August in Tokyo (愛の小さな歴史, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2015)

august in Tokyo posterFollowing on from the dark series of coming of age tales in Plastic Love Story, Ryutaro Nakagawa continues to examine his central themes of unusual connections, lingering effects of past trauma, and the dark side of familial dysfunction in the cheerfully titled August in Tokyo (愛の小さな歴史, Ai no Chiisana Rekishi). Beginning with a framing sequence involving suicide and depression, Nakagawa spins back for a no happier look at two very different people facing much the same problems as they attempt to reconnect with family members, pursue doomed romances, and generally fail to move forward even though they each strive to put the past behind them. Yet there is hope here as the framing sequence proves in its insistence that loss is an inevitable part of life but that the end of one relationship does not mean no others should start.

A young girl, Natusmi (Asaka Nakamura), receives a phone call from the police telling her that her best friend has committed suicide. Left reeling, Natsumi also attempts to kill herself but is saved by a young man with whom she later develops a friendship after bonding over their shared loss in each having lost someone close to them who died by their own hands.

Their story gives way to that of another man and woman who don’t know each other but are living very similar lives in close geographical proximity. Natuski (Eriko Nakamura), having left a job at a book shop following a failed affair, has a part-time job delivering bento. Approached one day by a young man (Sosuke Ikematsu) who tells her that her estranged father (Ken Mitsuishi) is in a bad way, Natsuki decides the best form of revenge might be to move in and look after him. Meanwhile, Natsuo (Takashi Okito) is a petty gangster becoming disillusioned with his life of senseless unpleasantness. Reencountering his younger sister Asuka (Manami Takahashi), Natsuo decides to reassume his familial responsibilities by “saving” her from her dead end life as a drug addicted casual sex worker.

Abandonment and familial breakdown are the threads which bind the stories of Natsuki and Natso together. Living out their eerily similar lives, they each reflect on why it was they were born if their parent(s) did not want them enough to bother looking after them. Natsuki’s memories of her father who left when she was small are not positive. She has a scar on her chest from where he burnt her with a cigarette and still resents him for the drunken beatings he inflicted on her mother who later died when Natsuki was only ten years old. She wonders if her life might have been different if she’d had a normal childhood. A failed a attraction to a middle-class pianist only serves to ram home her sense of insecurity and inadequacy, leaving her to wonder if she can ever escape the cycle of suffering to which her father’s failures seem to have condemned her.

Natsuo and his sister have it harder, each wondering why it was they were born, preferring to think it was all just an unhappy accident of a biological urge rather than the expression of a love they themselves have never felt. At some point Natsuo made the decision to abandon his family, leaving Asuka to deal with it alone. Attempting to care for their abusive father with senile dementia, Asuka’s life was destroyed, leaving her no way to support herself until an ill advised romance led her into the path of drugs and the sex trade. Natsuo wants to put things “right”, but he may be running out of time.

Natsuki and Natsuo struggle, each trying to do the “right” thing but finding themselves conflicted. Natsuki can’t forgive her father for everything he’s put her through. The young man who convinced her to help him, perhaps disconnected himself, describes Natsuki’s father as “like a father” to him – a figure of nobility who stood up for others and was the only man who took him for drinks and spent time with him as a father might. Natsuki says says her only purpose in life is hating her father, yet in the end she can’t. Natsuo’s worries are equally self focussed in his guilt over having abandoned his sister and her subsequent fall into dangerous drug dependency but his late in the day attempts to “save” her and their patronising paternalism often frustrate his essential goal.

Running in parallel these two sad stories are tragedies waiting to happen but, even in their darkness, they hold the potential for salvation. As in the framing sequence, such unexpected connections may be born from sadness but there is happiness to be found if you can find the strength to carry on. Maintaining his familiar aesthetic of naturalism mixed with expressionist dance sequences, Nakagawa’s latest examination of human relationships and contemporary society is bleak but also hopeful, insisting that patch work hearts are the path to a brighter future.


Available in most territories via iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.

Trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Port of Call (踏血尋梅, Philip Yung, 2015)

port of call posterBoy meets girl. Girl says she wants to die. Boy says OK. Philip Yung’s third feature, Port of Call (踏血尋梅), attempts to find out how such a thing could happen and does so by means of a state of the nation address. Shot by Christopher Doyle, Yung’s early 21st century Hong Kong is a place of broken dreams and empty promises in which past traumas become inescapable phantoms, hungry for blood and pain. More than the sum of its parts, Port of Call is a murder mystery and noirish crime thriller which rejects its procedural roots for a deeper investigation of how a young man and a young woman might have been brought to such a desperate and tragic end.

Eccentric detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) finds himself investigating the disappearance of a 16 year old prostitute believed murdered due to evidence of extensive bloodstains at the presumed scene of crime. The culprit soon turns himself in and confesses to both murder and dismemberment, avowing that he killed the girl because she asked him to. It seems like an open and shut case, at least to Chong’s superiors, but Chong cannot quite let it go. How could someone meet another person for the first time and take something as banal as “I wish I were dead” so literally as to decide to help them achieve their wish?

Chong, a divorced father to a young daughter, wants to know the why but what he discovers shakes his own already weary heart. The murdered girl, Jia-mei (Jessie Li), came to Hong Kong a little while after her mother (Elaine Jin) and sister, following the divorce of her parents. Her mother, a nightclub singer, has little money and is rarely present. Lonely, Jia-mei dreams only of becoming a model but this is a city which each dreams and so she finds herself working admin jobs at a modelling studio as well as working at McDonalds in the hope of escaping her unsatisfying home environment. Eventually she is pulled into the world of escorts and compensated dating before winding up as a casual prostitute who forms an unwise romantic attachment to a client.

Neither Chong, Jia-mei, or the damaged killer Chi-sung (Michael Ning) is able to escape the weight of the pain and suffering they have seen or experienced. A long term employee of the Regional Crimes Bureau, Chong has seen the most gruesome, heinous, and incomprehensible crimes culminating in an unforgettable 1998 murder and kidnap case in which he discovered a small child tied up next to decomposing body covered in fattened maggots and swarming flies. Chong no longer sleeps because of the bloody nightmares which see him take the place of both victim and observer, laid low by an escaping Chi-sung whose crime is recreated in glorious technicolor.

Jia-mei’s world is bloodier still even at such a young age. A disturbing Facebook post recounts the loss of her virginity as a young teenager as a gory battlefield in which she and her boyfriend roll around in bloody sheets. Apparently not the only depressed young girl, Jia-mei’s classmate grabs her scissors and slashes her wrists all while Jia-mei does nothing. As she later tells an online friend, it’s sad when no one sees you. Separated from her home and father, Jia-mei’s model dreams are less a vacuous search for fame as they are a desperate attempt for connection. Looking for love in all the wrong places, Jia-mei’s world gradually shrinks away from her as the emptiness of her transactional relationships produces the opposite of what she wanted, eventually sending her straight into the arms of the equally lonely Chi-sung.

Chi-shung’s problems also stem back to childhood trauma and feelings of abandonment, but have taken on an additional layer of resentment following the failure of his first love affair. A melancholy, damaged man, Chi-sung almost sees his crime as a kind of salvation, rescuing Jia-mei from becoming what he hated and what she longed not to be. His icy practicality is chilling as he recounts how he dismembered and disposed of the body as if he were simply describing how to cook spaghetti but even as he seems to regard his crime as a kindness, there is something else lurking at the bottom of his coolness.

Yung’s Hong Kong is cold and unforgiving. The policeman, the victim, and the killer are all, in a sense, displaced – from their families, from the normal world, and from their homes. Jia-mei’s search for affection and an end to loneliness took her to the loneliest of places, while Chi-sung kills the things he loves to save them the pain of being alive, and Chong solves crimes but is powerless to stop them. Told in four acts and with a non-linear structure, Port of Call is a meandering voyage through life’s unpleasantness in which trauma stains, pain grows, and loneliness kills the spirit. Yung’s unflinching look at the dark underpinning of modern society is a sad and hopeless one yet there are brief flashes of hope, if only in stray cats finding unexpected safe harbours.   


Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (春子超常現象研究所, Lisa Takeba, 2015)

haruko's paranormal laboratory posterIn the brave new Netflix era, perhaps it’s not unusual to hear someone exclaim that their most significant relationship is with their television, but most people do not mean it as literally as Haruko, the heroine of the self titled Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (春子超常現象研究所, Haruko Chojogensho Kenkyujo). Lisa Takeba returns with her second film which proves to be just as strange and quirky as the first and all the better for it. Haruko’s world is a surreal one in which a TV coming to life is perfectly natural, as is the widespread plague of “artistic” behaviour which involves robbing the local 100 yen store for loose change and randomly setting fire to things. Yet Haruko’s problems are the normal ones at heart – namely, loneliness and disconnection. Takeba’s setting may be a strange fever dream filled with fiendishly clever, zany humour but the fear and anxiety are all too real.

As a teenager, Haruko (Moeka Nozaki) was something of a loner. Being the daughter of a teacher and having a strong interest in UFOs and other supernatural entities, she had few friends and longed for something “exciting” to happen. Sadly, something quite exciting did happen, but it involved a suicide and her brother apparently being abducted by aliens. Ten or fifteen years later, Haruko still maintains her “Paranormal Laboratory” and intense interest in aliens with a view to maybe finding out what happened to her brother, but her external life is less satisfying. Her main hobby is lying around watching her 1950s black and white CRT TV and swearing loudly at the ridiculous images it projects. Her TV, however, has finally had enough and upon hearing 1000 dirty words from Haruko, springs into life as a handsome young man with telebox for a head.

An usual genesis for a relationship, but then when you spend all of your spare time googling paranormal events and harping on your teenage failures, beggars can’t be choosers. Haruko’s growing relationship with TV (Aoi Nakamura) follows the classic amnesiac mould as the two begin living together and eventually become an odd kind of couple. TV’s central operating system is pulled together from what he’s observed over the airwaves which means he has a slightly less realistic view point than your average guy. Though originally content to fall into the stereotypically “female” role, staying home cooking meals and tidying up while Haruko goes to work, he soon becomes depressed out of boredom and loneliness before eventually being made to feel inadequate when someone refers to him as a “freeloader”. Like many a spouse whose decision to stay home has not been entirely their own, TV has a lot of skills including the ability to speak 12 languages fluently, but what finally gets him a job as a TV star (yes, a TV on TV!), is his sex appeal and exotic appearance.

TV also thinks he can remember his “family” which lends a bittersweet dimension to his relationship with Haruko as she helps him look for the wife and child that might be waiting for him. Haruko’s relationship with her own family is strained. Complaining that her family are “annoying” she leaves her well meaning father standing on the doorstep when he’s come out of his way to deliver some of her favourite cup cakes which he’s baked for her himself. Haruko’s mother has since passed on but her feeling of familial disconnection stems right back into her childhood and one strange UFO hunting night during which she discovered something about her brother which may explain his long term absence. This potentially rich seam is merely background to Haruko’s life (something which she later realises as she figures out that her brother may have been watching over her in disguise all these years), but that her brother has felt the need to hide himself away following a traumatic childhood incident is certainly a sad mirror for Haruko’s own ongoing psychological isolation.

Takeba piles jokes on top of jokes in this strange world where ‘50s “Videodrome” TVs with Yubari Film Festival tags still work and play adverts in which cheap whiskey “for the needy” is advanced as a good father’s day present, and an idol retires from the top band KKK48 live on air. Freak shows, extreme cosplay, marital disconnect, “artistic” robbery and arson, and a very dedicated NHK man, pepper the scene but the outcome is a young woman stepping away from her romantic fantasies towards something more real, realising she doesn’t really need to meet aliens so much as she needs to pay more attention to the “normal” world. Quirky to the max and riffing off just about every aspect of Japanese pop culture from Sailor Moon to J-horror, Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory is a charming, if surreal, take on an early life crisis which must be seen to be believed.


Currently available to stream in the UK from Filmdoo.

Original teaser trailer (dialogue free)

Mozu the Movie (劇場版MOZU, Eiichiro Hasumi, 2015)

mozu-posterThe criticism levelled most often against Japanese cinema is its readiness to send established franchises to the big screen. Manga adaptations make up a significant proportion of mainstream films, but most adaptations are constructed from scratch for maximum accessibility to a general audience – sometimes to the irritation of the franchise’s fans. When it comes to the cinematic instalments of popular TV shows the question is more difficult but most attempt to make some concession to those who are not familiar with the already established universe. Mozu (劇場版MOZU) does not do this. It makes no attempt to recap or explain itself, it simply continues from the end of the second series of the TV drama in which the “Mozu” or shrike of the title was resolved leaving the shady spectre of “Daruma” hanging for the inevitable conclusion.

Six months on from the climatic events at the end of season two, Kuraki (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has become a drunk, Ohsugi (Teruyuki Kagawa) has left the force for the private sector, while Akeboshi (Yoko Maki) is still preoccupied with the strange phone calls she sometimes receives and the fate of her long lost father last seen on the deck of a sinking submarine. The dreams of the citizens of Tokyo are being haunted by the mysterious face of “Daruma”, but this is quickly superseded by an explosion in an office building which turns out to be a diversionary exercise as the autistic daughter of a refugee with diplomatic immunity is kidnapped by terrorists.

At this point, Kuraki appears at the scene, beats the bad guys into submission and rescues the girl, Elena, and her mother who are then taken into protective custody. However, things go south when Ohsugi’s daughter and Akeboshi are taken by the bad guys in the hope of an exchange forcing the gang to take Elena to a neighbouring Asian nation.

Mozu the movie suffers from many of the same problems which plagued the generally impressive TV series in its wildly inconsistent tone and increasingly convoluted, often bizarre plot twists. Assuming the audience will be familiar with the TV series, the film provides no recap, leaving the casual viewer completely lost amongst the numerous numbers of subplots held together by Kuraki’s need to find the answers behind the death of his wife at the site of a suicide bombing and the drowning of his daughter a year or so before. Likewise, Akeboshi’s familial concerns – her absentee father whose dark past was hinted at in the previous series and her close relationship with her two neices, is glossed over, as is Ohsugi’s ongoing battle to win back the respect of his teenage daughter. When a key character suddenly and quite unexpectedly appears to save the day (and then disappears again), the casual viewer has a right to be utterly baffled.

Where the central tone is one of cool noir supported by occasionally poetic camera work, Nishijima’s laid back minimalism gives way to broad, over the top villainy from Hasegawa’s Higashi as well as the punkish Mozu copycat who kickstarts the action. Kuraki remains an unbeatable super agent, taking out bad guys with well placed kicks to the chest and enduring numerous acts of torture whilst remaining doggedly fixed on his quest to find out the truth about his wife and a possible conspiracy plaguing Japanese society. Ohsugi is still the bumbling cop but equally committed to protecting his daughter while Akeboshi is underused, her slow burn romance with Kuraki simmering away in the background.

What remains is a collection of impressive action scenes and mysterious conversations offered with portentous seriousness. The purpose of Elena’s kidnapping is predictably grim yet reduced to a single sentence shortly before Kuraki apparently saves the day once again through undisclosed means. The central conspiracy in this conspiracy thriller, that Japan has been manipulated by a shadowy figure literally cannibalising his own children, fades into the background as Kuraki is left to affirm that all that remains now is chaos. Mozu the movie is season three with all the important bit stripped out – strange, confusing, and ultimately hollow. Yet for those well versed in the Mozu universe, it may provide a degree of closure to its ongoing mysteries, even if ultimately unsatisfying.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Whispering Star (ひそひそ星, Sion Sono, 2015)

The Whispering StarSion Sono has been especially prolific of late, though much of his recent output has leant towards the populist rather than the art house. Having garnered a reputation for vulgar excess over the last twenty years or so, Sono returns to his Tarkovskian roots with The Whispering Star (ひそひそ星, Hiso Hiso Boshi) – a contemplative exercise in stillness which has more in common with The Room or Keiko Desu Kedo than the ironic outrageousness of Love & Peace. Yet, in an odd way love and peace are what it’s all about as a lonely android delivers long love letters from the distant past to a dying world in which humanity itself will soon be little more than a memory.

Yoko Suzuki (Megumi Kagurazaka), machine no. 772 , is an employee of Space Parcel Services, delivering packages the old-fashioned way from one human to another all across the universe. Following a series of natural disasters and other errors, humanity is no longer the dominant force amid the stars but makes up only 20% of the population. The other 80% belongs to humanity’s children – the androids or other AI based lifeforms who will soon eclipse their forebears given that humans do not generally live for more than 100 years whereas robots are forever “young”.

Yoko’s only companion aboard her homely spaceship is the dashboard computer, 6-7 M.I.M.E. who seems to have gone quite mad with boredom. Eventually Yoko realises that the problem is that M.I.M.E has descended into literal introspection – all its sensors are pointed inside not out and it’s hopelessly distracted by equally literal “bugs” trapped in the ceiling light. Living out her dull days, Yoko records her thoughts on a reel-to-reel tape hoping to entertain the next “Yoko” who rents this ship (or perhaps she is the next Yoko, listening and continuing the project) while travelling between planets delivering one of the remaining 82 parcels on her docket.

More human than human, Yoko is oddly fascinated by her human customers. An accidental anthropophile, Yoko states that she chose this ship because of its “convenient” features which include a kitchen and a host of other home comforts. Only they’re home comforts an android does not need. Dressing in elegant feminine fashions, Yoko’s other main hobby is housework – dusting the control deck, scrubbing the floors, putting up with the leaking tap, and the ship itself is more like a dainty flying cottage than your average utilitarian space vessel with a pretty porch and tiled roof.

Yoko’s “nostalgia” is for a world she never knew and believes she cannot understand. Space exploration has long since ended, and with it, she tells us, went humanity’s centuries old romance with the outer limits. Teleportation has been mainstream technology for quite some time so why do humans spend vast amounts of money on sending parcels to each other which may take years to arrive when they could just press a button for next second delivery? Yoko doesn’t know, she thinks it must be among the things an android cannot understand and that these things themselves must be the very thing which defines her creators.

Stopping off at various planets, Yoko begins to learn more about humans and the world that they destroyed or was destroyed for them. Shooting once again in the wasteland surrounding Fukushima, Sono explores the ruined landscape, eerily timeless with its broken signs and still stocked stores. Using displaced locals as his extras he has Yoko deliver packages to old ladies still manning tobacco stands on silent beaches, elderly store owners, fathers and sons, or even gum chewing little boys armed with real film cameras sitting on disused station platforms to receive something that was probably dispatched before they were even born. Yoko does not begin to look inside the packages for quite some time but observes that they each seem to provoke a profound emotional reaction in the recipients.

From her first encounter with an eccentric man who invites her out for a drink and tries to stop her space ship leaving by spray painting the window, urging her to come back soon because she may have forever but he will soon be gone, Yoko begins to understand the strange transience of human existence. The old man extols the virtues of bicycles and walks with a tin can stuck to the bottom of his shoe because he likes the sound it makes in this maddeningly silent world. Yoko stores her memories in a more absolute way but for humans the objects are the path to the past. The parcels she delivers have weight because the journey was so arduous. Teleportation may be efficient, but something that takes no time has no meaning.

Absurdly, Yoko’s days are divided by title cards bearing the names of the days of the week. Another human affectation or strange hangover from an obsolete world, this decidedly old-fashioned way of dividing time, something now rendered irrelevant to “immortal” machines who (supposedly) feel no boredom or melancholy, is one of many strange anachronisms from the AA batteries which are Yoko’s main source of power to the cheerful dashboard companion shaped liked a classic 1930s wireless and unused manual control wheel which might have been ripped from a small pirate ship. This timeless world is filled with longing for a forgotten, half made-up past inherited from another, unknowable age.

Yet Yoko does begin to learn what it is to be human, even if the knowledge may bring nothing but the additional burden of melancholy. Humanity destroys itself and leaves nothing to its children other than an inescapable sense of loss for a world they never knew. It sounds oddly familiar, like the echoes of an age-old tragedy but there is a kind of hopefulness in Sono’s black and white wasteland for the things which endure even when everything else has been washed away.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Enemies In-Law (위험한 상견례 2, Kim Jin-young, 2015)

enemies in-law posterIt’s tough when parents don’t approve of their children’s romantic partners, but fortunately most realise there’s nothing they can do about it so the best thing is to feign civility (and avoid saying I told you so when it all goes wrong). Unfortunately the older generation of Kim Jin-young’s Enemies In-Law (위험한 상견례 2, Wiheomhan Sanggyeonrye 2), a kind of follow up to his 2011 effort Meet the In-Laws, are of a very much more hands on mindset. One side is a police family in which literally everyone for generations has worked in law enforcement, and the other is headed by a pair of international artefacts thieves determined to live life on their own terms. You might think this is a situation ripe for comedy, and it is. Only, in a very strange and not altogether successful way.

Park Young-hee (Jin Se-yeon) and her fellow Olympian sister Young-sook (Kim Do-yeon) are on the way back from a fencing competition when their policeman father, Man-choon (Kim Eung-soo), gets into a car chase with the son of the two criminals he’s been trying to catch for years. Chul-soo (Hong Jong-hyun), a high school student with an expensive sports car, comes out on top but displays unexpected heroism when he notices the Park family car is on fire and someone is still trapped inside. Dousing himself with water he valiantly rescues Young-hee just before the car explodes and the pair fall in love at first sight.

Man-choon most definitely does not approve of this union, but Chul-soo vows to leave the criminal world behind and join the police like the rest of the Park family. Seven years later he’s still trying to pass the police exam and in a committed relationship with the now successful policewoman (and former Olympic gold medallist) Young-hee. As it looks like Chul-soo is about to achieve his goal, both the Parks and his parents Dal-sik (Shin Jung-geun) and Gang-ja (Jeon Soo-kyung), become increasingly worried about the marriage of crime and justice. Accordingly they form an unlikely alliance to break the pair up at all costs.

Enemies In-Law has its share of oddness, but remains disappointingly conventional in its comedic approach. The most objectionable aspect manifests itself in a persistent layer of fat jokes, mostly at the expense of Olympian judoist Young-sook whose weight is the constant butt of every joke in which she is derided as unattractive, greedy, lazy, and mannish. Despite the fact that the sisters seemingly each hold high offices in the police force, the overriding tone is a socially conservative one, even shoehorning in a bathing beauty sequence in which policewoman Young-hee is forced to dance lasciviously in a red bikini followed by her sister in a much frumpier one in another predictable and unfunny joke, as part of an odd sequence investigating a “secret” hostess bar. The jokes are at least mitigated by the fact Yuong-sook could not care any less what anyone thinks about her and is fine with both her appearance and anything anyone might have to say about it.

The major crisis point in the relationship comes when Chul-soo becomes fed up with the situation and captures his parents, presenting them to Man-choon tied up like two prize turkeys. This, he hopes, will be enough to get them to give in and accept him as a son-in-law, but he makes a rookie mistake. Young-hee, disappointed in him and getting the impression she’s become the subject of a “trade”, resolutely rejects Chul-soo’s attempt to buy her hand in marriage from her father with a slap to the face and a swift exit. The women have been bypassed as Chul-soo attempts to deal directly with Man-choon and the decision of the two men to view their relations as objects to be exchanged is rightly criticised in its effect of almost ending the entire endeavour and causing a possibly permanent rift with Young-hee.

Things also take a darker turn with the ongoing investigation the sisters are working on which involves a number of rapes and murders of well to do single women. In contrast with Chul-soo’s parents whose criminal enterprise is apparently successful, the police are depicted as blithering idiots who couldn’t catch a chicken in a supermarket. Using such a serious and unpleasant crime spree for comic value seems in poor taste even given the obvious throw away quality of the film, though it does provide the final plot motivation to bring everyone together as the master criminals have to step in to point the police in the right direction, even if Chul-soon’s mother has to pretend to be President Park Geun-hye to do it.

For a film which involves the ability to talk to dogs as a major device, Enemies In-Law never fully embraces its absurdism, leaving it with a curiously uneven tone which might have benefitted from even more silliness. Shifting from romantic comedy to police procedural in an interesting series of straight to camera monologues with re-enactments, Enemies In-Law takes its cues from popular TV dramas and pushes them in a more interesting direction but the jokes are never really big enough to pay off. Amusing enough, at times, but poorly pitched and uneven, Enemies In-Law is not the film it claims to be, but fails to be much of anything else either.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

West North West (西北西, Takuro Nakamura, 2015)

This area has a weird magnetic field, claims one of the central characters in Takuro Nakamura’s West North West (西北西, Seihokusei), it’ll throw you off course. Barriers to love both cultural and psychological present themselves with almost gleeful melancholy in this indie exploration of directionless youth in modern day Tokyo. Three young women wrestle with themselves and each other in a complex cycle of interconnected anxieties as they attempt to carve out their own paths, each somehow aware of the shape their lives should take yet afraid to pursue it. The Tokyo of West North West is one defined by disconnection, loneliness and permanent anxiety but it is not the city which is the enemy of happiness but an internal unwillingness to find release from self imposed imprisonment.

After beginning with the twilight scene of a city in fog, Nakamura cuts to Iranian student Naima (Sahel Rosa) leaving the visa bureau with something on her mind. An attempt to call a friend strikes out when she discovers her with her fellow Chinese students busily chatting away in a language she does not understand. Taking refuge in a coffee shop, Naima spots another similarly depressed woman silently crying at a table in the very back corner.

Striking up a conversation, the two women unexpectedly begin a tentative friendship but Kei (Hanae Kan) has problems of her own. Trapped in a toxic relationship with fashion model Ai (Yuka Yamauchi) whose possessive, jealous, and entirely self-centred behaviour have turned her into a nervous wreck, Kei is acutely preoccupied with her lack of forward motion, feeling as if she’s just been somehow pushed out into the world with no clear idea of what it is she’s supposed to be doing.

Kei and Naima have much more in common than it might at first seem. Culturally displaced, Naima is at odds with her surroundings despite her native level language abilities but she finds a kind of ally in the taciturn Kei when an emotional outburst in the cafe causes commotion with an unpleasant fellow customer who objects either to the “inappropriate” loudness of her phone call or that it’s in another language. Naima is a retiring sort and mortified to have caused a fuss but Kei, coming to her rescue, is bored with accepting other people’s intolerance. Having felt so alone, pushed away from her only other real friend by an impenetrable barrier of culture and language, someone arriving and actively taking her side is an almost miraculous development.

Bonding instantly in their shared melancholy, the two women share a deepening sense of recognition as Naima begins spending more time with Kei, sleeping on her sofa and getting her to look after the pet bird which she refuses to name so that it will hurt less when they are eventually forced to part. Kei’s prejudices and preconceptions are pushed by Naima’s fierce attachment to her religion, but her eventual decision to casually state that she has a girlfriend meets with only mild surprise rather than rejection or moral questioning. Attempting to clarify Kei’s vague reply, Naima asks directly if Kei is a “lesbian” only for her to irritatedly deny the label – it’s just that she only falls in love with women, she says. Naima’s reasoned response that that’s pretty much the definition of “lesbian” leads to Kei quickly exiting the scene in confusion, not wanting to pursue this line of thought any further though it perhaps sends Naima in exactly the opposite direction.

Kei’s intense insecurity regarding her sexuality is one reason she seems to find it so hard to break things off with high maintenance girlfriend Ai despite her obvious unhappiness with the relationship. Ai, a low level fashion model, has a series of intense insecurities of her own though these have less to do with sexuality and more with power and control. Having realised that Kei is not as attached to her as she is to Kei, Ai’s jealous rages have Kei in a permanent state of fear from which she attempts to hide at a local pool only to have a full blown panic attack on receiving an unexpected phone call from her girlfriend.

An awkward hospital waiting room conversation with Ai’s mother explains much of her behaviour as she begins to lay out the various failings of her child and desire for her to give up modelling and live a “normal” life. Ai had not shared the fact that her lover was another woman, leaving her mother to feign politeness even whilst feeling he need to voice her “disgust” that her child had “these kinds of feelings”. Indifferent to Kei’s ongoing discomfort, Ai’s mother has a few home truths for the woman who’s corrupted her daughter, advising her to break up with Ai as soon as possible seeing as the relationship is doomed to failure.

In principle, Ai’s mother might have offended Kei but she has to concede that she has a point. Kei is not happy with Ai, but Ai will not let her go. Ai’s jealousy is both the catalyst and barrier for Kei’s growing feelings for Naima as she seeks a kindred spirit and gentle soul in refuge from Ai’s emotional violence. An awkward dinner party between the two makes plain the degree to which they are ill suited when Ai berates the sullen Kei for a lack of emotional readability ironically missing that Kei needs someone to understand her feelings instinctively – a level of connection on which self-centred Ai is ultimately unwilling to engage.

Ai’s attempt to warn off Naima in a worryingly threatening “stay away from my girl” speech eventually forces her to confront her own feelings and what exactly Kei is to her. Both women are repeatedly asked to provide a definition of their relationship, faltering each time, but Naima’s crisis runs deeper as she’s forced to confront herself on a more profound level. A group job interview provokes an unexpected moment of introspection as she’s cruelly asked what exactly she’s learned during her time in Japan and is thrown into silence before admitting that she does not know. Naima may indeed have learned or perhaps confirmed a few things about herself, but if she has she is still unable to accept them.

Beautifully played by Sahel Rosa, Naima’s isolation is palpable in her pain filled eyes and longing looks as she finds herself captivated by the more certain yet diffident Kei. Hanae Kan’s Kei is equally trapped within herself, essentially kind yet reserved, afraid to break things off with the controlling Ai yet confused by her growing feelings for the increasingly conflicted Naima. Returning to the fog filled cityscape, Nakamura leaves things as he finds them, refusing resolution as each of the central characters compromises themselves in one way or another, settling for something that seems “right” but feels essentially wrong. The melancholy greyness of a wintery sunset descends once again, leaving each of the three women rudderless but with an added burden of self knowledge tinged with regret and sorrow.


Reviewed at BFI Flare 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

If you happen to understand either Japanese or German there’s an interesting video interview with director Takuro Nakamura produced for the Munich Film Festival: