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)

No Smoking (Taketoshi Sado, 2019)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of his musical debut in 2019, Haruomi Hosono has undoubtedly had a long and varied career shifting from countercultural folk rock to avant-garde electronica and bubble-era pop music. In later years, he’s become known internationally primarily for his film scores and particularly that of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters. Capturing footage from Hosono’s 2019 anniversary world tour, Taketoshi Sado’s documentary is equally meandering struggling perhaps to find a clear through line in regards to Hosono’s works. 

As such, it rockets through his early days with interesting family trivia such as his grandfather having been the sole Japanese Titanic survivor, his father’s secret dancing dreams, and his mother’s love of music. Picking up with his time at university, Sado more or less charts Hosono’s musical evolutions in chronological order though with little cultural context outside of a brief evocation of post-war devastation at the time of the musician’s birth. Accordingly he begins with Hosono’s uni folk rock band Apryl Fool which broke up after one album onto the hugely influential Happy End, various side projects, the avant-garde Yellow Magic Orchestra days, writing bubble era pop songs for idol stars such as Seiko Matsuda’s Tengoku no Kiss, and finally music for film composing the title track “Kaze no Tani no Naushika” for Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä. 

Meanwhile, Sado shuttles between direct to camera monologues from Hosoda himself intercut with concert footage from the 2019 tour, legendary gigs, and rather a lot of Hosoda doing his famous silly walks. Sado does not include direct interviews with Hosoda’s collaborators or fellow artists, mainly allowing him to speak for himself, but does include footage of him with some who have been influenced by his music such as singer-song writer and actor Gen Hoshino who is apparently such a fan that he first met the artist while cosplaying his Harry Hosoda outfit from his famous Yokohama China gig, and LA musician Mac DeMarco who also appears onstage singing in Japanese at Hosoda’s LA concert. Actress Kiko Mizuhara and sister Yuka meanwhile also spend some time travelling with Hosoda in the UK appearing on stage in Brighton, while London’s Barbican Hall concert was also notable for the unexpected onstage appearance of Ryuichi Sakamoto briefly reuniting the Yellow Music Orchestra. 

The brief backstage footage from the event is among the more interesting in the slightly awkward interactions of the three band members despite Hosono’s claim that musicians can pick up where they left off with each other even after many years through the universal language of music. The 2019 tour however leaned heavily into Hosono’s boogie boogie covers rather than original tracks, while Sado seems content to mix and match between various concerts and adding vox pop comments from excited fans waiting to get in long after the first footage of the evening appears. Despite building towards the brief YMO reunion, he offers little commentary on relations between the former band members or why such an event is so viewed as so momentous. Rather he suggests that Hosono’s various musical projects existed more or less concurrently serving particular purposes in reflecting his specific creative desires. 

“The keyword is free, when when I touch what’s free my heart dances” Hosoda explains in one of his monologues, hinting at this process of continual meandering between musical genres that culminates perhaps paradoxically with revisiting the music of his childhood in American boogiewoogie. The film’s ironic title is apparently inspired by Hosono’s love of smoking, as he explains he needs cigarettes to create and there is music in a puff of smoke. Hosoda does indeed nip off for a puff rather a lot, often seen with a tobacco or electronic cigarette in his hand or else doing some of his silly walks. Footage from Hosoda’s diaries and early illustrations fill in the blanks of Sado’s rough chronology, though he does begin to rely on footage from other interviews particularly towards the documentary’s end. Despite offering a comprehensive if whistle-stop tour of Hosono’s varied discography, there’s no denying that No Smoking remains somewhat superficial offering, only an unannotated overview, but does undoubtedly offer insight in following the man himself as he celebrates such a significant career milestone. 


No Smoking streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Seiko Matsuda – Tengoku no Kiss

The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Jia Yuchuan, 2019)

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is someone with whom to live a normal life” Li Ermao explains thinking she’s found it only to have it slip through her fingers once again. Photographer Jia Yuchuan first met Ermao while working on a project with the LGBT community becoming as she describes it something like a big brother. Following her over 17 years, Jia’s documentary The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Tā Tā: Lǐ Èrmáo de Shuāngchóng Rénshēng) witnesses her constant search for acceptance in a rigid and conservative society the pressures of which also contribute to her sometimes self-destructive behaviour. 

As Ermao explains in an opening onstage monologue, she is not a man dressing as a woman though once thought of herself as crossdressing before living as a “ladyboy” and now identifying as a transgender woman. Jia begins in a sense with her high point at which she has achieved a degree of success as a cabaret performer despite having no formal training in singing and is in what seems to be a positive and loving relationship with a young man, Jiang. Things start to go wrong when Ermao fails to capitalise on the possibility of recording an album while her self-destructive gambling habit begins to eat away at her relationship with Jiang who eventually leaves her. 

As Jia explains, Ermao would often drop out of contact with him for unexplained periods of time despite describing him as an indispensable big brother. After another self-destructive episode renting out her spare room to randomers from the internet to escape her loneliness, Ermao next calls Jia to introduce him to her new boyfriend, Long, over whom she has apparently just attempted to take her own life prompting him to call the police which ends both with her being evicted by her fed up landlady and arrested for the possession of illegal drugs. 

Worried about her elderly mother, Ermao takes Long with back to her hometown but quickly finds herself conflicted in this even more conservative environment where she’s “Li Guomin’s son”, the villagers by turns bemused and scandalised by her feminine appearance. Ermao ran away to live on the city streets following the death of her father who, we learn, was a notorious people trafficker who kidnapped and sold women and children including Ermao’s younger brother who he sent away to Hainan while rumoured to have eaten the corpse of the stillborn baby who would have been Ermao’s elder. This might go someway to explaining the animosity with which she is held in the village, along with the fact that as she’s been away so long and was not expected to return other farmers have long since colonised her land and are not minded to return it. Stubborn, Ermao pitches a tent and tries to make a living chicken farming on the tiny patch that remains in the hope of funding the completion of her confirmation surgery but is finally forced out by the local mayor who describes her as an “unwelcome stranger” in their community and asks her leave. 

Falling still further, Ermao finds it impossible to gain steady employment as a transgender woman eventually when getting back touch with Jia having made the decision to essentially detransition, preparing to have her implants removed while presenting as male in order to continue working at a factory producing components for iPhones. She fears her coworkers finding out that she is transgender and for good reason as she’s later brutally beaten by a male middle-aged colleague. Despite this she seems in a sense happier to have been reaccepted by her hometown, but soon finds herself rejected once again on learning that she is HIV+ and coming to the conclusion that she is “harmful to others” and should choose self-isolation. 

Despite their long years of friendship, Jia is not always sympathetic to Ermao’s plight nor does he condone her sometimes self-destructive behaviour or tendency to overdramatise while uncomfortably asking where a woman like Ermao belongs in the contemporary society before finding that it may have no real place for her. Rejected in the city and finding no refuge in her hometown, Ermao’s reversion to a male persona cannot help but feel like a defeat, her gradual decline from brassy cabaret star to melancholy recluse a result of her battering at the hands of an unwelcoming society unprepared to accept those who do not conform to its rigid ideas of gender and sexuality.


The Two Lives of Li Ermao screens at Genesis Cinema on 19th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in partnership with Queer East.

Love Poem (情詩, Wang Xiaozhen, 2019)

“Dedicated to my dear wife” runs the ironic closing statement of Wang Xiaozhen’s meta marital drama, the equally ironically named Love Poem (情詩, Qíngshī). A love poem does indeed appear if in slightly different contexts, full of adolescent ardour and unrealistic promises of eternal devotion, while the marriage at the film’s centre begins to fracture under the weight of its focus. “I went too far to make this film” director Xiaozhen sighs, breaking the fourth wall in a moment of self-reflection that asks what’s left behind if you mine your personal life for art. 

Wang plays, at least, a version of himself, a film director harangued by his extremely fraught real life wife Zhou Qing who, in the handheld claustrophobic opening sequence which consists entirely of a long take focussed solely on her as she holds their snack-obsessed daughter in the back of the car, repeatedly accuses Xiaozhen of having an affair before asking for a divorce when they reach the house of her grandfather who lies dying and bedridden. The pair argue about the usual things, money mainly, but also the application of it. Xiaozhen is irritated by what he sees as his wife’s disrespect of his family having left their daughter with his parents over the summer but given them a token payment which might be the most insulting of all, no real use in failing to cover the child’s expenses while commodifying a family service which ought to be given if not exactly freely then with the expectation of reciprocity. She meanwhile later accuses him of exploiting her father who died shortly afterwards in order to make to his previous film while also failing to care for the family economically. He alternates between angrily implying that he indeed has been having an affair and pleading with his wife not to divorce him, claiming that he’s done nothing wrong while admitting that there might be someone else he fancies but it’s never gone further than that. When Xiaozhen gets into the back of the car with his wife, the fourth wall seems to dissolve entirely. He tries to comfort her, reminding Qing that it’s “only acting” even as their personal lives seem to have bled into the screen unbidden. 

Appearing an hour in only after this emotionally intense conclusion to the opening episode, the title card divides one “scene” from another as we find the couple again only changed. Xiaohzen picks up Qing, the camera now static and mounted on the bonnet, but this time she’s wearing glasses and has a calmer, softer demeanour. We can gather that in this scene she’s roleplaying the part of the “other woman” her first half counterpart was so incensed by, though the setting has changed to some years previously as Xiaozhen crassly elaborates on his romantic dilemma revealing that his girlfriend may be pregnant in which case he’ll be getting married and becoming a father, before confessing his feelings to another woman. She rightly takes him to task for his inappropriate declaration of love, taking the other woman’s side, while he expounds on his now or never emotional logic insisting that he had to say something now before the window forever closes but indifferent to the consequences for either of his two women. Once again the lines start to blur, the conversation diverges from its scripted direction while Xiaozhen the director reasserts himself. Qing becomes upset, reminding him that she’s not a professional actress and that his insistence in forcing her into the role of his lover is nothing if not cruel. “You don’t even see me as human” she complains, wondering if Xiaozhen views her as anything more than a prop for his movie making, while he admits in a shockingly honest moment that “seeing you cry makes me feel happy”.  

What are we to make of these scenes from a marriage, scenes and a marriage which are clearly in some senses and others “staged”? Xiaozhen is both director and husband, terrorising his wife and exploiting his relatives in order to create his art, but perhaps discovering that when you mine your personal life for inspiration all that’s left is a burrowed out husk of a former love. Then again, is this film actually a love poem in itself, an apologia of an imperfect husband to a long-suffering wife forced into a role she might not have elected to play? Truth and fiction and seem to blur uncomfortably in Wang’s meta meditation on the relationship between art and life, the performative qualities of “husband” and “wife”, and the potential costs of acting out your personal dramas onscreen but even in his self-lacerating cruelty Wang leaves himself the escape valve of irony as the emotional intensity dissipates in the Hong Sang-soo-esque cutesiness of the closing titles. 


Love Poem screens at the BFI Southbank on 17th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

The Stormy Family (台風家族, Masahide Ichii, 2019)

A disparate group of now middle-aged children orphaned by the storm of their parents’ abandonment struggle to find solidarity on reuniting to put the past to rest, but eventually come to an understanding in letting go in Masahide Ichii’s darkly comic tale of familial resentments, The Stormy Family (台風家族, Taifu Kazoku, AKA Typhoon Family). Battling not just a sense of betrayal, but intense resentment in being left to deal with the fallout of a corrupted parental legacy the kids squabble over their “inheritance” but later perhaps regain a sense of mutual connection in reclaiming their shared history. 

10 years previously, Ittetsu (Tatsuya Fuji) and his wife Mitsuko (Rumi Sakakibara) robbed a local bank and then apparently made a run for it in the family hearse. With the statute of limitations now expired, the children decide to hold a funeral having had their parents declared dead so they can divide the estate and presumably draw a line under their shared trauma. The problem is, partly, that they’re hurt believing that their parents committed a crime and then simply abandoned them, but they have each also had to deal with the stigma of being the children of the elderly bandits who robbed a bank with a hearse. Oldest son Kotetsu (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) lost his job, daughter Rena’s (Megumi) marriage broke down, and while middle son Kyo (Hirofumi Arai) does not particularly mention how the crisis affected him, youngest brother Chihiro (Tomoya Nakamura) who was a teenager at the time remains resentful that as he only had a part-time job anyway no one from the media was very much interested in hassling him. 

Rather than finding siblings’ solidarity in their shared trauma, the crisis only seems to have driven them further apart. If perhaps slightly ashamed, they freely admit that they’ve only come to sort out the inheritance but even this leads to another argument as Kotetsu tries to use his oldest son privileges to claim he’s entitled to an unequal share because the others all went to uni on the parents’ dime, complaining that he needs the money more because he’s been unable to hold down a steady job and has to pay for his teenage daughter Yuzuki’s (Mahiru Coda) education, hoping to send her to music conservatoire in Vienna. As expected, that doesn’t go down very well with everyone else, while even Yuzuki expresses disdain and exasperation for her father’s amoral venality, telling him to get back on his feet with honest work rather than trying to cheat his siblings out of their birthright. In this, however, the family largely agree he might not be so different from patriarch Ittetsu who despite his motto of “don’t bother others” often penny pinched to an extreme degree and even seemed inappropriately happy to receive new business considering he ran a funeral parlour. 

On closer investigation of their parents’ home, what the kids learn is that there were things they didn’t understand perhaps because Ittetsu didn’t want to “bother” them with an explanation, though as someone else points out family aren’t “others” and probably it should be alright to bother them. Having argued with his father when he left to pursue his dream of being an actor, Kotetsu eventually sacrificed his desires recommitting himself to making his daughter’s dreams come true instead but like Ittetsu struggles to find a way to support her emotionally. Ittetsu may have been a difficult, perhaps less than honest, man but in learning the truth the family begin to realise that his actions came from a deep place of love even if it was a love he was unable to show on the surface. 

In an extremely ironic twist, the funeral and a climactic storm eventually allow the siblings to let their parents go, forgiving them for the fallout from their crime but also for their abandonment and all the petty resentments of their childhood. The world may be a pretty dishonest place, filled with greedy monks, telephone fraudsters, schemers and thieves, and perhaps you can’t even really trust your family but a father’s love is apparently the one true thing though it might not always be easy to understand. A darkly comic take on dysfunctional family bonds and the radiating legacy of crime, The Stormy Family gradually creeps towards its macabre but surprisingly moving finale allowing the family to rediscover itself in letting go only to set them at odds once again with the corrupting influence of greed. 


The Stormy Family streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2019 “The Stormy Family” FILM PARTNERS

BOLT (Kaizo Hayashi, 2019)

“We have to trust the bonds that tie us” intones a voice from the control room, “if you can’t tighten that bolt the water will pollute the future”. A series of post-Fukushima tales, Kaizo Hayashi’s tripartite portmanteau movie BOLT is less about the radiating effects of a nuclear disaster than their legacy, insisting that if you can’t pull together you can’t move forward but then in the end the bolt cannot be tightened or the deluge stemmed. It is perhaps too late, but still you have to live. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the first of the three tales follows a series of selfless engineers sent in to tighten a bolt on a leaking tank. They are informed their suits will protect them but not completely, they have only half an hour of oxygen, and should work in pairs for no longer than a minute before changing over. The older men tell the younger to wait behind, hoping to spare them from harm while the young men bristle wanting to do their bit. In any case, one of the young men later freezes, his feet rooted to the spot as if under some kind of spell while his friend begins to go quietly mad when a second bolt works it way out seconds after he’s fixed the first. The unnamed chief (Masatoshi Nagase) refuses to return with his team, staying to ensure he’s done all that can be done but in the end they cannot stop what is already in motion. 

A few years later the chief has apparently moved on, now working as a house clearer in the exclusion zone. His job is to tidy up and sanitise the home of a man who refused the evacuation order and has since passed away alone. As he’s been told, he carefully saves important documents and personal items such as photo albums for the family only to be told there is no family to take them, they were all taken by the tsunami. His cynical partner asks him why he got into this kind of work. He doesn’t have much of an answer for him save that someone’s got to do it and can offer only the declaration that he has to go on living for further direction of his life. 

On Christmas Eve 2014 however he’s still alone, living in an auto garage making some kind of metal device while a pair of children outside set the scene for a ghost story claiming there’s a mermaid living in the tank inside. Like the deceased man, the chief also seems to have lost someone, a black and white photograph sitting on the desk behind him, while apparently attempting to return to his former life as a nuclear technician only to be told he’s taken too much radiation already though the plant is short staffed seeing as many prefer to work on the Olympics, forging the future while neglecting the past. His Christmas gets off to a strange start when a beautiful woman in a red convertible bedecked with festive lights literally crashes into his life. An echo of someone else her arrival and subsequent departure hint at the strange and ethereal impermanence of post-disaster life in the continuing impossibility of moving on from irresolvable trauma. 

Beginning in science fiction with the high concept opener and its cyber punk design, Hayashi posits the nuclear threat as a kind of supernatural curse which can perhaps never be undone. Crackles of electricity take on a spiritual air while the permanent pinking of the sky seems to hint at a world forever changed as if something has been unleashed and can never again be caged. Tormented by cosmological unease, the chief chooses action, trying to his best to live even when action fails. The bolt can’t be tightened, the water pollutes the future, and all he can do is continue to stem the tide, tightening the bolts wherever they fray. With occasional flashes of psychedelic surrealism, Hayashi’s three tales offer a bleak and melancholy vision of life in the shadow of an almost supernatural disaster, but find finally a determination to live no matter how futile it may turn out to be. 


BOLT streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©L’espace Vision, Dream Kid, Kaizo Production

Hit Me Anyone One More Time (記憶にございません!, Koki Mitani, 2019)

Imagine if you woke up one day and found out you’re actually the national leader of your country and not only that absolutely everyone, including your wife and son, hates you with furious intensity. The hapless protagonist of Koki Mitani’s lowkey political satire Hit Me Anyone One More Time (記憶にございません!, Kioku ni Gozaimasen!) finds himself in just this stressful situation having lost all of his memories since he made the fateful decision to enter politics, rendered infinitely naive as he tries to keep up appearances while internally conflicted by the direction both his life and his country under his stewardship seem to have taken. 

Regarded as the “all-time worst prime minister” in Japanese history, Keisuke Kuroda (Kiichi Nakai) is known as a venal bore, a ghastly misogynist and all-round arsehole. To put it bluntly the very fact that a man like Kuroda could ever have become prime minster in the first place hints at a deep-seated rot in the political order. Aside from his gaffe-prone personality, the chief complaints against his administration are a sales tax hike and welfare cuts both of which target those with the least means, not that Kuroda cares very much about them. His big legacy idea is to build a second Diet building right next to the first Diet building only with spa facilities, illicitly teaming up with a childhood friend turned construction magnate who has been supplying him with hefty “donations”. 

After insulting the electorate during an outdoor balcony speech, Kuroda is hit on the head by a rock thrown by a disgruntled voter. Having lost his memory he regresses to a state of innocence from before he was corrupted by the cutthroat world of Japanese politics, now a nice, polite, slightly mild-mannered man who stuns his staff with his newfound consideration for others including a widely televised moment in which he stops to help up a female reporter who trips while chasing him in the lobby. Few believe he’s really changed, assuming this is some sort of bit intended to help rehabilitate his reputation. His new attitude, however, eventually fosters a new sense of hope for political change among his previously jaded, cynical staff who had long since given up hope of building a better Japan. 

Unsurprisingly, Mitani mostly avoids direct allusions to real world politics but adopts a mildly progressive stance as he sends a virtual innocent into the lion’s den of contemporary politics. It’s not long before Kuroda’s asking sensible questions about policy that wouldn’t go down so well with his (presumably) centre-right party including lowering the sales tax and raising the corporate, taking the time to greet constituents including a contingent of cherry farmers which contributes to his later decision to turn down a tariff-free trade deal for American cherries endangering diplomatic relations with the Japanese-American US President. No longer a ruthless political animal but a rueful middle-aged man who actually cares about ordinary people, Kuroda attempts to change the course Japanese politics largely by taking on the king maker, Tsurumaru (Masao Kusakari), his Chief Cabinet Secretary and the true holder of power in this infinitely corrupt political system. 

All sorts of sordid politics is on display from Kuroda’s womanising and a potential blackmail plot involving his wife’s affair to Tsurumaru’s yakuza ties and an even worse secret he would find personally ruinous should it get out. The ironic Japanese title of the film takes its name from that most universal of political get out of jail free cards, “I do not recall”, Kuroda’s standard response when questioned in the Diet about any of his extremely dodgy dealings. Instructing Kuroda that he should drop this “shallow humanism”, Tsurumaru can offer only the motivation that he wants to “remain in politics for as long as possible” while discovering that his old-school methods of political manipulation may no longer work when those around him find the courage to shed their cynicism and embrace a cleaner, kinder politics. 

Throwing in random gags such as a foreign minister who can’t speak English and has large ears with a pot belly that give him the appearance of Buddha while taking minor potshots as the usually toothless TV media through his series of acerbic anchors only too keen to criticise the PM live on air, Mitani’s comedy is characteristically inoffensive with its mix of slapstick and goodnatured farce but nevertheless makes a subtle plea for decent, compassionate politics which puts the interests of the people first rather than those of the governing elite. 


Hit Me Anyone One More Time streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

Small-town Japan is no Promised Land in Takahisa Zeze’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by mystery writer Shuichi Yoshida. Japanese cinema has often had an ambivalent relationship with the rapidly depopulating countryside, split between a sickly furusato idealisation of rural life as somehow purer than its urban counterpart and lampooning city slickers tired of that same sense of urban ennui but discovering that the traditional way of life is often hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and have no friends in communities which can often seem hostile to newcomers. 

What newcomers to the small town at the centre of The Promised Land (楽園, Rakuen) discover is latent racism, mutual suspicion, and toxic local politics which bends towards the feudal as those now old go to great lengths to cling on to their power. Hardly a rural idyll but a space of atavistic decay. The rot begins 12 years prior to the main action when a little girl, Aika, doesn’t come home for tea after playing with a friend. A search of the local area is organised, but only her little red school bag is found. 12 years later the other girl, Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki), is consumed by a sense of survivor’s guilt feeling as if she is underserving of happiness in the knowledge that if she had only taken a different path that day Aika might not have disappeared. When another girl goes missing, suspicion falls on a wounded young man, Takeshi (Go Ayano), who speaks little and is intensely traumatised by his childhood experiences of xenophobic bullying having come to Japan with his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) at seven years old. 

Bystanders in the crowd preparing a search for the second missing girl are quick to blame the other, one loudly casting suspicion on “Africans” living nearby while another brings up a man who sells second-hand cars she feels is a little odd. Takeshi gets the blame because he exists to the side of the community but also because he is meek and vulnerable, unable to defend himself until pushed into a corner and provoked into an explosive act of self-destructive violence. “Suicide brings redemption” Aika’s grief crazed grandfather (Akira Emoto) shrieks as if urging a young man on towards his death based on nothing other than prejudice and bloodlust. Later he admits that he just wanted someone to blame as if that would bring an end to the matter but of course it didn’t, it only added to the burden. 

Meanwhile, middle-aged beekeeper Zenjiro (Koichi Sato) who returned to the village to look after his parents following the death of his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) from leukaemia also finds himself under suspicion but mostly as part of a concerted harassment campaign conducted by two local elderly men who have appointed themselves village elders and resent his attempt to go directly to city hall in order to fund a new business venture without going through them. Zenjiro is originally from the village, this is his hometown, but he was also away a long time and is in a sense other as a new returnee at first courted as a potential suitor for the similarly returned widowed daughter of the local bigwig, Hisako (Reiko Kataoka), and then aggressively shunned to the point he begins to lose his mind leading to another shocking act of irrepressible violence. 

“No one trusts anyone” Tsugumi laments, angrily tearing away an annoying sign asking residents to report any “suspicious behaviour”. She insists they need to face the past in order to move on, something Zenjiro was ultimately in capable of doing, but later claims that she doesn’t need to know what happened to Aika, she’s going to live her own life. The path leads towards an acceptance that she wasn’t responsible for what happened to her friend and has no need to live her life in the shadow of guilt, yet she still falls victim to small-town attitudes more or less bullied into a romantic friendship with a distinctly creepy young man (Nijiro Murakami) who admits to slashing her bike tires so she’d be more likely to accept a lift from him. 

According to Takeshi, there’s no such thing as the “promised land”, a sentiment also expressed by Hisako who agrees that all places are the same save your hometown something which Takeshi seemingly never had. Tsugumi’s problematic suitor tells her she ought to create the promised land for all of them, which might be as close as the film comes to a mission statement in suggesting that the individual has agency to craft the world in which they live while subtly undercutting it in the melancholy stories of Takeshi and Zenjiro each hounded towards acts of self-inflicted violence by an intransigent community mired in a primitive us and them mentality. Far from paradise, small-town Japan is a land of fear and suspicion where outsiders are unwelcome and the old hold sway, complaining that their kids all end up in the city while secretly perhaps satisfied in the knowledge their authority will not be challenged. If there is a promised land, you won’t find it here. 


The Promised Land streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners

An Old Lady (69세, Lim Sun-ae, 2019)

“Would you say I’m safe in these clothes?” the 69-year-old heroine of Lim Sun-ae’s An Old Lady (69세, 69-Se) asks of a now sympathetic police officer who has just, perhaps slightly inappropriately, complemented her on her always elegant dress sense little knowing it’s little more than ineffectual armour designed to help her feel not just less vulnerable but less culpable in the eyes of those who tell her that she is to blame for her sexual assault at the hands of a healthcare professional. 

Lim opens with a lengthy period of darkness in which we only hear the dialogue between Hyo-jeong (Ye Soo-Jung), an elderly woman receiving her final physiotherapy treatment following a knee operation, and 29-year-old nurse Joong-ho (Kim Joon-Kyung). We can hear Hyo-jeong’s discomfort in her muted replies to Joong-ho’s increasingly inappropriate comments on the beauty of her legs and youthful appearance and though we don’t see what happened next, we’ve heard enough to believe that what she says is true and that she has been assaulted by someone who was supposed to be a position of utmost trust. Though she doesn’t quite explain why, Hyo-jeong asks her live-in partner, Dong-in (Ki Joo-bong) to accompany her to the police station certain that she should report the crime but fearful and needlessly ashamed. The police, however, are not originally sympathetic, giggling slightly when they realise Joong-ho is a handsome 29-year-old man, stunned into disbelief that anyone would rape a 69-year-old let alone someone 40 years their junior. “We won’t make a scene, it’s not a murder” the lead investigator insensitively adds as a means of assuring them he’ll be discreet in his investigations. 

As a counsellor later points out, rape victims are forced to prove the accusation even when there is clear video evidence. The problems Hyo-jeong faces are the same as any other woman, but they are compounded by her age and most particularly by the spectre of dementia which is both wielded as a weapon by Joong-ho who admits to the sex but claims it was consensual, and by the police who must proceed as if her testimony may not be reliable. Hyo-jeong didn’t known Joong-ho’s name to report it and claims not to have known him previously, but he tells investigators he met her at a Christmas market and in fact recommended his hospital to her. In many senses, this is irrelevant. Meeting someone once and taking them up on a recommendation does not amount to consenting to a sexual relationship and there’s no evidence of their meeting on any subsequent occasion, but the inability to remember it clouds Hyo-jeong’s mind leaving her wondering if she really could have known him and begun some kind of romance and then simply forgotten about it. 

Dementia is a key tool in the gaslighting of the elderly who, when they ask legitimate questions about their healthcare or financial circumstances are simply told that their memory is faulty and everyone believes it because they’re old. Ageism is something both Hyo-jeong and Dong-in are repeatedly forced to face, berated by the young for being slow or in the way and watching as others seem to step in and assume authority over them as if they were children who can’t look after themselves. Hyo-jeong bears her troubles with quiet grace, but Joong-ho’s abuse of his position is all the more egregious because it leaves her afraid to seek medical treatment despite being in great pain. The police struggle to believe a young man would rape an old woman, but fail to spot that a predator has most likely installed himself in a line of work in which he is likely to meet vulnerable people who cannot fight back because of the physical impairments they are receiving treatment for, knowing that should they complain he can easily dismiss their claims as a figment of an elderly imagination. Hyo-jeong is only able to force him to admit inappropriate sexual contact because she preserved material evidence in not wanting to deal with her soiled hospital gown. 

“It drowns you little by little, life is really stubborn” she later tells an unrepentant Joong-ho complaining about having his life “ruined” by her desire for justice, and we can see that she has also had tragedy in her life that perhaps prevents her from asserting herself. Though living with Dong-in and working in his shop, she stubbornly continues to call him “Mr. Nam”, and the situation is indeed complicated by the irony that the pair met when she was his care nurse while he was recuperating in a hospital. The police didn’t quite like it that these two elderly people live together but aren’t married, and there are obviously problems with Dong-in’s resentful lawyer son (Kim Tae-hoon) who declares that it’s fine for his widowed father to live with a woman but he doesn’t see why he should take an interest in her private life. Nevertheless he later comes up with a legal tip that they should be prosecuting Joong-ho on a charge of assaulting someone with an age-related disability which might make it easier to get through the courts. Hyo-jeong doubts herself and backs off, Dong-in uncomfortably shifting into a mild chauvinism as he tries his best to protect her while outraged that someone like Joong-ho can just carry on living his life after what it is he’s done, continuing to provide medical care to other vulnerable women. 

Yet through her ordeal Hyo-jeong perhaps finds the strength to step into her self. “Telling my story isn’t easy. But this is me taking a step into the sun”, she says now more grounded and less minded to run away, ready to face the past as well as the future in having accepted herself for all that she is. A fierce condemnation of an ageist, patriarchal society, An Old Lady eventually allows its oppressed heroine to free herself not through revenge but through the simple act of refusing to be silent in the face of injustice. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

Fanfare (팡파레, Lee Don-ku, 2019)

“I’m the only one who gets out alive!” insists an accidental antagonist in Lee Don-ku’s tense theatrical chamber piece, Fanfare (팡파레). The ironic title perhaps hints at the surreal pettiness of four criminals as they find themselves engaged in a pointless battle to the death trapped in a record shop / cafe bar one very bloody Halloween, but Lee’s drama is less concerned with their darkly comic fecklessness than with the rapidly changing power dynamics of an uncertain situation largely determined as they are by initial impressions and societal prejudices. 

That’s one reason no one pays too much attention to the mysterious J (Lim Hwa-young), a young woman we first meet putting on her makeup before getting a call from a man using a voice disguiser who is supposed to send her information on her upcoming “appointment”. We can’t really be sure what it is J’s job entails, but the three men who later take her hostage seem to have drawn the conclusion that she’s some kind of sex worker and largely regard her life as unimportant while believing that she poses no kind of threat to them. She, meanwhile, strangely calm bides her time watching largely passively while sometimes playing into their stereotypical view of her as a weak and defenceless woman, crying and pleading for her life. 

J later explains to her boss that she missed her appointment because she “ran into some fun guys” which may be a strange way of describing the evening’s events but perhaps makes sense given what we can gather of her. In fact she only snuck into the cafe a little before closing because she was early and needed somewhere to hang out, ordering a tequila from the sleazy barman, dressed as Dracula, while he continues to make somewhat inappropriate and flirtatious comments that she ignores. While he goes to tidy up after the Halloween party on the upper floor, a man comes to the door pleading to be let in explaining that his brother has been taken ill. J waves them through but of course it’s a ruse, they intended to rob the place but can’t figure out the till. Younger brother Hee-tae (Park Jong-hwan) goes looking for the barman but accidentally kills him, leaving the guys with a series of problems. To solve them, older brother Kang-tae (Nam Yeon-woo) calls an underworld friend, Sen (Lee Seung-won), promising him a share of his non-existent (?) drug stash in return for help. Sen calls “cleaner” Mr. Baek (Park Se-Jun), but after a series of arguments and altercations the situation continues to deteriorate. 

The problem is, perhaps, that everyone thinks of themselves as the good guy. Hee-tae is apparently in this out of desperation trying to pay off his student loans while painting his older half-brother Kang-tae as a deadbeat drop out whose involvement with drugs brings shame on their family, both boys keen to go home and see their mum anxious that they don’t cause her any more worry. Kang-tae meanwhile evidently thinks he’s some kind of gangster mastermind, entirely unaware he’s in way over his head but reacting to the news that his brother’s just killed someone with bemusement more than horror. Hee-tae didn’t think it was a good idea to involve anyone else in their situation but is persuaded by Kang-tae’s supposed underworld experience while later resenting him, wondering if he really has a valuable drug stash he never mentioned while forcing him to help in his criminal schemes knowing he needed the money. Meanwhile, the more experienced Sen thinks he’s in control but quickly finds himself outmanoeuvred in part because of the boys’ panicky naivety. Baek is there as a contractor but finds himself without protection, a continual outsider with only the necessity of his skills to leverage for his survival along with a possible professional alliance with Sen.  

Set almost entirely within the bar, Fanfare is testament to snowballing chaos of cumulative bad decisions along with the dangers of misreading others based on impressions formed through the prism of societal prejudice. Ironic music cues lend a sense of surreal irony, though Lee’s humour is pitch black as the gang of bumbling criminals eventually consumes itself while those assumed to have the least power simply wait for events to run their course.  


Fanfare screens at Chicago’s Lincoln Yards Drive-in on April 30 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (no subtitles)