely linked in life and death, bound by a series of traumatic events over a thousand years ago during the Goryeo dynasty.

As in the Two Worlds it all comes down to family. Gang-lim’s memories are fractured and confused, he’s convinced himself he’s a righteous man and wilfully misremembered his death (or at least misrepresented it to his cohorts). Stiff and lacking in compassion, Gang-lim was at odds with his gentle hearted father who, he thought, had found a better son in a boy orphaned by the cruelty of his own troops. These broken familial connections become a karmic circle of resentment and betrayal, enduring across millennia in the knowledge that even to ask for forgiveness may itself be another cruel and selfish act of violence. The circle cannot be closed without cosmic justice, but justice requires process and process requires a victim.

Gang-lim plays a bait and switch, he walks the strangely cheerful Su-hong through the various trials but it’s himself he’s testing, working towards a resolution of his own centuries old burdens of guilt and regret. There are, however, unintended victims in everything and the fate of orphans becomes a persistent theme from the orphaned foster brother Gang-lim feared so much, to those who lost their families in the wars of Goryeo, and a little boy who will be left all alone if Hewonmak and Deok-choon decide to ascend Choon-sam. Choon-sam’s adorable grandson is only young but he’s already been badly let down – his mother sadly passed away, but his father ran up gambling debts and then ran off to the Philippines never to be seen again. He didn’t ask for any of this, but there’s no cosmic justice waiting for him, only “uncle” Sang-ju who has taken the bold step of assuming human form to help the boy and his granddad out while trying to come up with a more permanent solution.

Nevertheless, compassion and forgiveness eventually triumph over the rigid business of the law, finally closing the circle through force of will. Kim doubles down on The Two Worlds’ carefully crafted aesthetic but perhaps indulges himself with a series of random digressions involving psychic dinosaur attacks and lengthy laments about stock market fluctuations and failing investments. Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days may lack the narrative focus of its predecessor but is undoubtedly lighter in tone and filled with the sense of fun the first film lacked, which is just as well because it seems as if hell is not done with our three Guardians just yet.


Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days is currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2017)

Miracles of the Namiya General Store posterKeigo Higashino is probably best known for his murder mysteries, most particularly the international best seller The Devotion of Suspect X. His literary output is however a little broader than one might assume and fantastical hypotheticals are very much a part of his work as in the bizarre The Secret in which a mother wakes up in her daughter’s body after a fatal accident. Miracles of the Namiya General Store (ナミヤ雑貨店の奇蹟, Namiya Zakkaten no Kiseki) is indeed one of his warmer stories even if it occasionally veers towards the author’s usual taste for moral conservatism in its yearning for a more innocent, pre-bubble Japan that is rapidly being forgotten.

Back in 1980, Mr. Namiya (Toshiyuki Nishida) runs the local store and is a much loved member of the community. As an older man with plenty of life experience, he also offers an agony uncle service. People with problems can simply write him a letter and drop it through his box. He’ll have a bit of a think about it and then either paste up a response on the village noticeboard outside or, if the question is a little more delicate, place his reply in an envelope in the milk box.

32 years later, a trio of delinquent boys end up taking refuge in the disused store after committing some kind of crime. While they’re poking around, what should pop through the letter box but a letter, direct from 1980. Freaked out the boys try to leave but find themselves trapped in some kind of timeslip town. Eventually they decide to answer the letter just to pass the time and then quickly find themselves conversing with an earlier generation by means of some strange magic.

At the end of his life, what Mr. Namiya is keen to know is if his advice really mattered, and if it did, did it help or hinder? His introspection is caused in part by a news report that someone he advised on a particularly tricky issue may have committed suicide. Mr. Namiya isn’t now so sure he gave them the right advice and worries what he told them may have contributed to the way they died. This itself is a difficult question and if it sounds like a moral justification to point out that no one was forced to follow Mr. Namiya’s “advice” and everyone is ultimately responsible for their own decisions, that’s because it is but then it doesn’t make it any less true. Then again, Mr. Namiya’s advice, by his own admission, was not really about telling people what to do – most have already made a decision, they just want someone to help them feel better about it. What he tries to do is read between the lines and then tell them what they want to hear – the decision was always theirs he just helped them find a way to accommodate it.

The boys have quite different attitudes. Kohei (Kanichiro), who takes the initial decision to write back, is compassionate but pragmatic. As we later find out, the three boys are all orphans and Kohei counsels a melancholy musician who wants to know if he should give up on his Tokyo music career and come home to run the family fish shop that he should count himself lucky to have a place to come back to and that if he was going to get anywhere in music he’d have got there already. Mr. Namiya’s philosophy proves apt – the musician writes back and argues his case, he wants to carry on with music but feels guilty and hopes Mr. Namiya will tell him it’s OK to follow his dreams. For the boys however, “dreams” are an unaffordable luxury and like a trio of cynical old men they tell the musician to grow up and get a real job. That is, until he decides to play them a tune and they realise it’s all too familiar.

Similarly, a conflicted young woman drops them a letter wanting advice on whether to become the mistress of a wealthy man who claims he will help her set up in business. The boys say no, do not debase yourself, work hard and be honest – that’s the best way to repay a debt to the people that raised you. Again she writes back, she wants her shot but it is a high price. That’s where hindsight comes in, as does advance knowledge about Japan’s impending economic boom and subsequent bust.

As expected, everything is connected. Higashino maybe romanticising an earlier time in which community still mattered and the wisest man you knew ran the corner store, but then there’s a mild inconsistency between the idealised picture of small town life and the orphanage which links it all together – these kids are after all removed, even perhaps exiled, from that same idea of “community” even if they are able to create their own familial bonds thanks to the place that has raised them. The most cynical of the boys once wanted to be a doctor, but as another boy points out it takes more than just brains to get there. While it’s a nice message to say that there are no limits and nothing is impossible, it is rather optimistic and perhaps glosses over many of the issues the kids face after “graduating” from the group home and having nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, seeing everything come together in the end through the power of human goodness and the resurgence of personal agency is an inspirational sight indeed. The world could use a few more miracles, but as long as there are kind hearted people with a desire for understanding, there will perhaps be hope.


Original trailer (English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい, Sho Tsukikawa, 2017)

Let me eat your pancreas posterBack around the turn of the century, a new kind of melodrama was taking the Japanese box office by storm. “junai” or “pure love” was not exactly new in terms of genre but began to grow in popularity in the early 2000s thanks to growing interest in Korean television drama, finally hitting its zenith in 2004 with Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World. The junai boom lasted only a couple of years, but Japanese cinema has never been able to get enough of tragic stories of first love destroyed by cruel fate and, ironically enough, returns with the improbably titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい, Kimi no Suizo wo Tabetai) which sets its fictional past in 2003 – exactly the same time as the contemporary presents of the junai classics.

In 2012, Haruki Shiga (Shun Oguri) is a melancholy high school teacher who can’t decide if teaching is really his vocation and has a resignation letter sitting in his desk. Meanwhile, he is handed a slightly upsetting task by his boss – the school library has become too rundown to consider renovating and so it’s going to have to close. When Shiga was a high school student at this very school, he also ran the library club (he now has a qualification in librarianship) and so he seems to be the perfect person to ensure everything gets packed up and dealt with in the proper fashion. The library, however, holds some painful memories for him – of a girl he grew close to for only a few months while she battled a terminal illness and changed his life forever.

12 years previously, Sakura (Minami Hamabe), a popular young woman, drops her sickness diary on leaving the hospital, whereupon Shiga picks it up and unwittingly becomes the only person outside of Sakura’s family to know that she is suffering from a degenerative pancreatic illness and has only a couple of years at most to live. She knows her case her is hopeless and the treatment she receives will only prolong her life temporarily while easing her symptoms, but is determined to live out the rest of her days to the fullest.

Unlike Sakura, Shiga (Takumi Kitamura) describes himself as a loner who isn’t good with people. He spends his days with a book in his hand and is thought of by most of his classmates (if they think of him at all) as the creepy silent boy. Thus his unexpected friendship with Sakura raises more than a few eyebrows with the other kids, especially Sakura’s best friend Kyoko (Karen Otomo) who is both jealous and confused as to why her friend has suddenly started hanging out with the loser boy. Then again it’s precisely because of this aloofness that Sakura first believes she can entrust her final days to Shiga – as virtual strangers it’s much easier to process the idea of an ending, if Sakura had tried to confide in Kyoko about her illness it would only have marred the end of their friendship. Shiga is detached, he doesn’t get emotionally involved, but despite himself still cares which makes him the ideal point of support for a girl longing to escape a carefully ordered life to get a taste of everything she knows she will miss.

Let Me Eat Your Pancreas may situate itself in the junai era of the early 2000s, but owes an undeniable debt to Shunji Iwai’s seminal 1995 romantic melodrama Love Letter and even borrows its central library conceit with a hidden message which eventually reaches its destination much later than intended. Like Love Letter, in which one of the heroines is perpetually worried about the possible repercussions of minor illnesses, Pancreas is keen to remind us that the truth is we are all dying and illness or not today might be our last day – it’s best to make the most of it without sitting around worrying about what the future might hold.

Sakura, dying yet so full of life and energy, is keen to impart her life philosophy to the introverted Shiga. For Sakura life is about connection, sharing experiences with others be they joy or pain. Shiga, though loathed to admit it, is in his own way desperately lonely but has resolved himself to surviving alone, believing that he lacks the ability connect meaningfully with other people. His nascent connection with Sakura is destined to end in tragedy but does at least begin to release something in him which had long been suppressed. Even so, as an adult he’s just as withdrawn and isolated as he’d been as a teen and it’s not until he’s forced to revisit this traumatic incident in his early life that he learns the full value of its lessons. Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, though wilfully embracing some of the genre’s more problematic elements, is a beautifully affecting return to the world of junai which manages to turn a story of death and tragedy into a celebration of life and love as its isolationist hero begins to find the strength to embrace the art of being alive no matter how painful it may turn out to be.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Slice Room (사람이 산다, Song Yun-hyeok, 2016)

slice room still 1It’s easy to view a city like Seoul as a shining example of economic prosperity in which even ordinary people enjoy a high standard of living and perhaps no longer need to worry about extreme poverty or hunger. Of course, this is not the case and despite the aspirational image the city likes to project for itself, a long and complex history of political instability, authoritarian government, and the legacy of the 1997 Asian financial crisis have ensured the survival of an oppressed underclass unable to escape the roots of their poverty due to entrenched social issues which will not allow them to free themselves from the Slice Room existence.

Director Song Yun-hyeok first learned of the “jjok bang” or “Slice Room” phenomenon while working with the homeless and himself lived in one of the tiny tenement rooms for a year in order to make the documentary. He follows three groups of impoverished people who have each found themselves trapped in the slums for different reasons. 27-year-old Il-so was born in the jjok bang and has lived in the community all his life. He lives with his girlfriend, Sun-hee, who uses a wheelchair and finds it difficult to get around the makeshift world of the jjok bang without him. Meanwhile, 60-something Nam-sung lost his job after the Asian financial crisis and has been drifting aimlessly ever since as has Chun-hyun whose mental health issues prevent him from gaining secure employment.

Bad luck can happen to anybody, but the forces which conspire to keep someone in the jjok bang are no accident only a result of deliberate governmental failures. The reason many are unable to get off benefits and return to mainstream society is down to a law which mandates familial support – i.e. if a son gets a job his father loses his benefits even if the prospective job is not enough to support them both or if there are other dependents involved. Thus Nam-sung, by most standards an old man, finds himself in the humiliating position of having to reconnect with his estranged parents in order to get them to sign a consent form so that he can have access to government subsidy and take up a job his social worker has found for him. The family, whom he has not seen for 40 years, are also aware of the support legislation and are worried they will at some point be required to support Nam-sung and so they disown him and refuse to sign. Nam-sung is back at square one with no other options because of the say so of his father even though he is old enough to be a grandfather himself.

Meanwhile, Il-so and Sun-hee want to get married and start a family, but once they become a couple they will also receive a substantial benefits cut and seeing as they are also unable to work because of health issues and the support law, they have no real possibility of being able to support themselves without government help. Nevertheless they decide to try and fulfil their dream of building a family only to face a further dilemma when Sun-hee becomes pregnant.

Medical costs are another constant worry. Il-so, who has spent his entire life in the jjok bang, has long standing health issues from high blood pressure and diabetes to recurrent TB. Disease is rife in the jjok bang and mysterious deaths not uncommon, but the secondary problems are spiritual malaise and creeping depression as the hopelessness of the jjok bang world begins to sap the strength of those who live there, convincing them there is no way out of this world of crushing of poverty. For those like Chun-hyun the situation is even more precarious as they attempt to manage their conditions while living in the impossible jjok bang society, forced into exploitative, low paid and illegal labour simply to get by all while worrying about being caught out, losing their benefits and their homes.

Nam-sung, having found temporary relief outside of the city, is forced to return to the jjok bang but has resigned himself to wanting nothing more than to be allowed to live there until he dies. The jjok bang, however, has been scheduled for demolition which might be a good thing in many ways save that no provision has been made for where these people are supposed to go – rents everywhere else are simply too high and many will have no other option than being forced back onto the streets. With no address they’ll have no access to welfare or possibility of finding work and so the whole vicious cycle starts over again. Make no mistake, these problems are not exclusive to Korea but are the result of an uncaring and authoritarian government which continues to abnegate its responsibilities towards its most vulnerable citizens while social stigma and a belief that the poor have only themselves to blame continues to perpetuate a myth of othering which thinks the problem will eventually solve itself in the cruellest of ways. Director Song Yun-hyeok explores the lives of the jjok bang residents with empathy and understanding, demonstrating the extent to which they are rendered powerless by a needlessly arcane social welfare system in the hope that something might finally change.


Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.

Oshin (おしん, Shin Togashi, 2013)

Oshin posterBack in the 1980s, an “asadora” named “Oshin” proved so popular with Japanese television viewers that its title became a byword for tenacity and perseverance, attached to any underdog who battled bravely against insurmountable odds. The “asadora”, as its name suggests, is a 15 minute drama serial broadcast in the mornings and therefore mainly targeted at housewives. As such it often focusses on the lives of women and particularly on women who work hard to triumph over adversity. Oshin is no different in this regard except that it also recounts the painful history of 20th century Japan through that of its stoical heroine who travels from a life of poverty in snowy Yamagata to becoming the owner of a supermarket chain in the bustling consumerist economy of 1983. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the TV series, Oshin graduated to the big screen. Shin Togashi’s Oshin (おしん) movie focusses exclusively on Oshin’s childhood at the tail end of the Meiji era in which she suffered all the downsides of lingering feudalism and benefitted from few of the new freedoms of the age.

The winter of 1907, Yamagata – snow country. Oshin (Kokone Hamada) lives with her parents, grandmother, and siblings and looks forward to finally being allowed to go to school when spring arrives. Sadly, Oshin will not be going to school after all. Her father has arranged for her to work for another family who own a timber yard a few towns over for the period of one year. Only seven years old, Oshin pleads not to be sent away but her father will not back down. There is not enough food to feed the family and, unbeknownst to Oshin, her mother (Aya Ueto) is pregnant again.

Finally agreeing to go after her mother takes drastic action to try and reduce the burden on the family, Oshin arrives at the timber yard but is treated cruelly by the head housekeeper who refuses to recognise that Oshin is only a child and will of course lack basic knowledge as to how to run a household. Though Oshin bears the constant hardship for her family she eventually runs away when falsely accused of theft.

The world of 1907 is harsh and cruel. Women have few rights and almost no say in their lives or destinies. Oshin might count herself lucky that she’s merely been contracted as a household servant in an age where selling one’s daughter to a brothel to feed one’s sons was not an unusual event, but nevertheless her life at the timber yard is hard. Bright and curious, Oshin longs to learn to read and write but because of her lowly “peasant” birth, she is constrained into a life of drudgery where her labour will only ever be in service of her family and never herself.

A “peasant” background is, as a kinder mistress reminds Oshin, a burden in that she is always likely to be viewed with suspicion. This is doubly true when she runs away and is rescued by a fugitive deserter hiding in a mountain shack. Shunsaku (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a sensitive young man marked by service in a war he no longer believes in, teaches Oshin how to read and write as well as giving her a grounding in humanitarian politics. He is, however, a problematic figure for going against the martial culture of the age and having “betrayed” his nation by deserting. Oshin is tainted by her association with such a radical young man, but boldly comes to Shunsaku’s defence when others seek to discredit his memory.

This boldness is a part of Oshin’s essential “goodness” in which she refuses to give in to injustice even whilst stoically bearing all of the troubles that come her way. Eventually she finds herself a servant in a much nicer house where the staff take pity on her and welcome her warmly into their extended family. Treated with such kindness, Oshin works even harder to repay it and impresses all with her earnestness and morally upright character. She does, however, clash with the spoilt daughter of the house, Kayo (Manami Igashira), who has her own share of troubles though hers are those of the privileged classes. Lonely and bored, Kayo resents the attention golden girl Oshin seems to get from the staff but the two eventually become friends when Kayo realises Oshin is the only person willing to treat her as an equal rather than the young mistress.

Though the overall arc of the TV series painted a more positive picture of female resilience and capability, the film’s focus on the late Meiji childhood era is unavoidably more conservative in its pointed message that a woman’s life is served in dedication to others with the unpleasant undertone that she must keep nothing back for herself and that she is not entitled to personal happiness but only that of repaying the sacrifices that have been made on her behalf by other women (and especially by mothers – biological and surrogate). Nevertheless, Oshin’s earnestness and deep love for her family are admirable qualities and when she trudges back out into the snow again, always waiting for the spring, she does so with hope and determination.


Oshin is screening in London on 18th August as part of the Japan Foundation London’s Summer Explorers season of free film screenings.

Original trailer (no subtitles)